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Kikuyu Tribe, People, Language, Culture and Traditions



Kikuyu Tribe

Kikuyu Culture – The largest of Kenya’s tribes, the Kikuyu tribe live in area around Mount Kenya where, at the dawn the colonial era, they came into violent conflict with the European settlers, to whom large tracts of Kikuyu people homeland had been apportioned by the colonial government

Since the possession of land is one of the foundations of Kikuyu tribe social, religious and economic life, this conflict rapidly spiraled into war, and it was the Kikuyu`s formation of a political association against the British that sparked the infamous Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, which eventually led to Kenya winning its independence

As a result of a  their early involvement in the fight for freedom, the Kikuyu people have always played a dominant role in Kenyan politics and commerce, their most famous politician being Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who even today is referred to affectionately as “Mzee” (respected elder).

Perhaps more successfully than any other Kenyan tribe, the Kikuyu people have adapted to the challenges posed by Western culture and technology, and their role in modern day Kenyan business is significant.

However, the rural Kikuyu people, traditionally agriculturalists, continue to combine small-scale farming with the growing of cash crops such as tea, coffee, and pyrethrum.

Kikuyu Tribe – History

The Kikuyu tribe number more than three million and their heartland is the area around Mt Kenya.

Origin of Kikuyu Tribe

The original Kikuyu people  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 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.

Kikuyu Culture – Administration

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.

Kikuyu Circumcision Ceremony

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.

Kikuyu Tribe - KIkuyu People

Kikuyu Tribe – KIkuyu People

Kikuyu People – Kikuyu Creation Myth

In the fiery dawn of time, when the earth trembled in the throes of creation, a dense cloud of mist stood over the land as Mugai (Ngai), the divider of the universe, descended to earth. There, upon the snow- capped peaks of the mountain called Kirinyaga, he made a dwelling place as his seat of mystery.

Kikuyu Tribe – Gikuyu and Mumbi

Mugai beckoned Gikuyu, father of the Gikuyu, to the sacred mountain and said: “You shall carve your inheritance from this land, it shall belong to you and your children’s children.” And Gikuyu went to a grove of sacred fig trees where, resting in the shade, he found the most beautiful of women. He took her for his wife and named her Mumbi, the creator of the tribe.

Kikuyu Women – Gikuyu and Mumbi’s Nine Daughters

Gikuyu and Mumbi built a home and had nine daughters. Their nine daughters matured into beautiful women. Their cheerful laughter was like the sweet chorus of birds and their milky teeth glittered like white doves in flight. When they walked, the melody of the beads around their waists rose to the sky, deep, somber, and enchanting. But with every full moon, they felt the flow of the rising tide searing like glowing firewood in their wombs. They beseeched their parents: “For many seasons you have held and comforted us but now we wish to have homes of our own so that your names may be whispered from generation to generation.” For many moons, Gikuyu and Mumbi searched their hearts. At last, in despair, Gikuyu fell upon his knees.

Kikuyu Culture and Beliefs

Raising his face to Kirinyaga he called upon his creator to bless his daughters with husbands. Mugai heard him and commanded Gikuyu to make a sacrifice in the fig tree grove. Heeding the commandment Gikuyu sacrificed a lamb and a kid and lit a fire with nine burning sticks and said: “We have come to beseech you for rain, which sustains our children. Say now that the rain may fall.” And out of the fire came nine flaming young men  whose backs were firm and strong like the trunk of the sacred Mugumo tree and when he saw them Gikuyu gave thanks and welcomed them into the homestead.

Kikuyu Women – The House of Mumbi

The nine handsome young men could not resist the beauty of Mumbi’s daughters and asked for their hands in marriage. Gikuyu blessed the marriages and as each daughter built her own hut and had a family, the name of Mumbi prospered. When Gikuyu and Mumbi passed away, each daughter called together all her descendants, forming one clan under her own name. These nine clans merged together in unity, kinship, and solidarity and were given the ancestral name of “The house of Mumbi.” And to this day, when the Kikuyu call upon their creator, they turn their faces to the snow- clad mountain.

Kikuyu Culture – Gikuyu Dowry Process

The Agĩkũyũ (the Kikuyu) are the most populous community in Kenya. They live mainly around the snow-capped Mt. Kĩrĩnyaga (Mt. Kenya) in what was known as the Central Province, as one of the 42 tribes. The myth of the origin of the Agĩkũyũ leads them to believe to be the descendants of Gĩkũyũ (father) and Mũmbi (mother) whose origin was in Mũkũrwe wa Nyagathanga (mũkũrwe being the Mũkũyũ fig tree and nyagathanga being an unknown species of birds). This is a place in Mũrang’a within Central Kenya where cultural centre has been set-up at the supposed original home of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi in Mũrang’a County.

The Nine Clans of the Kikuyu People (Mĩhĩrĩga ya Agĩkũyũ)

The Kikuyu people believe in one deity known as Ngai – or Mũgai (The Divider) – who they believe lived in the highest peak of Mt. Kĩrĩnyaga (today’s Mt. Kenya). The original parents were blessed with nine full (10) daughters who were married to 9 men later given to Gikũyũ and Mũmbi when Gikũyũ prayed to Ngai by sacrificing a lamb under the sacred Mũgumo/Mũkũyũ tree to give them men to marry their daughters. The names of the daughters were Wanjirũ, Wambũi (aka Wangarĩ aka Waithekahumo), Wanjikũ, Wangũi (aka Waithiegeni), Wangeci (aka Waithĩra), Wanjeeri (aka Waceera), Nyambura (aka Wakĩũrũ), Wairimũ (aka Gathiigia) and Wamũyũ (aka Warigia). Myth goes on to state that it is from the daughters that- the “nine” (ten being 9 plus 1) clans of the Agĩkũyũ originated.

Kikuyu Traditional Marriage

The Kikuyu people are traditionally farmers and good livestock keepers. Their products from the farm and animals they bred were key in trade. Dowry payment was therefore counted in form of goats, sheep and cattle. The dowry process was however not a way to purchase a bride financially although the term used at times is Kũgũrana. The process is designed to enable families that come together to investigate each other’s background engage in banter that results in positive social interaction. The Kikuyu dowry – Rũracio – is at the center of a more elaborate process and a symbol of honor to the parents of the bride-to-be. It must be understood that all requirements for the dowry process are well documented and should not be used to denote the value of the bride-to-be in financial terms neither be used as a means of exploitation of the groom-to-be. There have been mistaken attempts to associate the rũracio with how much education the girl has received, her profession or with her social class. Any extra amounts given to the girl’s family in lieu of the standard dowry should be at the discretion of the groom according to his financial capacity and preferences.

Kikuyu Culture - Kikuyu Language Traditions

Kikuyu Culture – Kikuyu Language Traditions

Kikuyu Customary Marriage Procedures 

In modern times, Kikuyu dowry payment still precedes a wedding amongst the Kikuyu people. The dowry payment is in a series of events, namely:

  1. Kũmenya muciĩ (getting to know the bride’s home in two low-key visits)
  2. Kũhanda ithĩgĩ (planting a branch of a tree – to open the way for actual dowry negotiations and during which the Kũonorwo mĩtĩ takes place) – may take place on the same day as Kũracia.
  3. Kũracia or Rũracio (actual dowry payment which lasts a lifetime and not paid in full)
  4. Kũonio itara (the lady getting to see where firewood was stored in the traditional kitchen; which is a visit to the Groom’s homestead)
  5. Kũguraria / gutinia kiande (the traditional kikuyu wedding) – may be replaced with a Christian Church wedding.

Kikuyu Wedding Traditions – Kũmenya muciĩ

This involves getting to know the bride’s home in two low-key visits. The visit is made up of two parts.

  1. The first kumenya mucii by young men
  2. The second kumenya mucii by the elders

Kikuyu Wedding Traditions – Kũhanda ithĩgĩ

Kũhanda ithĩgĩ (planting a branch of a tree – to open the way for actual dowry negotiations and during which the Kũonorwo mĩtĩ takes place) – may take place on the same day as the Kũracia process

Kikuyu Wedding Traditions – Kũracia

Assuming the groom’s family is ready with the dowry, the men (athuri) proceed to give the required items in succession and await concurrence by elders from the bride’s family after each item in the indo cia athuri list

Then the women (atumia) proceed to give the items to the women from the bride’s family after each item in the Indo cia atumia list

Kikuyu Wedding Traditions – Kũonio itara

This is a visit by the bride (accompanied by her family) to the groom’s homestead. She is meant to see the new kitchen where she will be cooking from and be guided by her new mother (mother in-law) on how she has set it up. Itara was the place in the traditional kitchen where firewood was stored. Some explain the itara (which also means nest) as the bride’s new homestead or nesting place. This visit is designed to enable the two families to interact in a celebratory atmosphere and get to know each other better.

The catering costs for this visit are covered by the father of the groom who is the host and Kũonio itara process begins

Kikuyu Wedding Traditions – Kũguraria / Gũtinia kiande

This is called ‘ngurario’ or ‘gũtinia kiande’ (cutting of one of the front limbs of a fattened ram). It takes place at the bride’s family home. It is ordinarily done by couples who are already married and have lived together for a number of years. In a few cases, the groom might decide to visit the brides home and finalize Ngurario before the Christian wedding takes place.

The husband, after staying with the wife for some time – may be after the wife has given birth to a few children – will decide to perform this ceremony popularly known as ngurario or gũtinia kiande. The husband accompanied by some friends and relatives makes a visit to the father in laws homestead so as to be told what items to bring before the ngurario day. This will ordinarily be items that remained unfulfilled during the earlier rũracio. In fact, a rũracio (kũingera kũracia) is scheduled to take place during the ngurario. The list of items will be read out as the secretary from the husband’s sides writes the items down – although the Ngurario requirements are standard.

Kikuyu Culture Marriage Standards

Young men today are having a hard time because there are no rules and some people have become very greedy. The Kikuyu dowry is still negotiated in terms of cows, goats, and honey. Once the price has been determined, it is now converted into cash. The elders leave a major down payment and a day is then set for the wedding.

Kikuyu dowry negotiations are usually done over several weeks or months. The balance can take years to pay. Usually the family never asks for the balance. If the man doesn’t finish paying the balance then he begets a daughter, she cannot be married unless he finishes paying the balance. (This is very embarrassing, and most people avoid this).

If they never have children, then the man’s family is left with a “stain” that they never honor their word and this becomes common knowledge. For this reasons, the bride price “loan” is always paid up. When the bride price is finally paid up, there is a ceremony done. This in the olden days signified a marriage. The family of the bride usually kill a goat and they give the front legs to the husband. This signified that he was now the husband of the woman and that he and not her father bears the full responsibility for her. This practice is still done even today.

Kikuyu Culture – The Christian Marriage Ceremony

For Christians, the Ngurario ceremony has been replaced by the Christian marriage. However, some may opt to conduct the Ngurario either before the Christian wedding or wait until much later after they have settled down with the wife. The Ngurario may be considered as a celebration of marriage and some people do it on their fifth to tenth year anniversary.

The whole community usually gets involved. The women team up and organize the menu, and they contribute the food. The young men and women team up and raise funds for the wedding. This is done through a “pre wedding party”. The young men arrange for transportation and refreshments. The girl’s family is usually responsible for the bride’s dress, and the younger children who will be in the wedding party. The bride chooses her bride’s maids and she usually chooses from both sides (families) and includes her friends. Kikuyu weddings are usually huge. It is not uncommon to find the bridal party of 20+.

Kikuyu Culture – Eve of the wedding:

On the day before this Christian wedding, the young man brings women from his village to visit his future in laws for the drinks ceremony ‘kurehe soda’ or ‘kurehe ucuru’. They usually come not just to visit, but to support the bride’s family who will be ‘cooking all night’ for the ceremony the night before the wedding. They bring with them drinks – soda, sour millet porridge ‘ucuru wa ugimbi’ etc.

This is really a way for the Kikuyu women folk to socialize with each other and build some ties. It is not uncommon for a few men to attend from the man’s side to render any assistance and escort the ladies. As they get close to the house, they all start hooting their cars and they don’t stop until they are allowed in the bride’s homestead. When the hooting starts, the village Kikuyu women from the bride rush to the gate and block it. The negotiations for entrance then begin. This time, it is done in form of music and song. The women sing that they “didn’t hear” the ‘strangers’ come and why do they want to “steal” their daughter away? They are requested to go back and return in the right way. The groom’s team may have to drive back (about 1/2 mile) and then return.

The Kikuyu women then ask for blankets, sugar, tea, soda pop and other small items. The idea behind is: Our “daughter” used to cook & make tea for us – we don’t know who can replace her. All this is done through song and dance, and the young man (this is his mother’s domain) usually brings a woman who would be the main negotiators in the song saga. This can go on for about an hour. The young man’s team is then let in .

The items that are requested are then shared out among the villagers. The Kikuyu women then join in the festivities and the ‘all night cooking’

In modern times, there is no longer the ‘all night’ cooking parties since most weddings are catered by professional cooks. This ceremony however is still observed in the days preceding the wedding.

Kikuyu Language Video

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