Stages of a Gikuyu Woman’s Life
- Kaana – a girl baby. A baby boy is a gakenge.
- Karĩgũ – a young girl not yet circumcised. (Kĩrĩgũ – big girl.)
- Mũiritu – A maiden after circumcision and before marriage.
- Mũhiki – A bride for the first year after marriage. If she goes beyond this one year without getting pregnant she begins to raise concern. A few more years without getting pregnant and she undergoes a resurrection ceremony called Kũriũkio kwa mũhiki which is intended to awaken her. (Kũriũkio – to be resurrected)
- Mũhiki wa rwara rũmwe – A primipara with only one child.
- Mũtumia wa kang’ei – An older married woman who can join in the wedding dance when food is taken to the village of the groom. (Wabai – a class term for mature matrons.)
- Mũtumia wa nyakĩnyua – A mother of at least three circumcised daughters or sons and is hence entitled to drink (kunyua) beer.
- Mũtumia wa makanga – A woman past child-bearing but who is still active.
- Kĩheti – An old woman who resides at home unable to leave her homestead.
The general term for a woman is mutumia, meaning ‘one whose lips are sealed’ and the name for the female gender is Mundu-wa-nja meaning ‘Person of the Nja’. The Nja was the open courtyard space surrounded by all the huts in a homestead. The Gikuyu were polygamous and each woman in a homestead had her own hut, nyumba and the man his own hut, thingira. Each woman also had her own granary and all these structures were held together by the Nja. The Nja was bare earth and always swept clean and it was taboo for someone to trip and fall within it. It meant there were things lying around loosely. The swept Nja also made it difficult for snakes and other small animals to venture there. The food preparation and cooking also happened in the Nja when weather permitted and the inside of the hut was used mainly in the evenings and at night.
The woman ruled the Nja and this was her realm. The man usually would sit outside his thingira or with friends around another fireplace near the entrance to the courtyard, boi-ini. Cattle were not allowed into the Nja and though goats were permitted they were controlled in a corner of the Nja by providing sweet potato vines hung on a post, Kihanya. They were also provided with a trough filled with saline earth for them to lick therefore they could not roam about the Nja. Cow peas, millet, sorghum and other produce would also be spread out to dry in the Nja and because of this the beloved small robin bird, Kanyoni-ka-nja or ‘Bird of the Nja’ was always about moving around and feeding on the seeds. Like the small bird moving up and about in the Nja, the woman was also the ‘Person of the Nja‘, Mundu-wa-nja, the name for the feminine gender. And just as all the built objects in a Gikuyu homestead orbit the Nja, so does the woman act as a central force holding the members of a Gikuyu family in place. The Nja is a mirror of her world.
This name Mundu-muka is used in the Gikuyu Bible for ‘woman’. It means ‘the person who came’ (from uka-come). When a woman married a man she is the one who left her people and joined her husband’s people, thus she gained the name mundu-muka or ‘the one who came’. But this was not the way things worked at the beginning of time. Gikuyu myths talk of a time when the woman was the head of the household and it was the man who came to her and was married to her just like in the case of the original nine plus one daughters but that is another story.
Ngatha ya Mutumia is a prosperous woman of substance of the Nyakinyua or Makanga grade. Traditionally the picture of a Ngatha was not one of a thin woman like the Ngatha of today as Mrs.Jane Kiano nor was it of a fiery-brand like a Mrs.Wambui Otieno or a Wangari Maathai but one of quiet self-assurance and confidence with just a hint of disdain. Mama Ngina Kenyatta is the true personification of a Gikuyu ngatha. She is ample and has the overpowering presence of a queen yet is still a Mutumia, a woman of discretion. The Catholics try to pass off the virgin Mary as a Ngatha but that picture is riddled with contradiction as their Mary is first and foremost an innocent virgin most usually depicted as being at the level of a maiden, muiritu gathirange. Ngatha ya mutumia is rare and at a spiritual level this is what every woman strives to be whatever her outward circumstances may be. It is not dependent on adulation but on an inner experience and sense of self satisfied well-being. Gwikindira.
Photos from Il Popolo Kikuyu