Gusii - Introduction
|Invaluable in the writing of this section on the Gusii has been William R. Ochieng's "Peoples of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii", in the Kenya's People collection (Nairobi, Kenya: Evans Brothers, 1986). See the bibliography for more references. A good internet resource (in addition to this site, of course!), is www.kisii.com, which includes a number of lively newsgroups.|
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Facts & Figures
The Bantu-speaking Abagusii (more commonly Gusii or Kisii) occupy what is probably Kenya's most fertile and abundantly-watered district, the Kisii Highlands, 50km east of Lake Victoria. Rising to around 2000 metres, the hills and steep ravines are also one of the most densely populated areas of Kenya, with an average of 500 people per square kilometre, with a peak of 729 recorded in 1989 (probably much more now). Until the ravages of AIDS hit western Kenya, the Gusii also had one of the fastest growing populations in the world. The effect of all this, not surprisingly, has been far from pacific. Kisii town is now Kenya's second most violent place, after Nairobi; instances of mob justice in the form of lynching suspected witches, for example, surged in the 1990s, and the unemployment rate remains one of the country's highest.
Their history isn't any more peaceful, being an unfortunate litany of flight from stronger and more aggressive enemies such as the Luo and Maasai. Yet somehow, despite centuries of having been scattered about western Kenya through force of arms, their identity and their social cohesion has remained intact.
To be honest, the multiple paradox that is the Gusii only began to make sense to me while I was working on this website section. Indeed, some might even say that all these problems are what made the Gusii who they are today: some of the most charming, open and friendly people I was to come across in Kenya.
Oh yes - and their music is some of the oddest (and likeable) of Kenya, too!
Also known as: Abagusii (this is the correct term), Kisii, Gisii. The name appears to come from Gwassi, a location on the shore of Lake Victoria. Non-standard spellings include Kissii, Kisi and Guzii; there's neither "v" nor "z" in Ekegusii, the Gusii language. Some colonial-era accounts refer to the "Kosova", presumably a corruption "Inka Sobo" (their home). Don't confuse the Gusii/Kisii with Tanzania's Kisi, who live on the northeastern shore of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). My thanks to Nyaosi Kaosa Henry for clearing up my many mistakes.
Ethnic group: Western Bantu (Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Southern Bantu, Narrow Bantu). With the exception of their Kuria near-neighbours, they are now isolated from other Bantu-speakers.
Neighbouring tribes: Luo, Kipsigis, Nandi, Maasai, Kuria (separated by a narrow strip occupied by Luo), Suba?
Language: Ekegusii (sometimes written Egegusii).
Population: 1,582,000 (1994), up from 1,318,409 (1989?). Their region is one of the most densely populated areas of Kenya, and the Gusii constitute the country's sixth largest ethnic group, comprising around 6.3% of the national population. They are the second largest ethnic group in Nyanza, after the Luo.
Location: The fertile and abundantly-watered Kisii (or Gusii) Highlands, 50km east of Lake Victoria, Kisii District, Nyanza Province, in southwestern Kenya. The main river is the Kuja and its tributaries. Total land area is about 800 square kilometres. The altitude reaches over 2000 metres, and averages about 1850 metres above sea level.
Way of life: Agriculture par excellence, both food and cash crops. Traditional food crops include millet, sorghum, yams, pumpkins and some vegetables. All manner of fruits are grown in abundance, including exotic varieties (for Kenya) such as apples and oranges. Fishing and considerable cattle herding was practised before the Gusii were pushed up into the hills by the Luo.
The Gusii are also known for their soapstone carvings.
Religion: The only figures available are 82% Christian, 18% traditional religion. Note: these figures plainly wrong, as there are plenty of Muslims, too.
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.