Gusii - History

I am grateful to William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii" (1986: Evans Brothers, PO Box 44536 Nairobi) for much of the information on this page.
In this page:
Early migrations
Origins of a name: Mogusii or Gwassi?
Misri - myth or reality?
The Nilotic invasions
The years of warfare
The Battle of Migori River, circa 1820
The Battle of Sao Sao
The Prophet Sakawa

Early migrations

The Gusii, together with the Kuria and Luhya, are among the earliest Bantu groups in Kenya, with at least part of their ancestors having arrived in the southwest of Kenya near Lake Victoria (Nyanza) at the beginning of the first millennium AD. Their subsequent history is somewhat confused, as it seems to involve two separate migrations of apparently unconnected people, who eventually merged with the original Bantu-speaking inhabitants of the lakeshore to become the Gusii.

One version has the bulk of the Gusii coming from Uganda (see Misri - myth or reality? below). Once in Kenya, they settled in the foothills of Mount Elgon, before moving south some five hundred years ago. The causes of this migration are said to have been either due to drought, or to conflict with the Nilotic-speaking Kipsigis, who are now part of the Kalenjin.

On the way, two generations stayed at Goye Bay on Lake Victoria, after which they headed to the Kano Plains, the disablingly hot, humid flatlands that lie between Kisumu and the western highlands. Here they lived for over a century in scattered homesteads over the plains, and it is was in Kano that the clan structure of the present-day Gusii began to take shape, in the form of four large families headed by warriors who led the migration south, and which became the Bassi, Girango, Sweta and Wanjare clans.

Then, presumably to flee the advance of the Nilotic-speaking Luo, they finally moved to their present location in the Gusii (Kisii) Hills.

The other version suggests that the Gusii came from the south of Lake Victoria, settled for a while in the Kano Plains where they presumably merged with the Gusii that had come from Mount Elgon, and together they then moved into the Gusii Hills.

Origins of a name: Mogusii or Gwassi?

The name Gusii or Kisii has two possible origins. The more prosaic is that is comes from 'Gwassi', which was a place on the shores of Lake Victoria at which the Gusii are believed to have lived as fishermen before fleeing the Nilotes.

The more poetic explanation holds that a man called Mogusii was their founder, from whom the Gusii took their name (Abagusii means 'the people of Mogusii'). Mogusii lived in the late sixteenth century, and was the great-great-great-grandson of a famous leader called Kintu. Also known as Muntu, Mundu and Wantu, Kintu is credited with having led the first Bantu migration from the semi-mythical place called Misri...

Misri - myth or reality?

Some oral histories tell the intriguing tale of a place called Misri, which was where the Gusii say they lived a long time ago. They don't know exactly where this place was, but they do know that life there was very hard, full of disease, famine and drought.

Kintu, the great-great-great-grandfather of Mogusii, crops up in this story as a very powerful leader. The name Kintu, incidentally, is also common in West Africa, and was the name of a number of kings and leaders.

The Gusii say that Kintu ruled over the ancestors of not only the Gusii, but the Maragoli, the Ganda, Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and the Kuria. The story of Misri is intriguing as it exists among other people, too: not just among the Kuria (who are historically very close to the Gusii - click here for their version of the myth), but also among the much more distant Meru - for their version of the Misri myth, see the section on Meru history.

At one time, continues the story, a prolonged drought decimated their livestock, so they decided to leave Misri. The migration was led by Kintu, who made a new home for all his people around Mount Elgon, probably some time before the fifteenth century. There they lived as hunters and gatherers, but they also cultivated millet and rice, and kept herds of cattle, goats and sheep. The population rose, and with it came quarrelling over grazing and hunting rights. This led to the dispersal of the population, although an alternative version of the history says that it was the arrival of the Kipsigis that pushed them out.

The first people to move away from Mount Elgon were the Ganda (now in Uganda), followed by the Soga. Another tradition relates that the ancestors of the Kikuyu, Embu and Mbeere were also at Mount Elgon, and moved east into the Rift Valley and across into central Kenya. This is odd, because as far as I know Mount Elgon does not feature in any of those peoples' oral histories.

Whatever, the Gusii stayed on at Mount Elgon for a few more decades until a very bad drought killed much of their livestock. The fruit trees withered and died, and the wild animals either perished or moved away.

When they left, they headed south under the leadership of a man named Osogo, until they reached the north-eastern shores of Lake Victoria. There, they wandered eastwards along the shore, until they arrived in the Kano Plains at the foot of Ramogi Hill (the mythical place of origin of the Nilotic-speaking Luo). Here they met a number of settled Bantu-speaking people, who were fishermen and cultivators of millet, bananas and root-crops. They also kept cattle, sheep and goats, and knew the art of working iron. The ancestors of the Gusii settled with these people, with whom one presumes they eventually merged.

The Nilotic invasions

During the century that the Gusii were living in the Kano Plains, the Luo invasion of the north-eastern shores of Lake Victoria began, culminating in the total expulsion of the Gusii from the lakeshore by the eighteenth century (the year 1755 is given in some versions, and 1770 in others).

The Luo were led by a famous warrior called Ramogi Ajwang', and were well versed in warfare, having fought their way south over several centuries through the western part of the Rift Valley. Being a cattle-herding people, the Luo were also more mobile than the predominantly agricultural Bantu living on the lakeshore. Some of the Bantu tribes were assimilated by the new-comers, but most chose to flee: some to the north and south, but mostly eastwards into the fertile hills flanking the lake.

Unfortunately, at the same time that the Luo were advancing around the lakeshore, the Maasai were advancing southwards along the Rift Valley to the east of these hills. Although the Maasai seem not to have come into contact with the Gusii at that time, the Nandi - who had been displaced by the Maasai - did. Having lost most of their herds to the Maasai, the Nandi (now part of the Kalenjin group) raided Gusii homesteads in search of fresh cattle.

So around 1770, Gusii elders called a big community meeting to find out what the people felt about a move southwards. They sent scouts to see where they could settle in peace. The best place seemed to be country near Kabianga in Kericho district.

The years of warfare

The following is an edited version of a section in William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii"; I first tried rewriting all this in my own words, but not being an expert, I felt there was a risk that I would unwittingly distort the facts - it's confusing enough already!

The Gusii found Kabianga wet and cold throughout the year. They tried to plant millet and pumpkins in their new gardens, but these crops did not do well there (the area was originally densely covered with rain forest, which has nowadays largely been cleared for tea plantations). And as many of their cattle died at the same time as their crops failed, famine broke out. So many of the Gusii died.

Living alongside the Gusii were Isiria Maasai. The arrival of the Kipsigis, cousins of the Nandi and who are now also part of the Kalenjin, plunged the whole region into military turmoil. One day in a fierce battle the Gusii killed the Maasai war-leader, Ole Kericho (after whom, by one version, Kericho town is named). After that the Gusii and Maasai lived side by side for many years. The Gusii were stronger and better warriors than the Maasai, who used to attack at night for this reason. The Gusii built thick thorn fences and dug deep trenches around their homesteads.

But the real threat lay not with the Maasai but with the Kipsigis, who were similarly attached to cattle and believed, like the Maasai, that all the cattle in the world belonged to them. So they began to raid both the Maasai and the Gusii for cattle; and even the Luo, whom the Kipsigis feared, had to reckon with Kipsigis night raids on their homesteads.

The Kipsigis eventually drove the Maasai away from the area (nowadays called Buret), then tried to do the same to the Gusii, who they called 'Kosopek'.

The first encounters initiated were by the Kipsamaek clan of the Kipsigis, and took place near Kabianga. The Gusii defended themselves with arrows, which they fired from a safe distance. But the Kipsigis had very heavy shields made of buffalo hide, which they used to protect themselves against Gusii arrows and spears. Their strategy was to wait until the Gusii had thrown all their arrows and spears and then attack, so the Gusii had to retreat into their homesteads. To protect themselves the Gusii built heavy stone fortifications, called orwaki, round their villages. These were guarded on the outside by deep trenches. They had tall, stout walls of stone and mud, on top of which were strewn heavy acacia thorns. The forts were repeatedly stormed by the Kipsigis, but it took several years of raids, ambushes and counter-ambushes before the Gusii were finally forced to migrate southwards beyond the area of present-day Sotik. And even here the Kipsigis did not leave them in peace.

These attacks divided the Gusii once again: one group stayed in the region of Kericho, where they eventually became one with the Kipsigis. But the majority headed south to the present-day Gusii Highlands. They argued that it was easier for them to defend their homes on the high ridges of the highlands than on the rolling tableland of Kericho and Sotik. There, initial years great hardship in clearing the land to make it suitable for agriculture were followed by better times, which saw the development of a strong economy based on cultivation, which survives to this day.

Another group refused to go to the highlands because of the cold. They migrated southwestwards and established themselves along the banks of the Migori River (sometimes spelled Mogori), at a place called Chimanga Chia Miehina, in the Trans Mara triangle. Today this is in Tanzania. Living across the river, in the plains to the south, were the Kwavi Maasai. The Gusii began to fight once again with the Maasai over cattle thefts.

The Battle of Migori River, circa 1820

The following is from William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii"

One day Ngararo, a renowned Gusii warrior, killed the leader of the Maasai, Ole Sekur Sadimo. Sadimo's brother, Omoburogo, decided that he would revenge the murder of his brother. Disguised as a Gusii warrior, he made his way into the homesteads of Ngararo, whom he found eating with his children. Omoburogo stabbed Ngararo in the back and also in the stomach several times. His death-cry is said to have drawn the attention of the entire Gusii settlement, who, on finding Omoburogo still within the fort, 'mercilessly slashed him to pieces'.
   The Gusii were very angry; they attacked and burnt the nearby Maasai homesteads, and murdered any Maasai they found inside. The Maasai quickly assembled every available moran (warrior), and together swooped on the Gusii in a solid mass, knocked down the Gusii fortifications, set fire to the huts, rounded up the cattle, and killed everybody who stood in their way, men, women and children. The remaining Gusii, in a panic-stricken frenzy, scattered in headlong flight.

This tragic battle, which once and for all destroyed the corporate identity of the Gusii, is called the Battle of Migori River. It took place in about 1820. The site of Ngararo's stabbing is still a place of animal sacrifice, known as 'the place of Ole Ngararo'.

The Battle of Sao Sao

The following has been adapted from Papa F's Kenya Ethnic Resource

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Kipsigis had established themselves as a "force to reckon with". They were steadily encroaching into the Gusii Highlands and raiding cattle from their Luo neighbours.
   They burnt houses, killed people, even cut to pieces all old livestock which they could not drive away quickly. The Gusii, who were still reeling from the shock of Battle of Migori, were in no state to offer effective military resistance. But if the Gusii were to survive, something had to be done about the Kipsigis.

The elders agreed that a meeting should be called in which leading elders and warriors from all Gusii sections should be invited. The meeting was chaired by the legendary prophet Sakawa (also called Mugo wa Kibiru), who was later to foretell the coming of the "White Man" (see below). At the meeting, which was held at Manga, the various Gusii representatives agreed to join forces in fighting the Kipsigis.

Between 1889 and 1892, a rinderpest epidemic swept through East Africa decimating herds of cattle. Finding themselves with very few remaining livestock, the Kipsigis decided to organize a huge raiding expedition to Gusii and Luo country. S.C. Langat describes the assembled force:

"Experience of the past encounters, whence the Kipsigis had emerged victorious - gave the Kipsigis a sense of careless ease in their attitude to battle with the Gusii. In expectation of sure victory the Kipsigis prepared a great raid on the Gusii. Young boys were enlisted to drive the cattle home, and women were also enlisted to carry away the captured stores of food. The raiding party was headed by Malabun ara Makiche from Sotik. At Buret, Chesengeny arap Kaborok and his warriors joined the band. At Belgut more warriors joined. Most of the young men were of the Kapkoimet age-set, while the older ones were Sawe"

The Kipsigis march, which started in the afternoon, reached Gusii country at dusk. As they marched they were followed by a large number of vultures - a sure sign of bad luck. Chesengeny tried to convince Malabun to abandon the raid but Malabun would have none of it. In Gusii-land the first phase of the raid (in Mugirango and Kitutu) was successful, and they destroyed many Gusii villages, but then things began to go wrong.

Two leaders of the Kipsigis raiders disagreed, and as a result one party returned home, while the other, led by Malabun Arap Makiche, went on to raid the Luo.

Back in the hills the Gusii were blowing their horns and drumming to summon all their warriors. Knowing that the Kipsigis had crossed to Luo-land the Gusii laid a trap for them. By the early hours of the morning the Gusii warriors were lining the eastern edge of Manga Escarpment in ambush.

At dawn a large "kelele" was heard, it was the Luo chasing the Kipsigis raiders. As the Kipsigis started to ascend the escarpment along the valley of the Charachani River, they fell upon the Gusii at Getwanyi in Kitutu. The Luo arrived at the battleground when the fight had already started. With both the Luo and Gusii at battle, and with the well laid Gusii ambush, the Kipsigis force was practically wiped out. Very few managed to escape. It is said that some of the survivors hid among the corpses of their fellow tribesmen, others jumped into the rivers and hid in the swamps until nightfall. During the nightfall they escaped back to Kipsigis land.

So great was the loss of life that the Kipsigis elders ordered the 'premature' initiation of young boys into warriorhood, and encouraged young men to marry early so as to increase the population of the tribe.

The Gusii, who had never before achieved such a victory, were extremely happy, and as each Gusii group left the battlefield they garlanded themselves with flowers and sang this song as they made their way home:

They used to follow us ee sanyera,
But we said do not follow us ee sanyera,
They used to disturb us ee sanyera,
But we said do not disturb us ee sanyera,
They always disturbed our ancestors sanyera,
They have always followed our fathers sanyera,
Oo oo sanyera banto, sanyera.

The Prophet Sakawa

The following is adapted from William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii"

The majority of the peoples of East Africa foresaw the coming of the Europeans. Among the Kikuyu, the prophet Chege wa Kibiru had prepared his people to expect 'white strangers who look like butterflies'. He said that these strangers would take the land of the Kikuyu, but he warned the Kikuyu not to fight with these white people, 'for if you do so they will kill you with their fire', meaning their guns. In Luo country the prophets, orjobilo, had issued a warning that 'some white people are coming but they must not be fought. If you oppose them they will kill you with their sticks which vomit fire'. The arrival of the Europeans and 'a long snake' (the Mombasa-Kampala railway, which brought with it colonialism) were prophesied by a Kamba sage and chief called Masaku, and the Embu medicine man Mwenda Mwea similarly saw 'a black snake coming', as well as 'a bird with a metal beak flying this way,' and 'all our cattle gone. Plundered from us by red people.'

Although no European traveller, trader or missionary had visited Gusii country in the nineteenth century, the Gusii, like the other African groups, had known through their prophet that some white people would come to their country. Sakawa used to collect his followers at the site of present-day Kisii town and tell them where the future police lines, the hospital, the offices and churches would be built. He lit fires in a long line in order to show where electric poles and lights would follow. He also prophesied that the Gusii warriors would be disarmed by the white strangers if they showed resistance, 'but these white people', he said, 'will stay and later leave for their country, leaving us to rule ourselves as we have always done in the past'.

All these prophecies came true. Sakawa, who was born around 1840, disappeared mysteriously in 1902. It is believed that he died on one late November night, but when people came the following morning to bury his body they did not find it. Some people believe that he ascended into the skies and that he will come back one day. Indeed in 1921 many of the Gusii were expecting his return. Whatever had happened to his body, it is known that two years after Sakawa died, the British arrived in Gusii-land. The Gusii had forgotten that Sakawa had warned them not to oppose the white men, and when the Gusii warriors took their spears to defend their independence many were killed by the British who were fighting with guns. Together with the Giriama, the Taita, the Kamba, the Kikuyu, the Nandi and the Elgeyo, they were on the receiving end of murderous 'patrols' which many times ruthlessly killed men and women and exterminated their stock.

By 1907 the Gusii had been brought under British rule, although resistance continued in the form of the 'Gusii Revolts' until 1914.


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