The Gusii – Kisii inhabit an area in the western highlands east of Lake Victoria. The area is dominated by Nilotic-speaking groups with just this pocket of the Bantu-speaking Gusii.
Being a relatively small group, the Gusii were always on the move following influxes of other groups into their existing lands. After migrating to the Mt Elgon area sometime before the 15th century, the Gusii were gradually pushed south by the advancing Luo, and over the next couple of centuries came into conflict with the Maasai and the Kipsigis. They finally settled in the hills here as the high ridges were easier to defend. Having fought hard for their autonomy, the Gusii were unwilling to give it up to the British and suffered heavy losses in conflicts early this century. Following these defeats, the men were conscripted in large numbers into the British army.
The Gusii family typically consists of a man, his wives and their married sons, all living together in a single compound. Large families serve two purposes: with high infant mortality rates the survival of the family is assured, and the large numbers facilitate defence of the family enclosure. Initiation ceremonies are performed for both boys and girls, and rituals accompany all important events. Death is considered not to be natural but the work of ‘witchcraft’. The Gusii were primarily cattle keepers but also practised some crop cultivation, and millet beer was often important at big occasions.
As is the case with many of Kenya’s ethnic groups, medicine men (ubanyamorigo) had a highly privileged and respected position. Their duty was to maintain the physical and mental wellbeing of the group — doctor and social worker combined. One of the more bizarre practices was (and still is) the removal of sections of the skull or spine to aid maladies such as backache or concussion.