Gusii - Agriculture and Trade

In this page:
Honey and beer
Communal work - risaga
Population pressure and AIDS


Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Gusii were primarily a cattle-keeping people. The Kano Plains were ideal country for cattle rearing, and they kept large herds, which were used primarily for milk and blood. Blood was extracted in the same way as other cattle-herders, by piercing the cow's jugular vein, and then patching it up when sufficient blood had been extracted. Livestock was eaten only during ceremonies and sacrifices. For meat, wild animals such as pigs, gazelle, rabbits and birds were hunted instead, and fishing was also practised.

Hunting was normally done by senior men, as young men looked after cattle.

Individuals hunted using traps and pits, but more common was a communal hunt, in which the spoils were shared between the participants. Before they started in the morning, horns were blown in a particular manner. Then the hunters gathered in the usual meeting-place in the village. They decided which bushes they would comb for animals. Everybody knew when to use a stone, club, spear or arrow, and also when it was not wise to do so. In many cases dogs were used to smell out the animals.

Since their move into the Gusii Hills, however, the Gusii have become an agricultural people par excellence, amply favoured by the perennial high rainfall of the fertile Gusii Hills (close to a metre and a half annually).

Nowadays, the Gusii economy comprises a multiplicity of productive activities: pyrethrum and tea are exploited as cash crops, as well as millet, corn (maize), cassava, sorghum, yams, peanuts (ground nuts), and bananas. Pumpkins are a traditional staple. They still keep small numbers of cattle, sheep and goats as well as domestic fowl, though nowhere near as many as they did when they were living in the Kano Plains on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Honey and beer

Bee-keeping also remains important - the honey was traditionally used for brewing beer, which only elders and old women drank, and then at ceremonies.

It was brewed by fermenting either sorghum or finger-millet together with honey. When a homestead was visited by honoured guests, or when there was a specially good harvest, the beer pots were brought out for the elders to celebrate the occasion.

Communal work - risaga

Sometimes others besides the immediate family helped with jobs on the land. To perform tasks which needed more people, or had to be done within a limited time, a man invited a group of neighbours or friends to come and work intensively on the job. The work might be building a hut, clearing weeds, or harvesting. The aim of gathering a risaga was to do in one day a job which would have taken the family much longer. On such occasions a lot of food was cooked and beer was drunk after the job was done.

Population pressures and AIDS

Nowadays, very little uncultivated land remains, and over-crowding is a huge problem: the Gusii have the country's highest birth-rate, although the effect of this in terms of population has from the 1990s onwards been partially counteracted by the devastating effect of AIDS, which among the Gusii has one of the world's highest rates.


Oops - to be filled in later...


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

also by Jens Finke
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