Gīcandī: Gīkūyū enigmatic poetry


​The Gicandi is an an ancient Gikuyu composition of enigmatic poetry presented in pubic by two poets in a dialogue of back and forth battle of wits. Composed of reportedly over 150 stanzas, the singer of the Gicandi had to subject himself to an accurate preparation and learn by heart the high number of stanzas containing as many enigmas: this explains why there were very few Gicandi singers even in bygone times and why they have practically disappeared now. These initiated singers made their appearance in the various market places passing from one village to another. 

The presentation of the dialogic challenge was made formally by “spreading it”, Kwara Gicandi in an arena in front of an audience. One of the contestants would propose an enigma first, and the other would explain it and propose the next in turn. The competition would go on until one of the two failed to give the interpretation and so lost the game. The losing party handed over his musical instrument to the winner.

The late Gicandi poet, Muini wa Gicandi, John Nathaneal Kahora with his Gicandi, left. A Grand Master who provided on request the text for 150 stanzas to Vittorio Merlo Pick in 1930. The instrument is kept in the small IMC museum in Turin, Italy. – Source: Pick, 1973

The instrument with which the singers used to accompany the song was itself called the Gicandi and the singer as Muini wa GicandiGicandi is derived from the verb gucanda, to dance. The instrument itself was a small elongated guard about one and a half to two feet high and about 4 to 5 inches at its widest diameter. The Gicandi was prepared carefully having its sides engraved with symbolical signs and adorned with cowrie shells, ngugutu, some of these being fixed to the guard itself and others strung to a glassbead, leather or copper wire, Munyoori or Kirengereri. The inside contained seeds and/or pebbles, Mwethia, which on shaking the guard would strike against thorns, mīigua, struck through the sides producing a characteristic sound. Traditionally the instrument would be prepared and blessed by a medicine-man, also an expert in this song against payment of a ram. It was religiously kept in a leather bag, Gataki, specially made for the storage and carrying of the precious instrument. Today, an authentic one can be prepared and blessed by a Gicandi singer.

The drawings are directly related to the text of the poem and help the singer to navigate his way through the complex maze of enigmatic wizardly. The Gicandi is a long journey.  –  Source: Pick, 1973

Specially decorated bag, Gataki, for the carrying of the Gicandi. This one identifies the owner as Kimani wa Karanja

The drawings on the Gicandi are as enigmatic as the words and constitute a mnemonic-pictorial system that is the only kind existent among the Bantu tribes and reminds one of the hieroglyphics writing system of ancient Egypt. This kind of memory device uses a pictorial symbolism which proceeds by simplified pictures, tracing only part of an object or a conventional image. A small number of pictures is sufficient to record a happening, suggest to a medicine-man the formula for magical practices and to a singer the object and verses of his song. Kimani Njogu, a modern student of the Gicandi writes that “The performer considers the inscribed text an integral part of his performance and thus would make constant reference to the pictograms in the poem. In most Gicandi performances, the inscribed text and the Gicandi guard itself (with the seeds therein) and the poet’s composition dialogically merge indistinguishably.” The interpretation of this text is complex and beyond the scope of this write-up.

Vittorio Merlo Pick an Italian Consolata missionary has perhaps the most comprehensive documentation of the Gicandi extant. Together with a Gicandi singer, John Kahora  he recorded in his book, Ndai na Gicandi: Kikuyu Enigmas, 126 of an originally 150 stanza collection done in the year 1930. Though the Gicandi has a fixed text of which memory is the chief test, like all creative artistic endeavors, it incorporates and calls upon the singer’s own creative explorations. Father V. Ghilardi, another student of the Gicandi wrote, “It is a poem of very high poetry, in which the singer spaces freely, passing from one field to another. He touches on all lightmotifs more or less at length. He passes from feasting to merriment to the darkest sadness, from comical to tragical and from lyrical to gluesome or even apocalyptical expressions. He disdains vulgar themes.” In this role as a creative artist the Gicandi singer acts as a social commentator.

The Gikuyu were always a very cerebral people. While the young grew up with mind games, fairy tales, riddles and enigmas that tested and stretched the limits of their minds, it seems the grown ups deepened these skills in music and poetry heavy in linguistic allegory and symbolism like the MuthunguciMugoiyo and Gicukia. The epitome of this kind of creative expression was in the Gicandi and the famed proverbs-rich rhetoric of Elder’s Council meetings, Kiama. The Gicandi itself tells us so in Kahora’s stanza 17;

Anake magiatura njuiri na tuhii tugicirira mburi athuuri makiaria ndundu cia ciira. While the warriors divide their hairs, and the young boys talk about goats, the elders discuss the secrets of the Council.

While Gikuyu neophytes develop and train their memory, wit, shrewdness, richness of imagination, and the spirit of observation through riddles and such famous mind games as Cengerecema, the adepts hone their skills with proverbs, thimo, and follow the Gicandi. The Gicandi singer, Muini wa Gicandi is the Grand Master.

CENGERECEMA (strictly for Kikuyu neophytes)

Witagwo atia? – Cengerecema

Ii cema? – Cema uuthi

Ii uuthi? – Uuthi kagira

Ii kagira? – Kagira nyenje

Ii nyenje – Nyenje wairi

Ii wairi? – Wairi uri nda

Ii nda? – Nda ya mwene

Ii mwene? – Mwene matote

Ii matote?- Matotera thi

Ii thi? – Thi ya murogi

Ii murogi? – Murogi ciari

Ii ciari? – Ciari gatara

Ii gatara? – Gatara hungu

Ii hungu? – Hungu king’uu

Ii king’uu? – King’uira iguru

The late Gicandi poet , Muini wa Gicandi, Joseph Kang’ethe photographed in 1992 – Photo by Kimani Njogu

The late Bantu Mwaura holds a Gicandi instrument after a presentation, Kwara Gicandi, at the Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi. – Photo by Kimani Njogu.

Mr. Kimani wa Karanja, a contemporary Gicandi poet, who also happens to be the younger brother of the late Joseph Kang’ethe in an interview with this writer.

Muini wa Gicandi, Kimani wa Karanja making a presentation at the Gikuyu Shrine, Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in August, 2016

Muini wa Gicandi Kimani wa Karanja at a presentation, kwara Gicandi, at the Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga Shrine in August 2016. Contact admin at muiniwagicandi@gmail.com for Mr. Kimani’s contact