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 Origin of the Kikuyu—The family—Circumcision—Marriage—Land tenure—Missionaries
It may be of interest to the general reader if I give, in a single chapter, a brief account of the manners and customs of the Kikuyu people, and some description of the country in which they live. It must be borne in mind that the information contained in this section is not the result of direct questioning of the people, as it is well known to all who have any real knowledge of the African native that to ask directly for information of this sort from him simply results in the acquisition of a large amount of information which, however interesting it may be to read, contains the smallest possible proportion of actual truth. Therefore, the account of the Kikuyu and their country given in the following pages is the result of my own personal knowledge and observation during the period of my residence among them. It may not be as picturesque as some other published accounts, but I am prepared to vouch for its accuracy.
Owing to the fact that no accurate map of this
part of Africa has yet been prepared, it is a matter of some difficulty to give exactly the boundaries and dimensions of the Kikuyu country; but, roughly speaking, it is bounded on the north by a line which almost coincides with the Equator; on the west by the Aberdare Range, a range of bamboo-covered hills, uninhabited by any tribe; on the south by a kind of debatable land, forming part of the Athi Plain, extending from Nairobi to Fort Hall, to the south of which lies the Wakamba country; on the east, for a considerable distance by the Tana River, beyond which it only extends for a short distance towards the north-east. These boundaries may have been somewhat modified since the opening up of the country by the Government of British East Africa, but in the main they are still correct. The area of this district would be about four thousand square miles.
As I never attempted to take any sort of census during my “reign,” I can only give approximately the population, but I should say, as far as I was able to ascertain, that the total number of the tribe would be about half a million—rather more than less—of whom the women outnumbered the men considerably, the constant warfare tending to keep the number of the male population at a fairly steady figure.
The accounts given of the origin of the Kikuyu tribe vary considerably, and the nigger’s
talent for fiction, and his readiness to oblige any one—particularly a white man—who asks for a legend, make it extremely difficult to distinguish where truth ends and fiction begins; but I will give the two principal accounts as they were given to me, and my own opinion of the credibility of both, and let the reader judge for himself.
The first story is that given me by Karuri, the chief who was my first friend among these interesting people, who was certainly one of the most intelligent natives I have ever come in contact with. His account was that the original inhabitants of the country, a tribe called the Asi, were hunters who took no interest in agriculture, and that the Kikuyu were a tribe who came into the country, and purchased tracts of land from the Asi for purposes of cultivation. Gradually more and more of the Kikuyu came in until they had cleared most of the forest land of which the country originally consisted, while the Asi were gradually absorbed into the Kikuyu tribe by marriage, or wandered farther afield in search of the game which the increasing population and the clearing of the forests had driven away to new retreats. Karuri himself based his strongest claim to his chieftaincy on the fact that he was a direct descendant of these Asi.
The other account, which was given me by a headman named Kasu, now a powerful chief under the new regime, reminds one somewhat
of the story of Ishmael. The legend runs that a Masai warrior, living on the borders of what is now the Kikuyu country, but was then a vast forest, inhabited by a race of dwarfs, of whom the Kikuyu speak as the Maswatch-wanya, was in the habit of ill-treating one of his wives to such an extent that she used from time to time to take refuge among the dwarfs, returning to her husband’s kraal after each flight. Finally his treatment became so bad that she fled to the dwarfs and remained there, giving birth to a son shortly after her definite settlement among them. Later on, the story runs, she had children to her own son, which children intermarried with the Maswatch-wanya, and from their offspring the present Kikuyu race derive their descent.
Of the two accounts, my observation would lead me to look for the truth rather in the direction of the latter than the former. In the first place, as I think I have before pointed out, a strong physical resemblance exists between the Kikuyu and the Masai; the former, indeed, might almost be taken for a shorter, more stockily built branch of the latter race, while I could easily pick out a hundred Kikuyu who, mixed with an equal number of Masai, could not be told from the latter, even by an expert. Again, the weapons and war-dress of the two races are identical—a fact which to any one who is aware of the unique character of the Masai weapons is a strong
point in itself. Further, when actually on the war-path—and only then—the Kikuyu are in the habit of singing a Masai war-song, in the Masai tongue, referring to a former noted warrior chief of the Masai named Bartion. Again, their manner of circumcising the young men is exactly the same as that practised by the Masai, which differs from the custom of any other race, as I shall show later on. The name for God, Ngai, is the same in both peoples, and they both have a similar custom of retiring to a so-called “sacred grove” in the bush, where they slaughter a sheep, which is afterwards roasted and eaten in honour of their god.
These points, to my mind, all go to show a connexion between the Kikuyu and the Masai, rather than, as some inquirers argue, between the Kikuyu and the Wakamba. Of course, in the districts bordering on the Wakamba country, where it has been customary for the two tribes to seize one another’s women in their frequent raids, many of the Kikuyu show traces of Wakamba blood, while on the Masai border the traces of Masai influence are stronger than in the districts more remote; but I am not arguing on the basis of the border districts, but from the race as a whole. Again, the Wakamba, though not now known to be cannibals, still follow the practice prevalent among cannibal tribes of filing the teeth to a sharp point—a
practice unknown both to the Masai and the Kikuyu. The Wakamba also are eaters of raw meat, while the Masai, though blood-drinkers, always cook their meat, and the Kikuyu are practically vegetarians. In the manner of dressing the hair, too, the Kikuyu follow the Masai fashion of plaiting strands of bark fibre into the hair, which is then done up in a sort of pigtail, while the Wakamba wear the covering provided by Nature without any fancy additions.
Another custom common to both the Masai and Kikuyu, though not practised by the Wakamba, is that of wearing the most extraordinary ear ornaments, which, as mentioned earlier in the book, are sometimes as large as a condensed milk tin, and are worn passed through holes specially made in the lobe of the ear. The practice is to pierce the lobe of the boys’ ears some time in early childhood, and from that time onwards the aperture then made is gradually enlarged by the wearing of a succession of wooden plugs or discs of graduated sizes, until an object as large as a large-sized condensed milk tin can be easily passed through it. This operation extends over some years, and the natural result is to convert the ring of flesh into what looks like—and as far as feeling is concerned, might as well be—a leather loop, which sometimes hangs down far enough to touch the shoulder. It is the great ambition of every
Kikuyu youth to be able to wear a bigger ear ornament than his neighbour, and, in order to attain the desired end, I have known them to pass a straight stick of wood through the hole in the lobe of one ear, across the back of the neck, through the lobe of the other, thus keeping them both constantly stretched.
The country itself is very rough, and it is often a matter of difficulty to find a level piece sufficiently large to pitch one’s camp on. It is situated at an elevation of some six thousand feet above sea-level, and consists of a series of ranges of low hills, divided by deep valleys, through most of which flows a stream of greater or less magnitude, none of which ever seem to become quite dried up, even in the driest of dry seasons. On account of the comparatively temperate climate, due to the elevation, and of the extreme fertility of the soil, the country is an ideal spot for the native agriculturist, who gets his two crops a year with a minimum of labour. Consequently the country is very thickly populated; in fact, I do not know any part where, on raising the tribal war-cry, I could not, in an extremely short space of time, gather at least a couple of thousand fighting men. The principal crops are the sweet potato, kigwa (a kind of yam of very large dimensions), and ndoma (a vegetable something after the fashion of a turnip, with leaves from three to four feet long
and about eighteen inches wide at their widest part). Bananas are the only fruit that I ever came across, but they grow large quantities of sugar-cane, beans of various kinds (from my fondness for which in preference to sweet potatoes I got my native name of Karanjai, or “The eater of beans”) , and another vegetable, which seemed to be a cross between a bean and a pea and which grew on a bush; of grains they have several, of which the principal are maize, matama, which is the same as the Indian dhurra and is found all over Africa, umkanori, which resembles canary-seed in appearance, and mawhali, a somewhat similar seed to the umkanori, from which the fermented gruel known as ujuru is made. The Kikuyu seem to be possessed of a perfect mania for cultivation, their practice being to work a plot of ground until it begins to show signs of exhaustion, when it is allowed to lie fallow or used only for grazing stock for a period of seven years, new ground being broken to take its place in the meanwhile. All the Kikuyu keep stock of some kind, either sheep, cattle, or goats—sometimes all three—which are principally used as currency for the purpose of paying fines and buying wives, the quantity of meat eaten being very small.
The system of government is somewhat peculiar, but appeared to be a form of the feudal system, based on the family. A village
generally consists of members of one family, the headman being the father, who had originally settled in that particular spot with his wives. Each wife has her own hut, her own shamba, or allotment for cultivation, and her own storehouse, in which the proceeds of her labour are kept. Each woman lives in her own hut, with her family round her, until the boys are old enough to marry, when they set up their own hut, or huts, according to the number of wives in which they are wealthy enough to indulge. The headman or patriarch of the family, in my time, ruled the village, and, within bounds, had the right of punishing any breach of discipline—even to the extent of killing a disobedient son and burning his huts. The women are well treated, and, as they perform all the work of the family, with the exception of clearing new ground for cultivation, prefer to marry a man with two or three other wives rather than a bachelor, as the work of keeping their lord and master in comfort is thus rendered lighter.
Marriage is, as in most savage tribes, by purchase, the usual purchase price of a woman being thirty sheep. There is no marriage ceremony in vogue among them, but after the handing over of the girl by her father in exchange for the sheep a feast is usually held to celebrate the event. Occasionally the husband is allowed to make the payments on the instalment plan,
but this is not encouraged, as it is apt to lead to quarrelling and disagreements. The youthful marriages common among such tribes do not prevail among the Kikuyu, as no man is allowed to marry until he has been circumcised, which operation usually takes place about the age of seventeen or eighteen, and he does not generally take a wife until two or three years later; while the usual age for marriage among the women is eighteen, though the operation which corresponds to circumcision in their case is performed as soon as they reach the age of puberty.
This practice of circumcision of the males at such a late age appears to prevail only among the Masai and Kikuyu, all other African races, so far as I can learn, following the Jewish custom and performing the operation during infancy. The method of performing the operation in vogue with these two tribes also differs from that in use elsewhere, so that a description of it may be of interest. On the day fixed for the ceremony the boys all turn out some time before daylight and are taken down to the river, where they have to stand for half an hour up to the waist in the ice-cold water until they are absolutely numb with the cold. They are then taken out and led to the operator, who nearly severs the foreskin with two cuts of his knife, then, folding the severed portion back, secures it on the under side with a thorn driven through
the flesh. The boy then returns to his village and rests for a few days until the wound is healed. No boy is supposed to utter a sound during the operation, and it is probable that the numbing effect of the icy bath prevents their feeling any or very much pain. In the case of the girls also the bath in the cold river is a preliminary to the operation, and neither boys nor girls ever seem to suffer any serious consequences from this rough-and-ready operation. In the case of the girls the operation, which consists of the excision of the clitoris, is perform............
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