The Kikuyu number more than three million and their heartland is the area around Mt Kenya. The original Kikuyu are thought to have migrated to the area from the east and north-east over a period of a couple of hundred years from the 16th century, and were actually part of the group known as Meru. Basically they overran the original occupants of the area such as the Athi and the Gumba, although intermarriage and trading did take place.
The Kikuyu’s new land was bordered by the Maasai and although there were periods of calm between the two groups, there were also times when raids were carried out against each other’s property and cattle. Both groups placed a high value on cattle. Intermarriage was not uncommon between them and they share a number of similarities — particularly in dress, weaponry, and dancing — as a result of their intermingling.
The administration of the clans (mwaki), made up of many family groups (nyumba), was originally taken care of by a council of elders with a good deal of importance being placed on the role of the witch doctor, medicine man and the blacksmith. Traditionally the Kikuyu god (Ngai) is believed to reside on Mt Kenya (Kirinyaga— the ‘mountain of brightness’, ‘mountain of whiteness’ or ‘black and white peak spotted like ostrich feathers’) which accounts for the practice of orientating Kikuyu homes with the door facing Mt Kenya.
Initiation rites for both boys and girls are important ceremonies and consist of circumcision in boys and cliterodectomy in girls (the latter now rarely practised), accompanied by elaborate preparations and rituals. Each group of youths of the same age belong to an ‘age-set’ (riika) and pass through the various stages of life (with associated rituals) together.
Subgroups of the Kikuyu include Embu, Ndia and Mbeere.