Strange misunderstood relationship

Saturday January 03 2009
mago index pix

Maasai boys who have undergone circumcision. They will join the ranks of the morans after healing. Photo/REUTERS

Louis Leakey, writing in The Southern Kikuyu before 1903, Kenyatta and the very sound Kikuyu historian Godfrey Muriuki all accept that the Kikuyu originally had a matrilineal society in which descent, identity and inheritance was derived not from the father’s line, but from the mother’s. In addition, women played a prominent role in governance.

Matrilineal societies were most commonly found among farmers, whereas patrilineal societies dominated by male lines were the rule among pastoralists.

The strongest evidence of matrilineality among the early Kikuyu is the traditional belief that they are the descendants of Mumbi (Muumbi) who took a husband, Gikuyu, and produced nine daughters (Wanjiru, Wambui, Njeri, Wanjiku, Nyambura, Wairimu, Waithira, Wangari and Wangui).

Ngai (the Maa term for God) provided nine men as mates for the girls, but their father Gikuyu stipulated that they could only marry if they agreed to live under a matriarchal system.

Though apocryphal, Leakey felt, “It is no doubt significant that in this tradition it was the women who took husbands, and not the men who took wives.

This supports the view — which can be based on many minor customs even in Kikuyu life today — that the tribe was, originally, matrilineal.” The strongest evidence of sustained matrilineal custom was in certain marriage arrangements.


Again in Leakey’s words, “By Kikuyu custom no girl was forced to marry against her will, and every opportunity was given to girls to contract love marriages. Those who failed to do so had two alternatives. They could become the second or third or later wives of men who had already a first or senior wife, or they could contract a matrilineal marriage, live at home, and bear children who would become members of their mother’s clan and family.” No stigma was attached to such a woman bearing children out of wedlock.

However, if the father of a woman who had opted for a matrilineal marriage was wealthy and had serfs (ndungata) attached to his household, and his daughter was agreeable, he could arrange for a serf to “marry” her without making the normal marriage payments.

This man would then be available to beget children and take on all ceremonial marriage responsibilities.

However, any children would take their names from the mother’s family, belong to their mother’s clan and live in the homestead of their mother’s father.

At some point in Kikuyu history, the tribe switched from being matrilineal to patrilineal.

Identity became determined by the father’s line, as was inheritance and governance. It is not clear when this happened.

The neighbouring Akamba, who are linguistically close to the Kikuyu, went through a similar transformation.

If, as their languages suggest, the two peoples had a common origin, did the change from matrilineal to patrilineal societies happen in distant times before they assumed separate identities?

That the matrilineal traces in Akamba society are not as apparent as they are among the Kikuyu, hints they changed at different dates.

Why would they have made the switch? One can only speculate. Perhaps it had something to do with their partial adoption of pastoralism, for while the two communities are primarily cultivating farmers, they both keep considerable numbers of cattle, sheep and goats and are thus at least partly pastoral.

As already pointed out, pastoralism and patriarchy go together and perhaps bringing livestock into their cultures initiated the change.

Where the Kikuyu are concerned, several lines of evidence suggest that the Maasai were in some way involved.

Traditional Kikuyu society was governed by rituals that, if not followed exactly, ensured trouble, not only for those who broke the rules, but for their relatives as well. This strong belief gave everyone reason to make sure one’s relatives conformed to the rules.

However, rather as within Christian Western Europe there were two major schools of religious procedure — Catholic and Protestant — so every Kikuyu followed one of two ceremonial systems for which Leakey used the term “guilds.” One was either of the Gikuyu guild or the Ukabi guild.

This is of particular interest because the term for a Maasai is Mukabi (plural Akabi) and Ukabi implies of the Masai.

This is initially strange given the commonly held view that the Kikuyu and the Maasai were enemies.

Indeed, the term Mukabi in both Kikuyu and Kikamba was commonly used as a synonym for enemy. Yet as is so often the case, common views are often at least partly wrong.

First, were the two people truly enemies? In his book Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta wrote, “To take a concrete case, my grandmother, on my father’s side, was a Maasai woman called Mosana, and in reciprocity for this friendly feeling, my aunt (i.e. elder sister of my father) was married to a Maasai chief called Sendeu, and was treated as the head wife. Exchange visits were made on both sides, and I had the opportunity of visiting her and staying there for some months as a member of the family.”

Leakey records that there were permanent and longstanding agreements between the two tribes in the following words, “In order to conduct trade with the Maasai the Kikuyu made agreements… whereby the women of both groups were never molested when engaged in trade activities, even when the tribes were at war… These agreements were always faithfully observed by both sides.”

Elsewhere he wrote, “Sometimes, especially in times of food shortage and of great drought in Maasai country, Maasai women would hand over their children to the Kikuyu women who had gone trading, in exchange for food. This was not in any sense a question of selling their children as slaves, for these children, if they survived, did not become slaves but fully adopted members of the Kikuyu family, with identical rights to those of the Kikuyu-born children… Blessing by the Maasai mother was essential, as was the approval of the Maasai father. Later, back in Kikuyuland, ceremonies converting the Maasai child into a Kikuyu were performed. Notably, the main ceremony was more complex if the child was being adopted into a Kikuyu [guild] family and more simple if the new parents were of the Ukabi guild.”

Later on the same subject Leakey continued, “If the child’s adopted mother and father belonged to that section of the Kikuyu who were initiated by Ukabi guild rites, then the ceremonies were less complex … Such a child did not have to be changed from a Maasai into a Kikuyu, for those who belonged to the Ukabi guild regarded themselves as sufficiently akin to the Maasai for this to be unnecessary.”

Notably, the children of these cross-tribe adoptions were always girls — boys were not acceptable.

Nevertheless, both Kikuyu and Maasai men did move across the divide.

Writes Leakey, “If a man or a woman dwelt for a time in Maasai country, either voluntarily, as was sometimes the case, or through being taken prisoner, then, either by a ceremony held in Maasai country, or simply by the fact of living there for sometime, he or she had become a Maasai (Muukabi) while at the same time a Kikuyu by birth. If, and when, such a person returned to Kikuyu country again, he or she was thereafter regarded as a member of the Ukabi guild of the Kikuyu people, and would in the future have to observe and adhere to the special rules and customs of that guild…”

While most trade between Kikuyu and Masai was conducted by women under the free passage agreement, some men also traded with considerable freedom — “… three men are famous in the Kikuyu traditional history of the 19th century as successful leaders of trading expeditions.

These men were Karua wa Muthigani, Waithaka wa Mathia, and Gitau wa Gathimba. These men had lived for quite a long time in Maasai country and had made friends with individual Maasai elders in many places.”

When the Kikuyu and Maasai did fight — which was frequently — the battle was conducted according to laid down rules.

Leakey observed, “It was a common and recognised custom that the armies of the Kikuyu and the Maasai made use of trading parties as means of exchanging challenges. The Kikuyu or the Maasai warriors would send a message, for instance, to the effect that they intended to raid in a particular area, or that they planned to come and rescue a prisoner. Or again, they would send offers of or demands for ransom.”

Not all conflicts were bloody and were occasionally resolved when two champions, one from each opposing side, stepped out before the assembled warriors and fought to the death.

The outcome was accepted as determining which side had won.

Perhaps more usually, a Kikuyu raiding party attacking a Maasai settlement, killed all the men, older women and boys, but carried off girls and younger women as prisoners. Yet even in such situations, there were rigid rules to be observed.

On page 1068 of his work, Leakey writes, “It was absolutely taboo for any warrior to rape, seduce or in any way have sexual contact with such girls and women during the raid or on the journey back to Kikuyu country, and any warrior who did so would be severely reprimanded by the others for jeopardising the raid. Moreover, once a man had brought a Maasai girl or woman back to his parents’ home as his prisoner, he had to behave towards her as towards his own sisters, and having sexual contact with her would be counted as incest… The normal procedure after capturing a Maasai girl or young woman was to send messages to the Maasai with the women who went trading asking for a ransom. If the Maasai wished to ransom the girl they would do so, and they could safely come to Kikuyu country to negotiate if they brought murica (tokens of peace) … If no ransom was forthcoming [always a possibility if the men in the girl’s family had died in the raid] the girl prisoner became a member of the Kikuyu family, and when eventually some other Kikuyu wished to marry her and she was willing, her captor received the marriage payments …”

Raiding was integral to both Kikuyu and Maasai cultures (and others in Kenya as well).

Indeed, the term war is in many instances inappropriate and the fighting, with notice in advance of where to expect a raiding party, and the attendant rules and rituals, made it more a brutal form of sport than real war. Seldom, if ever, were all Kikuyu “at war” with all Maasai.

The raiding usually involved a local group from several mbari pitting themselves against a specific section of Maasai.

Kikuyu were as likely to raid other Kikuyu as they were to raid Masai and, vice versa, Maasai to raid other Maasai as they were to raid Kikuyu. Again quoting Kenyatta, “In territories where this friendly relationship was established, especially between the Kaptei [sic — meaning Kaputei] Maasai and the southern Gikuyu, the warriors of the two tribes joined together to invade another section of the Maasai, like Loita or a section of Gikuyu, like Mbeere or Tharaka.”

Periods of peace that might last from one to over 10 years between warring groups were negotiated.

Leakey recording that the friendships that resulted from these peace treaties were so deep that it was not uncommon for parties of Maasai warriors to be invited to spend a whole dancing season in Kikuyu country as guests of the Kikuyu warriors, who would teach them their own dances and allow them the privilege of having Kikuyu girls as “sleeping partners” at night.

These periods of peace between specific groups involved rituals, and the oaths and curses under which they were established and which both believed in, brought calamity on anyone of either group who broke them. In such times, the people of both tribes mixed freely and visited each other’s country.

However, in due course, when one or other of the sides (or both) believed that their interests would best be served by resuming raiding, this was brought about by paying a Kikuyu group who had not taken the oath of peace to attack the other side. Similarly, the Maasai followed the same procedures. Once blood was shed, it was then legitimate for all to resume raiding.

One outcome of the relationship between Kikuyu and Maasai was, in Leakey’s words, that, “… there were plenty of women in Kikuyu country who were more or less bilingual. These Kikuyu women who could speak Maasai were drawn from two groups. Either they were Maasai girls who had married Kikuyu men and who had become Kikuyu in all but origin, but who, of course, spoke both languages, or they were Kikuyu girls who had been made prisoners by the Maasai as children, but who, after several years in Maasai country had either been ransomed or recaptured. These bilingual women were called by the Kikuyu hinga, which means hypocrites or dissemblers because they could appear to belong to either side.”

Yet to capture the relationship between Kikuyu and Maasai, nothing provides a better illustration than the case of “Batian” — one of the most prominent of all 19th century Maasai leaders.

Again, it is best presented in Leakey’s own words, “The Maasai were always particularly keen to make use of Kikuyu medicine men and diviners, and it was due to this that the Kikuyu sub-clan known as Mbari a Gatherimu gradually obtained enormous power over the Kaputei Maasai, some members of this Kikuyu family eventually becoming chiefs of this section of the Maasai tribe. The famous Maasai chief Lenana [Ol Onana] was the son of Mbatia, a Kikuyu. Mbatia was the son of Gathirimu and Lenana was the recognised chief of all the Kaputei Maasai at the time of the coming of the Europeans.”

Leakey used the term “chief” when leader would have been more appropriate as neither Kikuyu nor Masai had chiefs in the strict sense of the word.

Nevertheless, Mbatia wa Gathirimu, known to history as the Maasai leader Batian, was originally a Kikuyu who assumed great prominence when, in the mid-19th century, he induced a coalition of Maasai sects to unite in real civil war against the two most powerful of all Maasai groups, first the Uasin Gishu and then the Laikipiak. Both groups were all but annihilated.

The relationship between Kikuyu and Maasai was not repeated between the Kikuyu and their other neighbours, the Akamba, so it cannot be argued that it was merely the outcome of being neighbours. It seems that it was unique.

They may have raided one another, but much of this was not warfare with intent to displace or annihilate the other.

Their social organisation had many common features. They used the same weapons of war, similar shields, and similar shield designs. Their customs were similar — even to the dislike of eating wild animals. Their management of livestock was essentially the same.

Individuals could move between their respective communities and live in them for extended periods.

Personal friendships were in some cases strong enough to protect individuals from the consequences of raiding and the manner in which women of both sides could trade regardless of whether their communities were at “war” was absolutely unique.

Even if the Maasai might not acknowledge with the same certitude that Ukabi Kikuyu are Maasai, the fact that they exist is strong suggestion that it was Maasai influence that brought about the change from a matrilineal to a patrilineal system among the Kikuyu.

A great difference between the Kikuyu and the Masai was their retention of two different languages.

Were it not for this, and even if not correct, it would be understandable if the Kikuyu were described as agricultural Maasai or the Maasai as pastoral Kikuyu.

Of course, such a view pertains to the Maasai in highland Kenya within reach of Kikuyu influence.

That the two groups have not merged more than they have could reflect that within the vast territory once held by the Maasai nation there will have been Maasai who had no contact with the Kikuyu. They would have been a counterforce to merging.

Be that as it may, what Leakey, Kenyatta and Muriuki have recorded goes a long way towards explaining the ease and scale on which previously pastoral Maasai have been adapting to arable agriculture in modern times.

It gives some understanding also of the ease with which this change has been accompanied by a parallel change from communal to private land tenure. It gives insight into the extent to which Kikuyu and Maasai intermarry at rates not matched between other groups. After all, they have been at it for a very long time.

So, what is the relevance of all this to the Kenya of today?

It is this: Like no two other groups in Kenya, the Kikuyu and the Maasai have a long history of integration.

In the face of human increase, modern technology and Kenya’s “internationalised” modern economy, it is entirely natural that, wherever it is possible, arable farming will expand into areas once only used for pastoralism.

It is equally logical that sedentary cultivation, which is favoured by private land tenure, will gradually displace the communal land tenure that is essential to nomadism of any sort.

We see the process before us: The division of communal range into group ranches, followed by the division of group ranches into private farms and livestock giving way to planted crops.

Ideally it should be a gentle, gradual process, and overall, it has been.

However, here and there strife and displacement have broken out.

A potent element in fomenting this strife is the claim that the Kikuyu have taken advantage of the “marginalised” Maasai.

The term “marginalised,” favoured by Western activists and aid agencies, is difficult to equate with the Maasai, whose tribe is probably still the largest landowner in Kenya. Given their long historical association, conflict between them and the Kikuyu is where it should be least expected.

Take heed of history. Do not buy the myth that the Kikuyu and Maasai were traditional enemies, for history shows that they have had a rare degree of integration.

Take note, proof that it continues around Ngong and in a swathe south of Nairobi is in the number of mixed Maasai/Kikuyu and Kikuyu/Maasai marriages and households in these areas.

Therein, surely, lies the way forward?