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The Kikuyu People A Historical Overview

The Kikuyu come from Bantu-speaking people who migrated from Lake Chad (Nigeria, Cameroon area) to Southern Africa before migrating upward to North and East Africa. They entered the Nyeri area where the Kikuyu villages are around 1000 A.D. Because of previously acquired iron working skills they tamed the area quickly, settling along the ridges. Each ridge formed a community or sub-clan. There were ten clans that had all, at one point, been named after women an indication that the Kikuyu culture has not always been patriarchal. The ridge pattern of settlement played a large role in the formation of their culture, specifically their religion. Because the land was so fertile the people prospered greatly. The result: believing God was smiling at them from the largest mountain in Kenya, MT. Kenya.

The mountain, visible from the ridges, has a white patch which the Kikuyu people once believed to be a sign God was watching them. The mountain and country got its name because, when speaking to colonists, the Kikuyu pronounced Kiri Nyaga (white patch in Kikuyu) as Kiinyaa (the people did not pronounce r’s clearly). The result: the colonists thought it was Kenya. Thanks to the fertile soil of the ridges, the Kikuyu people had very good fortune.

They thus came to developing their culture around their religion. The Moral Economy Concept also quickly formed a belief that those who are poor are poor because they are lazy- because the Kikuyu were generally successful. Because they believed one could not talk directly to God, a religious hierarchy fell into place.

When communicating with God one spoke through those higher up in the hierarchy. The following, from most to least in importance, was the hierarchy: God, spirits, elders, parents, individuals. Religion influenced all other aspects of Kikuyu culture.

The Kikuyu governmental system also developed as a result of the ridge settlement pattern. Prior to colonization the Kikuyu were very democratic. If you experienced problems, they were solved within your own place in the hierarchy. If that did not work you would go to those one-step higher, and so on. The hierarchy, from most to least in importance, was as follows: community, ridge, inter-family, family.

The family unit was the most basic political unit. To become a member of the community you had to be initiated. Initiation included a period away from home with formal schooling and, finally, circumcision.

The warriors, elders, or statesmen would lead the different political units respectively. The hierarchy of warriors is as follows: Junior Warrior, Senior Warrior, Junior Elder (marry to go higher up), Senior Elder, Elder, and Statesman. The elders were in charge of justice, religion, and administration. Every group had a spokesperson chosen on merit or performance.

In such a system of government no system of prisons or policemen was necessary because, when men were initiated, they were taught to control one another and solve problems at their own level. Although religion and government developed into a relatively formal structure, education remained informal.

Education was based on hands on experience. Fathers would teach sons and mothers would teach daughters. Children would learn how to do the necessary house chores and how to behave themselves. The only formal schooling that occurred was during Initiation, away from the homes, where the children were taught what was expected of them as adults.

In 1895 when Britain took over, everything changed. Determined to prevent other European countries from getting the area, the British wanted to get to the source of the Nile. To do this they walked through Kenya to Uganda. In trying to keep the region, they built a railway line where they had walked from Mombassa, Kenya to Uganda (1897-1902). This was no easy task. The natives refused to help build it because they didn’t measure wealth in work with iron but in the number of animals and children a person had.

The British solved this problem by bringing thousands of Indians and other Asians (then known as Coolies) to work. Because of their light skin, a color the animals had not seen before, many of the animals thought they were good meat, eating them in large numbers. Once finished with the railroad, many Asians remained, setting up small businesses.

The railroad became known as the Lunatic Express because it was a railroad that carried nothing and went nowhere. The British soon got tired of paying for it, introducing European settlers as quickly as possible to speed up the development/Westernization of Kenya. The Europeans transformed Kenyan society through Western technology, Western ideas, and the creation of a new economy. The first thing the new settlers did was establish a new administration structure.

The hierarchy of government became, from most important to least, as follows: Queen, Colonial Secretary, Governor, Provincial Commissioner, District, District Officer, Chief. This undemocratic new government was a problem to the Kikuyu people because they had no chiefs. The British solved this by choosing the chiefs for the Kikuyu people completely destroying the Kikuyu government structure and, as a result, destabilizing the entire culture. Soon realizing the Kenyan land had to be worked, a job they wouldn’t do themselves, the British demanded labor of the natives. They did this through forced labor, sharecroppers, and creating a poorly paid workforce. Kenyans refused to work for money, something that was not valued in their culture, until the government created taxes.

Taxes forced the people to end their barter economy and find work with the British. In a continued effort to Westernize Kenyans, Christianity was introduced through formal Western education (the structure of slave schools in the deep South in America was studied and copied). As soon as the Kikuyu people learned to read and write, they realized much of what the missionaries were saying was not mirrored in the book they preached, the Bible. The result: not believing in Christian teachings.

There soon came a serious clash between tribal beliefs/customs and Christianity so the Kikuyu established their own churches and schools (education soon led to the end of the Kikuyu practice of female circumcision). From the 1920s onward the Kikuyu people were at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. It was from among them that the Mau warriors came (the warriors that led the struggle for independence from Britain). In 1962 the struggle of independence succeeded and Kenya returned to the hands of the natives. Despite general rebellion against colonial ways, colonization left a large impression on Kenya.

The cultures of the natives were shattered through the forced introduction of new people and new ways of life. One example of the impact of colonization on Kikuyu society is theorized to be the current imbalance of division of labor between the sexes. Before the colonization, Kikuyu men and women had a relatively equal set of jobs around the home. The men worked in the fields with certain types of crops, for example, while the women would cook. When money was introduced into the economy the men had to leave home and find a job to pay taxes.

While the men were away the women had to do the men’s jobs in addition to their own. With so many men going to the city there were not enough jobs. Currently, unemployment is still very high, and men find themselves without jobs very often. The men never picked up doing the chores they had left to the women when they went away.

The result: the women often work much harder than the men. The inequality in regards to the workload of women versus men is not, therefore, an innate aspect of the Kikuyu culture but, at least partially, a result of colonization. Today the Kikuyu culture is a combination of colonization, new customs, and newly revived pre-colonial culture.

This piece is from http://www.kukummi.org/Stories/kikuyuhistory.html


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.



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