A Prehistoric People THE CENTRAL KIKUYU Before 1970

Samuel mwituria maina PhD, IDR OGW. A Prehistoric People THE CENTRAL KIKUYU Before 1970. Nairobi: Frajpa Publishers & Printers Mall; 2022.


The Central Gĩkũyũ occupy Mũrang’a County, which is in the central part of Kenya. At various times in history, the Central Gĩkũyũ territory has been known as Ithanga, Mũkũrwe-inĩ, Gĩkuyu, Kĩrĩnyaga, Metumi, Fort Hall and finally Mũrang’a. They are the original Gĩkũyũ and direct descendants of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. The country of the Central Gĩkũyũ,' whose system of tribal organisation will be described in this book, lies between the southern Gĩkũyũ of Kĩambu (Kabete) and the northern Gĩkũyũ of nyĩrĩ (Gaki) all three lying in the central part of Kenya. Mũrang’a is divided into six administrative sub-counties: Kandara, Gatanga, Kĩharũ, kangĩma, Kĩgumo and Maragwa. The population, according to the 2019 census is (1,056,640) one million, fifty-six hundred, six hundred and forty. The Central Gĩkũyũ people are agriculturists, today keeping a few flocks of sheep and goats and cattle. They are also ardent businessmen.
The cultural and historical traditions of the Central Gĩkũyũ people have been verbally handed down from generation to generation. These traditions are quite distinct from the other two of the north and south. In writing this book, I sought to bring out this distinction to establish the difference with the southern Gĩkũyũ as was aptly captured by Louis Leakey in his treatise titled “southern Kikuyu before 1903”. Probably the only and most comprehensive book on Gĩkũyũ culture, Leakey candidly dwelt on the southern Gĩkŭyŭ and confesses to not having had much contact with what he wrongly summed up as northern Gĩkŭyŭ.
In that said north, there exists two distinct Gĩkŭyŭ cultural groupings that have never been studied to establish this glaring distinction between the Nyĩrĩ and Mũrang’a groupings.
From inception, the Central Gĩkũyũ carried forth their information and history through memory. In the book “a prehistoric people: the Central Gĩkũyũ before 1970”, effort was made to collect relevant information from sometimes very meagre sources to try to correct the misconception that the Gĩkŭyŭ are a homogenous people practicing a common culture. As a Central Gĩkũyũ myself, having been born and grown up there, it is clear after interaction with the other two, that the original Gĩkũyũ still exists in Mũrang’a (fig 15) as close to as it was during Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi era. It is from these original Gĩkũyũ that the other two, the southern and northern, developed after dispersal from Mũrang’a.
My objective was not to enter into controversy with those who have endeavoured, or are attempting, to describe the same things from outside observation. Instead, I sought to let the truth speak for itself. I also hoped that the reader will utilize the contents to solve real social problems by using the described efficacious methods and ideas.
I am a mũthuri wa kĩama (elder) of the second grade (Kĩama kĩa mbũri igĩrĩ) having fulfilled all the requirements of the same group. While the kĩama ‘died’ in the advent of colonialism and subsequent quasi-colonial African governments in Kĩambu and Nyĩrĩ, the kĩama in Mũrang’a never ceased its processes and functions. It has therefore been continuous since the first mwaki was established in Gĩkũyũ country. From my interaction with this mĩaki, I have for example come to establish why Leakey refused to publish an abridged copy of his thesis. Leakey must have been in a big dilemma. Having joined solemnly the Gĩkũyũ kĩama, Leaky was bound by his oath which I also went through and which I cannot explain here. His family may not have understood why he couldn’t publish despite the promise of incessant income and wealth.
In the course of research for this book, I came across the same dilemma despite, being a scholar, in fact a university lecturer at the University of Nairobi, as Leakey did, that I could not divulge all that I know due to the same oath Leakey took. From this you can imagine that I was not able in this book to write all and everything or detail that I know and found due to this predicament.
However, I made every effort to describe the daily activities and life of the Central Gĩkũyũ people from inception at mũkũrwe wa nyagathanga including, harvesting, care of animals, farming, trading, marriage, tribal raiding, song and dancing, law and law giving, customs related to sex, clothing and food, religion, death and disposal of the dead up to the colonial invasion, Mau Mau war and the aftermath up to 1970.
In this endeavour, I found out that within the Central Gĩkũyũ, everyone was provided for. Rules and regulations governed every aspect of life. Those rules had to be obeyed without question. Good among the people are those who kept the rules. The bad ones brought to themselves and family bad omen and uncleanliness, thus requiring debilitating amounts of expenses both human and material for cleansing ceremonies.
The Central Gĩkũyũ did not lack anything. Their land is fertile. Their security is guaranteed by the four holy mountains, kĩanjahi, kĩambirũirũ, Kĩrĩnyaga and nyandarũa. They had a system of government that covered every aspect of life. Before the coming of the colonialist, they lived in a kind of ‘garden of Eden’ which literally flowed with milk and honey, honey provided by their mwanĩki and milk by mũrĩithi.
In their territory, before the corrupt and evil colonial enterprise, the Central Gĩkũyũ had devised ways to solve all their social problems. And this is how the Central Gĩkũyũ in eight methods, solved almost all social cultural problems that the west, in all their self-proclaimed wisdom have never been able to fathom;
1. Prostitution: There was no prostitution! Sexual desires were serviced among the process of communal accessibility for every riika (age group). One man’s wife in the age group was wife to all the men in the group and vice versa for women. This of course happened within the rules defined elsewhere in this book. Today, prostitution is a big problem in Kenya due to acquisition of broken western cultures.
2. Orphans: There were no orphans in Central Gĩkũyũ! Any child who may have lost her mother was simply mothered by the other wives belonging to the baby’s father. It was therefore not possible that a bay would have to be adopted. In fact, the Central Gĩkũyũ did not even have a word for adoption. It was just a matter of continuity of life with the other mother. The child, if orphaned while very young, sometimes never even came to discover s/he is orphaned.
3. Widows: There were no widows in Central Gĩkũyũ. If a woman lost her husband, the husband’s brother jumped into the role of husband (gŭthambio) and father of his brothers’ children in a very seamless fashion (it was not automatic that he also becomes a sexual husband). The woman continued her life as normal and in fact continued to increase her husband’s family and wealth. This was also within parameters described elsewhere in this book.
4. Widowers: There were no widowers in Central Gĩkũyũ! Since almost every man had several wives, the man was never left alone. He just shifted responsibility for himself and children (fig 35) to the other wives and life continued as normal.
5. Bachelors or spinsters: There were no bachelors or spinsters! Every young man or woman had to get attached to the opposite sex immediately they attain marriageable age. It was the duty of their mothers, genadmothers, sisters and aunties to connect them to sitable partners by all means. This is because it was inconceivable that anyone should endure a life of suffering, lack of intimacy and social security while living in a progressive society as the central Gĩkŭyŭ was. This ensured that no one should engage in prostitution or any kid should be born a bastard.
6. Divorce: There was no divorce in Central Gĩkũyũ! Even if I have described the divorce process elsewhere in this book, in reality, there was no real divorce in Central Gĩkũyũ in the manner envisaged by western culture and the church. Even if a couple went through the divorce process, the woman never left the homestead, especially if she had children (fig 24).
A man would construct a hut for her in the far-flung corner of his land and a private access to her own compound. In that arrangement, the woman’s children (fig 35) continued to mingle with the rest of the family and their father. Her sexual desires were satisfied by the riika living around or visitors and travellers of the man’s riika needing bed and lodge. They would get a wife in good measure of the man’s riika relations just as they would do for him while in the same situation. In fact, she most times enjoyed her sex life more than the active wives.
7. Broken families: There were no broken families in Central Gĩkũyũ! In the absence of prostitution, orphans, widows, widowers and divorce, it was inconceivable that a family would appear broken in a discernible manner. The social setting was such that belonging to a gĩthaku, Nyŭmba, mŭhĩrĩga and rŭgongo was a social safety net to cover all shortcomings of any section of the family. Matters were handled in a community wide family setting so that you couldn’t realise even when one is broke. That common approach dispersed the honour and integrity of the whole family among a wider safety net.
8. Poverty: There was no debilitating poverty among the individual Central Gĩkũyũ man or family! The setup was such that the whole clan formed a safety net covering the individual on issues of enormous and not subsistence need. Fines, dowry and fixed property acquisition were clan universal.
The culture of Kŭhithia mahiŭ (hiding away of animals) meant that in time of natural calamity, should a man lose all his wealth, he could eventually replenish it from his own away stock. The process of dowry (fig 28) exchange itself was a huge safety net for families with girls of marriageable age (fig 32). A seemingly poor man had the chance to wake up to huge wealth from this process with cows and goats donning his pen to the amazement of his peers and therefore the popular saying “mŭkabi atongaga na ŭtukũ’ (a lucky man may get rich instantly). Raiding could also change a man’s fortunes in a flash especially when his sons come of age, therefore attaining military status by raiding after initiation. Poverty was never permanent.
Close to the end of the nineteenth century when the British established their evil scheme in Mũrang’a, many of Central Gĩkũyũ customs were criminalized and banned and therefore became untenable. They could not hold cultural meetings, they could not brew their cultural beer round which all spiritual ceremonies were tied, they could not move freely in their territory. They were enslaved reciprocal to their inherent generosity to foreigners. But they were in no way foolish. They rose against the oppressor who had taken all their land and dignity. The Mau Mau war was very intense in Central Gĩkũyũ as you will find in this book, but the people were not to relent.
With their traditional war tactics, their arm making technology and believe in their God and soil, they gave it their all and won.
The Central Gĩkũyũ life however, from the encounter, had changed forever. They have a saying that “Ndĩngĩingĩra irima nandĩmunyũo njoya” (it cannot enter a barrow and not leave some hairs on the walls. Today, almost all Central Gĩkũyũ people are Christians; they are educated and have immersed themselves into western style business. Inherently, a Central Gĩkũyũ is one who doesn’t forget. Despite this inculturation into western traditions, s/he remains inherently a true Gĩkũyũ, following his culture and believes imbued with only what is good and necessary for personal and family survival.
In this book therefore, the reader will find explained the story of the origin of the original Gĩkũyũ, how they consolidated themselves and expanded into a formidable ethnicity, their land tenure, how they practiced their agriculture, industry, art and architecture. Where it came to their increase and expansion, their kinship and family life was central to a cultural way that integrated children from birth through growing up till the initiation of their boys and girls (fig 32) through life milestones. They sang and choreographed their life through songs and dances (fig 40) especially concerning initiation and war.
On further indulgence, you will find that the Central Gĩkũyũ had an elaborate law and justice system which was imposed through taboos and uncleanliness including fines. Such uncleanliness could lead or emanate from activities like warfare and raiding or even death whose solution was as elaborated as it was debilitating. While explaining these in the book, it was not lost to me the need for clarity of purpose. Therefore, as much as possible, the sections are arranged in a chronological manner.
Law and justice were very elaborate in Central Gĩkũyũ culture and in this order, they seem to sit well before warfare and raiding as presented. The accruing taboos (Mĩgiro) and uncleanliness (Thahu) governed the tenets of those laws as sanctions against tyranny with agreed limits. At the end of life for the Central Gĩkũyũ, the process was also not a walk in the park. They revered their dead and through established steps disposed very honourably to the spirit world all their dead as prescribed.
I have made the account of Central Gĩkũyũ life as distinct from the others as full and as complete as my time and opportunities would allow. This book is not an anthropological analysis of events. Neither is it a historical anthology of events. Rather, it is a record of an attempt to salvage the little information about the Central Gĩkũyũ that stand the danger of getting lost.
Thaaaai-to the members of the Central Gĩkũyũ kĩama, mwaki wa rũgongo rũa kĩranga, in which I stand as mũthuri wa mbũri igĩrĩ, my comrades-in-arms of the past, present, and future. In this work as in all my other activities, their co-operation, courage, and sacrifice in the service of the Central Gĩkũyũ people have been the inspiration and the sustaining power.
Finally, I extend my warmest thanks to all those elders and scholars as well as people of all walks of life who gave me much of their time to help collect, critic and record the facts correctly. Of particular note is the seminal writings of Joseph W. Kamenjũ, Mũkaru Ng’ang’a, Louis Leakey, Geofrey Mũriũki, Maina wa Kĩnyati and Kĩnyatta Jonestone kamau (Jomo). Again, thank you very much.

Samuel Mwitũria Maina PhD OGW
Nairobi, 2023

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