Kuria - History
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Early Origins - Misri?
The settlement of Bukuria, 1500-1650
Luo and Maasai expansion, Kuria flight, 1750-1850
Before the start of the sixteenth century, it seems that Bukuria - the southwestern corner of Kenya which now constitutes Kuria District - was inhabited by a number of numerically small Bantu-speaking peoples, who had probably been among the first Bantu to settle in Kenya, sometime between 200AD and 1000AD. It is not unlikely, however, that the proto-Kuria could have arrived in Kenya from Uganda via the Mount Elgon region to the north.
All well and good, until the turn of the sixteenth century, when the first Nilotic-speakers, in the form of the Luo's ancestors, arrived in Kenya, to be followed shortly after by the Maasai coming down the Rift Valley. Numerically much stronger than any of the Bantu people, and with an aggressive expansionary attitude, the various Bantu tribes living on the shores of Lake Victoria had little choice but to flee or be conquered.
Over time, these Bantu peoples came together for protection, and eventually - by around 1900 - three new 'supertribal' identities had been created, namely the Kuria to the southeast and south of the lake, the Gusii to the east, and the Luhya to the north.
Essentially, therefore, the Kuria are an amalgam of various pre-existing Bantu peoples, whose individual identities have now largely been lost (a notable exception being the Suba, who live on and around Rusinga and Mfangano islands to the north of Kuria land, and who have long resented being associated with the Luo).
Nonetheless, the proximity of the Kuria to the Luo has profoundly influenced their culture, and explains in part the existence of the lyre among the Kuria, which is generally absent from Bantu cultures. Tellingly, the only other Bantu tribes in Kenya also playing lyres are the Gusii and Luhya.
See also Ancient Meroe, which mentions "Misiri", in the section about Meru History
Conventional ethnological wisdom states the simplistic view that the 'Bantu' people (the name was actually given them by a European ethno-linguist in the nineteenth century) came originally from central Africa. Some versions of the theory even go so far as to claim particular geographical areas as their starting point, such as Katanga in Congo or western Cameroon.
But the truth is, naturally, much more complicated and complex than some might like to admit.
The Kuria themselves have an oral tradition (which may be one among many different histories; I remain ignorant as to the rest), which states that they came from a place much further north called Misri or Misiri.
This is the same history as spoken by some Luhya and Meru elders, and has for long perplexed researchers. Firstly, because no one knows for sure what or where Misri was. And secondly - ample food for dreamers here - Misri or Misr is the name given by North African Berbers and Arabs alike to Egypt.
In the context of the Kuria, the possibility that they came originally from the Nile Valley, or even Egypt itself, seems exceedingly far-fetched at first. But if one takes the Meru case, who are also Bantu-speakers, things begin to make a little more sense. My own conclusion about the Meru is that some of their ancestors could indeed have come from the far north (an idea supported by a separate theory which hinges on the similarity in name between Meru and Meroe, which was a Nilotic empire at the time of the birth of Christ). It is more likely, however, that the notion of Misiri might have come with Old Testament traditions, which are incorporated in both Judaism and Islam.
Dealing with the Islamic angle first, there are two possible explanations for early Bantu contact with Islam. The first is that Arab traders were never too far from the Kuria, for the combined slave and ivory trade made Lake Victoria an important point of passage into more central regions of Africa. Secondly, it's pretty much accepted that when the Bantu arrived in Kenya, they continued migrating northwards, and almost certainly entered what is now Ethiopia and Somalia. Those regions have long been in contact with Islam, especially Somalia, and so the traditions may have been passed on there.
In my own opinion, though, a more likely source for the history of Misiri idea might be - and I'm guessing here - that some of the early Kenyan Bantu groups had, in some point in their migrations, come into lasting contact not with a Muslim people but with a Jewish people, who would of course also have conserved the idea of Misiri. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem, as the Falashim of Ethiopia, for example, remain Jewish to the present-day, and there are a number of tribes in eastern Uganda - from where the Kuria may well have come - who claim similar cultural roots.
Nonetheless, some scholars, unsurprisingly sceptical at the whole idea, have moved Misri somewhat closer to home, and have vaguely located it somewhere beyond Mount Elgon.
So much for the confusion of early origins. What is certain is that the Kuria's own oral history begins sometime in the early seventeenth century. Some researchers have even put a date to the time when the Kuria first moved to their present homeland: 1630, give or take a few years. How is it possible to be so exact?
The theory is simple, and takes Kuria genealogy as its starting point. In this genealogy, some groups of Kuria, namely the Bakira (elephant) group, count the number of age-sets that have passed since they first arrived: in their case, thirty-four. The researchers made the assumption that the average interval between the age-sets was eight or ten years, and presto: they came up with the 1630s.
But the 1630s as what? No one really knows why the Bakira began counting their age-sets when they did or, for that matter, where, although the Bakira have an oral history which says that they passed Mount Elgon on their migratory route. It is therefore assumed that they could not have left the Mount Elgon region much later than around 1500.
Nonetheless, the date does give an idea of roughly when it was that the Kuria began a sort of continuity that has lasted to the present-day.
The commonly accepted version of Kuria history now kicks in with, unfortunately, an assumption that has no proof: it assumes, on the basis of the calculation done above, that the Bukira were the first to settle in present-day Kuria territory, and that they were joined over the following century (ie. from around 1630-50 to 1750) by a number of Bantu-speaking peoples who came from different directions.
The problem with this idea is that there's nothing to suggest that other groups were not already present when the Bukira arrived, or that other groups did not arrive at the same time.
Whatever, it seems certain that over the period 1650-1750, substantial immigration of settlers into Bukuria occurred. The majority of the new arrivals were related by origin to the Gusii, with whom the Kuria remain close both in terms of language and 'totemic affinity', which means that they claim common descent.
These Kuria-Gusii entered Bukuria from two directions: some crossing the lake from the north, others by land from the north or northeast, through the Kano Plains.
The movements were most likely prompted by the first stage of the Nilotic-speaking Luo people's advance into Kenya.
In the century that followed these initial influxes, the Luo advanced further south and eventually came into direct contact with the Kuria-Gusii, who had originally fled from them. At the same time, another Nilotic people - the Maasai - were also expanding southwards and well into Tanzania, though from a more easterly direction, and pushed a number of peoples westwards towards Lake Victoria.
At this time, the Kuria-Gusii were still primarily pastoralists, but the mosquito and tsetse fly-ridden shores of Lake Victoria made this mode of life difficult.
It was made almost impossible by the combined Luo and Maasai advances. The effect of their pincer movement, albeit coincidental, was disastrous for herding, for at the same time that the lakeshore Kuria-Gusii were being pushed south and east into the hills by the Luo, other herders were being pushed into the same hills by the Maasai to the east.
The result was both population fragmentation and consolidation, as small scattered groups of people tried to find a haven from the Nilotes. A large part of these Bantu people headed south into present-day Tanzania, where the majority of Kuria still reside. Others stayed in the hills between the Luo and Maasai, which provided them with a haven from Luo and Maasai attacks as their dense forests were most unsuitable for cattle. This period is presumably when the ancestors of both the Kuria and Gusii first adopted an agricultural way of life, and is also the period when the two groups split - both geographically and culturally - to become independent tribes.
The latter half of the nineteenth century was a much calmer period for the Kuria, thanks mainly to the Maasai civil war, which neutralised their threat to the Bantu people. Although there was a third influx of displaced Bantu, the small and fragmented Kuria communities gradually began to coalesce and resettle South Nyanza, and various sub-groups began to emerge within the new identity of 'Kuria'. Some of them, like the Bakira, kept both the form and names that they had had before the Nilotic invasions, whilst others were completely new groupings. They included clans that still exist today, such as Bakira, Bairege, Bakenye, Bamera, Banchami, Batimbaru, Bugumbe, Nyabasi and Nyamongo.