Stages of Life for Gikuyu Pt.4 – Marriage
Courtship and dances
Every new initiate across all the Gikuyu clans was in the same rika as the other adults circumcised on that same day. It was a strict taboo for persons to marry within the same clan, no matter how distant the blood line may actually be. Therefore, it was necessary for them to meet members of the opposite sex from other clans.
Across the Gikuyu lands, wealthy landowners set aside areas on their land for dances. During times of relative peace, groups of age-mates gathered regularly at various dances, giving them the opportunity to meet up with others their same age. Generally, marriage did not occur for several years after circumcision, so there was a significant amount of time available for them to become acquainted and form bonds.
Despite the mockery of a boy who shows pain at circumcision, the Gikuyu were very careful not to bring shame on each other. The same was true of couples at the courtship dances. If a man was interested in a woman during a dance, he would casually put his hand on her shoulder. If she felt the same, she put her hand on his shoulder and stepped on his feet to let him know the interest was mutual. If she did not do this, there was no spectacle; he was expected not to attempt further connection with her and to seek another woman. While the two were getting to know each other, either may end the relationship by not putting their arm on the shoulder of the other person during the next dance. No words were exchanged, and the relationship was over.
During the dancing festivals, a group of young men and women will sometimes agree to sleep in the same hut. Couples who had paired off may also choose to sleep in a hut by themselves. The females were carefully bound around their genital region to prevent access by the males.
The cultural taboo against unmarried pregnancy was so strong, and the consequences to the family and clan (a fine by the elders of sheep and goats for the loss of virginity) so great, such pregnancies were almost unheard of.
Young warrior/older warrior
Between circumcision and, in some cases, early marriage was the period when all men were warriors. As the older warriors marry and move into early eldership, the next rika moves up in status and the rika groups behind them become increasingly under their control. Infrequently, when a young warrior showed exceptional skill or bravery in a fight, he could be included in some of the activities above him. However, this did not mean that he moved up from his own rika, only that his status in his rika was enhanced.
The Gikuyu devised a series of defensive measures such as war pits—a hole built on a path with a series of stakes designed to impale an advancing enemy. They built bridge systems across their rivers that made use of the natural foliage and were designed to be undetected by their enemies. Maasai in particular had an aversion to water. They did not swim nor willingly cross water any deeper than the waist. Communities near the Maasai lands were fortified and well hidden. Even on trading routes it was said that a person could walk within feet of a Gikuyu compound and never know it.
The general defensive strategy for the Gikuyu was simple but effective. If a community was under attack by outsiders (usually Maasai), the warriors would make a defensive stand designed not to stop them from stealing their animals as much as to slow them down. At the same time, the women, children, and older men would scatter into the woods and sound a distress cry to the surrounding compounds. Those warriors would not come to the aid of the attacked compound; rather, they would go behind the attackers and set traps along the return paths, and then lie in wait for the retreating Maasai with the livestock. The goal of the warriors under attack was only to hold off the Maasai until the trap was set and then disappear into the woods.
The retrieval of stolen livestock very likely followed this same method, so the Gikuyu did not have to directly engage with the much more sophisticated Maasai warriors. Usually, the Gikuyu warriors would plan an attack on a Maasai herd in retaliation, regardless of the success of the Maasai raid. The young warriors relished these raids, as they gave them the opportunity to demonstrate bravery and improve their status in the community. A successful retaliation resulted in the return of any stolen livestock and the taking of additional livestock as compensation for their trouble. Based on individual bravery, the warriors took the best of the livestock to build their own herds and shared the rest with their communities.
For the Gikuyu, marriage, like the rika (age-mate) system, was one of the primary ways that the people were bound together. Marriage was a way of creating alliances with families in other clans, making the household a stronger and more influential member of the community. A successful marriage benefits the entire clan. The primary definition of an unsuccessful marriage was the absence of children. The wife was usually assumed to be at fault; however, the husband was free to take another wife (if he could afford to) and prove that the problem did not lie with him. If it was demonstrated that the wife was to blame, the husband can, if he chooses, send her back to her family and demand the return of her dowry. In most cases, the husband would likely keep the wife, especially if she was the first wife, and perhaps, demand some of the dowry back.
It was unusual for a wife to leave her husband, but if she did, she would be required to return to her family. The most likely reason would be physical abuse, but the husband could still demand the repayment of her dowry but her family could also demand payment from him if the abuse was evident. Once a separation has occurred, the Gikuyu people recognized it as a divorce. There was no place for an unmarried woman in Gikuyu culture, and while the woman who leaves her husband would be free to remarry, she would have great difficulty finding another husband. Most likely she would become a third or fourth wife to a wealthier man who needed an extra worker in his fields.
Process of marriage proposal
By the time a warrior reached the age where his rika has begun to marry, he has likely come to know through the many cultural dancing opportunities the woman he wants to wed. But in keeping with the Gikuyu determination of not shaming anyone, the process was such that it clarifies with certainty that the woman was mutually interested in him.
While there were several variations, the most common method of proposal was a three-step system designed to avoid public shame.
The first step involved a visit to the hut of the mother by three or four men from the same rika and clan, including the one who wants to marry the woman’s daughter. The mother would invite them in, knowing that there was only one reason why several men from the same rika as her daughter would be visiting. One of the men would tell the daughter that they came to talk of marriage. If she was willing to discuss the matter, she would say that she was unable to marry so many men, or, if she was not interested in any of the visitors, she would say that it was not a matter for her to decide. The mother would immediately visit the father in his hut and tell him that some men from a certain clan were visiting his daughter.
It was the father’s duty to know the various clans and whether there was any reason why his daughter should not or could not marry someone from the visiting clan. Unless there was a ban against marrying someone from the boy’s clan, the father would give his approval to the mother. If he did not approve, the mother would then carry drinks back and give them to the men from the rejected clan. If the father approved, the mother would return empty-handed and the daughter would serve them drinks to indicate her acceptance.
The second step occurs after the son goes back and informs his father that he has found someone he wished to marry. If the son’s father approved of the potential marriage, he goes with his son to the hut of the girl’s father. The three men discuss many things and talk about their families and land holdings, since it was likely they had never met before. Finally, the son’s father tells the woman’s father that his son would like to plant a farm in the other man’s field. The man would reply that he has enough wives and daughters to work in his field and did not need help from the man’s son. All parties know, of course, exactly what was going on. The son’s father would say that his son wants to farm in a very important field that belongs to the other man. The daughter’s father would then call out to her to bring the men drinks. The daughter would bring in gourds filled usually with a bitter gruel made from fermented grains. She would pass a drink to the two fathers and then one to the son. If she takes a sip of the gruel before handing it to the son, it means she was in agreement. If she hands the drink to him without taking a sip, it means she was not in agreement. If she did not sip the gruel, the men continue to talk as if nothing happened and the father and son leave without any shame. On the other hand, if the daughter sips the gruel, then the second step was complete and all parties know it was time to negotiate the dowry.
The third step was the negotiation ceremony between the fathers and the most important relatives from both families. A goat was always roasted and substantial amounts of honey beer made, all supplied by the son’s family.
Negotiations could be tricky and were not always successful. But if both the son and daughter were determined, the fathers will usually find some way of working things out. In cases where the son’s family was too poor to afford a dowry, the daughter’s father may still accept the marriage. In such a case, the son moves onto the land of the daughter’s father, and any children she bears for her husband belong to her clan instead of his. However, if he gains enough personal wealth (cattle, sheep, and goats), he may begin to make payments and move back to his land with his father, and the children then become part of his clan.
The steps of making dowry payments were many and begin immediately. It was very common for a husband to continue to make dowry payments for many years. The payments always include the delivery of goats (usually four at a time). Initially, the payments were made with great ceremony and gatherings of clan members from both sides. The purpose was to get to know each other and to cement long-term relationships.
The wedding date, set by the fathers, was kept hidden from the bride-to-be; though she knows when it was near because she must go into a hut for eight days of seclusion before she could marry. Like the period prior to circumcision, the eight days signify the death of her old life in her clan; the marriage signifies the birth of her life in the new clan. During the eight days she was kept company by friends whom she may not see again, particularly in the case of a distant clan marriage.
While the bride-to-be was in seclusion, the families of the groom-to-be build the new couple’s hut or huts. This was done in one day; an average hut will last about five years before rebuilding or repairs were necessary. The groom then waits for his bride in the new home. There were specific furnishings such as beds, fire stones, and starter livestock that were supplied by the fathers of both clans.
On the ninth day or soon after, a group of men from the groom’s clan come to the bride’s hut and “kidnap” her. She screams, fights, and calls out that she was being stolen from her father. She yells for people to save her; it was an act that she has been rehearsing since childhood. It was a way of showing her sorrow for being torn apart from her family and the loss for both them and her.
When she arrived at her new home, she would be led to her hut to meet her new husband. The wedding was complete.
The marriage duties
There was clear division of labor and responsibilities between a husband and wife; however, both were expected to have at least a nominal understanding of each other’s duties. The husband owned the land and the woman owned the homestead. It was improper for either of them to interfere with the other’s domain, though mutual support in times of need or sickness was expected of both. The children were raised by the mother, and she plants and tends the farm along with her young sons and daughters. Generally, the husband did not do any daily farming but was still in charge of certain perennial crops.
The husband’s main responsibilities were the livestock and breaking new ground for farming. As the wealth of the family was dependent on the accumulation of crops and livestock, the need for breaking new ground or negotiating the purchase of additional lands for production never ends. Early in the marriage, the husband would still be called upon as a warrior if a conflict escalated, but this became less so as his family grew. While the wife has no livestock duties, she did have control over a steady supply of goats, which were usually kept in her hut for fattening, as fattened goats were in constant demand with the many celebrations and sacrifices in a Gikuyu’s life.
The most basic Gikuyu compound had two huts—one for the woman, goats for fattening, daughters, and very young sons, and one for her husband. Older sons fend for themselves or build a temporary shelter behind the mother’s hut. The woman’s hut had the wedding bed, which was the only place that the Gikuyu people accepted for sexual activity. This was true even when the hut was filled with children and goats. The man’s hut had a small room or ledge for his bed and the rest was an open area with benches and three legged stools. All the negotiations and meetings with visitors were carried out in the husband’s hut, while all family activities took place in the wife’s hut.
A Gikuyu hut was roughly sixteen feet in diameter, but this could vary greatly depending on the size or number of occupants. In addition to the two occupied huts, there were one or two elevated grain huts usually sitting next to the wife’s hut for storing produce from the field.
These are some of my field notes from my trip to Kenya. These notes can also be found in my book Crossing Rivers.