The Tharaka Community of Kenya

Experience their folklore, farming, and riddles

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Tharaka community. 

Tharaka Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Tharaka community

The Tharaka are a Bantu-speaking ethnic community in Kenya. They are a sub-community of the Ameru, and their origin is connected to the culture of the Chuka, Mwimbi, Imenti, Tigania and Igembe communities. The language of the Tharaka is Kiitharaka. The larger Tharaka community is located on the low plains between the slopes of Mount Kenya in the west and the upper Tana River in the east, Tharaka-Nithi County.

Migration and settlement: from Congo to the Tana River

Their history of migration dates back to the spread of the Bantu people from Congo, where the Tharaka remained near the river and the rest settled in the Meru County.

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Experience the Tharaka culture at Meru National Park

Today you can experience the Tharaka culture at the annual Ura-Gate Tharaka Cultural Festival. You can also visit Nairobi National Museum or Meru Museum for more information about their history.

Tharaka Apprentice Circumciser by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The folklore of Kibuka

The historical origin of the Tharaka is enshrined in the Ameru legends and folklore. A notable legend is that of a person called Kibuka. 

NeckletNational Museums of Kenya

The power of Kibuka

According to legend, Kibuka was the Tharaka’s spiritual leader – a medicine man, diviner and rain maker. He provided the Tharaka warriors with charms in wars to protect them from enemies during combat. His eldest son led the Tharaka battalions in every war. In several instances the son was killed, but was resurrected by the power of charms marked on his abdomen by his father.

HornNational Museums of Kenya

The magic horn and Kibuka's shrine

One time, a Tharaka traitor revealed to the enemy the power of the charm on the son’s abdomen. When the enemy killed him, they gouged out the charm from the abdomen, killing him completely. The charm was a magic horn (rugoci).

The murder of his son enraged Kibuka so greatly that he cursed the Tharaka and left his residence, a shrine. The shrine is said to be near Kibuka Primary School in Tunyai, Tharaka County.

Tharaka Warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Political and social structures

The Tharaka social structure was based on the clan system. Members of a particular age-set, circumcised at the same time, were given a rank in the age groupings. The rank defined the behavior of individual members and their behavior toward members of other age groups, both younger and older. The older an age-set became, the more respect it was given. 

LegletNational Museums of Kenya

The council of elders

The council of elders (kiama) was the judicial authority of the community. They were responsible for ensuring law and order, decision-making, religion, and administration.

Tharaka Medicine man by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Witchcraft

The Tharaka also believed in the power of the witch doctor. They were considered elite and believed to possess knowledge of medicines and spiritual matters. People would come to them to foretell the future, and for healing. They also had the power to cause misfortune to others, which only another witch could cure.

The primary apparatus of the witch doctors consisted of a series of gourds/calabashes, roots, barks and leaves, cow horns, charm ornaments, totems of snail and sea shells and, the most common, the fly whisk.

Tharaka Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Circumcision: the pathway to marriage and adulthood

Among the Tharaka, circumcision was an important event in every young person's life. Boys and girls were circumcised at the onset of puberty. They were circumcised and categorized according to seasons. Boys circumcised in the same season were considered “muntu wa nthuke yeetu” (a fellow initiate of the same season).

ShieldNational Museums of Kenya

From boy to warrior

This shield was used during the circumcision ceremony. After the boys had been circumcised, they would be deemed ready for war and marriage.

Arm BandNational Museums of Kenya

Marriage and courtship

Marriage was an important and long ceremonious process for the Tharaka. A young man who wished to marry informed his parents, who would then take honey beer (uki bwa kuromba mwariki) to the girl’s parents to express their interest. If the girl’s parents accepted the beer, then the courtship and engagement process began.

Traditionally, a bride was required to be a virgin and stay in the mother-in-law's hut for at least four months of the engagement period before moving in with the groom. The purpose of this was to find out if the girl was of sound moral standing by observing her.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

The price of the bride

Traditionally the Tharaka were polygamous. The bride price constituted five cattle or sixty goats for the first wife; three cattle or thirty goats for the second wife. After the bride price has been calculated and paid to the bride’s father, the marriage was celebrated with a feast at the husband’s home.

The bride would wear a triangular leather apron embroidered with cowrie shells and suspended from the neck, reaching the waist, during her wedding ceremony.

ArmletsNational Museums of Kenya

Nthuku worn by married women

Nthuku were armlets worn above the elbow by married women who have delivered their first born. A special man ('mutungi') would wind this around a woman's arm.

Bellows and tuyereNational Museums of Kenya

Economic pursuits: agro-pastoralists

The Tharaka were mainly agro-pastoralists who relied on the subsistence farming of crops such as maize, beans, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, yams, cabbage and fruits. They kept cattle, goats and sheep, and were known for bee-keeping.

Cow BellNational Museums of Kenya

Cattle keeping

Gonia is a cowbell made by a local blacksmith. It was tied around a cow's neck when the herders go to graze. The sound it produced helped the Tharaka herders to track the location of the cattle when they went astray.

RakeNational Museums of Kenya

Farming

Murigi is a rake used in the fields. It was made from wood of the uthigira tree. The fork end was used to toss away brushwood while the hook on its end was used for pulling.

StickNational Museums of Kenya

Bee keeping

Pogoro is a stick cut and used by men for hanging bee hives up on trees.

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Can you solve the riddle? 

Ntai/kunyamila ngombe are riddles, and grandparents used to tell riddles to children to test their intelligence.

HoopNational Museums of Kenya

Mukanda wa baagu umuraya uta kujika (Your father has a long unfoldable rope).

HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya

Answer:

Ni njira (It's a pathway).

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Maasai are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Tharaka community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. pnyamanga@museums.or.ke

Bibliography and research
1. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.
2. Gideon, S. Were, Parkwa, A. and Mwaniki, R. Meru District Socio-Cultural profile
3. Adamson, J. The Peoples of Kenya. Collins and Harvill Press. 1967.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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