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Kikuyu Tribe – History, Language and People



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 homeland had been apportioned by the colonial government

Since the possession of land is one of the foundations of Klkuyu 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 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 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, traditionally agriculturalists, continue to combine small-scale farming with the growing of cash crops such as tea, coffee, and pyrethrum.

Kikuyu Language – History

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

Origin of Kikuyu Tribe

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.

Kikuyu Tribe - History, Language and People

Kikuyu Tribe – History, Language and 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 Tribe – 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 People – 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 Tribe – 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.