The Kikuyu (Gikuyu) People of Kenya

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

“In the beginning Ngai, who is the God and the divider or the universe, called Gikuyu the father of the tribe. Ngai gave Gikuyu a share of his land with rivers, valleys, forests rich with fruits and animals of all types. Then Ngai went to stay on Kirinyaga”. —. Then Ngai said: “You will at times be in need of my help, when the time arises, slaughter a goat for sacrifice, then raise your hands towards Kirinyaga and Ngai or Kirinyaga and Gikuyu will come to your help.”” (Rose Mwangi, Kikuyu folk tales: their nature and value 1970, 1983, Kenya literature bureau)


According to Kikuyu legend, in the beginning God created a man called Gikuyu and took him to the top of Kirinyanga (current Mt Kenya) and showed him all the surrounding land and bestowed it to him commanding him to establish his home there. God then provided Gikuyu with a wife by the name of Mumbi and they had nine daughters, from which the 9 principal Kikuyu clans namely; Achera, Agachiku, Airimu, Ambui, Angare, Anajiru, Angui, Aithaga and Aitherandu originated from.

Almost all Kikuyu women have their name emanating from one of these clan names. Legend has it that when the daughters were of age for marriage, Gikuyu offered a sacrifice to God under a fig tree (sacred to the Kikuyus) and God provided husbands for the nine daughters.

The Family

The Kikuyus base their organization on the family unity (nyumba). Several families are combined to form a homestead (Mucii) which is part of a sub-group (Mbari). The sub-group makes up nine clans (muhiriga). A tenth clan is sometimes added but only nine are counted because it is considered taboo to count people, children or livestock.

The Kikuyu man is known as “Muthuri”, meaning someone who can choose or discern evil from good and the woman is called “Mutumia” which means someone who retains family secrets and practices. Traditionally the Kikuyu society was polygamous, but this practice is no longer practiced due to their adopted Christian faith and for economic reasons. A man could only take a second wife in consultation with his wife and only if he could effectively provide for both of them.

The Kikuyus also practiced surrogate parenting where if a woman was barren, she could “marry” another woman to have children for her with her husband but the children would be considered hers. The surrogate mother would remain in the homestead but she would be subject to the woman not the husband. This similar to what the Hebrews practiced in the Old Testament.

The family lived in a homestead (mucii) with several huts for different members. The huts were constructed in a way that during the cold season the interior would be very hot wile in the hot season the hut would be cold. The husband’s hut was called “thingira” and this is where he gave instructions and taught his children on family norms and traditions. History was passed on orally from generation to generation through teaching by parents using proverbs and by folklore. The husband also discussed serious family issues with his wives in his “thingira”.

As for the wives, each had her own hut where she slept with her children. After the boys went through the rite of passage ceremony, they moved out of their mothers hut into the young men’s hut. The Kikuyus had a systematic method of family planning. A father would only have another child with his wife after the youngest child was at an age where the mother could send him to look after the family’s herds or goats.

Kikuyu naming System

The Kikuyu system of naming of children is aimed at preserving the family. The first set of children is named after the grandparents starting with the paternal grandparents. For example, the first son will automatically be named after the husband’s father. If the child is a girl, she will be named after the husband’s mother. The second boy would be named after the wife’s father and girl after the wife’s mother. After the parents have been given the honor of being named, and the couple continues having children, they will be named after the couple’s siblings starting with the eldest from the husband’s side. If a woman has a child out of wedlock, she is considered to still belong to her father’s homestead and the child if a boy will be named after her father and if a girl after her mother.

Rite of Passage

Before a young man (mwanake) could become a warrior he had to undergo the rite of passage. The rite of passage for boys is carried out between the ages of 13-16, and involves the boys going through a circumcision ceremony. During the healing time the boys are separated from the community and are taught by older men what it means to be a man, and subsequently ushered in to manhood. Traditionally, the rite of passage involved boys of the same age groups participating in the event. The group would be named after an important event happening at the time of their passage. For example there is an age group associated with syphilis (gatego) because it happened when the Europeans are alleged to have brought syphilis to the Kikuyus. (Rite of passage)

A warrior would eventually graduate to the council of elders (kiama) of which a few composed the secret council (njama). The council was responsible for settling disputes. Disputes that the council could not resolve were determined by the ordeal of the hot knife. The extent of the blistering on the tongue determined guilt or innocence. Alternatively the culprits would take an oath proclaiming their innocence.

Traditionally, girls also went through a rite of passage ceremony and had older women teaching them what it meant to be a woman as well as ushering them into womanhood. They also went through a circumcision ceremony. This is one of the traditions lost and with negative consequences as a result of colonialism. The colonialist pressured the Kikuyus to discard the practice of female circumcision which the Kikuyus eventually did but with nothing to replace the rite of passage


In the form of entertainment the Kikuyu young men and women could travel to isolated areas for dance and feasting. Discipline was however strictly enforced and no man was allowed to touch a lady sexually. The young men mingled and danced with the ladies who eventually became suitors.  (traditional dance) 

The community protected the honor and purity of a girl and had rules that ensured that a girl was not sexually exploited by a man. The grandmother had a critical role of checking if any man had unwound the inner garment (muthuru) of the young ladies. he grandmother had the responsibility of tying the garment tightly and safely to protect against any form of promiscuity in young women.

Women who engaged in sex or got pregnant before marriage could only be married as a second wife (gichokio). The man responsible for the pregnancy had to pay a penalty fine to the father of the girl. Today, a woman who has a child outside wedlock is still viewed negatively even though there appears to be no sanction against the man. The responsibility on the woman is high, yet, unlike the male, the rite of passage is missing since the traditional one has not been replaced with something else at a communal level. Aunties are encouraged to step in to counsel young girls.


The Kikuyus were extremely successful in the areas they settled. They are heavily agriculturalist growing bananas, sugar cane, arum lily, yams, beans, millet, maize, black beans and a variety of vegetables. These formed the basis of their diet, but they also raised cattle, which traditionally also provided hides for beddings, sandals, and carrying straps. They also reared sheep and goats which were used for religious sacrifices and purification. They made pots for a variety of domestic uses and also for barter trading.

They wove baskets and flat trays from a variety of fibers while blacksmiths manufactured arrowheads, spears, swords and other metal items. Local markets were held in populated areas fairly regularly in which livestock, agricultural produce, iron implementations, tobacco, salt and ochre were battered. They also maintained trading contacts with other tribes. Women transported barter goods in caravans and were generally safe and under the protection of a middle man (hinga) who represented the group with whom they intended to trade with.

The Kikuyus are deeply spiritual people with great reverence for God. They had prophets and priests with similar roles as those in the Bible. It is said that one of the prophets by the name of Mugo Wa Kibiru prophesied of the coming of the Europeans long before they arrived in the coast of Kenya. It was said that there would come people from a different land having the color of the “frog of the banana plantation” something close to the color of the Caucasians. He also predicted the arrivals of airplanes which would be “like butterflies in the sky”.

They believed in blood sacrifice for atonement of sin and for thanksgiving. They prayed facing Mount Kenya because they believed God lived on the mountain. Men approached God not for personal needs but only on behalf of a social group. The whole tribe did this to avert a drought or an epidemic. The family would call on God on the four crises in human life; birth, initiation, marriage and death and only as a group affected by these events. The form of prayers used by elders at public gatherings beseeched God for wisdom, health, tranquility and the increase of the fields and flocks. (This is the cry we have o lord)

In his book, “Facing Mt Kenya”, Jomo Kenyatta, the 1st president of Kenya, a Kikuyu by tribe, writes concerning the worship of God by a sect of Kikuyus witnessed in the early 1900’s,

“Their prayers are a mixture of Gikuyu religion and Christian; in these they add something entirely new to both religions. They perform their religious duties standing in a picturesque manner.In their prayer to Mwene-Nyaga (God) they hold up their arms to the sky facing Mount Kenya; and in this position they recite their prayers, and in doing so they imitate the cries of wild beasts of prey, such as lion and leopard, and at the same time they tremble violently. The trembling, they say, is the sign of the Holy Ghost, (Roho Motheru) entering in them. While thus possessed with the spirits, they are transformed from ordinary beings and are in communion with, Mwene-Nyaga (God)”. (more modern worship)

Today about 80 % practice the Christian faith with the same reverence and depth of worship as they traditionally did. They are sometimes accused of being ethnocentric due to their strong adherence to certain cultural practices and common usage of their ethnic language.

Education nad Business

The Kikuyus have an insatiable desire for knowledge and believe that all children should receive a full education. They were the first ones to embrace the colonialist education in Kenya and were also the first ones to rise up against them in the fight for independence and for their land. They have a terrific reputation of money management and a deep entrepreneur spirit and today many are rich business owners even outside Kenya.

The Kikuyus are sometimes referred to as the “Jews” of Kenya due to similarity in traits. They are also accused of loving money; in fact there is a joke in Kenya that if you want to know whether a Kikuyu is truly dead, throw down a coin, if he does not wake up then he truly is dead.Those living in rural areas tend to continue practicing farming although they now also grow cash crops (export crops) like Coffee and Tea.

The Kikuyus are also endowed with strong leadership skills which has at times put them at loggerheads with other tribes because they are accused of behaving as if they have an entitlement to leadership. The founding father and first president of Kenya was a Kikuyu and the current and third president is a Kikuyu.

Colonization eroded many traditional practices and values of the Kikuyus, but the language survived and continues to evolve. Many have moved from their traditional homes to the cities and other countries in search of opportunities.


About Author

Leave A Reply