Kikuyu - Traditional Religion

See also: Christianity among the Kikuyu; A Kikuyu funeral by Melinda Atwood; The Voice of Mungu through Terence; When the Old Gods Die by Mike Resnick; One Perfect Morning with Jackals by Mike Resnick; and The Politics of the Mûngîkî by Grace N. Wamue. A related internet site is Kikuyu Elderhood as African Oracle, by Harold F. Miller.
In this page:
Ngai - the Creator
Kirinyaga - the sacred mountain
Kenya: what's in a name?
Sacrifice and Prayer
Vomiting of sins
Crop Purification
Ancestors and Spirits
Ancestors and Spirits - spirit ancestors, or the 'living-dead'
Ancestors and Spirits - supernatural or evil spirits
Ancestors and Spirits - The Battle with the Spirits


Most Kikuyu are Christians, and during my entire stay in Kenya (nine months in two visits), I never met one Kikuyu who professed to be anything else. So it came as something of a surprise when a search on the internet came up with the three photos you see below, two of which depict a rain ceremony addressed to Ngai (God). The photos were taken in March 1997, and I must admit that my first reaction was that the images must have been posed, or that the event had been staged for tourists. Not so. The ceremony took place towards the end of a particularly long drought, which had also unclenched wildfires on Mount Kenya, whose forests are usually far too damp to burn for long.
   The photos show that despite the wholesale culture shock that the Kikuyu have undergone over the last century, some aspects of the old ways remain, so much so that in times of real need - such as the 1997 drought - some Kikuyu still fall back on pre-Christian traditions, and will ask for help from the old God and the ancestors if the Christian faith fails their needs.

Mount Kenya ablaze with rampant wildfires due to a two year drought. March 1997.

Left: A witch doctor prepares to sacrifice a goat to bring rain to his drought-stricken area. Mount Kenya, March 1997. Right: A villager dons a mask during a rain ceremony at the base of Mount Kenya, March 1997.
Images are copyright Denise Rocco, with whose kind permission they are reproduced here. There's more of her work at Denise Rocco Photography.

I do not know to what extent this melding of old and new beliefs is still practised. I assume that the rain ceremony in the photos was exceptional, prompted as it was by an extreme situation. Yet there are other signs, too, that the old ways have not been completely forgotten. The institution of elderhood may at first sight appear to be defunct, but here too, the Kikuyu have adapted and adopted to the new ways rather than simply discarding the old: it has been estimated that 90% of the Catholic priests in the Nairobi diocese have also been elected as 'elders'. Thus, the role of priests is not seen as solely being a religious one, but social, too. In Nairobi, with its complex ethnic mix and live potential for violence between its various peoples, it is these priest-elders who take the good conduct of their society in hand, much as other peoples have also kept elements of social control over their own people.
   For an excellent essay on the continuing survival of some traditional features of life, especially religion and elderhood in the modern setting, read Harold Miller's Kikuyu Elderhood as African Oracle (external site; opens in new window).

Ngai - the Creator

Traditionally, as now, the Kikuyu were monotheists, believing in a unique and omnipotent God whom they called Ngai (also spelled Mogai or Mungai). The word, if not the notion, came from the Maasai word Enkai, and was borrowed by both the Kikuyu and Kamba. God is also known as Mungu, Murungu, or Mulungu (a variant of a word meaning God which is found as far south as the Zambesi of Zambia), and is sometimes given the title Mwathani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler), which comes from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority.
   Ngai is the creator and giver of all things, 'the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature'. He gave birth to the human community, created the first Kikuyu communities, and provided them with all the resources necessary for life: land, rain, plants and animals.
   He - for Ngai is male - cannot be seen, but is manifest in the sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors, thunder and lighting, rain, in rainbows and in the great fig trees (mugumo or mugumu) that served as places of worship and sacrifice, and which marked the spot at Mukurue wa Gathanga where Gikuyu and Mumbi - the ancestors of the Kikuyu in the oral legend - first settled.
   Yet Ngai is not the distant God that we know in the West. He had human characteristics, and although some say that he lives in the sky or in the clouds, they also say that he comes to earth from time to time to inspect it, bestow blessings and mete out punishment. When he comes he rests on Mount Kenya and four other sacred mountains. Thunder is interpreted to be the movement of God, and lightning is God's weapon by means of which he clears the way when moving from one sacred place to another.
   Other people believed that Ngai's abode was on Mount Kenya, or else 'beyond' its peaks. Ngai, says one legend, made the mountain his resting place while on an inspection tour of earth. He then took the first man, Gikuyu, to the top to point out the beauty of the land he was giving him (see the Kikuyu creation myth, and also Kikuyu oral history).

Kirinyaga - the Sacred Mountain

Mount KenyaMountains have always been favourite places for Gods and spirits, particularly when the mountains stand on their own - Mount Ararat, Mount Fuji, and Sri Lanka's Adam's Peak are ones which come immediately to mind - and Mount Kenya is no exception. Their association with rain clouds in particular seems crucial in understanding the spiritual awe in which humans regard such mountains.
   That, and the sheer beauty of these places, of course.

Mount KilimajaroSitting squat astride the equator, Kirinyaga - more commonly known as Mount Kenya - is the country's highest mountain, and the second highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro, which lies a few hundred kilometres to the south on the border with Tanzania.
   Its highest peak (Batian) reaches a height of 5199m (17,058ft). At that altitude, in fact from around 4000 metres upwards, snow and ice are daily occurrences, and rarely do temperatures rise above freezing at night. There are even some relict glaciers remaining on the very top, although these have steadily been retreating over the last century.
   The three highest peaks are named after Maasai laiboni (ritual leaders) of the nineteenth century: M'batian, who died in 1890 having lost a good deal of his land to the British, Nelion his brother, and Lenana his son.
   Geologically, the mountain was built-up by intermittent volcanic eruptions some 2.6 to 3.1 million years ago, and is believed to have reached a maximum height of something like 7000 metres before erosion set in. The entire mountain is deeply dissected by valleys radiating from the peaks. At the 2500 metre contour, the circumference of the mountain is approximately 95 miles (153km). All the mountain above 3200m forms a national park.
   Mount Kenya's peaks remain snow-capped throughout the year, which the nineteenth-century European exploring fraternity found difficult to believe, even after it was reported first-hand by the missionary-explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf, who sighted the mountain in December 1849. It wasn't until Joseph Thompson passed by in 1883 that he confirmed Mount Kenya was, in fact, on the equator and was, indeed, covered with snow.

Kenya: What's in a name?

Krapf reported that the Kamba called the mountain Kima ja Kegnia, meaning "mountain of whiteness," though other sources have the Kamba version as Kinyaa or Kiinyaa. In any case, as it was the Kamba who escorted Krapf to within sight of the mountain, it was the Kamba version that stuck, and which eventually - in the form of Kenya - became the name of the country.
   The Kikuyu themselves call the mountain Kirinyaga (or Kere-Nyaga), of which the exact meaning is vague. Most sources translate this as either being 'Mountain of Whiteness' or 'Mountain of Brightness', although 'Mountain of Light' is also used. A totally different version of the name has it that the mountain was called after the black and white tail feathers or plumage of a male ostrich (k'enya, apparently), which the snows, glaciers and exposed volcanic rocks just below the summit seemed to resemble from a distance. According to this version, the name of the mountain means 'ostrich den', the 'area of the ostrich' or 'place of the feathers'. There are other versions, too: some say that the mountain was the dwelling place of a God called Mwininyaga - the 'Possessor of Whiteness' - to whom all owed allegiance. Another says it simply means 'it is glorious'.
   To further confuse matters, it seems that 'Nyaga' could be the same word as 'Ngai', meaning that the mountain either means 'God' (the mountain is also known as Mwene Nyaga) or 'Where God lives'. Answers on a postcard please!

Sacrifice and Prayer

As the dwelling-place of Ngai, Kirinyaga was sacred. During prayer, the Kikuyu faced the mountain, in the same way that their ancestor Gikuyu was told by God to raise his hands towards the mountain whenever he made a sacrifice. Traditionally, too, people built their houses with their main entrances facing the mountain, and the dead were buried with their heads facing the mountain. The title of Jomo Kenyatta's book about the Kikuyu, Facing Mount Kenya, alludes to this all.

Kikuyu made sacrifices on great occasions, such as the rites of passage, planting time, before crops ripened, at the harvest of the first fruits, at the ceremony of purifying a village after an epidemic, and most of all when the rains failed or delayed. Although sacrifice is now extremely rare, the photos at the head of this page of a Kikuyu rain-making ceremony in March 1997 prove that, in extreme cases, sacrifices will still be made, despite the protests of the Christian clergy.

As with other Kenyan cultures that practised sacrifice, the animals were chosen according to particular characteristics, are were most commonly sheep of a given colour. Humans were never sacrificed, although the Kikuyu and others have legends about a girl who was sacrificed to a lake for rain - see under Fables and Legends - and both the Kamba and the Meru, who are related to the Kikuyu, apparently sacrificed humans, albeit rarely, until the early twentieth century.
   Sacrifices were generally made under a mugumo (or mugumu; fig tree), such as the one which used to grow at Mukurue wa Gathanga near Machakos. This tree, which is also known as the 'strangling fig' and is similar to the banyan tree of the Buddhists (with similar ritual significance), has long aerial roots which can plunge from a great height into the ground.
   Sacrifices were always carried out facing Mount Kenya, ideally at a high place, and it is said that sometimes the Kikuyu used to climb the mountain to make their offerings. At other times, a family or village leader would take his family to a "high place" and pray for this family, ask forgiveness of sins and request help in drought or other need.

The basic idea behind sacrifice is to please God or the ancestors so that they may bring something needed by the people. Most commonly rain, other things beneficial to human society can also be called for: victory in warfare, the end of a plague or epidemic, or the cure for a disease.
   Sacrifices were also made in thanks - at times of weddings and initiations, for example - in the belief that a propitiatory sacrifice would favourably impress God or the ancestors in looking after the newly wedded couple or the newly initiated members of their society.
   "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", goes the saying: may peace prevail between God and men. The operative word here is 'between' - for there was always an interaction between people and God, and the relationship could thus always be influenced. It should be noted that although sacrifices could also be made to the ancestors (see below), Ngai rather than the ancestors was usually the focus. When the Kikuyu made sacrifices and prayers for rain, they addressed God as the 'One who makes mountains quake and rivers overflow'. The wind, sun and the rain are beyond the human power of control, but not beyond God's power, who works through them and other natural phenomena or objects.

A Kikuyu Prayer

Revered Elder who lives on Mount Kenya, you who make mountains tremble and rivers flood, we offer to you this sacrifice that you may bring us rain. People and children are crying, sheep, goats, and cattle are crying. Mwene-ngai, we beseech you with the blood and fat of this lamb which we are going to sacrifice to you.

Vomiting of sins

This unusually named ritual cleanses a person from ritual evil. For this purpose a goat is slaughtered, and its stomach contents taken out.
   An elder presides over minor occasions, but a medicine-man is necessary for major offences. The stomach contents are first mingled with medicines. Then the officiating elder takes a brush with which he wipes off some of the mixture on the tongue of the offender, enumerating the offences committed. Each time the offender spits out the mixture on the ground. Afterwards the walls of his house are brushed with the same mixture. If the house is not so cleansed, it must be demolished.

The idea of 'vomiting' evil occurs in other highlands Bantu cultures: see the description of the Embu vomiting of sins for a close parallel.

Crop Purification

Apart from asking God to bless the seeds and their labour when planting, the Kikuyu perform a ceremony of purifying crops when they begin to bear. Part of this ceremony involves lighting a holy fire and carrying it to all the regions of the clan. People look upon it as a 'purifying flame', and eagerly wait to catch it with twigs, in order to take it to their homes where the old fires have been put out. The new fire is not allowed to die out until the next season when the ceremony is repeated, and symbolises the process of death and resurrection, and the conquest of renewal over destruction and degeneration. sadly, the observance of this deep and meaningful ritual has died out today.
   Similar rituals exist among many other peoples: read the section on Rendille settlements for more about their eternal Naapo hearth fires; the section on livestock-grabbing and grass-grabbing among the Embu and Mbeere, which shares the idea of physically spreading something sacred over the entire land of the people; and the similar 'grabbing of ribbons', which is part of the Chuka Ntuiko ceremony.

The Ancestors and Spirits

See also the fable about The Spirit Wife

"The society believed in the physical presence of all things visible and invisible. They believed that the presence of an evil spirit brought about bad fortune and that the medicine-man had to bribe the spirit and to speak to it in order to appease it. This belief in the physical presence of spirits, whether good or evil, made those spirits appear as if they were integral and active members of the society. Superstition then ceased to be merely the fear of unseen forces and became instead a deliberate ordinance of a conflict between society and evil spirits. The bold conflict was then an expression of a private and social desire to remain in good health and socially united because the said set-up required it."

Rose Mwangi, Kikuyu Folktales: their Nature and Value

As in most Kenyan cultures, the Kikuyu believed in the existence of spirits, of which there were several kinds. Please note that the categorisations I've used are quite arbitrary, and some spirit ancestors could also be classed as 'evil' or supernatural spirits.

Spirit ancestors, or the 'living-dead'

The most common and benign were the spirit ancestors or "living-dead", who were made up of the departed members of the family, of whom the parents were the most important. These were known as 'the spirits of the parents or forbearers' (ngoma cia aciari). To these the family gave food and drink offerings as tokens of fellowship and oneness. There were also clan spirits called ngoma cia moherega, whose immediate and main concern was the welfare of the nation on the level of the clan. They acted, or were consulted, in matters pertaining to the behaviour and life of the clan members. Thirdly, there was a category of ancestor spirits who were concerned with age-groups and the nation as a whole, and who were known as ngoma cia riika.
   The idea underlying the concept of spirit ancestors is actually not complicated, and involves nothing more unusual than the spirit or soul of a person surviving physical death, in the same way that Christians believe that the spirit or soul ascends after physical death to heaven, or descends to hell. The only difference is that heaven or hell do not exist in traditional Kikuyu belief. Instead, the spirits dwell in something of a limbo world, close to God but also close to the living. In this position, therefore, they are able both to affect the living, and can intercede with God in times of need. Their position as intermediaries between God and the living thus made them both honoured as well as somewhat feared beings.
   The presence of the ancestors was continual, and they could be pleased or displeased just like living people. And as with the living, there were all kinds of ancestors: some were bad, and these needed to be 'bribed' every once in a while to stop them performing mischief or evil on the living. But most were good, and either kept quiet or tried to help the living. These good ancestors were honoured in the child naming system, and people believed that the actual spirit of the grandparent or other ancestor came into the child named after them.
   The relationship between these spirits and the living was certainly not the 'worship' that so many Western commentators have made it out to be. The key to it all was the idea of continuity, linking the past with the present and the future. Sadly, this notion is now breaking down under the influence of Christianity and modernization.

Supernatural or evil spirits

Much less common than the spirit ancestors were the supernatural spirits, which dwelt in forests, bush land, plains and in any other lonely or uninhabited places. There were 'half-men' who only had one hand, leg, eye and ear (these creatures were much embellished - though embellished isn't exactly the right word! - in myths and stories that were told to children to teach them morals and good behaviour). One story even tells of a being whose body was half flesh and half stone. Another mentions a rainbow, which was in reality an evil animal that came out at night to eat men and animals. Still, it seems that these 'spirits' were most likely invented to get young children to behave, or to understand the message of a cautionary tale. In general, these kinds of spirits were not widely believed in.

The Battle with the Spirits

The following is from John S. Mbiti's "African Religions and philosophy" (1969: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 45314 Nairobi)

It seems that some of the spirits, presumably those whose links with the clan or nation have weakened, turn against people and cause illness. Such spirits are believed to hide around the homesteads, and to be blown by the wind from one homestead to another. For that reason, whirlwinds are thought to be spirits assembling to wage an attack on people.
   If there is an outbreak of epidemics, the people in the affected area get together to fight against the spirits which, if defeated, take away with them the epidemic, and they fear to return for another defeat. The best time for this ceremony is in the evening, when the moon comes out. The community appoints a day, and when the time arrives, war horns are sounded. On hearing the sound, everyone rushes out of his house carrying sticks, clubs and wooden weapons. Metal weapons are not used, in case they should shed the blood of the spirits which would defile the ground. The bushes are beaten, people shout and the crowds more towards the river on both banks. On arrival at the river and amidst continued blowing of the war horns, the sticks are thrown into the water. The people beat off dust from their clothes and feet to remove any traces of the spirits; and then return home, joyfully singing and being careful not to look back.
   The following day the mothers shave off the hair of their children who had not been able to join in the attack on the spirits. The shaving is in the form of the cross, as it believed that the sight of such children would frighten the malicious spirits. The children are then washed and painted with red ochre.

In this battle, the spirits are conceived in human terms, taking the position of the enemy which much be attacked and defeated. The sticks partly symbolize human might, and when they are thrown into the river they symbolize the defeated spirits who are now swept away by the stream of death. Presumably the dust stands for the epidemic, and beating it off the feet and clothes is a dramatization of human victory over the epidemic, just as the spirits who caused it are also defeated. The shaving of the children is a further dramatization of the spirits' defeat, as well as being a sign of death and resurrection from the epidemic.
   Exactly what the sign of the cross it, I do not know, but it is interesting to recall that the Christians have for many centuries been using it, among other things, for protection against attack by evil spirits. If at one time in the past, Christianity may have reached this part of equatorial Africa, it is significant and remarkable that the 'sign of the cross' in the fight against evil forces, should be the only trace of Christianity which has been incorporated into traditional beliefs and practices. It may be, however, that historians and archaeologists may yet unearth other traces. Until then, the matter must remain no more than speculation.

Note from the author: following some versions of early Kikuyu and Meru history, it seems likely that some Bantu groups came into contact with Jewish and possibly Muslim peoples, some time over the last millennium. Either of these could also have introduced the symbol of the cross, assuming that the cross was not already an indigenous symbol.


Misfortunes, especially death, are accepted to be God's will, whatever other explanations may be advanced.
   Rose Mwangi, in Kikuyu Folktales: their Nature and Value, writes: "Songs were sometimes sung at funerals, and sometimes in a healing ceremony. Singers would enjoy and amuse themselves while a sick man lay suffering in the hut. This was not due a lack of concern or responsibility. It was rather a way of expressing concern which differed from what we would expect or even understand."

Read also the deeply moving A Kikuyu funeral, by Melinda Atwood. For two Kikuyu fables about the origin of death, follow the links from Fables and Legends.


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

also by Jens Finke
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