Embu & Mbeere - Nthuke Age-Sets

See also Chuka society - the Ntuiko ceremony, and Embu & Mbeere feature articles - the White Stone of Kathigagaceru (a sacred Mbeere grove).
In this page:
Functions of the Nthuke
Sacred groves - matiiri
Livestock-grabbing and grass-grabbing
Handing over power


First off, I should say that I do not know whether this system still exists, or what importance it still has. I'm relying on information from H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki's 1969-1971 interviews, which consist mainly of elders talking about traditions which were becoming defunct even then. A lot has changed over the last three decades, notably the continued advance of Christianity, the consolidation of modern Kenyan government and its institutions, and the general "modernization" of both Embu and Mbeere lives. As ever, if anyone would like to add or correct anything, please feel free to do so.

As with the completely unrelated Turkana, both the Embu and Mbeere had a system of alternating age-sets (or "moieties"), which they called Nthuke. A man of one Nthuke would have children of the opposing Nthuke, who in turn would have children belonging to the Nthuke of their grandparents.
   Among the Embu, the two Nthuke are most commonly called Kimanthi and Nyangi, although they have a variety of other names. The Mbeere have the same structures and also call one Nthuke Nyangi; they call the other one Thathi. The names come from great people in the past, but their confused genealogies and the many different names are a real muddle, especially for an outsider like me! In brief:

Thathi was the father of Irungu who was the father of Ndiiriri; as Ndiiriri is an alternative name for the Embu Kimanthi age-set, this shows that the Mbeere Thathi came before the Embu Ndiiriri.

Nyangi was the son of Karara and the father of Muranja, although another source states that he was a son of Merambu and the father of "Thumi who bore Karara who bore Merambu who bore Nyangi again". Please don't ask me what this means!

It is further said that "the last Merambu are the ones who smeared their cattle with mud to avoid them being recognised at long distances, and were also chased away by the hornbills (mogogo) who cried 'Ngarara! Ngarara! Ngarara!' (I shall sleep! I shall sleep! I shall sleep!)." I'll hazard one guess, and that is that the whole system of moieties and their respective genealogies relate to the early history of the various Embu clans, and show which intermarried with which, which went off to become independent tribes, and so so.

Girls from each Nthuke were differentiated from each other by their dress: the Thathi girls wore beadwork of white and red, whilst the Nyangi wore black and white. Getting married to a daughter of your own Nthuke was incest and resulted in a penalty to both the man and the father-in-law.

Functions of the Nthuke

The role of both sets of Nthuke was spiritual and political, for it is they who made rules and regulations for the entire tribe, although supreme power over the entire tribe was held by one muthamaki or Mutia (leader) who came from the Igamuturi clan of medicine men. The Nthuke regulated dowry, conducted ceremonies (which are also called Nthuke), and sacrificed for rain.

Sacred groves - matiiri

The centre of each Nthuke's power, both politically and spiritually, was a sacred grove called itiiri (plural: matiiri). Usually connected with the dwelling of an ancestor (for example, one of the daughters of Mwene-Ndega and Nthara, or of Kembu and Werimba), these were places where the past - their origins - was connected to the present. Such places were by their very nature ideal for dealing with matters pertaining to the whole community, such as asking God or the ancestors for rain, judging criminal cases, and celebrating.
   Digressing slightly, I should draw a parallel here with the sacred groves or kayas of the nine coastal Mijikenda tribes, which they consider to be the original settlements of their ancestors in Kenya, after they migrated from "Shungwaya" in the north. It may be a coincidence, but my guess is that the similarities of the two traditions give further credence to the oral traditions that say that the Embu, or a large part of them, came not from the north, but from the east or the coast.
   Needless to say, the rise of Christianity - albeit relatively recently - has clashed with the sacred aspect of the matiiri, and it is unlikely that they will survive, at least in their original context.

For more on this, read a Christian article about the construction of a church on a sacred Mbeere grove.

"Livestock-grabbing" & "grass-grabbing"

The following is from H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki's book:

The overall grove is Igamba Ng'ombe [literally: 'where the noise of cattle is heard'] where both Embu and Mbeere jointly take part in sacrifices for the Nthuke. They go there to grab livestock, kuthara indo, as follows:
   A bull is provided. At a signal, the Embu try to jump on the bull to grab the head and cut it off, the Mbeere jump to get the tail. Other groups know their bits of the bull and jump to get them.

Irungu (Ndiiriri) have their grove at Mwea gwa Kaviu for grabbing the grass, kutthara nyaki. They bring the "grass" and rest it at Mukamburari grove and dispose of it with hands only. From the two main groves, the sacrificial materials are spread all over Embu and Mbeere.

As regards the "bull-grabbing", this has two possible interpretations as far as I can see. The first would be that it symbolises the division of the lands between the various clans or groups who came together to form the Embu and Mbeere. It's no surprise that the Embu, who own the finest land, get the 'head', while the Mbeere who are much less blessed, only get the tail. This interpretation would appear to have historical backing, for it is commonly believed that it was at Igamba Ng'ombe that the Mbeere split from the Embu. For a description of a similar ceremony among the Chuka (who also regard Igamba Ng'ombe as sacred), see the Chuka Ntuiko ceremony.

The other interpretation might suggest that the ancestors of the Embu and Mbeere were originally a cattle-oriented culture, much like the Maasai to the south and west, the Turkana and Samburu to the northwest, and the Borana and Somali to the north. The "grass-grabbing" would certainly support this, for if one relies on cattle, grass can acquire a quasi-sacred aspect, and is the reason - for example - why the Maasai refuse to practice agriculture, for tilling the soil which produces the grass is tantamount to breaking it.

The spreading of the sacrificial materials all over Embu and Mbeere lands might also suggest a similar belief to the cattle-herding people, in that cattle are not really human property, but have to be obtained or borrowed from God, and sustained by rain which also comes from God. Through sacrifice, the sacrificial animal embodies part of God, and so the spreading is the propitiatory spreading of God's gift over the land.


A strange distinction was made between the two sets of Nthuke at sacrificial times. The Thathi (or Kimanthi) always began the sacrifice, for their power was strongest, but also rather uncontrollable, for in addition to calling for good crops, livestock and rain, they would also bring up "the evil effects of Ndiiri who called diseases [and] invasions". To mitigate these side-effects, the Nyangi would always follow the Thathi with another sacrifice calling for the reverse. As their power was less, the effect of the original sacrifice would be diluted but not negated. This may also have been a means of explaining the recurrent famines which struck both the Embu and Mbeere, despite the best efforts of their sacrificers over the centuries. It may also point to the historical existence of two major groups of peoples with separate origins who came together to form the Embu.

Handing over power

Obviously, in any given population, there would be several sets of Nthuke spread over several generations. In general, the oldest generation of Nthuke held power (for sacrifice, law-making and so on), which would in time be handed down to the next Nthuke. The transferral of power was unusual, for it involved the "children" (ie those from the opposing Nthuke moiety) having to "bribe" their fathers to be shown the ceremonial secrets of the Nthuke. This included handing over the sacred groves from one alternation to the next, which occurred during an extended period of ceremonies called Nduiko (or Ntuiko among the Chuka). Once the transfer was complete, the fathers retired and left their children in power.

visit bluegecko.org

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

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