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. The peoples of Kenya have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities. Today, there are 44 communities 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 represents the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant culture. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Kuria community.
Migration and settlement of the Kuria
The Kuria do not have a common historical background. Their traditions indicate that they are related with the Abalogoli of the Abaluyia and the Kisii communities, who trace their dispersal point to Mount Elgon region.
Historically the Kuria have mainly practised pastoralism and farming. They cultivated finger millet, sweet potatoes, sorghum and cow peas, and keep cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. In the past, the Kuria traded with their neighboring Maasai and Luo communities, with whom they exchanged animals for grains, weapons or ornaments, among other things.
Wooden hoeNational Museums of Kenya
Cultivating the farm
This is a wooden hoe. It was made from wood of the omobagai tree and used for cultivating the farm.
KnifeNational Museums of Kenya
Harvesting farm produce
This Egekebe (harvesting knife) was made by a blacksmith from scrap iron. It was used by both men and women for reaping millet and other grains, and for peeling cassava.
The family and the clan
Like many other ethnic groups in Kenya, the Kuria base their social organization on the family unit. All community members trace their origin to a common male ancestor. There are two sets of generations called Monyasae and Monyachuma. The Kuria are divided into small totemic clans as the units of organization. The totems include elephant, hippopotamus, hyena, zebra, baboon and leopard.
KnobkerrieNational Museums of Kenya
The roles of Kuria men
Men were the primary decision makers, and were responsible for providing for and protecting the community. They built houses and cattle enclosures, herded cattle, cleared land for agriculture, hunted, farmed, and instructed the young warriors on defending the community.
This knobkerrie (irungu) was made by men using wood from the omotaburo tree. It was used as a weapon and for killing small animals.
PotNational Museums of Kenya
This is a water pot made by old women specialists. It would be placed on three stones to keep water cool.
The Kuria women moulded pots, plates and dishes used for storing grains, drinking water, milk, porridge, cooking, carrying water from the river and for brewing local beer. The women also cared for the family in all instances, farmed and made tools or equipment for the household.
BeaterNational Museums of Kenya
This beater was made by male specialists from the wood of the Umuhuru tree. It was cut with an adze and finished off with a knife. It was used by women to beat the grain when removing it from the stalk.
Winnowing trayNational Museums of Kenya
This is a winnowing tray. It was made by male weavers and used by women for winnowing millet (wimbi). The twigs were usually obtained from the forests, kept outside for a day, and then weaved by specialists. Women then plastered the inside with cow dung so wimbi flour would not stick in between strands.
Traditional ceremonies, music, and dance
The Kuria celebrated childbirth, harvest, circumcision and wedding ceremonies with a variety of traditional songs and dances. They wore special costumes, body markings and clothing for the dances. After work, men rested as they drank their local brew and smoked pipes, among a host of other forms of leisure activities.
Kuria face mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This mask would be made of cow skin. It was used by men for the Isubo dance to admit old men into elderhood. It is stuck with red lucky beans and feathers for eyebrows and has a feather surround.
Kuria Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
The saro ritual
Amongst the Kuria, graduation from childhood to adulthood was traditionally known as 'saro' and initiates got to join an age set (esaro).
This ritual was marked with circumcision for both boys and girls. When a girl was married, her age set group was changed to that of her husband, as no one was allowed to marry from the same age-set.
This is a painting of a Kuria circumcised boy wearing an elaborate skirt, which indicates that he had recently undergone circumcision and was in seclusion.
In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation practices that do not involve female genital mutilation (FGM).
HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya
Traditionally, when a Kuria young man found a suitable girl to marry, he was expected to pay twenty to twenty five cows as bride wealth to the bride's family. If he was unable to afford this, his family members would contribute one cow each to make up the total number. A man was accorded respect depending on the number of wives he had. A traditional Kuria wedding ceremony was characterized by a great feast, songs, dance and merry-making.
Mandara was a headband made and worn by married and unmarried women for dancing. The beads are threaded on sisal fiber.
Milking bowlNational Museums of Kenya
Marriage between women
The Kuria had a quasi-matriarchal system, which allowed barren women of means to marry younger women in order to have children.
The older woman would invite a younger woman into her home, who would choose (often in secret) a male partner to biologically father her children. The children were brought up by the two women without the involvement of the father or the older woman's husband. The older woman could be a widow or single women who lived like a male elder – attending to light business affairs.
This is a wooden milking bowl made of umuhuru wood, and used by women and children.
Dancing PattenNational Museums of Kenya
The Isubo ceremony
This dancing platform is made of wood cut from the mutembe tree and curved using an adze and knife. It was used by young men during a grand traditional dance called Isubo. The platforms were attached to the feet by cow hide thongs. This fastened them firmly to the feet so the wearer could stamp and jump freely in the heat of the dance.
Isubo was an important ceremony for initiating old men to ritual elders. During the ceremony, all the young men within the community brought beer, cows, goats or sheep. It cost a great deal as fifty cows would be slaughtered for the feast.
A council of elders was responsible for ensuring law and order, decision-making, ritual oath taking, religion, and administration. Traditionally, the elders presided over all issues concerning the Kuria community as a whole. The Kuria court system (council of elders) is still efficient and most conflicts are solved traditionally.
Religion and beliefs
The Kuria believed in the existence of a supernatural power, referred to as 'Rioba, Nokwe, Gekoni, Getemi, Mosacha–Obairo, Keng’ori or Nyamohanga'. He is represented by the sun, and associated with all good things. They also revered ancestral spirits, observed taboos and superstitions, and believed in the powers of diviners, rainmakers and medicine men.
Half Ostrich EggNational Museums of Kenya
An ostrich shell used to cover the navel
Half an Iriseresegwe (ostrich shell) made by fathers for their circumcised daughters. Inside are seeds and beeswax.
This was used by circumcised girls only to cover their navels at dances. The navel was never to be seen by outsiders as it was considered very bad luck for the girl.
Celebrating Kenya's communities today
Many of the cultural practices of the Kuria are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Kuria 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.
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. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.
2. Mary, A. (2016). The Abakuria in the Pre-Colonial Period. International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, Vol. 4, No. 2. pp 13-27.
Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography
Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga, Barnabas Ngei and Hazel Sanaipei.