Gikuyu Judicial System and Taboos
Basis of Conflict
Livestock as the cause of conflict
Gikuyu were farmers, not herders, and as long as relations were peaceful with their neighbors, their uncircumcised boys were the primary caretakers of the livestock.
The Maasai, on the other hand, considered the Gikuyu livestock to belong to them. As a necessary part of recognition, Maasai warriors conducted raids into the Gikuyu lands to steal livestock (or, in their view, return what was rightfully theirs). Unlike the Maasai, the Gikuyu were not a warrior-centric people. However, a newly circumcised man became a warrior assigned to protect the tribe against such invasions as those by the Maasai.
The reality was that these were not really wars between the Gikuyu and the Maasai. They were, instead, local conflicts that were settled locally. Such a conflict could easily be occurring in one place, while peaceful trading took place on the next ridge. The Gikuyu women had a saying: “While our men fight the Maasai, the women trade with them.” Ultimately, the mutual benefit of trade far outweighed allowing the local conflicts to become larger.
Land and livestock were passed on equally to the sons (including adopted sons). Women had no land ownership rights; however, a widow always had the right to live on a small plot of land with her own farm and livestock, supported by her children for as long as she lived. Mothers were much more highly revered than fathers in Gikuyu culture, and the mistreatment of a mother was among the most grievous of wrongdoings in the culture.
According to Gikuyu legend, when men took over rule of the people from women, they established a system of chiefs similar to what they observed in the neighboring peoples. A few generations after the first man named Gikuyu, a second man with the same name (sometimes referred to as King Gikuyu) became the ruling chief. However, he ruled with such cruel tyranny that a rika of men called the “revolters” overthrew him. (The word rika is explained under “Stages of Life.”)
The people decided they no longer wanted a “chieftain” system. Instead, each man among the Gikuyu would go through a series of maturation steps, and with each step he would participate more in the responsibility of government. This new system resulted in a balance between the self-reliance of each household (or sub-clan) and the judicial system of an ever-maturing eldership of men from across all clans. What resulted was a system of limited self-rule within the bounds of the culture and the judicial constraints of the elders.
The elders did not have a police or military for enforcement; this idea was foreign. Instead, the people went to the elders for rulings and arbitrations in the event of a dispute or unjust action. There were four levels of elders (explained later) that could act as a “court of appeals” for more serious disputes or issues that affected the people at large.
Cases of murder
There was no differentiation in Gikuyu culture between murder and accidental death. A death was a death, and the clan or family members of the deceased would go to the clan of the person responsible and demand compensation. This would be done in the presence of the elders, who would hear the facts and oversee the compensation. The death of a male was always one hundred sheep in payment to the bereaved family, and the death of a female was always sixty goats. There was never a question as to why the death occurred, only for establishing the responsible party. These payments were very taxing on the wealth of the clan required to make the payment. But pay they did, and if they were a poor clan and could not afford the payment, they would become indebted to stronger clans for the balance of what they could not pay.
Because everyone paid so dearly for a death, there was extreme social caution about any potential situation that might cause injury to another. If, in a rare case, the same person caused the death of a second person, the clan may choose to make the payment, but if the clan decided that the person in question was a bad character, they had the option after the second or third death to turn the offending party over to the other clan. In most cases, such a person would be killed by the bereaved clan members.
While the concession was made that it was theoretically possible the same person could be involved in the death of two people, it was also asserted that such a thing was so rare as to be almost unheard of.
This then, is how the judicial system worked. Every action that caused harm had a required compensation that was overseen by the elders, and for which the clan rather than the individual paid the consequence. Once the payment was made, no matter how big or small, the clan member was returned to his or her normal position within the clan with no additional consequences. The matter was settled and forgotten.
Governing by taboo
There were many taboos in Gikuyu culture, each of which had predetermined consequences. Many taboos were related to farming. For instance, it was taboo to step under a banana tree. The fine was payment of one goat or ram. Most of such taboos as this one had practical reasons. As bananas ripen, the green cluster was supported by wooden stakes. A person walking under a banana tree could disturb the stake and ruin the harvest. The taboo was designed to protect farmers from the carelessness of others.
Another example was harvesting food from another person’s farm. If a traveler was hungry and passing a farm, they could freely enter and pick food to eat (except, of course, they were not allowed to walk under the farmer’s banana trees). As long as they were within the confines of the farm, they could eat what they wanted and then continue on their journey without consequence. However, if they took any food with them outside the farm, they were considered thieves and were fined heavily.
Most taboos were designed to regulate and modify behavior for what was perceived the common good. Others dealt more directly with their belief system and fear of angering the ancestors.
To Read more about Gikuyu culture click here.
For more information on Gikuyu Concept of Land click here.
For more information on Gikuyu Concept of Wealth click here.