Chuka - Introduction
|I am indebted to H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki's encyclopaedic "Embu Historical Texts" (1974: East African Literature Bureau, PO Box 30022 Nairobi, Kenya) for much of the information presented here about the Chuka.
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Facts & Figures
Numerically small compared to their historically hostile neighbours, the Bantu-speaking Chuka of the east slopes of Mount Kenya have rarely had the luxury of deciding their own future. Before the colonial period, they were constantly being harassed and chased by more powerful tribes such as the Meru and Embu, and during the colonial occupation were unable to resist the almost total destruction of their society and culture by the British.
As a result, the Chuka are today almost wholly 'westernized' as well as poor. The vast majority (perhaps all the population) are now Christian, and there is little trace remaining of any of the older ways.
The Chuka are agriculturalists, and use the favourable soil and climate of the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya to full advantage with their painstakingly terraced crop plantations. The market centre of Chuka Town is their main focus, which sprawls out either side of the Embu-Meru road. Famine is nonetheless a recurrent feature of life, albeit less frequently experienced than by the neighbouring Embu and Chuka.
In Kenya, the Chuka were known primarily for their skill at drumming, and the acrobatic prowess by which they are played; the long thin drums are 'ridden' hobby-horse style whilst the drummers dance, but this tradition almost completely disappeared several decades ago. The only exception is a group of "Chuka Drummers" who play at the touristic Mount Kenya Safari Club over on the northwest of the mountain, which is actually in Kikuyu terrain.
Also known as: Muchuka (singular), Suka, Chuku.
Ethnic group: Bantu: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, Kikuyu-Kamba, Meru.
Western anthropologists bizarrely consider the Chuka to be a subgroup of the Meru, although they have much more in common with the Embu, and oral tradition states that the Chuka and Embu were one tribe in the past.
Neighbouring tribes: Embu, Meru (including Tharaka, Mwimbi and Imenti).
Language: Kichuka (Chuka). 73% lexical similarity with Embu, 70% with Kikuyu, 67% with Meru, 63% with Kamba. Comprehension of northern Meru dialects is borderline. Close to Tharaka. Speakers in different regions are bilingual in Meru, Gikuyu, Kamba, or Swahili.
Population: No recent figures available. Was 70,000 in 1980, but may have increased greatly since.
Location: Chuka Town and surrounding area on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, Southern Meru District, Eastern Province. The Embu are to the south on the opposite bank of the Thuchi River. The northern boundary with various Meru subgroups is ill-defined.
Way of life: Agriculturalists and traders. Cash crops such as coffee, tea and pyrethrum are the primary sources of income. Food crops are presumably insufficient to cover normal dietary needs.
References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.