Chuka - Society

For a more thorough introduction to the Nthuke age-set system and the matiiri sacred groves, read the section on Embu & Mbeere Nthuke age-sets.
In this page:
The Nthuke age-sets
Handing over power - the Ntuiko ceremony
Law and justice

The Nthuke age-sets

In most regards, social and political structures among the Chuka were identical to those of the Embu and Mbeere. They had the same institution of matiiri (sacred groves), the same kinds of kiama councils for men, and shared the same alternating Nthuke age-set system. One set of Nthuke was called Thathi, the other Ntatua or Nyangi. As with the Embu, each Nthuke had many different names, which all in all make the distinctions tremendously confusing for the uninitiated like me!
   What's clear is that the Thathi age-set were considered ill-omened (like the Thathi or Kimanthi among the Embu), and so would always begin sacrificial ceremonies, to be immediately followed by a sacrifice performed by the Ntatua, which was supposed to mitigate the evil side-effects of the Thathi.

Handing over power - the Ntuiko ceremony

Given the alternating system of age-sets, some means was needed to pass on 'power' (ie. political power and tribal knowledge) from one age-set to the next. This was done in the Ntuiko ceremony (the equivalent of the Embu's Nduiko ceremony), and is best described in the words of the elders Mutunga and Mutua, interviewed by H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki in 1971:

The ntuiko were the ceremonies in which the elders gave power to their children. The Thathi performed first in Thano and the Nyangi followed in Kiathu. each group gave the fathers beer 'bribery' so as "to be shown the way".

After children were born, they stayed until a suitable age when their fathers decided to give them their name so that further children would have a different name. This period was called kugaura ('to divide'). There they were not yet rulers. They stayed with their name under their fathers until they themselves had children ready for kugaura. They 'bribed' their fathers who handed over power to them and henceforth they worked; the retired fathers were left powerless and would only come to nthuke ceremonies as invitees in the future.

When ntuiko came, the first place for sacrifice was Igaruthanga where a goat was slaughtered. Then the next itiiri, sacred grove [..] was visited. After sacrificing there, the names of the 'husband' and 'wife' were sung such as 'when we get home, Nthara are our wives' sung by the Ntigia. That meant that the men were called Ntigia while their sisters were Nthara in the Nyangi side of the nthuke [..] The candidates for ntuiko and their fathers mainly went [..] All the ceremonies were guided by, and under, the mugwe [paramount chief]. They went into many matiiri [sacred groves] and even crossed to sacrifice into one in enemy land at night. After the killing of the sacrificial goat at any of the groves, there followed the 'grabbing of ribbons' which meant scrambling to get the skin ribbons relevant to each area to take them home to be worn by both the boys and girls. The Ruguru or north 'grabbed' the head ribbons, those of the lower or southern area took ribbons from the tail part of the goat. The middle area or side area would take those from the middle or ribs of the goat.

The 'grabbing' was a serious affair. It was use of sheer force and so no weak person would have been selected to go and 'grab'. The fourth day of the ceremony was the day for the 'carrying of nyamburu' when the new nthuke leaders were fully instructed. They were shown how to slaughter a sacrificial goat, where to get the ngooro for each and every part of Chuka and given much more advice over he-goats, beer and honey-beer parties.

The nthuke in power had political power over the whole of Chuka and could make laws or advise their being made by njama or Kiama [councils].

Law and justice

In keeping with the defensive nature of Chuka society, law-making was the responsibility of the warriors (nthaka), although it was the elders (agambi) who settled quarrels. Keeping the peace with the tribe was essential if it was to be strong enough to resist the constant attacks from outside, so that if two brothers fought over a quarrel, they would be tied together by the clansmen and "thoroughly thrashed", before being made to recognize each other as father and son.
   If a dispute could not be settled by elders, the case went to the clan, and on failing that, the tribal council (njuri) would be called to settle the matter, in the same way that the Njuri Ncheke of the Meru still perform their functions today.


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

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography