Stages of Life for Gikuyu Pt.5 – Elders & Afterlife
Elder 1st Level
The first level of eldership was a sort of elder-in-training stage. Second- and third-level elders use first-level elders as messengers between the different clans. Some of the messages were of vital importance to the clans; others were simply tests to see if the first-level elder could be trusted to accurately transmit information. Being an oral culture, trades and communications must be done by messenger, and it was critical that such messages be sent and received accurately. Every first-level elder was expected to graduate to the second level after a number of years, but the ones who had more difficulty transmitting information were in for more rigorous and sometimes very miserable testing by their seniors.
Elder 2nd Level
The second-level elder was allowed to sit on the clan councils and participate in the local judicial decisions. He also has to present goats to the elders above him and wait for them to promote him to the second level. Usually an elder was not promoted until the majority of men in his rika were ready to be promoted as well.
Elder 3rd Level
The third-level elders sit on councils that negotiate or make decisions that affect relationships between each clan. They settle disputes within the clan, cases of homicide, and border disputes. During this period, these elders begin to be divided into two groups. Those who demonstrate administrative skills were tutored by the fourth-level elders to be on the supreme council. Those who show more spiritual inclinations were tutored by those fourth-level elders who make sacrifices to Ngai, pray on behalf of the people, practice deeper levels of medicine, and officiate at ceremonies.
Elder 4th Level
Those in the fourth and final stage of eldership were the statesmen of the Gikuyu people. They were the spiritual and judicial heads. Few cases make it to the fourth level, but when a case did so, the fourth-level elders’ decisions were final and indisputable. For the most part, these men were well advanced in years and act as advisers and mentors for the other elders in the clans. They were highly respected by everyone.
With rare exceptions, married women did not have judicial responsibilities and did not engage in any elder-type functions. They had three basic stages of life. In the first stage, as a new wife, they were addressed as “daughter of…” and the name of their mother was supplied. Their personal name was seldom or never used until they had children old enough to be married themselves. Once they bear their first child, their name becomes “mother of…” and the name of the firstborn child was inserted. When they had grandchildren, they were then called “Shushu,” or grandmother. This was the highest honor. Everyone, especially sons, gives deference to their mothers. Next to the neglect of Ngai, the neglect or shaming of a mother was one of the most grievous wrongs a man could do in Gikuyu culture. As a shushu becomes advanced in years, her advice was sought by younger men and women as often as that of the fourth-level elders. Some shushus eventually become very powerful influences in the community as a result, and their advice or demands were almost never denied.
Death was the subject of widest variance in the interviews. The Gikuyu people looked forward to death with great optimism. They had a steadfast belief in the afterlife—they came from Ngai and they return to Ngai. They also had an enduring belief that the spirits of the ancestors remained around them at all times. This awareness was so acute that it was not unusual for there to be dialogue (or at least a monologue) with the ancestors. They did not worship ancestors, because they believed in the worship of Ngai only; however, they did believe in the influence of the spirits of good and bad ancestors, including curses for certain kinds of misbehavior.
It would be wrong to interpret this as some sort of death cult. There was no focus on death; in fact, it was quite the contrary. Death was just not considered to be a big deal. A very old person who lived beyond most or all of their known age-mates would feel like they had been forgotten, and supplications might even be made to Ngai asking why they had not been taken along with their rika.
On the other hand, the touching of a dead body was considered a taboo, and a person who accidentally or by necessity touched a dead body was required to take goats to the elders for sacrifices to remove the uncleanness and any ancestral curses from themselves.
A landowner who knew he was dying would call his sons to him and give them his last instructions. His eldest son was usually the administrator of the estate unless he had disqualified himself. However, the administrator was simply an administrator among equals, and his only right was to carry out the wishes of his father.
The dying father would be carried to a temporary hut near the place where he wished to be buried on his property. His sons would then establish a death watch, taking turns making him comfortable and watching to see if he would recover. If he did die, he would be carried to a pre-dug hole, which would be filled with dirt and piled over with rocks. The temporary hut would be burned to the ground. If the father (or any other family member) died unexpectedly in one of the other huts, that hut would be burned and a new one constructed on a different site. No one knowingly built any hut on the site of a person’s death.
A mother or daughter would be allowed to die in their own hut. After all, the compound belongs to the women. They would be buried in the same manner as the father in a designated area. If the mother died and there were daughters in the hut, the daughters would be adopted by other wives or, in rare cases, relatives and the hut would be burned.
If a man was still in the warrior stage and owned no land or was an ahoi (landless Gikuyu), they would not be buried but left for the hyenas to carry them off. If they died in an unsightly area, they would be thrown into bushes or somewhere away from public view. If a warrior died in a fight, his body was left and an artifact such as his spear or bow would be brought back to his relatives. His body would be left where he died for the hyenas.
The Gikuyu were a people of the land, and only those who owned land and cultivated it responsibly were buried in the earth that the Gikuyu had been given by Ngai.
These are some of my field notes from my trip to Kenya. These notes can also be found in my book Crossing Rivers.