Gusii - Society
|Parts of this section have been adapted from William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii" (1986: Evans Brothers, PO Box 44536 Nairobi). See also Gusii - initiation.
|In this page:
Marriage - Marriage and land inheritance
Marriage - Female Marriage
Marriage - Brideprice and rape?
Birth and Child Naming
Given their history of almost constant migration, Gusii culture is inevitably a mixture of various influences, combining original Bantu elements with aspects borrowed from or imposed by contacts with Nilotic-speaking peoples, notably the Luo, and to a lesser extent the Maasai and Kipsigis.
Although the Gusii are linguistically and traditionally related to the smaller Kuria, Ikoma, Ngoreme and Zanaki, who live to their south, the Gusii lack the fundamental organisation of these people, and do not have age-sets.
At the time of their arrival in the Kano Plains, the Gusii belonged to one large clan, claiming common ancestry from Mogusii. Over the hundred years that followed - before the Gusii were evicted by the Luo - a new clan structure began to take shape, in the form of four large and powerful warrior-led families called Bassi, Girango, Sweta and Wanjare, who according to legend had led the migration from the region of Kisumu.
The various clans used totemic symbols such as leopards and zebras to remind themselves of their common origin, and for a long time clans did not intermarry because they felt they were related to one another. Members of each clan helped one another fight against their enemies, and to acquire new territory by forest clearance, but it was only after the meeting chaired by the prophet Sakawa in the mid-nineteenth century to deal with the menace of the Kipsigis (see History) that the clan divisions began to break down.
Oddly at first glance, there are no clan-specific geographical areas in Gusii-land, in the same way that members of the Kamba clans are scattered all over Ukambani. This is due to the nature of the land the Gusii encountered when they first arrived in the hills. Heavily forested and cut by steep scarps, making settlements was no easy matter, and required tremendous effort to clear the forest. The cutting of the forest was usually done by members of the same family, who would then build their homes there. As forest clearance had by necessity to start from the outskirts, the clans were distributed evenly across the whole of Gusii-land.
The clans are nowadays represented by chiefs in the local Kenyan administration.
Until recently, Gusii women had no right of inheritance, because traditional society was (and remains) patrilineal. This meant that the inheritance of property, children, wives, power and so on came from the male side, and was passed from father to son.
Traditionally, the family consisted of a man, his wife or wives, and their sons and daughters, including the wives and children of his married sons. Most of the Gusii families were very large because men married many wives. Mosweta, a grandson of Mogusii, for example, is said to have had about fifty wives. When he died he was survived by hundreds of other member of his family.
The purpose of having large families was twofold. First, a homestead was both a military and a political unit. A man with many sons was a strong man, because with his sons and grandsons he could defend his home and cattle from the frequent ravages of thieves and raiders. He was also a wealthy and influential man because his daughters fetched him large herds of cattle as their dowries. Secondly, as people died at an earlier age from disease, and there was a high rate of infant deaths, the only guarantee of the survival of the family was to have many children.
The lot of women was a desultory one: they looked after the homestead, worked in the fields, and fed and raised the children. The children ate and slept in their mother's house and helped her in producing and preparing food for the household. Some of this food, particularly vegetables, was grown on land near the house, but every household was also given a plot of land elsewhere.
Nowadays, however, roles within the family have been changing, not least because of the spectre of AIDS, which is slowly but surely deterring men from taking second wives (primarily due to the concerns of the first wife). Wives are now also entitled by law to a share of any inheritance, which has made then slightly more self-sufficient, and the widespread influence of Christianity is having an effect, but the pressure to conform to tradition remains strong.
Many Gusii houses are still built the traditional way, being round with walls built of poles and mud. The roofs are lined with long poles and twigs covered with grass or reed thatch. Compared to Luo homes, which were built in the same way, Gusii homes are low.
Inside the homes there were only a few possessions: some pots in which the Gusii kept their milk and ghee, and articles used for medicine and magic. Occasionally there might be a drum, a number of clubs, knives, arrows and bows. The furniture was simple, consisting of a few stools and one or two small logs. Near the fireplace were a few soft skins or mats on which they slept. The floors of the homes were made of a mixture of small stones and gravel, which was flooded with water and then beaten very hard. Over the hard surface they spread a special soil mixed with cow dung. The floor was swept regularly to keep the home clean.
Several houses were built near each other to form a homestead. In a large homestead there were many houses, belonging to mothers, grandmothers and adult sons. They arranged according to custom. In the centre of the homestead was the cattle corral, called the boma. Directly facing the gate was the house of the senior wife. The houses of the junior wives were arranged to the right and left of the senior wife's house. Near the main gate were the houses of both the married and the unmarried sons. The owner of a homestead would most likely have his own small house in the middle, very close to the cattle shed, where he ate most of his meals.
Every meal time his wives brought him food, and competed for his attention. Most of his guests were entertained in this house. After evening meals he collected his sons and grandsons in his house and instructed them in a variety of folklore. He also taught them things to do with warfare, medicine, marriage customs, land ownership and their neighbours. The young girls meanwhile were taught by their mothers and grandmothers. They only came to the central house to bring food or to collect empty dishes.
See the separate page about initiation
The Gusii institution of marriage has attracted a considerable amount of interest from Western academics, some of it contentious, though the broad brush picture that they paint is one where women have little or no choice in the affair, and are increasingly vulnerable to falling outside the remit of traditional social security, losing their land rights by the changing nature of marriage.
Although polygamy is nowadays uncommon, Gusii society was traditionally polygamous, meaning that men could take as many wives as they could afford. Girls tended to marry at the age 16, while boys averaged between 18 and 20 years old at their first marriage.
The practice of taking multiple wives ensured both offspring for the husband, but perhaps more importantly created close ties across much of Gusii society, which was important in bolstering the sense of community which enabled the Gusii to survive the various waves of Luo, Kipsigis, Maasai and Nandi invasions.
Marriage within a clan was forbidden, so sometimes awkward arrangements had to be made to find a bride from another clan. A young man in need of a wife was first permitted by his father to use some of the family's cattle for bridewealth. He then either chose his own wife, or asked his female relatives who had married into other clans to find a decent girl. Girls who were considered beautiful were much sought after for marriage, while ugly girls had a more difficult time getting married.
Unless the girl lived in the neighbourhood, her prospective husband used a friend to assess the girl's character and her suitability. He found out whether she worked hard in the house and in the fields. He tried to discover whether any of her family had ever been accused of witchcraft. He also asked girls who knew her well whether she had any disfiguring marks on her body.
When a suitable girl had been selected, the families negotiated the brideprice. A respectable marriage required the payment of cattle and goats to the bride's father as bridewealth (dowry), the price varying between ten and twelve cows, and six goats; nowadays, cash payment has in large part replaced livestock, although a few animals may still be exchanged for tradition's sake.
Once the girl's family was satisfied that enough had been paid to them, they gave the boy permission to take their daughter away. Inevitably the girl would not want to leave her home, so she was usually dragged away by the friends of the bridegroom, in tears. A similar show of reticence and self-pity occurred among other Bantu peoples, too, though more for tradition's sake than for real: wedding laments are commonplace, and involve the new bride bewailing her fate.
Prior to 1982, a husband had the right to sell land registered in his name before his sons had reached maturity, without needing to consult his wife or his brothers. The wives had no legal power to resist such a sale, leaving them at risk of being landless should the marriage fail.
But in 1982, a husband's ability to sell land without his wives' consent was curtailed when land boards were established in most parts of Kenya. Such boards comprised the District Officer, chiefs, ex-chiefs and councillors, and their task was to review all land sales. They only allowed a man to sell land with the consent of his wives and sons and then only if he retained two acres for himself and his family after the sale.
Sadly, this did not solve the problem: four years later, the anthropologist Hakansson described how a whole category of landless women were appearing among the Gusii: although now protected by law, the problem was that they were not legally recognised as wives. The fact was that Gusii marriage institutions were changing. Whereas until the 1960s, it was exceedingly rare to find unmarried adult women, after this time men increasingly refused to pay bridewealth, and women started to 'elope'.
Elopement means that women enter into a prolonged bridewealth repayment period. Until the bridewealth is fully paid, the marriage has no legal status; women have no rights, and can be made to leave homestead at any time. As the men say, the women can be "chased away" if they do not work hard. While in the 1960's only 26% of women eloped, in the 1980's Hakansson found 87% eloped. Women increasingly end up as single mothers, and have no rights to land in their patrilineal or children's fathers holdings.
One partial solution to this problem, and one which has attracted much interest from academics, is the institution of female marriage (see also the section on female marriage among the Kuria), which has become increasingly common over the last few decades.
This permits post-menopausal widows with no sons to marry a young woman for the purposes of producing an heir, since women have no inheritance rights themselves (only through their husbands) and cannot continue the family line. According to Gusii custom, the older woman is the dominant partner and generally dictates who should father the potential heirs to be borne by her wife.
The practice is also a means to avoiding to be 'inherited' by a brother of her deceased husband, although women may still use the 'right' to marry a brother of her deceased husband in the hope of producing a son and keeping her property intact.
Brideprice was always relatively high among the Gusii, as indeed it was for many other agricultural Bantu-speakers (somewhat ironically, seeing as they had much less livestock to exchange than the cattle-herding Maasai, for example, who had and still have very low brideprice). The phenomenon was in part caused by the equivalent of an inflationary spiral: in a society where cattle were both prestige goods and ill-adapted to the wet and hilly environment, were every father feared being left in the lurch by finding that the bridewealth which he has accepted for his daughter will not suffice to get him a daughter-in-law in turn; therefore he is always on the look out for any signs of a rise in the rate, and tends to raise his demands whenever he hears of other fathers doing so.
One highly contentious result of this, according to the North American anthropologist Robert LeVine, was two famous mass outbreaks of rape in Gusii-land, in 1937 and 1950. According to his research, the brideprice in both those years had soared beyond the reach of young Gusii men.
Whether or not the correlation is correct, it seems doubtful to me whether such a simplistic link could fairly be drawn between brideprice and rape.
Both male and female children were considered valuable, males because they had a permanent stake in the continuity of the family and the clan, and females because their future marriages brought cattle to enrich the family.
Women usually gave birth once every two years until they were too old to do so. The first time a woman gave birth was a big event, because her fear was great and there was no way of telling whether she could give birth easily or not. So, many experienced women of the clan were present to lend a hand to the official midwife. The husband was supposed to stay out of the house in which his wife was in labour, not because of any taboo or superstition, but because the wife did not want him to see her at such an awkward time.
Once the child was born there was rejoicing in the homestead and food was cooked for everyone. Then the women who had attended the birth came forward to name the child. No men were present at the naming ceremony.
There were many ways of choosing a name: a child might be named for the kind of weather at the time of his birth, or after some important recent event. Most frequently, however, the name of a recently dead person of the same sex in the father's family was used for the first name, and a similar name from the mother's family for the second and less important name. The child often dropped this second name later on.
As a rule the Gusii avoided naming their children after dead unmarried people, unless the dead man was extremely popular. The Gusii also avoided naming their children after people who were cruel or bad in life. We have already said that boys were generally named after men and girls after women; but sometimes boys and girls carried similar names. If, for example, a mother had been losing baby after baby at childbirth she would decide to take her new child and leave it at a public place for travellers to bless it in order that it might live. Such public places included the roadside, beside a river, by a pond or under a tree. This was taking a big risk since a hyena could eat it or a snake could bite it. Names like Nyang'au (hyena), Nyajira (roadside), or Makori (pathway) were given to such children, irrespective of their sex.
During their earlier wanderings in the lake region in the period between 1500 and 1760, the Gusii tended to name their girls after significant landmarks which they encountered. Names like Kwamboka (crossing a river), Kemunto (rounding a gulf), Kerubo (wandering on a plain), Nyaboke (born in an area with a lot of honey), and Moraa (born in a jungle), were, and still are, often used among Gusii girls. A boy could also be named after his late father who died just before he was born. Double names, like Abuya Abuya, Osiemo Osiemo or Nyariki Nyariki, are typical of this kind of naming.
After the naming ceremony was over the mother returned with her baby to her own house and began to work as soon as she was able.
Young children were carefully looked after, often by their own sister, or by one of their mother's sisters. These young girls of about eight or nine stayed at home all day while the child's mother worked in the fields. The child was breast-fed till it was able to walk, so when it cried the young girl carried it out to the mother. The baby was given millet porridge in small quantities from birth: apparently this was given them by force-feeding in times past, though the practice appears to have disappeared, if ever it existed.
From the time it could walk a young child was taught to help its parents, to run errands or to carry food to the older children. Small girls learnt to carry water-pots on their heads, and gather sticks for firewood. They enjoyed helping their mother in the fields, while boys herded the cattle. The cows were always herded by young boys, the eldest of whom was about ten. He was responsible for the herd, and for looking after his younger brothers. While herding, the boys would play together or splash in the stream, but they had to be on their guard to see that the animals did not wander away.
At about six or seven the children were often given a house of their own to sleep in near their parents' house. Being on their own at night was a frightening experience at first, but they gradually got used to it. The girls of this age learnt to weed and harvest millet, and cook for the family.
The institution of warriorhood is nowadays completely defunct, having been eradicated for obvious reasons by the British at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Before then, all the young men were trained in the art of warfare, and were taught how to handle various weapons like spears, clubs, arrows and shields. The Gusii did not have a single military organization under one command. Instead, each clan usually conducted its wars and raids separately - and catastrophically until the mid-nineteenth century, when at the meeting chaired by the prophet Sakawa the clans agreed to fight the Kipsigis together.
The warriors were generally aged between sixteen and thirty-five, and received their training in fortified communal corrals called bomas in the centre of the settlements, in which entire livestock of a village or clan were driven for the night to be protected by warriors. This system of communal cattle enclosures, albeit similar to that practised by many other Kenyan herding societies, is believed to have come into being only after the move from the Kano Plains to the highlands, where the Gusii came under increasing attack from the cattle-raiding Kipsigis, Maasai and Nandi.
Their leader in the camp was usually chosen from the most senior, tough and popular clan warriors. Generally a man who married did not stay in the cattle boma, but if he did he was not allowed to bring his wife, for no women were allowed except when they brought food. The young warriors lived off milk, roast meat from the game animals they killed, and they were occasionally allowed to slaughter rams or goats as a reward for fighting their enemies well. Wrestling, hunting and military drills were part and parcel of life in these 'villages'.
Often the cattle villages became extremely unruly and difficult to control. Most of the wars between Gusii clans, or between the Gusii and their immediate neighbours, traced their origin to these cattle villages. Perhaps it is not surprising that a British colonial later described them as 'centres of treason'.
A call from a horn, or drum, was always signal for trouble. The reaction was immediate; young men would leave whatever they were doing and dash off to the places where the weapons were kept.
For the Gusii, old age was a time when both men and women would be shown great respect and obedience, and could enjoy their prestige and social esteem.
Their opinions and advice were keenly sought and obeyed, and indeed some elders participated in law-making and law-enforcement that affected the whole of society.
The father was in most cases the ruler of his homestead. He made sure that his family lived in peace, and respected the laws and customs of the community. He taught his children these laws and customs. He punished minor offences in his homestead. For major offences he sought advice and help from his relatives, who were also rulers in their own homesteads. When a man murdered another man he was tried by neighbourhood elders, who sat for that purpose as a court of justice. If he was found guilty of the offence he was killed by beating or poisoning. If it was proved that he did not mean to kill, then he was told to pay the immediate relatives of the dead man a compensation of ten bulls. The most common punishment for minor stealing was the burning of the thief's hands.