Things I Learned About The Kikuyu in ‘Out of Africa’

It’s been a minute. This post has been sitting unedited for the longest time, but here we are. I’ve spoken about Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa in this blog before. Now I can finally tell you what I felt, learnt or remembered about Kikuyu traditions while reading the book. Even though this is from a white person’s perspective, I feel that she was pretty honest in portraying the Kikuyu. If not, I bet I’ll find out sooner or later.

Kikuyu Women Did a Lot of Work

Haha. Calm down. Seriously though, perhaps because she was a woman, she made it look like that but I believe what she described as true, seeing how men behave at home, to date.

“She came towards me on a path on the plain, carrying on her back a load of the long thin poles which the Kikuyu use for constructing the roofs of their huts,—with them this is women’s work. These poles may be fifteen feet long; when the women carry them they tie them together at the ends, and the tall conical burdens give to the people underneath them, as you see them travelling over the land, the silhouette of a prehistoric animal, or a Giraffe. The sticks which this woman was carrying were all black and charred, sooted by the smoke of the hut during many years; that meant that she had been pulling down her house and was trailing her building materials, such as they were, to new grounds.”

In your defence, men, dad and mum tell me that the men also particpated in the building. So let’s calm down. I have stories from my dad about building huts back when they were young. They helped the women mud them. He normally makes this joke when he wants to make a statement: “Nimukumenya ndari rui ta ti ma guthiga”. Translation: You’ll all know that I went to the river and not to get water to mud houses. Now work with me here. You know that when youth came of age they were circumcised at the river, right? The other time they frequenting the river was to get water for the mud. Get it? 😀

Kikuyu women carried loads of firewood. They did this with a rope round their foreheads. Up to date, you’ll never see a Kikuyu woman carrying something on her head unless she has specifically lived with tribes that do or just made it a point to do so. I literally can’t fathom how other women do it. The women also tended the shambas. Karen mentions that when you walked in the farms, “the first thing that will catch your eye is the hind part of a little old woman raking in her soil, like a picture of an ostrich which buries her head in the sand.” From early morning to late evening. Ciakorire Wacu mugunda.

Women have been described in the book as unafraid of nothing because they had borne a number of children and had seen many of them die. That is very true. People in the past really bore lots of kids. As a guarantee that you’ll still have some kids after all the diseases wiped out some.

What Did the Men Do?
The little Kikuyu boys herded their fathers’ cows. Thus the fathers owned livestock, for starters.

“In the cold season they carried live coals in small wicker baskets with them from the huts, and sometimes caused big grass-fires, which were disastrous to the grazing on the farm.”

Dad tells me they carried tins with charcoal because it would get real cold when herding. This charcoal thing was called a kiboo. Related to this, goats were wealth. Full stop. Marriage was an expensive undertaking. And here you are looking for shortcuts and in the same breath saying we’re forgetting our culture. Men back then paid their dues.

The other thing they did was talk. Hehe. Kiamas. Karen spelled it as Kyama. The elders settled anything that happened in a village. During Karen’s time, they were authorized by the Government to settle the differences amongst the Kikuyu. According to her, they’d sit over cases for many weeks, “battening upon mutton, talk, and disaster”. LOL. Seriously Karen was out to paint the men badly.

The Kikuyu Homestead

“Each Kikuyu family had a number of small round peaked huts and store-huts; the space between the huts was a lively place, the earth hard as concrete; here the maize was ground and the goats milked, and children and chickens were running.”

You may have seen a replica of this at Bomas of Kenya.And you can also guess who did the tasks described above. Hehe. No, I’m not trying to turn this into a feminist post. By the way, the head of the homestead, the husband owned two or three huts, depending on the number of wives he had. Each wife was given her own hut.

The chief’s hut was typically bigger than everyone else’s but inside, they all looked the same. Beds were made out of sticks and ropes. There were wooden stools. If you know what a Kikuyu stool looks like, put up your hand. Njung’ua. Although this very informative post says there were different kinds of stools. Seriously, our forefathers were great thinkers, the way that thing took the shape of your butt. Muthuri aikariire njung’wa onaga kuraya gukira kihii ki muti iguru.

There was a fire in the hut on the hardened floor. So of course I imagine all our people were immune from smoke. 😀 Did I mention the part where Karen was always treating burns? Why? The Kikuyu slept round the fires in their huts.

Karen called Kikuyu homes manyatta, not exactly sure why. And that makes me wonder if our teachers lied to us in primary school by telling us that only Maasai houses were called manyattas… Of course she describes the homes as dirty and full of flies. I, for one, will not be the first to shout all over and say she was hating. I am sure they were exactly that.

Kikuyu Food
“The Kikuyu also grew the sweet potatoes, that have a vinelike leaf and spread over the ground like a dense entangled mat, and many varieties of big yellow and green speckled pumpkins.”

Clearly our love for all things potatoes came from far. Roasted sweet potatoes were a delicacy. Apparently sheep’s fat too. Bata ni uhune, kana atia?

There’s mention of hollow tree-stems that were hung up in ropes of hide on branches to make the bees build in them to get honey. Maize fields. Banana groves.

The Kikuyu Did not Bury Their Dead

“The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vulture to deal with.”

For some reason this fascinated Karen. She found that it was a pleasant thing to be put out there to be made one with nature. I don’t know what I feel about this. I have always thought it weird, even when I read stories as a kid. Of how when a Kikuyu was about to die from bad sickness, they would be thrown into the bush and a rein tied on their limbs and if the rope stopped twitching, the people would know the person was gone. Shudder. Also, the Kikuyu did not touch corpses. That’s probably why they didn’t wait till death to bury folks.

The Move to the “Civilised Ways”
So how did they start burying the dead? The government, of course. The Kikuyu were taught to bury the dead in the ground but they did not like it at all. But clearly, we did change our ways.

The young always started the move of course, as Karen mentions somewhere that an old Kikuyu told her that all the young ones who had been carried away by the enthusiasm for motorcars would die young.

The Kikuyu Dances and Dress
Karen calls them Ngomas. But I know all the Kikuyu dances had different names from my primary school classes. Funny enough the only one that stuck was Mwomboko. I guess they asked the question a lot in my lower primary GHC exams.

“The Kikuyu, when going to a Ngoma, rub themselves all over with a particular kind of pale red chalk, which is much in demand and is bought and sold; it gives them a strangely blond look. The colour is neither of the animal nor the vegetable world, in it the young people themselves look fossilized, like statues cut in rock. The girls in their demure, bead-embroidered, tanned leather garments cover these, as well as themselves, with the earth, and look all one with them,—clothed statues in which the folds and draperies are daintily carried out by a skilled artist. The young men are naked for an Ngoma, but on such occasions make much out of their coiffures, clapping the chalk on to their manes and pigtails, and carrying their limestone heads high.”

There you have it, just in case you thought we always wore clothes. Even when we started. We were not really covered as you can confirm with these photos on History KE. The chief for instance, wore a cloak of monkey-skins, a cap made out “of sheep’s stomachs”. Lol. Man we did interesting things.

The Kikuyu, Maasai and More
First of all, they were not friends. The Kikuyu around her home told Karen “how in the old times the Masai had thought it beneath them to intermarry with Kikuyu”. Apparently, since they thought they were disappearing slowly, they dropped their pride and Kikuyu girls were in demand! A Somali that worked for Karen described the Kikuyu as too lazy to go from one place to another like the Maasai.

“The Kikuyu were to take part in the war as carriers, but the Masai were to keep their hands off their weapons. But in 1918, when conscription had been introduced in regard to all the other Natives of the Colony, the Government thought it necessary to call out the Masai as well.”

No matter how many times you want to convince yourself that witchcraft is a Kamba or Kisii thing or something of the sort, we all practised it. Karen described one mother who had cast a spell on a certain young one.

I am not exactly sure she knew what she was talking about in some places e.g.

  • “Jerie is a Kikuyu female name, but it has some special quality,—whenever a girl is born to a Kikuyu family a long time after her brothers and sisters, she is named Jerie, and I suppose that the name has a note of affection in it.”
  • “The Nyeri people belonged to a low class of Kikuyu.”
  • “The white people often say of the Kikuyu that they know nothing of gratitude.”

In some cases, she’s super white, claiming that she had nobody to talk with because her ideas of reality and that of the natives were different. She loved to find white people to talk to in Nairobi to “get back [her] balance of mind”. We can’t hold it against her really. She must have been pretty lonely, escapades and all.

Generally, she writes the book with some sort of awe about the natives. Describing the Kikuyu as just taking it easy, sitting and living. The Kikuyu, Wakambas and Kavirondos (Luos) as knowing no code; “they have it that most people are capable of most things, and you cannot shock them if you want to.”

Let’s stop there for now. This post is long enough as it is. Comments and corrections are always welcome. Thank you for reading.

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