Gīkūyū Education – men


Ordinary Gikuyu men misnaned “Old tribal chiefs” in a vintage postcard.

When the Westerner, Mūthūngū, came in contact with the Gīkūyū nation, he found in the words of one Missionary, “a savage tribe whose peoples mind’s were clouded with paganism and ignorance”. The missionary therefore took it upon himself to save “these poor souls” and to “lift them from moral and spiritual depravity” into what they promised to be “a New Heaven and a New Earth”. It is possible, wrote another colonialist, that “with the education and developments now taking place”, this “eternal savage” can be molded into “an upright, civilized human” that is free from “the long African night” and ushered into a “new dawn”. (Words in quotes are by the civilizers) The civilizer and missionary took the African as a perpetual child who never grew up and needing what David Livingstone summarised as the 3Cs, viz Christianity, Civilization and Commerce.

But was there any truth in referring to the African as an eternal savage? Did not the African undergo an educational system throughout his life that molded him into a well rounded and adjusted individual being that fitted within an organized society? Did he not undergo a religious and moral training and were commerce, mathematics and philosophical discourse alien concepts to him? Eh? Were they?

Listed below, are a selection of just ten of the skills a Gīkūyū man had to undergo in order to become a useful member of his society. We cannot enumerate all the skills and many of them were learnt in guilds and even cults for example the cult of the blacksmiths. Rain management for instance was restricted to a particular clan, the Ethaga. A woman undertook a different path to development that was more suited to her gender. We will give a detailed traditional curriculum for the woman and how she built her CV in another post

1. The Making of Fire from Scratch

It was imperative that a young man be able to use a drill, rūrīndī, and the Gīka to produce fire. This was because when he got married he was expected to light the ceremonial fire of his new Nyūmba for his wife on the first night. He had to take the rūrīndī stick in between his palms and insert the stick on a oval shaped gīka with a hole in the middle and rub the stick until the fire comes. The woman could help him by gently blowing as he drilled, gūthegetha. No other person could do this for him.

2. The Setting-up of a house, Nyūmba, and the laying out of the homestead, Mūciī.

Again this was a task that no one could do for another. The setting of the circle of life, the limits and boundaries of home life and the protection and care of the defences were a man’s responsibility. No one could do it for him.

3. Learning the Names and Uses of Plants

Knowing ALL the names and ALL the uses of each and every plant in the immediate locale and in the forest was a skill that can only be observed if you walk with a Gīkūyū man. He stops, observes a bush on the wayside, takes leaves, smells them, and sometimes carries them with him. He will explain which root is best with soup and which bark is best for a cold etc etc. The subject of health and healing was a lifelong study.

4. The making and taking of snuff

Every man learnt how to do this himself and selling and buying of snuff only came much later. This was a sign of maturation and mastery in the art of peace. When two people met, even strangers, it was common to break the ice by asking, wī na mbakī? Do you have snuff?, and they would share. No Kiama or Council could deliberate without a good part of it being taken up by the taking of snuff. It settles the mind. Snuff is the cement for peace making.

5. Animal Husbandry

From very early in his youth a young man learnt the language of animals through observation. He learnt about castrating and fattening of rams and goats. He learnt about breeding and types. From this classroom he extended to the study of all the other animals, insects and he could tell you when it would rain by merely observing the animals. He understood his environment.

6. The Killing of Animals.

As the killing of animals was always a sacred act, it had a method. There was a way of killing an animal and separating (not cutting up) the various pieces in a precise and prescribed manner which was learnt by every man diligently. This is one class where there were no absentees. Every part was removed carefully, inspected and named before it was put aside.

7. The Art of War

All young men after circumcision had to take part in policing or military duties as warriors and learn the art of war. They had to learn how to waylay a war party, how to track and overpower an enemy and how to set traps and conceal tracks. These skills were used very effectively during the war for Kenya’s independence to the surprise and annoyance of Britain’s Western trained army. Of cause the more delicate and esoteric Art of War is mental and the Mau-Mau took this to a whole new level again to the shock and surprise of the British. The Aithīrandū clan, one of the nine-plus-one clans of the Gīkūyū are particularly devoted to the Art of War. It is said of them, “Matuire mbaara nī ūcūrū” – They took war to be their porridge.

8. The Art and Science of Gīkūyū Sex, Gwīko

This art is very well described HERE. Suffice to say here that the delicate art of wooing and winning a woman was not taken lightly. The members of the Airimū clan were famous for their knowledge of the art of wooing. In fact, they have a story…. This delicate art was learned by men through the careful study of another Gīkūyū high art – the growing of yams, an exclusively male undertaking.

9. Rhetoric and the art of striking a bargain

The art of the garb was similar to the art of wooing, but this was used principally by men in Council meetings, Kīama, and in driving a bargain. A lot of activity in the market even today by the Gīkūyū has really nothing to do with the saving or making of a few cents but with art for art’s own sake. The same goes for the deliberations of the Kīama. The late President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was probably best known as a Master of this Art. He confounded and ran rings round both enemy and friend. If the Kenyan opposition had done their homework and understood that their nemesis, none other than retired President the Hon. Mwai Kibaki was from the Angūi clan, aka Aithiegeni, they could have made some headway. The Angūi are well known as hard bargainers and as masters in the art of the deal. So adept were they at this that they ended up being refereed to as Mbarī ya mūtinia ngingo or ‘Those who can cut off your head’. This was not said disparagingly or in reference to actual murder but to show how they were adept in close-shaving you in the art of the deal.

10. Communion with God, Ngai.

According to Gakaara wa Wanjaū writing on the subject of Gikuyu Spirituality, or what he called Ngoro ya Mūgīkūyū, all the knowledge and teaching of the nature of God is writen scripture in the heart of every Mūgīkūyū. Kīrīra kana ūheani ūhoro wa ndini ya Gīkūyū wandīkītwo Ngoroini ya Mūgīkūyū. Indeed none other than Father C. Cagnolo, author of the 1933 book, The Akikuyu: Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore wote,

“There is no people without God, stated Homer long ago, or “without a religion”, wrote Plutarch; and we are glad to confirm these statements because since our arrival among these people, we found that the Kikuyu believes in a Supreme Being, Spiritual Ruler and Governor of the universe…. Ngai, – with the singular only, as Supreme Being and Source of all things.”

The study and understanding of the ways of God was a lifelong study of every Mūgīkūyū.