Kikuyu - Society (Mbari ya Mumbi)

See also Kikuyu Circumcision. On the internet, see Kikuyu Elderhood as African Oracle, by Harold F. Miller (offsite - page opens in new window). An excellent essay on the continuing survival of some traditional features of Kikuyu life, especially religion and elderhood in the modern setting.
In this page:
Clans and social structure
Life stages (Mariika)
Life stages (Mariika) - Birth
Life stages (Mariika) - Child naming
Life stages (Mariika) - Ear-piercing and the second birth
Life stages (Mariika) - Marriage
Life stages (Mariika) - Elderhood

Clans and Social Structure

Although much has changed since the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, Kikuyu society is still characterised by its strong unity on all levels. Historically, this was crucial in defensive arrangements against persistent enemies such as the Maasai, and therefore one finds that society was strictly structured all the way up from family and home to the nine or ten clans which included everyone, and the councils of elders who presided over all the issues concerning the Kikuyu as a whole. This sense of unity was exemplified by the idea of the wider Kikuyu community called Mbari ya Mumbi, the 'Family of Mumbi'.

The Kikuyu Creation Myth, which has God apportioning land for the nine (or ten) daughters of Mumbi and Gikuyu, neatly explains the coming into existence of the clan system, and indeed, it seems that before the Kikuyu arrived in their present area, they either had no clans, or the clan system which may have existed before broke down completely to be replaced with another one.
   I should say immediately that the clan system no longer exists; at least not in any practical sense - it, along with so many other traditions, was swept away by the British, especially during the Mau Mau 'Emergency' of the 1950s when the Kikuyu were herded into 'protected villages', which were nothing other than concentration camps.

Nowadays, the most important social unit of the Kikuyu remain the family groups (nyumba or nyomba), which were traditionally self-sufficient and independent units, each with relatively clearly-defined territorial areas. Some people speak of these areas as 'ridges', alluding to the mountain ridges of Nyandarua and Kirinyaga, and the term 'ridge' is still occasionally used to describe both families and clans.

As the Kikuyu population expanded from the sixteenth century onwards and their land became more populated, broader social structures began to emerge. The homestead (mucii) comprised of several families, not necessarily related by blood, but who lived and worked together for everyone's benefit. It was a purely communal arrangement, and one which survives to this present day.
   Several mucii formed a patrilineal sub-group or 'community unit' called mbari, comprising of males and their wives and children ranging from a few dozen to several hundred persons. These in turn were gathered into the nine (or ten) clans called moherega or muhiriga, who were united by their shared matrilineal descent from one of the nine (or ten) daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi, and hence by their names. The main nine clans were the Achera, Agachiku, Airimu, Ambui, Angare, Anjiru, Angui, Aithaga, and Aitherandu. Oddly enough, although the clans were determined by matrilineal descent from one of the nine (or ten) founding daughters, all other social structures were patrilineal: that Kikuyu culture was originally matriarchal (around five centuries ago), though, seems to be beyond doubt.


Until the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, the most important Kikuyu social distinction was the family and the homestead. It was in the home that children were first introduced to the culture of their people, and where their mothers and grandmothers would tell tales and riddles both to amuse and educate their children. But the state of emergency with which the British responded to the Mau Mau uprising also saw the forced removal of the majority of Kikuyu into large 'protected villages', ostensibly for their own security, but actually only so that the colonial oppressors could more easily control the population, which was of course largely supportive or sympathetic to Mau Mau and independence.
   Despite the insanitary and overcrowded conditions in the 'protected villages', come independence many Kikuyu remained where they were, and the villages soon became towns, with their own economic and social impetus.

Traditionally, however, the Kikuyu lived in separate domestic family homesteads, each of which was surrounded by a hedge or stockade and contained a hut for each of the man's wives. The houses were made of thatch, sticks and baked mud, often raised on poles. Nowadays, the majority live in breeze-block homes with corrugated metal roofs.
   Before independence, boys and girls were raised differently: girls would help out their mothers by taking care of household chores, tend shamba (farm) crops and younger children, while boys were expected to help out by herding the animals. Nowadays, formal education has become of paramount importance, with an estimated 95% of Kikuyu children - both boys and girls - attending school. As a result, both men and women are now found in virtually every area of business and professional life in Kenya. The Kikuyu, for all the problems and upheavals they faced during the colonial period, have also been the best able to adapt to the new realities.

Traditional Kikuyu house Children outside traditional house Children outside a modern house

Life Stages - Mariika

Boys' initiationWe've seen that Kikuyu society was divided from the nine clans downward into various sections. What united the clans themselves, in fact what united everyone regardless of their clan, sub-group, kin or family affiliation, was the highly organised Kikuyu system of age-sets or age grades, which was called mariika.

The age-sets formed under mariika served as the primary political institutions in traditional Kikuyu life, for they united everyone of similar age, who together who held a set number of responsibilities and social duties for the Kikuyu as a whole, such as its defence (the role of the warrior age set) and its judgement (exercised by the elders). Groups of boys were initiated each year, and were ultimately grouped into generation sets that traditionally ruled for anything between five and thirty years.
   In fact, the age-sets can be seen as part of a broader picture, involving the entirety of one's life, from birth to death. Initiation into each of the steps was ritually sealed by the slaughtering of goats and by copious, prescribed consultation with all persons concerned: Kikuyu society was, within the stricture of mariika, highly democratic, at least for men.

The Whitened Bodies Kikuyu warriors
The whitened bodies Kikuyu warriors

Despite the wholesale changes in Kikuyu society nowadays, most of the essential elements of the age-sets remain in place: from birth celebrations, childhood ceremonies, circumcision of both sexes, marriage and childbirth.
   However, the warrior system has disappeared (the traditional enemies are now fellow Kenyans, with their own modern political interests), and the system of elders - who were traditionally appointed on the basis of community consensus to judge and govern - have been replaced by the centralised Kenyan government based in Nairobi, and its own District Commissioners (DCs).
   Formerly, the elders were the ones who carried out the legal functions of judgement and punishment. Nowadays, their function has been eclipsed by the modern (but woefully corrupt, it has to be said) Kenyan judiciary. The Kikuyu thus no longer have any central leadership, at least not on any traditional lines. Ironically, this was what the British had attempted but failed to do over their seventy years of hegemony.


Much of the following sections on birth and childhood have been adapted from John S. Mbiti's "African Religions and philosophy" (1969: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 45314 Nairobi)

Shortly after having given birth, the mother announces the child by screaming: four times if the child is a girl, and five times if it is a boy. The numbers are no coincidence, for they total nine, which is the sacred number of the Kikuyu, and they appear again in the preparations made immediately after birth, when the father of the child cuts four sugar canes if the child is a girl, or five if it is a boy. The juice from these sugar-canes is given to the mother and child; and the waste scraps from the sugar-cane are placed on the right-hand side of the house if the child is a boy, or left-hand side if it is a girl. Right is the symbol of man, and left of woman.
   The placenta and umbilical cord are powerful symbols of the child's attachment to the mother, and are therefore the object of special treatment in most African societies. The Kikuyu deposit the placenta in an uncultivated field and cover it with grain and grass, symbolizing fertility. The uncultivated field itself is also a symbol of fertility, strength and freshness; and using it is like a silent prayer that the mother's womb should remain fertile and strong for the birth of more children.
   After the birth, the child is then washed and oiled. If the birth has been difficult, the father sacrifices a goat and a medicine-man is called to purify the house. The mother and child are kept in seclusion for four days if the child is a girl, or five days if it is a boy. During seclusion only close women relatives and attendants may visit the house, and for the duration of seclusion no member of the family is allowed to wash himself in the river, no house is swept, and no fire may be fetched from one house to another. Seclusion symbolizes the concept of death and resurrection: death to one state of life, and resurrection to a fuller state of living. It is as if the mother and child 'die' and 'rise again' on behalf of everyone else in the family.
   When the period of seclusion is over, the mother is shaved on the head, and the husband sacrifices a sheep in thanksgiving to God and the living-dead: this ceremony was called Kumathithia mwana.
   The shaving of the mother's hair is another act symbolizing and dramatizing the death of one state and the rising of another. The hair represents her pregnancy, but now that this is over, old hair must be shaved off to make way for new hair, the symbol of new life. She is now a new person, ready for another child to come into her womb, and thus allow the stream of life to continue flowing. The hair also has the symbolic connection between the mother and child, so that shaving it indicates that the child now belongs not only to her but to the entire body of relatives, neighbours and other members of the society. She has no more claims over the child as exclusively her own: the child is now 'scattered' like her shaven hair...
   When seclusion is over, the mother pays a symbolic visit to the fields and gathers sweet potatoes. Thereafter normal life is resumed by everybody in the village, renewed, it is revived and revitalized.

Child naming

This is not however the end of the rituals concerned with childbirth. While the child is still small, they perform other rites which they consider necessary before the child can be a full member of their society.

The Kikuyu observe a unique ritual pattern of naming children, still followed strongly today. The family identity is carried on in each generation by naming children in the following pattern: the first boy is named after the father's father, the second boy after the mother's father. The first girl is named after the father's mother, the second after the mother's mother. Subsequent children are named similarly after the brothers and sisters of the grandmother and grandfather, from eldest to youngest, alternating from father's to mother's family. This pattern also serves to incorporate new lineages as refugees are accepted into a clan or as young people now more commonly marry spouses from other tribes.
   The naming ritual intimately involves the father, whose status is enhanced by proper naming of the child. The father would place a small wristlet made of goatskin on the child's arm, which symbolized the bond between the child and the entire nation: the wristlet is a link in the long chain of life, linking the child with both the living and the departed. It is a sacred link which must never be broken.

Ear-piercing and the second birth

Around the age of five or six years, another rite is performed, gutonywo matu, which involved piercing the child's ears, which were subsequently fitted with decorations in a ceremony called gutonywo ndurgira. This entitled the child to start looking after goats.

A few years later, generally between the ages of six and ten but before the child is initiated into adulthood through circumcision, another rite was performed. Known as 'the second birth' (kuciaruo keri, literally 'to be born twice'), or 'to be born again' (kuciaruo ringi), or 'to be born of a goat' (kuciareiruo mbori), the child metaphorically returns to the womb to be born again. Unless the child has gone through this 'second birth', he or she cannot participate fully in the life of the community. They will be forbidden to assist in the burial of their own father, to be initiated, to get married, to inherit property and to take part in any ritual.
   During the rite, the child is placed between the legs of its mother, and is bound to her by a goat intestine. If the mother is deceased, another woman is substituted, and will henceforth be regarded as the child's mother. Then, the intestine is cut through, and the child imitates the cry of a baby. The mother is shaved, her house is swept and she visits the fields to collect food, just as she did after the period of seclusion that followed the physical birth.
   The rite brings with it a conscious awareness in the child of its own birth, and ends the child's 'babyhood'. Now the child is ready to enter the stage of initiation: it has passed from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, from the state of being a passive member of society to being an active and responsible member.

The idea of 'rebirth' appears to be similar to the Turkana practice of ratifying marriages when when the first child reaches walking age (see under Turkana Marriage).
   The idea that a child is not quite alive until then is prevalent throughout Africa, and seems to stem from the fact that fatal diseases were much more likely to claim a child at an early age than later. The rebirth ceremony appears to be a similar passage.
   'Rebirth' is now condemned by the church, who of course prefer their own versions of the rite (whether baptism, or being 'born again' by evangelical Christians).


See the page dedicated to circumcision among the Kikuyu.


Marriage renders a man an elder. Kikuyu men may take as many wives as they wish, but must pay a bride price to the family of each bride. Each wife is given her own dwelling and plot. Surplus crops are stored in granaries. See also Kiriro - a lament for newly-wed women.

Woman with child, and warrior

Kikuyu elders


After their period of warriorhood, men became eligible to become members of the council of elders (kiama), to which women could also be admitted.
   Traditionally, the elders served as the custodians of ancestral land and, by extension, as the keepers of social cohesion within the community. The kiama also deliberated over judicial, religious and political matters, although their rule was limited to the length of their respective age-sets. Their eligibility was dependent on their having raised children, and on at least one of their children having successfully married. The council settled disputes, and with those that it could not resolve the outcome was determined by the "ordeal of the hot knife", the extent of blistering on the tongue being used to determine guilt or innocence. Alternatively, an oath was taken on the githathi stone (this appears to be similar to the 'white stone' in this article about an Mbeere sacred grove), although nowadays the entire concept of oathing is treated with grave suspicion by the government, which is keen to avoid a re-run of Mau Mau in post-independence Kenya (see the article about the Mungiki sect for a modern parallel).
   A further stage to their membership was to become a member of a secret council called njama (a word deriving from the Kiswahili, and in turn from the Arabic word jamma). For these purposes, the candidate would be approached by community leaders and other regional elders who had polled community opinion as a basis for his eventual appointment to the role of 'regional elder', virtually the highest level of Kikuyu elderhood today. An ideal elder was known as a muthamaki, derived from the word guthamaka, meaning to choose, to reign and rule distinctively. His qualities would include the ability to listen, the ability to keep secrets, and the ability to make decisions on behalf of the people in a manner reflecting consensus and serving the well being of all.
   In the past, a paramount or senior Kikuyu Council of Elders was formed on the basis of representation from the nine (or ten) clans. This no longer functions today, and today's "council of elders" functions as an informal collectivity of regional elders who confer with each other on issues of broad concern. "Governorship" is no longer permitted by the post-independence constitution of Kenya, and the role of the Kikuyu elder is perceived to have been restricted. Nonetheless, it has been estimated that 90 percent of Kikuyu Catholic priests in the Nairobi Diocese, for example, have been consecrated as Kikuyu elders: the system of elderhood may have changed, but it seems that aspects of their leadership - and the respect in which they were held - still survives.

See also A White Man's Initiation into the Kiama, which recounts Richard St. Barbe Baker's initiation into the Council of Elders in the 1920s in his own words.


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