Embu & Mbeere - Society

In this page:
Family structure
The changing status of women
Male kiama councils
Male kiama councils - Muroro (shooting the arrow)
Male kiama councils - Ukuru (the traditions)
Male kiama councils - Kiama kia Ngome (elders)

Family Structure

Families are predominantly nuclear, averaging seven people per household. A man can take several wives if he can afford it, although nowadays this is becoming rare. Outside Embu Town, families generally live in scattered compounds set in their own small farms, each covering some 2.5 acres on average. Despite the fertile soil, the large population and mountainous nature of much of Embu terrain means that the farms rarely produce more than the bare necessities.

Traditional Embu houseHouses were traditionally the classic thatched cone roof on a circular base, but are nowadays mostly rectangular buildings covered with corrugated or flat metal sheets, although the traditional round houses are more common among the Mbeere. The walls are generally still constructed in the traditional way, with narrow spaces between upright poles stuffed with leaves and mud. Apart from the family house, the other homestead structures were a kitchen (sometimes part of the family house), the man's house, a grain store and millet store.

Mbeere girlA mother and her children lived in the main family house where the household goods were stored. Marriageable girls lived with their mothers, and suitors were entertained there. The father would sometimes share his house with his uncircumcised sons, but once circumcised but not yet married they would build their own dwelling or live in the grain store.

Until the "Emergency" of the 1950s, when the Mau Mau began their fight for freedom, five or six family homesteads constituted a typical settlement. The "Emergency" however led to the creation of larger villages, both for protection, and under pressure from the British who wanted tighter control over the area.

The Changing Status of Women

At the market...Although it appears that Embu society was originally matriarchal, a woman's role today is largely restricted to her functions as wife, mother and, of course, tireless worker in the farms.

A woman's life is literally marked by her circumcision at adolescence, which allows her to become married and bear children. It is during this initiation that she begins to acquire knowledge about the realities and responsibilities of life, and the cultural values that surround her.

Before the colonial government intervened, female circumcision involved the excision not only of the clitoris, but of other parts as well. Nowadays, only clitoridectomy is practised, and there's mounting pressure on elders to scrap the tradition altogether, in much the same way that the Meru have done. Nonetheless, there's still great stigma attached to remaining uncircumcised, and women in that position will usually have to leave their homeland (through choice or by force), for an uncertain future in the slum towns of Nairobi and elsewhere.

Change, however, may be in the offing if a recent NGO report on gender roles among the Embu is correct: as a response to rapid population growth and overcrowding, "many respondents declared that roles were no longer gender-based since changing circumstances had led to the disintegration of the indigenous social matrix."

In general, it seems likely that the last vestiges of Embu culture will disappear in any case over the next few decades as "modernization" and Christianity continue to advance (read an article on the destruction of a Mbeere sacred grove). Already, much if not all of the traditional music has vanished, and the relevance of traditional forms of government, such as the Nthuke Age-Sets covered in the following section, are increasingly redundant.

For a fascinating story about a real woman at the time of the colonial conquest who managed to become chief, but was subsequently betrayed by jealous men, read the story of Cierume.

Male Kiama Councils

Whereas a woman's life was marked primarily by circumcision and marriage, a man could look forward to joining a succession of kiama (or councils) of increasing importance, one after the other until he died.

A boy's first instruction in tribal knowledge came from his father around the homestead's fireplace, but a man's life as a full member of the tribe began in earnest at his circumcision shortly after puberty. His readiness to be circumcised was indicated by the payment of a goat called mburi ya nduo, the 'goat of circumcision'. Another goat was paid when the time for circumcision came, which entitled him to get married. This goat was called mburi ya nthumbi (the 'goat of the cap'), and was named after a cap made for him by recently circumcised men to indicate his newly acquired status.

Muroro - shooting the arrow

The first recognized kiama of the grown-ups was muroro ('beer'), into which a man was admitted just before his first-born was circumcised. The ceremony which granted him admission was called Gutogia (to 'smoke'), where the man paid a goat for 'smoking the muroro', the meaning presumably coming from the straws which were used by elders to drink beer from a communal gourd.

Before starting the party, the initiate had to blunder around foolishly to find a mutaa (arrow), which had been hidden on somebody. The game was called 'shooting the arrow' or 'greeting the arrow'. On discovering the hidden object, the man was taught the formal greeting 'ooro kiama, ooro kiama, ooro kiama'.

On beer drinking day, a large gourd was filled with beer. The beer was made from the fermented 'juice' of ground-sugar flour (arrowroot?). There was a sacred element to the ceremony, too: there was a 'bewitcher' of the beer, and also a 'de-bewitcher'.

After drinking the first gourd, a second round of 'shooting the arrow' was done. This time, something was hidden on the initiate's wife; with the husband present, any of the kiama members could search her and touch her wherever they wanted without objection. When the arrow was finally found, the woman would carry another gourd of beer to another place, where much celebration ensued.

Ukuru - the traditions

After Muroro, the man was advised to go to the Mutia to be instructed in responsibilities of life. This was called ukuru, or the traditions. The Mutia was the paramount chief of the Embu, who came from a long line of medicine men.

After meeting and being instructed by the Mutia, a man was considered an elder of the traditions and could have his children circumcised. His wife did not go to Mutia but became 'mature' automatically.

The man could now join other kiama, like the Gitungati, 'the care takers', or 'rear guard'. They had great importance for their function was to look after the whole of the country. There were gitungati for Nthuke ceremonies (see the next section), and gitungati for oathing.

Kiama ngome - elders

When a man was very old, and had gained much experience in other kiama and war, he could be initiated into the kiama kia ngome (or athuri a ngome), which was the kiama that judged cases of murder and manslaughter, and those touching on the misuse of witchcraft. As an elder quoted by Mwaniki says: "They could cut a murderer's hair, smear him with oil, tie vines on his head and even escort him to the murdered person's home without the murderer being molested." In other words, their judgement and status was highly respected and never questioned. in fact, it is said that among the Mbeere, these elders were held in such high regard that a mere rumour of their presence was enough "to fill the people with fear and force them to check on any corners that needed moral tidiness".

Each member of the kiama kia ngome wore a tubular metal ring called ngome on his finger and carried a black staff as a sign of office.

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