Kikuyu - Introduction

In this page:
Facts & Figures


Numbering about six and a half million - about 20% of the national population - the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu of central Kenya are the country's single largest tribe, as well as one of the most 'westernized'.
   Yet they are also something of a paradox, for in spite of the wholesale changes that Kikuyu society has undergone since the British arrived over a century ago, their sense of cultural identity has remained strong, and the Kikuyu have also been the most successful at adapting to Kenya's new economic, social and political realities. The Kikuyu are known throughout Kenya for working hard, and for managing money well: they are easily Kenya's wealthiest people, and own the majority of the nation's businesses. As a result, they are regarded by many outsiders - not least the Kalenjin - with a mixture of jealousy and distrust.

Along with the Maasai, the Kikuyu suffered greatly at the hands of the British, losing much of their land and many of their traditions. In the form of the Mau Mau, the Kikuyu were instrumental in the armed struggle for freedom from the British, and bore the brunt of their reprisals. Yet the struggle did lead to independence, and Kenya's first post-colonial head of state, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu.

Having long been in contact with the wazungu (white men), there's a wealth of printed information available about the Kikuyu, much of it now historical. Yet I am aware that although traditional Kikuyu culture could at first glance be seen as dead and buried, there are notable exceptions where aspects of traditional culture and society have changed and adapted rather than disappeared, as is the case with the admission into a new form of 'elderhood' of Christian priests. In the past, the institution of elderhood served effectively as the pan-tribal government. Although most of their functions have now been taken over by the modern central government based in Nairobi, the authority that the elders traditionally held lives on in the respect that is accorded the 'elder' priests.
   There are doubtless many other examples of Kikuyu traditions adapting to, rather than disappearing in, the modern context - if anyone would like to enlighten me, please feel free to do so.

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Gikuyu, Agikuyu, Akikuyu, Kikuyo, Kikouyou, Gigikuyu, Gekoyo, Agekoyo, Ndia, Gichugu, Mathira. The spelling "Kikuyu" seems to have been first used by the British; I have used it in this website as it remains by far the most common spelling today.

Ethnic group: Central Bantu (Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, Northeastern Highland Bantu, Kikuyu-Kamba).

Neighbouring tribes: Maasai, Embu/Mbeere, Kamba, Meru, Kalenjin (various groups), Samburu, various Ndorobo (hunter-gatherer) communities.

Language: Kikuyu (Gikuyu), though most are trilingual, also speaking Kiswahili and English. Ndia and Gichugu are dialects of the Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya) region, whose speakers also speak standard Kikuyu. The people from Nyeri and Murang'a speak a bit differently, but rather than a difference in dialect it's more to do with pronunciation (accent) than anything else. However, Ndia and Gichugu are slightly different and other Kikuyus (Kiambu, Nyeri etc) find it very difficult to understand. Thanks to Christine Waweru for clearing up my confusion about all this - I did indeed find it useful!
   73% lexical similarity with Embu, 70% with Chuka, 67% with Kamba, 63% with Meru. High literacy rate, estimated at between 75-95% (95% of Kikuyu children go to school).

Population: currently estimated at around 6,500,000. Up from 5,347,000 (1994), and 4,455,865 in 1987. Approximately 20% of the Kenyan population, making them the country's largest ethnic group.

Location: Central highlands of south-central Kenya (Central Province), traditionally from the Nyandarua (Aberdare) Range and foothills of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya) in the north, to Nairobi and the Ngong Hills in the south. There are substantial emigrant populations in most Kenyan towns, where they work as traders, businessmen and shopkeepers.
   Since colonisation, many Kikuyu have also moved onto the west side of the Rift Valley into what was traditionally Kalenjin territory - the ensuing conflict found its bloodiest expression throughout the 1990s in the form of "ethnic violence".
   Apart from the city of Nairobi, where the Kikuyu form the majority, their major towns are Timau, Nanyuki and Naro Moru to the northwest of Mount Kenya, and Nyeri, Murang'a and Kerugoya to the southwest.

Way of life: The Kikuyu are traditionally agriculturalists, and are well-favoured by the fertile soil and climate to the south and west of Mount Kenya. Their long contact with Europeans, and their ability to adapt to new realities, has resulted in them adopting many aspects of modern material culture. They were instrumental in achieving independence from Britain and formed Kenya's first post-colonial government. Although agriculture remains of paramount importance, many Kikuyu are involved in business, and work in towns and cities throughout the country. Formal western education is seen as crucial in their success.

Religion: The only reliable figures available are 73% Christian, and 27% traditional religion (another source confusingly states "70% Christian, 30% evangelical"). Their long contact with the British and the missionaries (the Bible was translated into Kikuyu over a century ago), means that the 27% quoted for traditional religion seems to be an over-estimate: I never met one Kikuyu who did not profess to be Christian.

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.


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

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