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The Kikuyu People of Kenya

Population:     Kenya 6,905,000 (Joshua Project)
Population all Countries 7,025,000

Religion:       Christianity (a few traditional, a very few Muslim, some secular)
        73% Christian (Joshua Project); 30% Evangelical (Baptist Mission of Kenya, 1996 research)

Registry of Peoples code(s):  Kikuyu:  104997
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue):  Gikuyu:  kik


While the Kikuyu can be found throughout Kenya, the heaviest concentration being in Central Province, known as the traditional Kikuyu homeland.  They traditionally identify their land as bounded by these mountains or ranges:  Mt. Kenya (which they call Kirinyaga — the shining mountain), Ol Donyo Sapuk, the Ngong Hills and the Aberdare (Nyandarua) Range.  Many Kikuyus also live in Uganda and Tanzania, some having risen to national leadership.

The Kikuyu traditionally believe that a man, Gikuyu, was the founder of the tribe.  He had a wife named Mumbi, who gave birth to nine (plus one) daughters.  The daughters married and had their own families, retaining a domineering role in Kikuyu society.

This has led to the current division of the Kikuyu into nine (plus one) family groupings.  According to legend, the men grew tired of their treatment by the women and rebelled.  This legend seems to represent a change in history from matriarchal to patriarchal organization, which also occurred with other Bantu peoples.

Ancestors of the Kikuyu arrived in Kenya during the Bantu migrations of 1200-1600 AD.  The Kikuyu developed from several continuous waves of migration and remigration within the area.  The Kikuyu as such actually came to be by around 1800, and include some families from all the surrounding peoples.

One genetic line contributing to the Kikuyu is the Thagicu, thought to be the earliest Bantu settlers in the area, perhaps around 1200 AD.  The Kamba also incorporate some of those people in the Thaicu of today, related to the Dhaiso (Segeju) of northern coastal Tanzania.  It was in Mukurue division of Nyeri district where an identifiable beginning for the modern Kikuyu people is defined.

The key event was military conflict with and defeat of the Gumba people by the Mathira and Tetu people, allied with the Athi and the Maasai in the early 1800's.  Settlement of the Nyeri plains took place after the British moved the Maasai from the area.  The Kikuyu were in Kabete by around 1850, Ruiru about 1900.

The Kikuyus' contact with the outside world came through missionaries and settlers.  The name for the mountain around which they are settled, Mt. Kenya, is actually a Kamba word because it was a Kamba guide who led the first white person — when the person asked the name of the mountain, he gave him the Kamba name.

The Kikuyu responded strongly to missionaries and western education.  Their proximity to the British colonial government in Nairobi and the settlers who desired the comfortable Central Highlands simultaneously gave them a great advantage and imposed on them the greatest burden of peoples under colonialism.

They had greater access to education and opportunities for involvement in the new money economy and political changes in their country.  They also experienced the greatest cultural change because of both the opportunities and the oppression of their colonial masters.  They developed a greater adaptability and used the British colonial system to overcome the system.

The Kikuyu speech is a Bantu language, so they are related culturally to other Bantu-speaking peoples of East Africa.  The Kikuyu are identified with other Highland Bantu peoples, primarily the Kamba, the Meru, the Embu, and the Chuka.  These tribes of central Kenya can hear each other, even though they might not speak the other's language fluently.  Kikuyu are traditionally an industrious agricultural people.  Most still live on small family plots, but large numbers of them are involved in all kinds of businesses.

With modernization, many have seen opportunities in business and have moved into cities and new areas to work.  They have a desire for education and many Kikuyu have become scholars and university professors in many countries of the world.  The Kikuyu people are capitalistic in almost everything they do.  Many own or drive matatus (mini-van taxis).  It is common for a Kikuyu to have many small or large enterprises going on at the same time.  They have a reputation for astute management of money and hard work.

Because of their varied origins and the incorporation of many different refugee or migrant groups, Kukuyus exhibit a wide range of height, physical build, skin tone and facial features.  The Kikuyu language and naming system are strong identification factors.  (In common East African English usage, one finds the plural for individuals occurring as both Kikuyu and Kikuyus.)

The Kikuyus speak a Bantu language in the Northeastern Highland Bantu family.  It has lexical similarities with Kamba, Embu and Meru.  It exhibits three inherently intelligible dialects with local variations.  Embu is very close and these two languages are intelligible with some dialects of Kamba.

Kikuyu language, often referred to technically in its Kikuyu spelling Gikuyu, is written in a modified Roman alphabet developed by Presbyterian missionaries. The language name is spelled Gikuyu due to a pattern of phonetic change in the Kikuyu grammar.  This spelling is sometimes seen in English references.  The Bible was translated into Gikuyu over 100 years ago, one of the first in East Africa.

Gikuyu is the primary language.  Older members of the family speak only Gikuyu.  Kikuyu are very proud of their language and most multilingual Kikuyu prefer to speak Kikuyu with anyone who knows the language.  Church services are always in Kikuyu, except in towns, where Swahili is used or services are bilingual.  Kikuyu is a common language that you hear in many government offices because of the strong influence and numerous presence of Kikuyu in the country.

The Kikuyu language is spoken by many people of other tribes and is commonly heard in Nairobi along with Swahili.  In many schools, education is begun in the home language, but universally Swahili is taught, then used as a medium in upper elementary, when English is introduced.  English is the language of secondary and advanced education.  In urban areas, English is introduced in lower grades, and some children go to English-medium schools from the beginning.

Kikuyu commonly speak Swahili, and English is quite common.  Those who are reared in the cities do not speak the Kikuyu language as fluently or as often as those in the outlying areas.  In recent years, urban families have come to use English and Swahili in the home and many Kikuyu children in Nairobi cannot easily talk directly to their grandparents in their mother tongue.

Political Situation:
The Kikuyu have always had a family-oriented government.  They never had chiefs, but had a council of elders drawn from the senior elder age-set.  A spokesman would be chosen by consensus, but he would be removed if he was not cooperative.  The Kikuyu are lineage oriented, considering themselves a lineage from one common ancestor, Gikuyu and his wife Mumbi.

The ten ("full-nine") clans of the Kikuyu are named after the daughters of Mumbi.  As various peoples have joined the Kikuyu society, they have become part of the welcoming Kikuyu society, and taken on the language and mythical identification with Gikuyu. Much has been written by Kikuyu scholars and others on the legendary and historical origins and factors in Kikuyu history.

They have been traditional enemies of the Maasai, who raided across the Kikuyu, Meru and Kamba areas and all the way to the Giryama areas of the coast.  The Maasai would steal their cattle, though for the Kikuyu cattle grazing is not the focus, but farming.

At the same time, they have had close trading ties with the Maasai and even intermarried with them.  During the Maasai civil wars at the end of the 19th century, hundreds of Maasai refugees were taken in and adopted by the Kikuyu, particularly those in Kiambu.

They are active politically.  They have been influential in the politics of East Africa, especially Kenya, where the bulk of them live.  The first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu who lived with Maasai kinfolks in the Rift Valley when he was orphaned.

He took the name Kenyatta from a Maasai beaded belt in honour of his Maasai family.  Kenyatta was a major figure in the fight for independence and was influential in the Mau Mau uprising against the British.  Kenya became independent in 1963 under Kenyatta's leadership.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Kikuyu suffered greatly under the regime of President Daniel arap Moi, a Tugen (Kalenjin) whose government depended largely on a coalition of mostly Nilotic ethnic groups in Kenya.  The Kikuyu, being the largest single ethnicity in not only Kenya, but all of East Africa, were considered a threat to the power block leading Kenya from 1978, when Jomo Kenyatta died and Moi became President.

Because the Kikuyu people had been so close to the centres of colonial power, they had experienced significant advantages in the move to independence and in the early independence government led by Kenyatta.  The Moi government continued to increase repression and persecution of the Kikuyus and their former cultural and political allies who were seen as a threat.

They were gradually dispossessed and pressed in private and business life as a guard against their rivalry to the primarily Nilotic block leading Kenya in the Moi era.  Kikuyus commented openly that "the government was at war with the Kikuyus."  Many Kikuyu youth left the country to escape the situation and find a safer, more positive life in Canada, the UK or the US.  Many Kikuyus are found in academic and business positions in South Africa, as well.

In the late 1990s, when Moi surprisingly stepped down after intense social unrest and violence protesting the government, corruption and conditions in the country, a new government came into power, appointing an old Kenyatta colleague, Mwai Kikaki as President.  In its turn his government became repressive and corrupt, leading to protests and violence, especially after a contested election in 2008.

Kikuyu businesses and homes all over the country were attacked by various vigilante groups as ethnic violence broke out all over the country in an unprecedented disruption of Kenyan society and economy and a complete breakdown of the political system.  International arbitration finally resulted in a coalition government and significant changes in the Kenya constitution in mid 2008.

Traditionally, boys and girls were raised in a different manner.  Girls were raised to work in the shamba (farm), while boys were expected to care for animals.  Much has changed as Kikuyu sought education for both boys and girls and there is quite a liberal sharing of various tasks between the genders, especially in urban areas.

Many rural Kikuyu are very poor and everyone works for the benefit of the farm and the improvement of conditions for the next generation.   Girls are responsible for taking care of a baby brother or sister and also for helping the mother with the household chores.  This still tends to be the case even in urban families who cannot afford to hire a maid.

Formal education is a priority for most Kikuyu families, even in the rural areas.  Now it is common to provide full education for both boys and girls.  Both men and women are now found in virtually every area of business and professional life.  Rural families are closer to the traditional pattern.

Story and Song
The youth are still often taught through stories and other traditional teaching methods.  Like most cultures of the world, oral "literature" is a treasure, with their oral history, legends and traditional stories.  Like many other African peoples, the Kikuyu value proverbs and riddles.  Rhetoric and verbal games are both entertainment and skill development.  One source comments on this oral cultural treasure of the Kikuyu:

"The Kikuyu had a very elaborate sung riddle game, a duet called the enigma poem or gicandia set text poem of riddles. It is sung in a duet and the players are in a competition. The duet is strikingly different than the normal singing of the Kikuyu performed by a soloist and a chorus. The poem is learned by heart. A decorated gourd rattle accompanies the singing. One gicandi may consists of 127 stanzas.

Music and Dance are strong components of Kikuyu culture.  There is a vigorous Kikuyu recording industry, for both popular and gospel music, in their pentatonic scale and western music styles.

Age Grades
Traditionally there was a circumcision ceremony for boys and girls by age grades of about five-year periods.  All of the men in that circumcision group would take an age-grade name.  Times in Kikuyu history could be gauged by age-grade names.

It is thought that the early Thagicu, one of the ancestral groups of the Kikuyu, borrowed this system from Cushitic and Nilotic peoples.  However, we see this same kind of structure among the Nguni people of Southern Africa, such as the Zulu.  We still see this age-grade system, organizing newly-adult men into a warrior class and the graduating warriors into junior elders, among the Kukuyu's neighbours the Maasai.

This practice of circumcision for boys is still loosely followed, but it is a family matter and is done in hospital nowadays.  Some men still prefer to be called by their age-grade name, but as the people have expanded geographically and in number, and as rapid cultural change occurred, the age-grade system has basically died out.

The female circumcision which caused early divisions in Christianity has lost some of its emphasis among Evangelical Christians.  It is still practiced widely among those with traditional beliefs and Roman Catholics.  It is still officially discouraged by most churches.  Younger generations and more urban families have abandoned the practice.

Traditional Beliefs
The Kikuyu traditionally were superstitious and today they retain some practices of traditions held over from the old times.  For instance, some Kikuyu still honor some traditional superstitions such as a taboo against whistling.  The traditional belief was that this would call malicious spirits.  Only a few old people would still have this actual belief.

The Kikuyu believe the number 10 was unlucky, so even though their legend says Gikuyu had 10 daughters, they always say nine.  When counting they used to say "full nine" instead of the word for ten.  Nowadays this term is still used sometimes by old people or in a joking manner.  The real word is still retained, ikumi.

It was likewise considered bad luck to speak openly about the coming birth of a child, because it was thought evil spirits might take the child.  Even now they are sometimes troubled by the European practice of baby showers and mention of the expected date of birth, and especially the idea of choosing or mentioning the expected baby's name before birth.

The Kikuyu observe a unique ritual pattern of naming children, still followed strongly today.  The family identity is carried on in each generation by naming children in the following pattern:   the first boy is named after the father's father, the second boy after the mother's father.  The first girl is named after the father's mother, the second after the mother's mother.

Subsequent children are named similarly after the brothers and sisters of the grandmother and grandfather, from eldest to youngest, alternating from father's to mother's family.  as refugees are accepted into a clan the naming pattern will incorporate new lineages and integrate them into Kikuyu society and history.  A Kikuyu marrying a non-Kikuyu will follow this naming pattern.

Because of the rapid changes in the social and material culture, this naming pattern is an extremely strong and important factor of Kikuyu identity.  This practice also has the positive value of ceremonially and literally incorporating a non-Kikuyu into the tribal lineage.

Thus the names of the parents in the other ethnic group will be added to the next generation of Kikuyu descendants.  This mechanism incorporates the "mixed" children into one of the existing Kikuyu lineages, while allowing the Kikuyu social structure to grow incorporate new lineages.  This facilitates the introduction whole new family lines while maintaining the same core structure and organization of Kikuyu identity.

Traditionally the Kikuyu held a worldview that has been referred to as ancestor worship.  They believed spirits of dead can be pleased or displeased like a living individual.  The ancestors were honoured as intercessors with God and spiritual powers.  They were honoured in the naming system, and people often explain the traditional belief that the actual spirit of the grandparent on other ancestor comes into the new child named after them.  This has now changed due to acceptance of a more scientific worldview, Christian faith and longer life spans.  (The grandparents are often still alive when the grandchildren are born!)

The Kikuyu traditionally worship one god whom they call Ngai.  This is the Maasai name for the One Creator God and was borrowed by both the Kikuyu and the Kamba.  They believe Ngai is the creator and giver of all things.  They thought Ngai lived in the sky.  Yet they also thought of Ngai as living on Mt. Kenya.  When the cloud was on the mountain, Ngai was said to live there.  This name of God is used in tehe Kikuyu Bible and Christian worship and confessions.  A common blessing is "Ni Ngai arogocwo" May God bless you.

As with peoples all over the world, high places were holy places.  For their neighbours the Maasai, similarly the mountain (hill) of Ol Doinyo Sapuk (the Black Hill) and the hills of Ngong were holy places, as well as the peaks of the Mau Escarpment in the Rift Valley.

Their traditional religion is monotheistic and has many stories that can be related to Biblical stories.  Their traditional religion involved sacrifices when things were not going well, which were offered under a mugumo tree, generally on a high place.  Even today, the mugumo tree holds this place of honour as a sign of the sacred.  In times of trouble, or in an annual special service, a family or village leader would take his family to the "high place" and pray for this family, ask forgiveness of sins and request help in drought or other need.

The primary religion today is Christianity, but some stil lfollow traditional beliefs.  However, many today are focused on materialism.  Kikuyu exhibit a strong commitment to material gain and lifestyle.  The Kikuyu have adopted much of the material allure of the modern secular society.

Christianity has been embraced widely.  When a Kikuyu makes a decision to accept Christ, it is a very sincere and is a very significant event.  They recognize a difference between being a church member and a "saved" person.  In a legacy from the East African Revival, the term "saved" represents a personal experience with God through Jesus Christ.  Evangelical Christians also use the term "born-again" for this.

Christianity has been active among the Kikuyu for over a hundred years. Many Kikuyus are active as missionaries to other peoples and evangelists among their own people, as well as theological teachers and denominational leaders.

In Ph.D. research from Michigan State University, it was determined that those who had accepted Christianity early tend to have more material possessions today.  Primarily this seems to be because of the lack of multiple wives, and the lack of wasting time and energy on many things that would be important to a non-spiritual person.

Historically, many of those who were killed in the Mau Mau were Kikuyu Christians.  They refused to take the Mau Mau oath, because they had taken an oath to Jesus.  Because of this, many Kikuyu Christians were killed during the Emergency.  Most of the people killed in the Mau Mau Emergency were Kikuyus.  Less than fifty Europeans were killed in the period of Mau Mau.

One of the great influences was the East African Revival Movement, which emphasized confession and forgiveness.  This strongly influenced a lot of Kikuyu Christians.  Though currently Christianity is still practiced, for some it has become a cultural form.

There are many Kikuyus who put a lot of emphasis on materialism and a church membership that may be a little more superficial.  Many wealthy urban Kikuyu, thus, resemble modern "secular" Americans, who are also called "pagan" and are in some cases labeling themselves as "neo-pagans," who have rejected the Christian faith of their ancestors.

Kikuyu would be considered an evangelized tribe, with 60-70% claiming to be Christian.  Various research sources report that evangelical Christians comprise about 25-30% of the Kikuyu tribe.

Related Profile on this Site

For more on the Kikuyu People

Jomo Kenyatta — Encarta Online
Jomo Kenyatta —
Kikuyu — Blue Gecko
Kikuyu People &mdash Britannica Online
Kikuyu Circumcision
Kikuyu Cultural Summary &mdash Tim Bliss
Kikuyu History and Culture
Kikuyu Music and Riddles
Kikuyu People &mdash Joshua Project
Kirinyaga (Kiinyaa)
Kikuyu People &mdash Wikipedia
Kikuyu Topic Search List &mdash Music and Other

Bottignole, Silvana.  Kikuyu Traditional Culture and Christianity.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Heinemann Educational Books (EA) Ltd, 1984.

Kenyatta, Jomo.  Facing Mount Kenya.  London:  Vintage Books, 1962.

Muriuki, Godfrey.  A History of the Kikuyu 1500-1900.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Oxford University Press, 1974.

Mwaniki, H S K.  The Living History of Embu and Mbeere.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East Africa Literature Bureau, 1973.

Orville Boyd Jenkins and Sam Turner
Original profile written September 1996
This version rewritten and posted 3 October 2008
Last edited 13 March 2010

Copyright © 1996, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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