Gikuyu Concept of Land
The significance of land
One could only understand the traditional Gikuyu concept of land if they understand the Gikuyu concept of Ngai (Gikuyu Names for Deity). It was Ngai who showed them the land between the great mountains and sent them to take care of it and make it productive. These tasks were essential to their identification as a people. The more land a man owned and manages responsibly, the more evidence of his blessing from Ngai.
Perhaps a comparison could be made with the neighboring, Maasai. A traditional Maasai was defined by ownership of healthy cattle; indeed, their belief that Enkai gave all cattle to them was so strong, they consider their raids on their neighbors (such as the Gikuyu) in which they “steal” cattle not a matter of theft, but rather a return of what was properly theirs. One could not remain a Maasai for long if they have lost their cattle; instead, they become part of the N’dorobo. In a similar way, a true Gikuyu was a land “owner,” and prior to colonialism there were few exceptions to this.
The Gikuyu concept of land ownership
The Gikuyu’s rights and responsibilities to work the land were based on the blessings of Ngai for their hard labor. It was unheard of to give up land or sell it to another Gikuyu, and in the absence of deceit, it was unlikely that a Gikuyu would lose the land he had acquired. This did not preclude the possibility of land exchanges, only that a Gikuyu did not give up what Ngai has given him responsibility over. For much of the Gikuyu’s existence, they were not the only occupants of the land between the mountains. The primary occupants were a small forest people called the Gumba, the N’dorobo, and the Athi. Even the Maasai occupied some of the lands. Fortunately, none of their neighbors had the same strong territorial inclinations as the Gikuyu. As they grew in numbers, they were able to purchase new land for farming from their co-occupants. It was the “manifest destiny” of the Gikuyu to eventually inhabit the entire area that Ngai had given them.
A landless Gikuyu, called an ahoi, became a tenant farmer on the property of a Gikuyu landowner. As long as an ahoi was a responsible and productive farmer, there was no explicit shame in their position; however, it was the goal of every ahoi to accumulate sufficient goats and sheep to purchase land for themselves in order to give their offspring a legacy. It was a burden and a humiliation for a father to not have the means to pass on property to his sons. If an ahoi did not demonstrate an effort to gain land by becoming a tenant farmer, or if the ahoi chose instead to hunt wild animals, he was no longer considered Gikuyu but N’dorobo.
A Gikuyu did not believe that land taken by force was, in fact, their land. To be legitimate owners, they had to purchase the land from a Maasai, an ahoi, or others by a very carefully orchestrated ceremony. If, for instance, they purchased land from the Maasai, the ceremony would need to make the Maasai a Gikuyu and the Gikuyu a Maasai. This way the rules of both cultures would recognize the permanent nature of the sale. The sale would always involve an exchange of cattle and sheep or goats, which was the currency among them. It would be done in the presence of a council of Gikuyu elders, who would formally affirm the legitimacy and permanence of the boundaries of the exchange. Boundaries would be made up of natural land features such as streams, ridges, and cliffs, and on occasion certain types of ceremonial trees that could never be cut down. Often the purchase would include the seller marrying one of the purchaser’s daughters, but all children of the marriage would be considered Gikuyu. The Gikuyu assimilated many other cultures into their numbers, and land purchasing was one of the primary ways it happened. The Gumba seem to have simply disappeared just before the colonial era. One theory holds that they were completely assimilated into the Gikuyu culture by marriage and land purchase agreements.
These are my field notes from interviews for my book Crossing Rivers
Other field notes: