In 1938, Jomo Kenyatta, who would later become Kenya’s first president, published a collection of essays detailing the cultural and historical traditions of the Gikuyu. This is a lightly edited excerpt from Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (Mercury Book, 1938).
The country of the Gikuyu, whose system of tribal organisation will be described in this book, is in the central part of Kenya. It is divided into five administrative districts: Kiamhu, Fort Hall (Murang’a), Nyeri, Embu and Meru. The population is approximately one million. Owing to the alienation of agricultural and pastoral land, about 110 000 Gikuyu live mostly as squatters on farms on European land in various districts of Kenya. The rest of the population inhabits the Gikuyu reserve and the towns. The Gikuyu people are agriculturists; they herd large flocks of sheep and goats, and, to a lesser extent, cattle, since their social organisation requires a constant supply of stock for such varied purposes as “marriage insurance”, payments, sacrifices, meat feasts, magical rites, purification ceremonies, and as a means of supplying clothing to the community.
The cultural and historical traditions of the Gikuyu people have been verbally handed down from generation to generation. As a Gikuyu myself, I have carried them in my head for many years, since people who have no written records to rely on learn to make a retentive memory do the work of libraries. Without notebook or diary to jot down memoranda, the African learns to make an impression on his own mind which he can recall whenever it is wanted. Throughout his life he has much to commit to memory, and the vivid way in which stories are told to him and their incidents acted out before his eyes helps the child to form an indelible mental picture from his early teaching. In every stage of life there are various competitions arranged for the members of the several age groups, to test their ability to recall and relate in song and dance the stories and events which have been told to them, and at such functions parents and the general public form an audience to judge and correct the competitors.
Like any other Gikuyu child, therefore, I acquired in my youth my country’s equivalent of a liberal education, but while I lived among my kinsfolk there was no obvious necessity for writing it down. But during my anthropological studies and visits to various countries in Europe, I had the opportunity of meeting men and women who were keenly interested in hearing about African ways of life. I then realised the necessity to set down in black and white the knowledge which had hitherto remained in my head, for the benefit both of Europeans and of those Africans who have been detached from their tribal life. Before setting to work I realised the difficulty which faced me owing to my lack of training in comparative social anthropology, and accordingly set about finding ways and means to acquire the necessary technical knowledge for recording the information scientifically.
It was my friend and teacher, Professor Bronisław Malinowski, who made this possible for me through the International Institute of African Languages and Culture, and I wish to place on record my appreciation of his unfailing help and encouragement, both in study and in the arrangement of my material. I wish to express my gratitude to those many friends, both European and African, who have been good enough to read and discuss parts of my manuscript and to give their frank opinions of it. Their criticisms and suggestions have been helpful. I am indebted to Dr Raymond Firth for his careful reading of the manuscript and his technical advice on anthropological points. And to my brother Moigai for taking photographs of initiation ceremonies and for checking information on ritual points; and to my father and other elders, who gave him their help.
I owe thanks also to my enemies, for the stimulating discouragement which has kept up my spirits to persist in the task. Long life and health to them to go on with the good work!
Thaaaai – to the members of the Gikuyu Central Association, my comrades-in-arms of the past, present and future. In this work as in all our other activities, their cooperation, courage and sacrifice in the service of the Gikuyu people have been the inspiration and the sustaining power.
In the present work I have tried my best to record facts as I know them, mainly through a lifetime of personal experience, and have kept under very considerable restraint the sense of political grievances which no progressive African can fail to experience. My chief object is not to enter into controversial discussion with those who have attempted, or are attempting, to describe the same things from outside observation, but to let the truth speak for itself. I know that there are many scientists and general readers who will be disinterestedly glad of the opportunity of hearing the Africans’ point of view, and to all such I am glad to be of service.
At the same time, I am well aware that I could not do justice to the subject without offending those “professional friends of the African” who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him. To such people, an African who writes a study of this kind is encroaching on their preserves. He is a rabbit turned poacher.
But the African is not blind. He can recognise these pretenders to philanthropy, and in various parts of the continent he is waking up to the realisation that a running river cannot be dammed for ever without breaking its bounds. His power of expression has been hampered, but it is breaking through, and will very soon sweep away the patronage and repression which surround him.
The reader will undoubtedly wish to know my credentials for writing the book. Merely to have been born and bred in the Gikuyu country may seem to him a vague qualification, so I will give a more explicit account of the sources of my knowledge.
I have said that as a boy I received the usual education of Gikuyu boys, and the legends in the chapters on Kinship and Government, and elsewhere in the book, are some of those which I absorbed from my elders during early training in custom and tradition, and later used to relate to my juniors as an evening amusement. The terms of kinship are those which I have heard and used for years among my own kinsmen. As my grandfather and father were polygamous, I was born into a wide kinship group with several degrees of relationship.
Following the tribal custom, I had to pass through the several stages of initiation along with my age group, kehiomwere, and can therefore speak from personal experience of the rites and ceremonies. Although men do not witness the physical operation on the girls, they are not ignorant of its details, as the young initiates of both sexes talk freely to each other about it afterwards. Moreover, one of the operators was my aunt, Waco, and in visiting her homestead as a child, I naturally picked up the details of the process by hearing conversations between her and other women.
I participated in the activities of my age group, and was chosen as its leader. Afterwards, through my knowledge of the outside world, I came to take a leading part in the progressive movements among the Gikuyu generally, and still hold that position. As the general secretary of the Gikuyu Central Association, I started and edited the first Gikuyu journal, Mulgwithania, in 1928-1930. This gave me the opportunity to tour all over the Gikuyu country and to meet many people, old and young, with whom I have discussed various aspects of cultural problems, political, social, religious, educational and others.
In due course I have passed three stages of eldership (Kiama kia mbori irhato), and this has enabled me to participate in Councils of Elders and to learn their procedures in various parts of the Gikuyu country. As a member of the warrior class, I not only have a practical knowledge of the Gikuyu methods of warfare, but have lived in the Masai country at a place near Ngare Narok, where I came in close contact with Masai military methods and learnt much about them, and have also visited many other tribes.
As for magic, I have witnessed the performance of magic rites many times in my own home and elsewhere. My grandfather was a seer and a magician, and in travelling about with him and carrying his bag of equipment I served a kind of apprenticeship in the principles of the art. Besides this, I have lived in a place called Gaturi in Central Gikuyu, a district well known for its magical practices, and there came into contact with many magicians, or witch doctors, and learnt a great deal about their ways. I have also had opportunities of meeting and discussing the subject with other magicians, both from coastal and up-country tribes.
Information about the new religious cult came my way in 1930-1931, on my return from a first visit to Europe. A deputation from its members visited me at that time, and I learnt much from them about their activities and ideas.
I can therefore speak as a representative of my people, with personal experience of many different aspects of their life. Finally, on the vitally important question of land tenure, I can claim to speak with more than ordinary knowledge, as I have explained in a note at the beginning of Chapter II. The Gikuyu have chosen me as their spokesman before more than one Royal Commission on land matters. One was the Hilton Young Commission of 1928-1929, and a second was the Joint Committee on the Closer Union of East Africa, in 1931-1932. Before this Committee I was delegated to present a memorandum on behalf of the Gikuyu Central Association. In 1932, I gave evidence in London before the Morris Carter Kenya Land Commission, which presented its report in 1934. I have studied and taken part in various discussions of this report, and disputes arising out of it, among others, the one about the removal of the Gikuyu people from their ancestral home in Tigoni; a matter which has been widely discussed in the press and the House of Commons.
I make special mention of these points, because to anyone who wants to understand Gikuyu problems, nothing is more important than a correct grasp of the question of land tenure. For it is the key to the people’s life; it secures for them that peaceful tillage of the soil which supplies their material needs and enables them to perform their magic and traditional ceremonies in undisturbed serenity, facing Mount Kenya.