Chuka - History

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Commonly considered to be a subgroup of the Meru, the Chuka actually have much more in common with the Embu to the south than with their northern neighbours. Their oral history places their origins in the Nyambene Hills northeast of Mount Kenya - sharing their ancestry with the Kikuyu and Embu among others - and makes no mention of the convoluted migrations the Meru made to arrive at their present location from the coast. Oral history says that the Chuka were children of Ciangoi, who was a sister of the Embu 'founding mother' Cianthiga. They migrated south from the Nyambene Hills some time in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
   The Chuka language, too, is linguistically closer to Kiembu than Kimeru, and the drummers for which the Chuka became famous are almost identical in appearance and had the same playing style as their Embu and Kamba counterparts.

Some elders say that the Chuka and Embu/Mbeere were once one people, who split over a quarrel concerning livestock and women. Another version says the split was due to a dance in which no girls went to 'pair up' with the Chuka, who as a result took out their frustrations with axes and killed many people. A big fight ensued, and the Chuka ran away.

Chuka history has long been marked by their numerical weakness against much stronger enemies, as testified by the number of times they were forced to flee from other tribes and settle elsewhere. In fact, all neighbours except the Tharaka subgroup of the Meru were considered hostile, especially the much more powerful Embu, relations with which were summed up in the saying: Kuthurana kaa kuthurana? ("to hate each other or to hate?"). They also said, "people who face one another fear each other".

It is said that the Chuka originally kept many cattle, but realized that if they continued with them, they would be annihilated by hostile tribes plundering livestock. So most Chuka abandoned their cattle and concentrated on defending their land instead. Farmlands were fenced-in until the Kaburia circumcision age group destroyed the fences saying that they would "fence with clubs". Unfortunately, a combined Embu-Kikuyu force came to invade the Chuka shortly after, and although they were defeated, the Chuka were soon forced deeper into the forest surrounding Mount Kenya, until they were chased out again by the Embu, and settled in their present location.


Not surprisingly, Chuka society was characterised by its defensive nature. Its warriors were kept in a state of constant alert in a system regulated by a kirugu (vow), where each warrior took an oath not to lead a normal life until he had fought an enemy. They would not cut their hair, dance with circumcised girls or be served by them. Some did not even like seeing them. They lived far from the family homesteads in large collections of fields called rwanda. The lodgings were called gaaru, which were larger versions of normal houses but without doors, and were never closed. In them also lived some elders who ruled the gaaru and acted as advisors to the younger warriors.

If an enemy was discovered, a gaaru drum sounded the alarm. This message would be received by the next gaaru, who would drum likewise for the next one to relay, so that the entire fighting force of the Chuka would be ready to meet the threat.
   But if no enemy came for a long time, the kirugu would 'break' so that the warriors could go home, resume normal lives and get married. Nonetheless, it was rare for a kirugu not to be in force; as an elder quoted by Mwaniki said, "hardly two months ended before the elders ordered another kirugu saying to themselves: 'If these warriors stay at home, we shall be in trouble before we finished these ceremonial beer parties'.

For the defence of farms and homesteads, the Chuka developed a large number of inventive ploys. They built treetop huts or towers, from where they would shoot arrows at long distance, or drop stones on enemies if they came near. Women and children were hauled up if they could not climb on their own. They also used fortifications: the nkando (or nganto) were barriers around safe enclosures made from large trees which were carefully felled so that they fell one on top of the other. The entrances to the enclosures were guarded by gates (mabiriga). Other defensive measures including concealed trenches which contained sharp upright spikes (mirundo); walls of sharp sticks facing outwards (gucuu miro); remotely-controlled traps made with creepers (muugu wa nakamwe); and short heavy logs studded with poisoned spear heads which hung from trees over paths which the enemy would use (ndiring'i). All these fortifications were destroyed by the British in the early part of the twentieth century.


Apart from human enemies, famine was a regular visitor to the Chuka. Perversely, perhaps, "famine knew no enmity", and the Chuka would go to enemy lands to exchange whatever they had for food, in the same way that the Mbeere exchanged goods for food with the Embu. Other people would simply leave Chuka territory as famine refugees, more often than not ending up being either bought as slaves by the Kikuyu, or being 'adopted' by them or the Embu. Yet some remained true to their roots, as this short story narrated by the Chuka elder Petero Gacumba shows:

During Kithiria famine, my grandfather and others went to Gikuu as famine refugees. He and many of his colleagues were uncircumcised boys. They were adopted and circumcised there. When later they found out that Chuka had much food, they convened a dance and invited all Gikuu, saying "come and we'll show you a Chuka dance!" In borrowing dancing apparatus, they 'borrowed' swords and spears and danced singing:

Ndigu ikugunda,
Nakai, nwaguo-i.

They went dancing forestwards with much ululations and many spectators. When the latter got tired they went home. The Chuka got into the forest and found their way to Chuka again. The process of going as famine refugees and living in a foreign land was called kuunika.


The rumours that something evil was afoot started when the British came to conquer the Embu: "we heard guns; the white man was conquering the Embu. They were terribly beaten and their cattle taken. At Nthithiari, the captured cattle were like a sea!" (Kirindi wa Mutwaitunga, quoted by H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki in 1970).
   Then, a Chuka man who had gone as a porter to Murang'a in Kikuyuland, came back with frightening tales about the power of the white man (Gumba). When the time came, the Chuka capitulated without a fight.

Although colonial rule put an end to tribal enmities, the usual abuse of colonial power followed, with larger numbers of Chuka men being forced to labour in the farms of the Europeans as little more than slaves, or obliged to construct the white man's roads on pain of being beaten if discovered at home. This state of oppression lasted for over half a century, until Kenyan independence was finally won in the 1960s. But by then, traditional Chuka society had been almost totally annihilated.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

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