The Kikuyu chronicles

Saturday September 20 2008

Three old men. Two are wearing traditional

Three old men. Two are wearing traditional cloaks, one of sheepskin and one of goatskin. The third is wearing a blanket. Photo/FILE 


First published in 1977, nearly 40 years after it was first considered a complete manuscript, The Southern Kikuyu Before 1903, a book by Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, a noted archaeologist, anthropologist and Kikuyu elder (second grade), owes its painstaking detail to the fact that Leakey resisted all attempts to have it abridged and thus was unable to find a publisher for it in his lifetime.

The book, which was edited by his sister, Gladys Beecher, and anthropologist Jean Ensminger, was only published after Leakey’s death.

Not only had the original manuscript suffered all kinds of damage in the intervening period, including the “grawing civilisation” of insects, but with both Leakey and all his Kikuyu collaborators dead by the early 1970s when this effort was being made, many corrections and resolution of ambiguous passages and contradictions had to been made by Beecher who, like her brother, spoke Kikuyu like a native. She and Ensminger enlisted the help of a new team of experts on Kikuyu, botanical and veterinary terms among others.

It is a monumental work even if only because no other single publication of its size seems to exist. It is a monster compilation running to 1,368 pages, excluding indexes, prefaces or “orthographical” notes.

Starting with a short introductory study of Kikuyu social organisation and a firsthand account by an elder of his life story, he moves to a geographical and demographic description of the Kikuyu country in summarised terms and a relatively brief discussion of tradition and history including contact with the white man.

It is then that the anthropology proper begins; it covers land tenure, villages and homesteads, agriculture, animal husbandry, food, drink and tobacco, crafts and industry, beauty and hygiene, song and dance, hunting and trapping, trade and travel, birth and infancy, rebirth and childhood, initiation and circumcision stages, marriage and sex, kinship and family life, sickness and treatment, death, law and justice, warfare and raiding, religion, magic, witchcraft, purification and the mysterious ituika generational transfer of power.


It is only fair to say that in a volume of this size, not everybody will read to the last word. It is undoubtedly the sort of publication that will be used more as a reference book than anything else.

What other practical way could one use a book that describes in several different sub-chapters, the exact procedures for each of the following kinds of death?: Normal deaths of “Kikuyu Guild” members, death of an elder, normal death of a young married man, an unmarried man, an elderly married woman, an elderly widow, a young married woman, a young widow, an unmarried initiated girl, an uninitiated boy or girl, and a child?

There are special provisions for disposal of dead persons’ property, deaths due to violence, drowning or suicide, deaths while visiting another homestead, death during a smallpox epidemic, deaths due to famine and even the death of a complete stranger.

And having described all these in detail for the so-called Kikuyu Guild, he then proceeds to describe how it differs, in each case, for the “Ukabi (Maasai) Guild.” (What Leakey calls guilds seem to be analogous to today’s religious denominations. As he explains, the so called Ukabi Guild has nothing to do with the Maasai people.)

And yet this is not the dry academic fare that such publications typically serve up. Every now and then an exclamation mark appears in Leakey’s narrative like a wink in an otherwise perfectly straightfaced account.

For example, in the treatment for Thita (whitlows), a disease “characterised by severe swellings of the fingers,” he says, “The normal treatment was to leave the swellings until they burst and then anoint them with fresh hyena dung!”

And alongside this, some surprising revelations in relation to smallpox: “The Kikuyu made use of a primitive yet efficacious method of vaccination (gucanjana). When I first heard of this, I wondered whether it was really an original Kikuyu practice or a custom adopted from the Europeans.

Careful enquiry and the checking and cross-checking of information from very old men and women left no doubt that they were practising the simple form of vaccination described below, long before the first European entered their country… The pustules of a recovering patient were pricked with a thorn and the pus squeezed onto a leaf… the vaccinator … made cuts in the skin of people who wished to be vaccinated and rubbed in a little of the pus. This process infected the people so treated with a very mild attack of smallpox, from which they did not die.”

It is only to point out that Leakey goes on to explain the downside of this trial-and-error approach, though he does speculate that it probably “saved the lives of a great many people and prevented the smallpox epidemics from being as severe as they were among some other tribes.”

One thing that one senses on reading this work is just how different life is today from what it was just a century ago.

Some of it is so alien to what we recognise as normal behaviour today, it may well be hard for the modern day Kikuyu to believe what was taken as perfectly acceptable in the past — sexual matters being a case in point.

Whereas there were strict rules forbidding sex between persons such as close relatives, it was not only acceptable for a man to share his wife with his agemates but in certain cases, for ceremonial or purification purposes, it was actually mandatory that she have sex with others.

In certain initiation ceremonies, the sponsor of the ceremonies was expected to have sex with his spouse in the presence of the newly circumcised initiates, both male and female, who were both expected to be in the same room.

Among unmarried young men and women, there was a great deal of heavy petting and sexual stimulation allowed in a non-penetrative form of intercourse called nguiko, which was entirely proper and was actively encouraged.

Yet, full intercourse, which seems to be an obvious consequence of such activities, and the likely pregnancy of the girl were frowned upon. A girl who was involved in nguiko but not in full sex was known as a “pure” girl as opposed to a “wicked” girl who went all the way.

A number of the songs and dances reserved for the younger sexually mature and active age groups were actually carried out essentially naked and in circumstances that Leakey describes in vivid detail and summarises as follows: “The mugoiyo dance was, unblushingly, a sexual dance, pure and simple.”

Attitudes to sex seem so casual, it hardly seems believable that there was in fact a penalty for marital infidelity (which a man could complain of while a woman, apparently, could not.)

On the other hand, the number of occasions on which individuals had to abstain from sex for ceremonial reasons was such that people deliberately avoided being called up for certain duties so as not to be forced to give up sex.

If there is a central strength to this book, it would have to be attention to detail. Leakey provides exact specifications of type of wood, bindings, measurements and steps for the construction of a hut.

And for the avoidance of doubt, he includes detailed diagrams in front, plan and end elevations. Precise Kikuyu names for each type of beam and strut are provided. Diagrams include a layout of a homestead showing where each hut is located.

In agriculture, not only does he give the names of the Kikuyu “months” (which were longer or shorter than a lunar month and sometimes skipped some months entirely) but also a list of the 22 principal crops grown, Kikuyu, common English and scientific names and planting methods. There are even 15 species of weed specifically identified by Kikuyu, scientific and common English name.

Under animal husbandry, concerning different markings on goats and sheep, there is a list of descriptive words just as in English there are words “to denote the colour of horses such as chestnut roan, bay… etc.” If you need an exact account of how to skin a goat or a cow, complete with veterinary anatomical terms for the literal-minded, this book has it.

The chapter on food is an eye-opener. For vegetarians alone, there are seven different ways to prepare maize, six ways to prepare bulrush millet (mwere), five for foxtail millet (mukombi), three for finger millet (ugimbi) and no less than 11 for sorghum, including the making of an endurance food for long journeys.

There are sweet potato, yam, njahi (lablab bean) pigeon pea, cowpea, green gram, kidney bean, edible arum (nduma), banana and spinach dishes as well as sugar cane and fruit.

Meat, as he points out, was not strictly regarded as a food but as there were routinely ceremonies of one sort or another being conducted that involved animal sacrifices, a lot of meat was eaten by all family members.

There are clear instructions on how to do the work of a wire puller and the exact measurements for skin garments for different ages of people as well as detailed instructions for making them.

Religious ceremonies in what appears to be every circumstance are described in all the specificity of a modern liturgy book, showing at exactly which tree, which sacrifice or prayer can be conducted and what ills each is intended to cure where magic is being invoked. There are even instructions on induction of a new mundu mugo (medicine man).

It is this attention to detail that enhances the authenticity of Leakey’s account, although he does also make reference to others including Jomo Kenyatta and Routledge, whose versions or interpretations of cultural practices he sometimes challenges.

It will still be a surprise to many to hear his assertion that the famous Maasai laibon, Lenana, was in fact a full blooded Kikuyu. This might well add an interesting angle to the persistent questions about the origins of some other famous Maasais today.

And then there is the Botanical Appendix. Although it was created by Leakey, a part of it has been contributed by Beecher, who adds the following warning: “The Kikuyu names being local names and not botanical ones, are as Dr Leakey has pointed out, sometimes used for several plants. I would therefore ask readers not to eat the fruit or leaves of wild plants mentioned here as being edible without first checking most carefully.”

Running to no less than 67 pages, it lists over 400 species of plant by Kikuyu name and scientific family and, where possible, exact scientific name.

Only a few plants are missing biological names. Although most Kikuyu today can name a handful of trees by their local names, it is startling to find such a comprehensive range of names for plants.

It is even more amazing to go into the list of uses for these plants, ranging from pharmaceutical applications to the manufacture of a wide variety of tools, building materials and weapons.

It is striking to see the extent to which the biological names have been cross-checked with other referenced authorities and alternative names cited for clarity.

It is so precise one feels that Leakey can be forgiven for not including illustrations of the plants. The botanical appendix alone is a treasure for anyone taking a walk through Central Kenya and may be the basis of an unforgettable school trip or holiday for someone.

So what about the famous ituika?

This was a ceremony or series of ceremonies lasting several years and not, as many modern Kikuyu might suppose, a matter of days or weeks.

It signalled the passing of power from one generation to the next. It covered the entire tribe and was planned jointly and meticulously by all three groups of Kikuyu — the Southern Kikuyu of what is now Kiambu, the “Central Kikuyu” as he called them, of Muranga and the “Northern Kikuyu” of Nyeri.

Leakey goes into as much detail as he can but discloses that with the coming of modern times, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get all the eligible elders of Leakey’s generation to pay the required fees (every single one had to pay the fee before the ituika could start) and so it never happened.

An attempt by Leakey to circumvent this by interviewing those in the preceding generation about what was involved failed, partly because many were not keen on sharing this information with a white man.

The book is thorough, but is it complete? Leakey anticipates this question in the preface and declares that it is far from complete and that it is his “sincere hope that before the old generation of Kikuyu pass on to the spirit world, some of the younger educated Kikuyu will take this book and, using it as a basis, obtain and record much more information from committees of elders called together by themselves.”

I think one area where we are left to infer much and speculate about more is in the economy, particularly since the coming of the modern economy swept away so many of the old relationships between parents and their children for example, and household incomes began to be affected by happenings far away from the immediate locale.

So who will buy this book? At Ksh20,000 ($285), not everybody. On the back of the jacket, Richard Leakey, Louis’ son, and publisher of this version, suggests hopefully that it will be of value to “social anthropologists, ethnologists and social scientists as well as… those interested in Africa and its history.” I think it is well worth taking the trouble to buy in instalments (if you are in a sacco that is) or on a joint basis with someone else who can’t afford the price.

Although Louis Leakey thought it would be of primary interest to young Kikuyus and perhaps scholars, I came to the end of the third volume with a sense of having been permitted to share in a great gift, not to Kikuyus as such but to mankind as a whole.

One hundred years from now, virtually all the people who have ever lived will be gone. It is the grandchildren of those born this year who will be in their mature thirties and forties.

Most people will speak the same language and, (although the Swahili lobby will contest this furiously,) the chances are that the language will be some variant of English.

Because of our need to open up our economy to trade with our neighbours we will be using the only language that is spoken across sub-Saharan Africa. It will be a subject of quaint amusement in TV quiz shows and know-it-alls in bars, what tribe the name “Kamau” or “Onyango” comes from.

Thanks to Leakey’s stubbornness over the idea of shortening “Southern Kikuyu,” we have today an authentic (and authenticated) and meticulous portrait of a thriving iron-age society whose complexity was not merely in social relationships but even in such matters as metalworking, cooking, healing the sick, disposal of the dead, garment making, warfare and agricultural practices.

We are witnesses to how such a society meets the superior firepower and economic might of the invading culture, head on at first and when defeated, finally embraces the new ways, moves on and continues to thrive.

When the anthropologists really start to analyse it, I believe many answers about why we are who we are today as human beings, are certain to lie in these pages.
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