Gikuyu Origin Traditions
These are my field notes from interviews for my book Crossing Rivers
Other field notes:
The Two-Plus-One World View
The Gikuyu believed that there were three parts to existence, but in keeping with Gikuyu custom, they did not say “three” but rather they said “two plus” or “big two.” (See the section ‘The nine-plus daughters” for an explanation of this custom.)
The first existence was the before-life with Ngai. Ngai created all his children to live with him, and before humans were born to this earth, where they enjoyed their existence with Ngai. The second existence was the afterlife, when all humans who had lived on the earth were called at their appointed time to return to Ngai and to once again enjoy their existence with their creator. The third existence was the very brief life on this earth between the first and the second. Ngai created the world for his pleasure and sends people to the earth to enjoy and take care of his world. The Gikuyu (and humans in general) were not from the earth. They were visitors who come from and belong with Ngai.
Origin Traditions #1
In the beginning. Mogai, the Creator of the Universe, was given special charge over a beautiful country surrounded by Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya), Kia-Nyandarua (Aberdare Mountains), Kia-Ng’ombe, and Kia-Mbiuiru (Ngong Hills).
Mogai put a rare white blanket of dust (snow) on Kirinyaga so that he could have a resting place when he came to visit the beautiful country. Mogai filled the land between these mountains with abundant trees and rivers, and blessed it with good soil and rains. Mogai then made a man to look after the beautiful country, and he named the man Gikuyu (which means “large fig tree”). Mogai took Gikuyu to his resting place on top of Kirinyaga and showed him the land. Gikuyu was given authority over all the country and was told that it was his responsibility to take care of the beautiful land.
Before sending Gikuyu down the mountain, Mogai pointed in a direction to the south and told him there was a place on a ridge filled with fig trees (mukuyu) and a giant mukurwe tree. Mogai told Gikuyu that when he got to the place, he would recognize it because on top of the giant tree there would be a bird called Nyagathanga. (The exact species of bird was not identifiable from this name, but Nyaga was a derivative of a deity word in Gikuyu culture. The bird was the symbol of the “spirit” or “messenger” of the deity, so a literal bird may not have been referenced.)
Mogai called the place Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga. Gikuyu was instructed to build his homestead near the giant tree, and that when he was in need, he should make a sacrifice under a fig tree and lift his hands facing Kirinyaga, and Mogai would come to his assistance.
It took Gikuyu many difficult days of crossing rivers and climbing ridges as Mogai led him to the place of the fig trees. When he finally found the giant mukurwe, he was tired. He lay down under the tree and entered a deep sleep. When he awoke, he saw that Mogai had created a woman for him. Mogai told him the woman’s name was Mumbi (which means “creator/provider”).
Origin Traditions #2
The nine-plus daughters. Ngai gave Gikuyu and Mumbi nine daughters, plus one. In Agikuyu culture, it was considered prideful and arrogant to give an accurate accounting of one’s blessings. For instance, a man with four goats would never say that he has four goats, for such arrogance might invite a bad ancestor to bring misfortune upon him. Instead, he would say that he has three-plus goats. And so it was with the daughters of Gikuyu. The Agikuyu do not say there were ten daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi, but rather that they had “nine plus” or a “big nine.” It was from these nine-plus daughters that the Gikuyu clans were divided. Each Agikuyu clan was named after one of the daughters. Even when others such as the Maasai or Akamba become part of the Agikuyu community, they could only do so by being adopted into one of the nine-plus clans.
The nine-plus sons. Eventually the nine daughters grew older and told their mother they too deserved to make their own homes, but there were no men in the land to become their husbands. Mumbi reported the daughters’ complaint to Gikuyu. He sent each girl into the forests to find a good stick that was her own height. When the daughters brought their sticks to Gikuyu, he took a ram and offered a sacrifice of petition to Mogai. He prayed for an answer as to how he was going to find nine-plus men to marry his daughters. As Gikuyu was praying, the voice of Mogai answered him in the sound of a thunderclap that was so loud, Gikuyu fainted in fear. When he awoke, he saw nine (or nine-plus, depending on the version) men standing and waiting next to him. Gikuyu was amazed that his prayer was answered. He led the men to his daughters, who were very happy when they met the man that Mogai had given each of them. Some traditions state that in the thunder Mogai divided a part of himself to make the husbands for the daughters. In some versions of the story the last daughter was too young to marry. In other versions, she was stated to be an illegitimate daughter.
Origin Traditions #3
When women ruled. Initially, women ruled men, because they were the daughters of the first nine-plus daughters, and because they were the givers of life. However, the women ruled the men harshly and their demands were cruel. The men gathered to discuss the matter. They decided that each of them would go to their wife’s hut on the same night, and all would get their wives pregnant on the same day. When the wives were heavy with child, the men rebelled and have ruled ever since.
Origin Traditions #4
Wild animals and iron. Mogai divided his animals, giving some to men and some to women. The women had only sharp sticks and wooden knives for slaughtering their animals for food. The animals suffered greatly, displeasing Ngai, so he made the women’s animals wild and untamable. When the men saw what Ngai had done to the women’s animals, they feared that he would do the same to theirs. They went to the mountain of Ngai and offered a sacrifice and prayers asking for guidance so that they did not lose the animals that Ngai had given them. Ngai was very pleased that the men had sought his advice. He told them to follow the river until they reached the place of black sand. He instructed them to take the sand, heat it, pour the metal that comes out of the sand into molds, and make knives so they could slaughter their animals without cruelty. The men rejoiced and thanked Ngai, who told them they must be kind to the women and share the meat from their animals with them.
As a sign of this promise, women share a portion of the men’s meat, and a man was not allowed to eat the kidneys and liver as these were reserved for women. Since this time it has been considered irresponsible and lazy to kill a wild animal, because they were women’s food that have been set free by Ngai.
No one could remain a Gikuyu for long if it was found that they kill wild animals for food. Such a person would be banished from the people and would join the N’dorobo.