The Kikuyu People


The Kikuyu are the single largest group in Kenya and number some 5 million or around 20 percent of the total population of the country. The Kikuyu speak a Bantu lan-guage also called Kikuyu and are closely relatedtothe Embu,Meru, Kamba,and Mbeere, who also seem to come from the same Bantu stock as the Kikuyu. Kikuyu is the Swahili pronunciation of the more correct Gikuyu or Agikuyu,astheycall themselves.

Bantupeoples beganmovingintoEast Africa sometime before 500 CE and first occupied the more lush highlands skirting around Lake Victoria. The Kikuyu have occupied the same area in Kenya long enough for their traditional religion to say that their god Ngai or Mogai placed them where they are. The Kikuyu believe that Ngai had three sons, one of whom was named Gikuyu, who married the woman Moombi, who was provided by Ngai. Moombi bore Gikuyu nine daughters, who founded the nine main clans of the Kikuyu.

It seems that the Kikuyu arrived in their current homeland in the 15th century and combined settled agriculture with animal husbandry. By the end of the 1600s, the Kikuyu and other closely related Bantu peoples had settled on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the nearby highlands. Kikuyu had generally good relations with the Nilotic Maasai. The Maasai provided leather for the market and, in exchange, wanted iron weapons and gourds for con-tainers. The Maasai expanded in the 18th century, and the Kikuyu adopted Maasai weapons and fighting strategies, making them one of the strongest groups in the Kenyan Highlands.

In the 19th century, Europeans arrived in large numbers, and Kenya officially became British in the Berlin Conference of 1884—which included only Euro-pean powers. Germany was awarded the territory to the south, then called German East Africa and later Tanganyika. Ger-many lost its African colonies in World War I to Great Britain, France, and Bel-gium, and Tanganyika became British.

The British began “opening up” lands for European farmers in the first decades of the 20th century, and the area of the Kikuyu were of special interest to those who wanted to establish coffee planta-tions. The Kikuyu were removed (often by force) and settled in poor, infertile areas, but often became labor for the new European farms. A new form of identifica-tion document was required for all East African men, locally called the kipande, which stated the name of their employer andevenhowmuchtheywere paid.It was illegal to not carry the kipande and, in essence, it was illegal to move around outside of “Native” reserves and not have a European employer.Kikuyu life was centered on settled vil-lages scattered along the highlands.

Fam-ily compounds called Shamba produced a variety of agricultural goods. Introduction of crops such as bananas, maize, potatoes, coffee, and tea transformed the Kikuyu,and they have a reputation for being “driving, opportunistic, and industrious” (Olson, 286).Coming-of-age ceremonies were held for both boys and girls, and this included female circumcision. These ceremonies helped form an age set as well as age set obligations among those who go through the process together. Both boys and girls are circumcised, and it is noted that some 50 percent of all women in Kenya today are circumcised. Circumcision is a visible difference between the young, inexperi-enced members of society and those who are now adults.

Female circumcision is still practiced today among the Kikuyu, though there is growing opposition to it not only in Kenya, but in other parts of Africa. The girls are circumcised by other women, and among the Kikuyu, a more severe version is practiced. The wound may be bound together by binding the legs together for up to 40 days.The Kikuyu were exposed to Christian missionaries starting in the early 1900s, and as a result, most are today Christians. A small minority of Kikuyu still adheres to the traditional religion, but perhaps the larger number follows their own form of Christianity that combines traditional belief with Christianity.

The Kikuyu did not develop a strong, central political organization, but instead remained clan-based, with the nine main clans each forming a sense of unity. In addition to the clans, there are age sets called riika for both boys and girls. Vil-lages were managed by a council of nine elders who represent different age set groups. Members of the village council hold office between 20 and 40 years before another member is elected. Above the village council was a district council, and each village elected one member who acted as a legal court.

The Kikuyu were recruited to work for the British army in World War I as “car-riers”; that is, carrying goods to and from the battlefield and performing other menial jobs for British soldiers such as digging latrines. In 1920, the Kikuyu Cen-tral Association was formed to deal with the discrimination suffered by Kikuyu sol-diers. Again in World War II, Kikuyu fought for the British, and following the end of the war, Kikuyu soldiers were again ignored by the colonial authorities. As a result, the Kikuyu formed an anticolo-nial movement called Mau Mau,which committed a number of violent acts start-ingin1952.

Between1952andwhenthe movement was brought to an end in 1956, around 13,000 Africans had been killed, mostly among the Kikuyu. How-ever, among the Mau Mau leadership was a young Kikuyu, Jomo Kenyatta, who would emerge as Kenya’s leader for independence.Independence came in 1963 and the mainly Kikuyu Kenya African National Union (KANU) won most of the seats. Jomo Kenyatta became the first elected president in 1964. The Kikuyu’s proximity to the national capital of Nairobi and to British farmers led them to be among the most educated of Africans in Kenya.

The Kikuyu held most government posts and dominated the government until Kenyat-ta’s death in 1978.Daniel Arap Moi tried to take Kenya along the lines of a single-party state, which was opposed by most Kikuyu; and in 1986, Moi tried to remove Kikuyu from his government in what was called the “Mwkenya Conspiracy.”Kikuyu continue to dominate the govern-ment today, and the current president, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu.

His main opponent in the 2002 elections was Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru Kenyatta. Wangari Maathai, an internationally known and respected envi-ronmentalist and activist, is also a Kikuyu, and between 2003 and 2005, she served in the Kibaki’s government. In 1999, former Mau Mau members announced they would pursue the British government for human rights abuses during the uprising. In 2006, they brought the suit before the British High Court, but no ruling was made as of 2011.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

Jenson-Elliot, Cynthia. East Africa.San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., of the Gale Group, 2002.

“Mau Mau Veterans Lodge Compensation Claim against UK.” .uk/world/2009/jun/23/mau-mau-veterans-compensation (accessed May 1, 2010).

Newman, James. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Sobania, N. W. Culture and Customs of Kenya.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Stokes, Jamie. “Kikuyu (Gkuyu).” In Encyclo-pedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.