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Kikuyu People of Kenya

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The Kikuyu are Kenya’s most populous ethnic group. ‘Kikuyu’ is the Swahilized form of the proper name and pronunciation of Gikuyu although they refer to themselves as the Agukuyu people. They are about 22% of Kenya’s total population. They cultivate the fertile central highlands and are also the most economically active tribe in Kenya. Kikuyu are the largest branch of Bantu groups. They settled south of Mount Kenya and highlands of central Kenya, in a triangle bounded by Nyeri, Murang’a, and Nairobi. During the 19th century, they spread from this region into many other areas of southern Kenya, putting them into conflict with many neighbouring tribes such as Masai, Kalenjin and others.

Historical Background

The Kikuyu ethnic group is thought originally to have been founded by a man named Gikuyu. Their history says that the “Kikuyu God”, Ngai, took Gikuyu on top of Kirinyaga and told him to settle and erect his home there and later given his wife, Mumbi. Mumbi and Gikuyu had nine daughters. There was actually a tenth daughter but the Kikuyu considered it to be bad luck to say the number ten. When counting they used to say “full nine” instead of ten. It was from the nine daughters that the nine Kikuyu clans -Achera, Aithaga, Aitherandu, Angare Agachiku, Airimu, Ambui, Anjiru and Angui came up.

Kikuyu Language

Kikuyu is the second most widely spoken East African local language. It is not only spoken by the Kikuyu but also learned as a second or third language by many non-Kikuyu people who live in Nairobi and surrounding areas of central Kenya. This language is understood by most of other Kenyan Bantu groups. It is a language of commerce.

Social fabric

In this culture, both men and women agree that males are supposed to be the head of the household and make most decisions in a wide range of domains, as well as control all major resources, deciding on its distribution and disposal. Women are viewed as having control in areas like which subsistence crops to plant and disciplining small and school-age daughters. Baptizing of children and deciding when to send a child to school is a joint responsibility of both males and females. The Kikuyu man is referred to as a muthuuri (someone who can discern evil from good) and the Kikuyu woman is called a mutumia (someone who retains family secrets and practices). Traditionally, Kikuyu society is polygamous so that means any man could have as many wives as he could afford.

Economic Activity

Kikuyu’s chief economic activity is cultivation (farming). The Kikuyu rely heavily on agriculture. They grow bananas, sugarcane, arum lily, yams, beans, millet, maize, black beans and a variety of other vegetables. This is done both on a small scale and large scale. Cash crops and horticultural produce is their main farming activity. They grow coffee tea, maize, beans, bananas, sugarcane, yams, millet, and a variety of other vegetables. They also raise cattle, sheep, and goats. They use the hides from the cattle to make bedding, sandals and carrying straps and they raise the goats and sheep to use for religious sacrifices and purification. Though they are customarily agricultural people and have a reputation as hard-working people, a lot of them are now involved in the business. A good number of very successful rich businessmen and women are from the Kikuyu tribe. The fact that the first president was a Kikuyu probably gave them a boost as they were able to acquire property in the now lucrative business centre.

Kikuyu Family Set-up

The family lived in a homestead with several huts for different family members. These huts were constructed so that during the cold season the interior would be very warm while in hot season the hut would be cool. The husband’s hut was called ‘thingira’, and that was where the husband would call his children in for instruction on family norms and traditions and he would also call his wives for serious family discussions. Each wife had her own hut where she and her children slept. After boys were circumcised (at puberty) they moved out of their mother’s hut into the young men’s hut.

Kikuyu Culture, Songs and Dance

Colonization eroded many traditional practices and values, although the language has survived and continues to evolve. Many Kikuyus have moved from their traditional homeland to the cities and around the world to look for opportunities. They have also moved to other parts of the country and the world due to intermarriage, business opportunities, study, and generally seeking better prospects in life. Those living in rural areas tend to continue to practice farming.
In the Kikuyu land, there is a very diverse history of how people lived. One is the form of entertainment in those days. The Kikuyu young women and men could travel to isolated areas for dance and feasting. Discipline, however, was observed and no man was supposed to touch a lady sexually. The young men only enjoyed the dance and they had the chance to mingle with the beautiful young ladies who would eventually become their suitors
The common dances were Nguchu, Nduumo, Mugoiyo, Gichukia and ndachi ya irua (circumcisional dance). The grandmothers had a critical role of checking if any man unwound the inner garment of the young ladies. This garment was called muthuru. The grandmothers tied it safely to protect any promiscuity in young women. Women who engaged in sex before marriage, affairs, or got pregnant could only be married as a second wife and were commonly referred to as ‘Gichokio’. Therefore the Kikuyu customs valued the chastity of unmarried women and protected young women against abuse. It also ensured some form of entertainment was prepared and young people carried forward the practices from generation to generation.

Notable & Famous individuals of Kikuyu tribe

  • The first president of Kenya known as Jomo Kenyatta is from Kikuyu
  • The third president of Kenya, Emilio Mwai Kibaki is also a Kikuyu
  • The fourth and current president of Kenya, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta
  • Africa’s first female Nobel peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai is a Kikuyu.
  • Kikuyu sports stars: Julius Kariuki won the 3000m steeplechase 1988 Olympics, John Ngugi won the 5000m Olympics in 1988 and Charles Kimathi, won the 10000m Olympics in 2001.
  • Ngugi wa Thiongo, a literary scholar is a Kikuyu
  • Gakaara Wa Wanjau, a Mau Mau freedom fighter and the author was a Kikuyu.
  • Harry Thuku Freedom Fighter and Independence Hero
  • Charles Rubia Former Member of Parliament and Political Activist.
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