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ETHNONYMS: Gekoyo, Gigikuyu, Gikiyu


The Kikuyu, a major ethnic group of Kenya, numbered about 4.4 million in 1987, accounting for about 20 percent of Kenya's population of 25 million. The Kikuyu refer to themselves as "Mugikuyu" (sing.) or "Agikuyu" (pl.). The Kikuyu language, which has three predominant dialects, is linguistically related to other Bantu-speaking groups in central Kenya, including the Kamba, Embu, Mbere, Tharaka, and Meru.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kikuyu share common historical roots with the Kamba, Embu, Mbere, Tharaka, and Meru. All of these groups date back to a prototype population known as the Thagicu. Migrating from the north, the Thagicu settled in the Mount Kenya region sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. As splinter groups formed, one of the groups migrated south and settled on the southwestern slopes of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). Archaeological evidence suggests that the people who settled there hunted game, herded sheep and goats, and worked with iron to make simple tools and weapons.

There were additional Bantu migrations from the north-east, followed by periods of settlement, intermarriage, and further splintering of the Thagicu in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Kikuyu trace their descent from one of the splinter groups that settled at the convergence of the Tana (Thagana) and Thika rivers. From the settlement at Ithanga, subgroups migrated in several directions, some north to Nyeri, others northeast to Kirinyaga, and some south to Murang'a over the next two centuries. Some migrated further south than Murang'a, toward Kiambu, in the eighteenth century, and came into contact with a hunting people they called the Aathi. They intermarried with the Aathi and acquired land from them in exchange for goats.

As different Kikuyu settled in different areas, a clan structure emerged. Each clan traced its descent back to a specific female ancestor. According to Kikuyu mythology, there were nine (or nine plus one) original clans. Two clans, the Acera and Agaciku, are thought to have formed through contact with neighboring Kamba. The largest clan is the Anjiru; its members were formerly renowned as great warriors and medicine men. The Aithaga clan was known for its ironworks, and its members were also thought to have the power to control rain. Other clans include the Ambui, Angari, Aithiegeni, Aithirandu, and Aithanga. According to Kikuyu myths, Kikuyu and Mumbi were the male and female progenitors of the nine clan ancestors.


The Kikuyu were originally hunter-gatherers, but they gradually adopted horticultural practices. The first crops grown by the Kikuyu were cocoyams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and millet. The cultivation of crops was traditionally segregated by gender. Men cultivated yams and bananas, whereas women grew sweet potatoes and millet. Women also gathered a variety of wild spinachlike greens, tubers, such as arrowroot (taro), and berries. Sugarcane was grown and honey collected from hives in the forest for the production of beer. Maize was introduced early in the nineteenth century and has become a major staple crop. When it is used for domestic consumption, it is usually grown by women, but when it is sold as a commodity, it is more often grown by men.

Many foods have been added to the traditional crops of the Kikuyu. European potatoes, cassava, and rice have been added to the cultivated crops, as well as legumes, which include dwarf beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, kidney beans, lentils, and garden peas. Today Kikuyu also grow cabbage, tomatoes, onions, carrots, kale, and swiss chard. They season their foods with salt, chili peppers, or curry. A great variety of fruits is grown in the area. In addition to bananas, these include passion fruits, mangoes, papayas, loquats, plums, pineapples, oranges, and avocado pears. Women and children especially enjoy fruits, which they sell in local markets.

Although Kikuyu were formerly hunters, Kenyan game laws prohibit them from hunting today. Meat of wild game (antelope, impalas, bushbucks) and from herd animals (goats, sheep, and African cattle) was the prerogative of men. Pork and fish were prohibited, and game birds and other fowl were eaten only occasionally; eggs were not a part of the diet. Women rarely ate meat and then only when it was handed to them by their husbands. Today meat is served only on special occasionsto celebrate a ceremony, such as Irua (circumcision), or to welcome an important visitor. Cash crops, such as tea, coffee, and rice, were not grown until the 1940s, and, in some areas of Kenya, much later, but they have become an important part of the economy.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The nuclear family, which consists of a husband and wife, or wives, and children, is the basic social unit of Kikuyu society. As children grow up and form their own families, a subclan (mbari ) is formed. Each mbari contains a hundred to a thousand families, and each member of an mbari knows from which ancestor, or which daughter of Kikuyu and Mumbi, they originate. The Kikuyu family is considered to be circular, rather than linear as in Western cultures. Each new generation replaces their grandparents, who are then free to become ancestors. The need to replace four grandparents is an important reason for having a minimum of four children, and more children gives honor to the parents' siblings.

Extended families living together form a homestead (mucii ; pl. micii ), and several micii together form into larger units, roughly equivalent to villages or hamlets.

Ideally, the mucii includes the paternal head of the family, his wives or wife, their unmarried children, often his married sons, and sometimes single male or female relatives. The Kikuyu are traditionally polygynous, but with the influence of Christianity and Western education, the trend has been toward monogamy. If a man chooses to marry more than one wife, theoretically he must provide ruracio (bride-wealth) and a separate house for each within the homestead.

Sociopolitical Organization

The concept of mariika (age sets; sing. riika ) is of central importance within Kikuyu society. Mariika provide a way of keeping track of groups of people (both male and female) who were circumcised in different years. The circumcision group (generation) is given a name that identifies it with a particular event or characteristic of the group. Members of a particular riika, circumcised at the same time, were given a rank in the age groupings. The rank defined the behavior of individual members within a riika and their behavior toward members of other age groups, both younger and older. The older a riika became, the more respect it was given. Mariika function as agents of gender-segregated social control.

A strong bond of friendship forms between members of the same riika during Irua (circumcision ceremonies) and continues as a form of mutual social aid throughout their lives. Younger Kikuyu, however, are usually circumcised in hospitals today, and have a much weaker concept of mariika than earlier generations. In place of Irua, modern young Kikuyu find peer bonds in the school setting. Furthermore, the strict social segregation between the sexes seems to be breaking down as young people of both sexes come into contact with one another in primary classrooms, on the playground, and through church activities.

In the past, the transition from one life stage to another in Kikuyu society was marked by rites of passage. Each stage was given a special name for both males and females. Stages of life for the Kikuyu included newborn, infant, uncircumcised boy or girl, circumcised boy or girl, married, married with children, and old age.

Political authority in precolonial Kenya was decentralized. No kings, chiefs, or bureaucratic institutions existed. For the most part, political authority was collective at every level, and decisions were generally reached by the oldest males of kin groups or political units in council. Although the councils made some important decisions for the group as a whole, their primary role was judicialthe settlement of disputes between kin groups. The collective prestige of the elders in council, as the representatives of tradition and the ancestors, gave their words weight and their decisions authority. Women also had a council, the function of which was to deal with domestic concerns, matters of the farms, and the discipline of female social and ritual life. Women were excluded from politics and were usually prevented from holding rights in land.

The imposition of foreign rule on the Kikuyu drastically altered their social and political structures and disrupted their traditional ways of life. European settlement policies had an even more drastic effect on the Kikuyu as land was virtually taken away from thousands of resident Kikuyu without adequate compensation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

In the traditional religion of the Kikuyu, the elders, or the older people within a clan, were considered to be the authority of God (Ngai). They used to offer to Ngai propitiatory sacrifices of animals, in chosen places that were considered sacred, usually near a fig tree or on the top of a hill or mountain. Even today there are large sacred trees where people sometimes gather for religious or political meetings or particular feasts. Mount Kenya, especially for the clans who live on its slopes, is considered the home of God.

The medicine man was a powerful person in traditional Kikuyu society. People would come to him to learn the future, to be healed, or to be freed from ill omens. The primary apparatus of the medicine man consisted of a series of gourds, the most important of which was the mwano, or divination gourd. It contained pebbles picked up from the river during his initiation, as well as small bones, marbles, small sticks, old coins, pieces of glass and any other object that might instill wonder in the eyes of his patients.

With European contact and the arrival of missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century, conversion of the Kikuyu to Christianity began with the establishment of missions throughout Kenya. Conversion was slow for the first thirty or forty years because of the missions' insistence that the Kikuyu give up a large part of their own cultures to become Christians. Although many Kikuyu became Christians, resistance to changing their customs and traditions to satisfy Western religious standards was very strong. Many Kikuyu took a stand over the issue of female circumcision. Missionaries insisted that the practice be stopped, and the Kikuyu were just as adamant that it was an integral part of their lives and culture. The issue eventually became tied to the fight for political independence and the establishment of Kikuyu independent schools.

The Kikuyu have no unique written language; therefore, much of the information on their traditional culture has been gleaned from their rich oral traditions. The oral literature of the Kikuyu consists, in part, of original poems, stories, fables, myths, riddles, and proverbs containing the principles of their philosophy, system of justice, and moral code. An example of Kikuyu music is the Gicandi, which is a very old poem of enigmas sung by pairs of minstrels in public markets, with the accompaniment of musical instruments made from gourds.


Clough, Marshall (1990). Fighting Two Sides: Kenyan Chiefs and Politicians. Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado.

Davison, Jean (1989). Voices From Mutira: Lives of Rural Gikuyu Women. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Hedlund, Hans G. B. (1992). Coffee, Co-operatives and Culture: An Anthropological Study of a Coffee Co-operative in Kenya. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

Kenyatta, Jomo (1979). Facing Mount Kenya: The Traditional Life of the Gikuyu. London: Heinemann.

Muriuki, Godfrey (1985). People Round Mount Kenya; Kikuyu. 2nd ed. London: Evans Bros.

Presley, Cora Ann (1992). Kikuyu Women, the Mau Mau Rebellion, and Social Change in Kenya. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Prins, Adriaan Hendrik Johan (1970). East African Age-Class Systems: An Inquiry into the Social Order of Gatta, Kipsigis, and Kikuyu. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press.


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Kikuyu Bantu-speaking people of the highlands of Kenya, e Africa. British conquest strained the Kikuyu's traditional political and agricultural system; the result was an outbreak of terrorism during the 1950s by a group known as Mau Mau. The Kikuyu form 20% of Kenya's population.