Stages of Life for the Gikuyu Pt.1 – Introduction
Rika. The “age set” or rika, as it was called among the Gikuyu, was fundamental to understanding Gikuyu society and structure. Every person, especially from circumcision onward, becomes part of an age group with whom they associate and work together for the rest of their lives. Together they become warriors, go on courting dances, get married, have children, become elders, take over the judicial duties, and even expect to die and join the ancestors in proximity to each other. This age-set was the glue that holds the Gikuyu people together; it crosses all clans and was an unshakable fraternity.
A society of secrets. This is a very complex subject that could become an entire study in itself. Simplistically, as a person enters a new stage of life, they were given a new level of cultural secrets in an “oathing ceremony.” If they revealed any secret to one who was not in the same stage as them, they did so at the risk of their life. As one can well imagine, there was a myriad of myths and half-truths both within and outside the Gikuyu world about the nature of these secrets.
Children as a blessing from Ngai. Children belonged to Ngai before they were sent to this earth as a blessing to their parents. A mother and father had no ownership of their children, only the responsibility as caretakers of Ngai’s children, just as they were caretakers of Ngai’s earth.
It was very important to a Gikuyu to have at least one son so that there was someone to inherit the land. Beyond this, there was little preference for having male or female children, as there were considerable benefits to both. The ideal Gikuyu family has two boys and two girls, as it was believed that the children carry with them the spirits of their grandparents. The firstborn boy was named after the paternal grandfather; the firstborn girl, the paternal grandmother. The second boy was named after the maternal grandfather and the second girl after the maternal grandmother. Because there was some fear of offending the ancestors, every parent desires a child to carry on the spirit of their parents after they had gone to the next life. So four children was a complete family, but more was better, and each boy or girl born was alternatively named after the next nearest relative to their maternal or paternal grandparents.
These are some of my field notes from my trip to Kenya. These notes can also be found in my book Crossing Rivers.