Stages of Life for Gikuyu Pt.2 – Childhood
Childbirth and Infancy
When a mother was in labor, she was attended by her mother, if possible, along with female relatives and a midwife. The husband and other related males sit in silence outside the woman’s hut waiting for the news.
After a child was born, the midwife checked to be certain he or she was alive. If it was a boy, they gave five loud ululations (in this case, celebratory screams) as an announcement that a boy has been born, and the father receives congratulations that the “owner of the house has come home.” If the child was a girl, four ululations were given, and the father receives congratulations that the “giver and supporter of life has come home.”
The infant stays in the exclusive care of the mother for eight days. If the child dies during that period, he or she was buried quietly and in hiding by the mother. The child was considered an integral extension of the mother for those eight days. On the ninth day, the baby was presented to the father and a goat was taken to the elders for a sacrifice of thanksgiving to Ngai. After the eighth day, it was the father who buries a child who has died.
A child nurses from its mother’s breast as long as he or she was willing to suckle. It was considered a curse on the child to drink milk from another mother, or to drink the milk of a cow or goat while still nursing. The mother will begin to introduce food by chewing fruit and vegetables and placing the chewed food in the baby’s mouth.
It was the responsibility of the mother and the grandparents to give the children their basic education, which centers primarily on storytelling designed to teach the values and traditions of the Gikuyu.
By the age of five or six, a young boy would begin to take care of livestock along with the older boys. He would spend most of his pre-circumcision life raising livestock and on occasion following his father in other duties.
“Play time” involved practicing two important skill sets: leadership skills and fighting skills. Each boy who was so inclined claims a leadership role in the responsibilities of caring for the livestock and developing “warrior-type” fighting skills.
There were two very important elements of leadership. First, the boy must demonstrate the ability to lead and motivate the group in a way that was to the benefit of all. There could be no evidence of favoritism or self-benefit from the leader. Second, the “followers” must demonstrate fidelity to the leader and absolute comradeship with the entire group. One who did not lead well was replaced, and one who did not follow well was not allowed to lead. After circumcision, when the boys become warriors and eventually elders, the leaders were often chosen from these childhood games, so this play time was taken very seriously.
Unlike the Maasai, the Gikuyu did not see themselves as a warrior culture. They were farmers, and their warriors existed primarily as a defensive necessity against outside invaders. On the other hand, the Gikuyu were very fierce defensive fighters, and warriors were expected to have the basic skill sets to perform well in the event of an invasion. It was the boys’ responsibility to develop the basic skills to be ready to become warriors.
One game used to develop these skills involved making bows and arrows and wooden spears. The boys would practice building these weapons until each boy had a useful set. One boy would bend a long green stick into a circle so that it would roll along the ground. He would then roll the loop in front of the other boys while they took turns trying to shoot an arrow or throw a spear through it. The boy with the most successful attempts would replace the one rolling the loop until another boy’s skills exceeded his, and then he would be replaced as well.
Young boys spent their first few years sleeping in their mother’s house in an area also designated for the goats. It was well known when they were at this stage of development, because they smelled of goat urine. Afterward they might move temporarily into their father’s hut but soon they are expected to fend for themselves, often building temporary huts for each other.
Uncircumcised girls stayed in their mother’s house until circumcision and in some cases until marriage. Their duties were to work with their mother, learning her skill sets. On rare occasions a girl may also help out with the care of livestock, but her primary duties were working in the garden and learning how to prepare food and drink. Because of the extensive interaction between mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, young girls were the best equipped to understand Gikuyu traditions and to pass them on to their own children.
It was accepted for there to be some sex play between uncircumcised girls and boys. The extent or acceptance of this play was a matter of debate. As the girls approached menstruation, however, this sex play became increasingly taboo.
A mother looked for certain signs of maturity among her children. Generally, this meant the ability to reason rather than physical maturity. What these signs were are unclear but they typically developed between seven and ten years of age (seven for girls and ten for boys). When a mother determined that the age of maturity had been reached, she grabbed her child firmly by the ear and pierced a hole in the upper lobe with a large thorn. The first time this happened, the child often screamed in pain and surprise, but the mother prevented any removal of the thorn. After a week or two the hole stops festering and the mother removes the thorn and replaces it with a small stick to keep it open.
Each year at about the same time the mother repeated this process, until there were six holes in each ear. The year after the sixth hole was placed in the ear, the child was deemed ready for circumcision.
These are some of my field notes from my trip to Kenya. These notes can also be found in my book Crossing Rivers.