Kikuyu warriors with painted faces - Kenya
The Kikuyu are the country's largest ethnic group (22%).
They live on the whole territory of Kenya. However, the highest concentration can be found in Central Province, known as the traditional Kikuyu homeland.
Kikuyu were formerly hunters, and meat was the prerogative of men. But Kenyan laws prohibit them from hunting today, and meat is served only on special occasions (circumcision, new visitor). The Kikuyu are also traditionally an industrious agricultural people. Nevertheless, many are involved in all kinds of businesses and a lot have moved into cities. Since they speak a Bantu language, they are culturally related to other Bantu-speaking peoples of East Africa, in particular the Kamba, the Meru, the Embu, and the Chuka.
Most of their culture has been communicated through very rich oral traditions. Their oral literature consists of original poems, stories, fables, myths, enigmas, and proverbs containing the principles of their philosophy and moral codes. The Gicandi for example is an ancient poem of enigmas sung in public markets, with the accompaniment of musical instruments made from gourds. According to tradition, the founder of the tribe was a man named Gikuyu. His nine daughters are supposed to be on the origin of the nine sub-groups. Each member of the subclan (mbari) knows from which ancestor, or which daughter of Gikuyu, they originate. The transition from one life stage to another in Kikuyu society used to be marked by rites of passage, both for males and females. It included newborn, infant, uncircumcised boy or girl, circumcised boy or girl, married, married with children, and old age. The concept of age sets (mariika) is of the utmost importance in their society. Each one of the circumcision groups (generations) is given a name. Members of the same age-set are given a rank in the groups. This rank determines the behavior of the members within a age-set and their behavior towards members of other age groups. More respect is given to the elder. Relationships are very strong between members of the same riika and continues throughout their lives, even if it is less true today. Traditionally the Kikuyu worship their ancestors and one God called Ngai, name borrowed to the Maasai. In the past, they used to offer to Ngai sacrifices of animals on sacred places. Mount Kenya for instance is considered the home of God. They still gather sometimes on these places for religious or political meetings. Traditionaly, the medicine man is a powerful person who forecasts the future, heals, or frees people from ill omens. His main attribute is a gourd, of which the most important contains river's pebbles collected during his initiation, as well as small bones and sticks, marbles, old coins and pieces of glass, among other things. Conversion to Christendom was slow because they didn't want to give up their own cultures. Even now, many have become Christian but their customs are still very strong. Many Kikuyu firmly opposed to the abolishment of female circumcision. However, because of the influence of Christianity and Western education, they tend to be monogam. And though the main religion is now Christianity, some still have their traditional beliefs and others are muslim.
© Eric Lafforgue