The ancestors of the Kikuyu migrated to the Central Highlands between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, from northeast of Mount Kenya. Stories describe how they found various hunter-gatherer peoples already in the region (the Gumba on the plains and the Athi in the forests), and a great deal of intermarriage, trade and adoption took place. The newcomers cleared the forests and planted crops, giving the hunters gifts of livestock, honey or wives in return for using the land.
Likewise, there was trade and intermarriage between the Kikuyu and the Maasai, both peoples placing high value on cattle ownership, with the Maasai depending entirely on livestock. During bad droughts, Maasai would raid Kikuyu herds, with retaliation at a later date being almost inevitable. But such intertribal warfare often had long-term benefits, as ancient debts were forever being renegotiated and paid off by both sides, thus sustaining the relationship. Married Kikuyu women enjoyed a special immunity that enabled them to organize trading expeditions deep into Maasai-land, often with the help of a hinga, a middleman, to oil the wheels.
Like the Maasai, the Kikuyu advanced in status as they grew older, through named age-sets and rituals still important today. For Kikuyu boys, circumcision marks the important transition into adulthood (female circumcision, or clitoridectomy, is illegal and rarely performed today). In the past, boys would grow their hair and dye it with ochre in the style of Maasai warriors (in fact, the Maasai got their ochre from the Kikuyu, so it may really have been the other way around). They also wore glass beads around their necks, metal rings on their legs and arms, and stretched their ear lobes with earplugs. Women wore a similar collection of ornaments and, between initiation and marriage, a headband of beads and discs, still worn today by most Maasai women.
Traditionally, the Kikuyu had no centralized authority. The elders of a district would meet as a council and disputes or important decisions would be dealt with in public, with a party to follow. After their deaths, elders – now known as ancestors – continued to be respected and consulted. Christianity has altered beliefs in the last few decades, though many churchgoers still believe strongly in an ancestor world where the dead have powers over their living descendants. The Kikuyu traditionally believed that the most likely abode of God (Ngai), or at least his frequent resting place, was Mount Kenya, which they called Kirinyaga (Place of Brightness). Accordingly, they used to build their houses with the door always looking out towards the mountain, hence the title of Jomo Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mount Kenya.
Today, the Kikuyu are at the forefront of Kenyan development and, despite entrenched nepotism, are accorded grudging respect as successful business people, skilled media operators and formidable politicians. There is considerable political rivalry between the Kiambu Kikuyu of the tea- and coffee-growing district north of Nairobi and the Nyeri Kikuyu, based in the fertile area of Othaya who rely on a more mixed economy.
The GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association), created in 1971 to further Kikuyu interests, at first concerned itself primarily with countering Daniel Arap Moi’s ascent to the presidency, and although it was banned in 1980, it is believed to continue to operate clandestinely throughout Kenya.
The emergence in Kikuyuland in the early 2000s of the secret and violent Mungiki cult, somewhat modelled after the colonial era’s Mau Mau independence movement but based primarily around extortion and gangster operations rather than emancipation, brought terror to slum districts in parts of Central Kenya. In a twist of jaw-dropping chutzpah, its leader escaped justice, declaring himself a born-again Christian. He is now wooed by mainstream politicians, while Mungiki has become a deeply corrupting force within the political process.