The Kisii Community of Kenya

Meet the children of Mogusii who are excellent soap stone artisans

By George SilkLIFE Photo Collection

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 Kisii community. 

Summer Olympics 1968 (1968-10) by Bill EppridgeLIFE Photo Collection

A look into the history and culture of the Kisii

The Kisii (also known as Abagusii or Gusii) are western Bantu speakers. It is said that they took their name from their founder and patriarch Mogusii. They are known for soapstone carvings and  farming of bananas and indigenous vegetables. One of the most notable people from this community is the long-distance runner Naftali Temu (20 April 1945 – 10 March 2003), who won Kenya's first gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Millet Strainer (1942)National Museums of Kenya

Cultural influences through migration

The Kisii are believed to have entered western Kenya from Uganda. They later moved from the foothills of Mount Elgon, settled for a while in the Kano Plains, then migrated to their present settlement in Kisii and Nyamira counties.

From Mount Elgon to Kisii and Nyamira counties

In the course of their migration, the Kisii are believed to have interacted with, and borrowed cultural aspects from, the Maasai, Kuria, Luo and Kipsigis.

Kisii sorcerer by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The power of Engoro

The Kisii believed in a supreme God called Engoro, who created the universe and all natural forces. They believed He was the source of life and property, and governed the destiny of man. He would send rain or drought, plenty or famine, health or disease, peace or war, depending on whether man lived a good or bad life. He revealed Himself in storms, thunder, earthquakes and lightning.

Kisii (1997) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Political structure: the clan

Traditionally each clan had a clan leader who was in charge of making decisions on behalf of the clan. The family head was responsible for making the daily decisions in and around his homestead.

Waist SkinNational Museums of Kenya

The Chiniangi initiation ceremony

Amongst the Kisii, initiations were gender-segregated, and the operations performed by female and male circumcisors. There was a period of seclusion for both genders. The circumcision rite involved training the initiates to know rules of shame (chinsoni) and respect (ogosika). Girls were circumcised at the age of seven or eight, and boys a few years later.

In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation practices.

Chain Of Metal BeadsNational Museums of Kenya

Egetinti chain

Girls wore this beaded chain, called Egetinti on their heads during the initiation ceremony. It was also used in rites to make an imaginary animal called Enyamweri, at whose ceremony girls acquired maiden names.

Jingle Bells (1920)National Museums of Kenya

Bells for dancing

Circumcised girls would wear these iron bells on the day they made their first public appearance after seclusion. They were also used during ribina ceremonies (a dance for attracting rain), and during funeral dances.

HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

Marriage traditions

Traditional marriage was established through the payment of bride wealth in the form of livestock and money. Bride wealth was paid by the husband to the wife's family. This act established a socially approved marriage.

Traditionally, divorces were rare and required the return of the bride wealth. Upon the death of a husband, the widow chose a husband from among the dead man's brothers.

Pictured is a conical headdress (ekiore) with radial rows of cowries or cowhide base. It was worn during special ceremonies.

Ancestral spirits and funerals

The Kisii believe in ancestral spirits. In the past, displeased ancestral spirits were believed to be responsible for diseases, the death of people and livestock, and the destruction of crops.

The Kisii conduct funerals at the departed person's homestead, where a large gathering is a sign of prestige. Christian elements, such as catechism-reading and hymn-singing, are combined with the traditional practices of wailing, head-shaving, and animal sacrifices.

Kisii Warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Farmers, craftsmen, and traders

Traditionally, the Kisii were mainly farmers, growing crops such as finger millet, sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes and bananas. The Kisii also made soapstone carvings, basketry and pottery. They traded with their neighboring communities for tools, weapons, crafts, livestock, and agricultural products.

HoeNational Museums of Kenya

Helpful tool for farming: obokombe

Used for farming, this hoe (obokombe) was made by a blacksmith from iron ore. The iron was heated and hit into shape on a stone, then attached to a wooden handle made from wood of the ekebago tree.

Arrow QuiverNational Museums of Kenya

Traditionally, men protected the community and went hunting

Used by male adults during war and hunting, this arrow and quiver (Ekibariri emigwimade) is made of leather and ebisiringi wood.

Bleeding Bow and ArrowNational Museums of Kenya

The bow and arrow: obota and chiniago

The bleeding bow and arrow were made from wood of the eketubi tree, and were used to draw blood from the animals which the Kisii used for food.

AdzeNational Museums of Kenya

Skilled blacksmiths: ekoiyo

This adze (ekoiyo) is made of a bent wooden haft fitted with an iron metal head. It was used for carving wooden objects such as stools and mortars. Traditionally, smithing was reserved for men, and blacksmiths became wealthy and influential.

Pipe BowlNational Museums of Kenya

Craftsmanship: soapstone carvings

Today, the Kisii soapstone carvings have received international recognition. The stone is mined and carved in Tabaka, South Mugirango, where several families specialize in this art. The craft attracts tourists and generates income for the community.

BasketNational Museums of Kenya

Carrying farm produce

This basket was used to carry food from the farm to the market.

DrumNational Museums of Kenya

Recreation activities of the Kisii

The Kisii celebrations are marked with song and dance. Various traditional musical instruments, including the Obokano (lyre) and drums, are played during such occasions. During leisure time, the men drink traditional beer and smoke pipes. 

Beer strawNational Museums of Kenya

A beer straw

This long beer straw was used for drinking traditional beer from a communal pot. The straw orogore was cut from wood of the omonyankore tree, then hollowed using a wire.

From the third eye by JB MaingiNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Kisii are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Kisii 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.

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

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Hazel Sanaipei.

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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