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. In as much as some of these cultural practices are still embraced today, visitors, traders and missionaries who visited East Africa as from the 18th century, and formal education, have gradually influenced the culture and religion of the people of Kenya today. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Kikuyu community.
A look into the history and culture of the Kikuyu
The Kikuyu (also known as Agikuyu) are a central Bantu community. They share common ancestry with the Embu, Kamba, Tharaka, Meru and Mbeere. Traditionally they inhabited the area around Mount Kenya, including the following counties: Murang’a, Nyeri, Kiambuu, Nyandarua, Kirinyaga and Nakuru. They are among the Kenyan communities that championed the struggle for Kenya’s independence through the Mau Mau movement and the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Notable members of the Kikuyu community include: freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi; the first president of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (1963–1978); the third president, Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013); and the fourth president, his excellency Uhuru Kenyatta; Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the late Professor Wangari Maathai; award-winning writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others.
Kenya EssayLIFE Photo Collection
Migration and settlement
Ancestors of the Kikuyu arrived in Kenya and settled on the slopes of Mount Kenya where they found the Gumba, whom they assimilated. The Gumba were hunters who made iron and pottery, and used honey and honey products.
The Kikuyu learnt the art of iron-making and smelting from the Gumba and, as their population increased, they dispersed to different areas around the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Traditional beliefs, mythology, and medicine
The Agikuyu believe in a supreme being (Ngai), who lives on Mount Kenya. The name 'Ngai', means ‘one creator God’,to whom they offer prayers and sacrifices at designated places, such as on top of hills, Mount Kenya and under specific trees. Sacrifices are conducted by members of the ruling generation, who appoint special priests for each occasion.
Waist beltNational Museums of Kenya
The Agikuyu believe that Ngai created the first man (Gikuyu) and woman (Mumbi) to whom they trace their origin.
One day Ngai appeared to Gikuyu and allotted him all land south-west of Mount Kenya, currently Kirinyaga county.
Gikuyu then built a homestead at Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in Murang’a. This place is considered sacred and has many fig trees. Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga is a gazetted cultural site.
Cross Shoulder ornamentNational Museums of Kenya
Mumbi and Gikuyu were blessed with nine daughters: Wanjirũ, Wambũi, Njeri, Wanjikũ, Nyambũra, Wairimũ, Waithĩra, Wangarĩ, and Wangũi, but no sons. When time came for the daughters to start families of their own, their father prayed and offered sacrifice to Ngai under a fig (Mugumo) tree.
The next day nine men appeared under the mugumo tree who married the daughters. They became the ancestors of the nine Kikuyu clans.
ModelNational Museums of Kenya
The work of the medicine man
Traditionally medicine men (mundu mugo) were powerful people in the Kikuyu community. They were consulted about the future, for healing and cleansing from ill omens.
The primary apparatus of the medicine men consisted of a series of gourds, the most important of which was the divination gourd mwano. It contained medicine used to heal the sick. It has a long neck, decorated with a woven leather strap and plant fibre handle. It is sealed with a plant fibre lid, attached with leather to the neck.
Mugo Wa Kibiru: The Seer (Kikuyu community) (2019) deur Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya
Mugo wa Kibiru: the sheer
Mugo wa Kibiru was born in Kariara, Murang’a near Thika, between the 18th and 19th centuries. Although, his parents are unknown, he became a famous prophet. According to folklore, Mugo was found alone in the forest by a hunter called Kibiru as he was inspecting his traps. Kibiru was from the Gikuyu Anjiru clan, who were traditionally associated with prophecy and powerful medicine.
The hunter decided that he would adopt the young Mugo, known as Cege at the time, and bring him up as one of his sons – not knowing the greatness that he would possess in later years. Thus, he became Cege wa Kibiru. The name later changed to Mugo, which means ‘healer’.
As a young boy, he was not afraid of wild animals while herding his father’s goats. As it was with other medicine men of that time, he possessed the powers to control animals. He occasionally claimed to have been with God.
As a grown up Mugo began prophesying. He prophesied about the coming of the white man. He said that there would come a strange a race of people whose skin color was like that of a small pale frog that lives in water (Kiengere) and that one could see their blood under their skins just like the frog. He also said that these pale strangers would have colorful clothes that were colorful like butteries (ciiuhuruta).
He warned the Gikuyu that it was foolish for their warriors to ever face these pale strangers with spears because of their magical sticks that produced fire (guns shooting bullets). The White men also carried fire in their pockets (matchboxes), he said.
Karuri Wa Gakure: The Great Chief (Kikuyu community) (2019) deur Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya
Karuri wa Gakure: the great chief
Karuri wa Gakure was a famous Kikuyu medicine man and warrior. He was born in Gathigiyo, to a father who was of the Angari clan and a mother whose name was Wangari.
Young Karuri displayed leadership qualities among his peers and was consequently named him Mutongoria, which means leader. He belonged to the machungya makuru age set.
Growing up, Karuri hunted elephants for ivory to trade with the Arabs. He became a medicine man to supplement his income. For thirty goats, he bought his first herbs from Githaiga wa Muya, Gikemi wa Karura and from the hunter gathering communities in the nearby forests. He led the Kikuyu warriors to battle after giving them medicine that was believed to make them invincible
Originally hunters and gatherers, the Agikuyu later adopted agriculture as their main source of livelihood. Women did the farming and gathering of wild fruits using traditional tools (such as hoes, digging knives, etc) for domestic consumption, while men did the hunting.
Today, their main economic activities are trade, agriculture and livestock keeping. They grow many crops including potatoes, bananas, millet, maize, beans and vegetables. Other common cash crops grown include tea, coffee and rice.
Digging KnifeNational Museums of Kenya
Kikuyu blacksmiths (muturi) made knives and weapons from iron ore, which was dug out of the ground and smelted. In most markets, tobacco, vegetables, skins and gourds were exchanged for iron, pottery, leather garments, salt and red ochre.
This is a traditional digging knife (kahiu ka irima) with a wooden handle made by a blacksmith at Kirwara. The handle was carved from Murembu wood.
It was used by women for cultivating fields, clearing bushes, weeding and harvesting cassava and sweet potatoes.
BasketNational Museums of Kenya
Basket (kiondo) making was a notable traditional economic activity among the Agikuyu women. The kiondo is a woven basket made in various shapes, colors, and sizes, and decorated with geometric designs. Strings for making the baskets were gathered from the bark of several indigenous shrubs.
Apart from weaving baskets and trays, the strings were also used in making snares, repairing calabashes, stringing beads or tying loads.
Cooking Pot (1957)National Museums of Kenya
Kikuyu women made pots from riumba, a special clay dug up in particular areas. The pots were mostly used for cooking, storing grain, carrying water and for trade.
This Kikuyu pot, with a straight neck and rim decorated with diagonal lines, was made by women potters using a mixture of three types of clay – red, white and black – which were obtained from swamps and along river banks.
The women collected and made these pots under the shade, in a similar manner to the Kamba.
Some of the common Kikuyu foods include: Githeri (maize and beans), Mukimo (mashed green peas and potatoes), Kimitu (mashed beans and potatoes), Irio (mashed dry beans, corn and potatoes), Mutura (sausage made using goat intestines, meat and blood), and Ucuru (fermented porridge made from flour of corn, millet or sorghum). The foods were served using various bowls and spoons. This wooden food bowl made by a craftsman, was used by everybody for eating dry foods.
The council of elders (kiama) was responsible for ensuring law and order, decision-making, ritual oath taking, religion, and administration. The kiama presided over all issues concerning the community as a whole.
HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya
A headdress made from sisal ropes which were dyed with castor oil. It was used by Kikuyu elders during ceremonial occasions.
Fly WhisksNational Museums of Kenya
A symbol of status
This fly-whisk is made using a cow tail, fitted firmly with a wooden handle. It is made by men and carried by elders as a symbol of status.
The family and clan
The Kikuyu base their social organization on their family units (nyumba), which are extended through marriage. Several related families form the clan (mbari) and neighbourhood (itura).
HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya
Initiation: new roles for young Kikuyu
The Agikuyu circumcised both boys and girls at puberty. As an important cultural practice, circumcision was characterized by celebration irua.
Circumcised girls became women ready for marriage, and boys became warriors. Initiates circumcised at the same time, formed an age-set riika.
In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and the communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation rites which do not involve female genital mutilation.
Wooden shield for dancing (ndome) (1850/1899)British Museum
Shield for dancing
The Agikuyu made shields for dancing, called ndome. They were carved out of a single piece of wood, with a hole for the arm instead of a hand grip, and were worn on the upper left arm. They were used by boys prior to their initiation as junior warriors.
Each year the boys of a particular territorial unit would choose a design, which they later used for their war shields once they had achieved warrior status.
Shields of this type became family heirlooms, though the designs might be scraped off and repainted many times as each new generation of boys prepared for their initiation.
Waiyaki Wa HingaNational Museums of Kenya
Marriage the Kikuyu way
When a young man found a suitable woman to marry, he was expected to pay bride wealth ruracio to her family. The parents of both the bride and groom engaged in discussions, exchanged gifts, and assessed whether the couple were a suitable match.
Afterwards, the elders and fathers of the groom and bride drank locally brewed beer muratina together as they negotiated for bride wealth (sheep, goats and cattle). A man could marry as many wives as he could afford.
A traditional Kikuyu marriage ceremony nguracio is characterized by a great feast, songs, dance and merry-making.
Kikuyu Bride deur Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
A Kikuyu bride
A portrait of a Kikuyu bride wearing traditional headdress, earrings, necklace and wedding dress.
Music and dance
The Agikuyu celebrated traditional occasions such as weddings, initiations, and the birth of new member into the family, by singing and dancing. They had few musical instruments because most of their songs and dances did not require elaborate accompaniment. The main instruments were the drums (kihembe), small rattles (njingiri), large rattles (kigamba), horn (coro), and flute (muturiru).
FiddleNational Museums of Kenya
Playing the fiddle
The fiddle wandindi is played by a specialist using a sisal stringed bow muthage. The spcialist would go round the countryside playing the instrument and singing in markets and at dances.
Large Leg Bell (1919)National Museums of Kenya
Large rattles kigamba were made by blacksmiths and worn by travelers and dancers just below the knee during special occasions such as war dances, initiation ceremonies and other ceremonial dances.
This particular large leg rattle was made with four long bells sewn on a thick pad of leather. It was worn by older men for dancing. Today, such bells are made from scrap iron and ball bearings.
Celebrating Kenya's communities today
The cultural practices of the Agikuyu are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Agikuyu 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.
Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.
Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. firstname.lastname@example.org
Bibliography and research
1. Amin, M. Willetts, D. & Tetley, B., 1989. The Beautiful People of Kenya. Camerapix Publishers.
2. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.
3. Leakey, L. S. B. The Southern Kikuyu before 1903/i>. 1977.
4. Leakey, L. S. B. Mau Mau and the Kikuyu. 1952.
Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography
Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.