Gīkūyū Traditional Colors


What, may we ask, constitute the definitive Gīkūyū traditional colors? The answer to this question is particularly important to designers of “modern traditional dress” and to architects and interior designers working to faithfully represent Gīkūyū tradition in their work. The popular view and answer is that the brown or ochre color constituted the traditional color. With a few cowries shells and beads thrown in, this is what has become the modern canon of traditional Gīkūyū dress. The source of this canon has been taken from a study of the traditional skin garments which approximate the dark brown color.

There is another source of traditional color theory that could be a much richer source of design inspiration. If we look at the Nations all over the world – and by Nations I do not refer necessarily to the modern political Nation States but to the much older form of the use of this term, what today are described as tribes – we will find that they rallied around unique national colors. The most important traditional element on which these colors were represented in their pure form was the shield. Even today we carry this history with us in what are known as the national colors represented in national flags. Flags always derive their colors from a central symbol of each nation that is represented as a shield.

The science behind the symbols and colors of these shields is called heraldry. Heraldry today makes itself manifest in every Nation, organization and especially in the military as codified designs called Coats of Arms. The Coat of Arms is the central symbol and what gives inspiration to the flags, seals, national dress and other nationalistic elements. Our official Coat of Arms here in Kenya is a central shield with the colors Red, Green, Black and White supported by two lions holding crossed spears and standing on Mt. Kenya and a motto, “Harambee”. In the science of heraldry, the shield is the principle element and the other supporters, lions, giraffes, crest, mottos etc. go to complete a story.

The author of this post has spent more than ten years as a member of the Kenya College of Arms, an organization under the chairmanship of the Attorney General whose principle function is to vet, approve and grant organizations their official Coats of Arms, what most people call badges. The Military, being a key player in this matter of shields is also represented among the five members who constitute the College. I have therefore studied, written about Heraldic Art in Kenya and also given lectures to various organizations, including the Council of Governors. The College of Arms in London, together with the nascent Independent Government of the Republic of Kenya worked on the details of the Kenya Coat of Arms in 1963. The Kenyan College was simply copy pasted from the College of Arms in London.

I have put forth the above in order to build the case for looking more closely at the Gīkūyū shields for the secret of Gīkūyū colors. When I started studying Gīkūyū heraldry, …. and here I might want to pause and say that this science of heraldry is seen by its presenters in the North as a purely Toubob idea, as if we in Africa did not have a conception of it. When I started studying Gīkūyū Heraldry, I was surprised at the depth of hidden meanings that were embedded in the shields and especially the Gīkūyū circumcision ceremony shield, Ndome. Unlike the Maasai their neighbors whose principle shield is the war shield, the Gīkūyū essential shield is the Ndome, understandable when we consider the Maasai were more masters in warcraft whereas the Gīkūyū were more idealistic and into symbolic representation, in language, dance, and all their social-cultural practices.

The Maasai main colors are Red, White, and Black and any other color, Samburu yellow, blue, and sometimes the Turkana green appears in Maasai Heraldry for the purpose of elaborating and specificity of the particular group within the Maa community. The meaning of the Maasai Red is Blood which stands for all life including that of humanity. The White stands for Milk, a central survival item among the Maa pastoral Community. Black is the Spirit of the night and the idea of Death, a constant protagonist of the Red, Life and a major part of the Maa existential reality.

The Gīkūyū are very very close to the Maasai and even their heraldic art confirms this. We have already agreed that for the Gīkūyū, the Ndome shield and not their war shield is the essential communicator of ideas. A close study of the Ndome shield reveals that the Gīkūyū had three colors only. There was the White, which always formed the ground of the shield upon which the Ochre and the deep Blue were laid. It was easy to understand that the Ochre represented the beloved soil, earth and therefore represents the Gīkūyū essential feminine, Mūmbi, the attractive force and partner of the masculine, Gīkūyū. But for the man, why blue? If we understand that the man is the inverse to the woman then, of cause! The inverted dome of the sky covering her is the man! He fertilizes the woman by raining on her. This solved the enigma of the puzzling blue that was on the Ndome shield side by side with the Ochre. That left White, which is most definitely, the Life force, the white \npatch on Mt Kenya, Ira or Mwene Nyaga, the God of the Gīkūyū.

I will admit that I was surprised by the symbolism of the Ndome and that is why I continue studying it and will share here in a future post. Most of the existing Ndome shields were stolen from our people and can now only be found in European Museums and private collections. Some are selling in E-Bay and in auctions like Sotheby’s for as much as the equivalent of Ksh. Fourteen Million. Thus many of the designs of the Ndome shields are available only from online photos but many of them show signs of being retouched and the blue looks like a black, also because of their age. We are then left with the drawings of Routledge Scoresby which he made in his book, “With a Prehistoric People” published in 1910. Routledge’s drawings done in color, for there was no color photography then, constitute the strongest evidence for our theory of Gikuyu color. He has the best presentation of the Gikuyu Ndome in photography and drawings and he did the drawings in color because he saw the limitations of black and white photography and wanted to represent the shields faithfully. We also have the clothing to go by. The women were predominantly ochre colored in their skin garments and they would throw in some blue or black in beadwork. Some white also in cowrie shells would connect them to the main white. The men’s cloak was dark, usually black with some patches of white and also some cowrie shells. The White on Mt. Kenya itself carried some blue as background especially when we also look at the life giving white clouds. The clouds and the Mt. Kenya snow also came down to fertilize the earth, Mūmbi, or ochre.

This means that Gīkūyū colors can be summarized as a trinity drawn like the duality of Chinese Yin, and Yang. It is a powerful trinity and the Gīkūyū people seem to have intertwined their philosophy with their color theory so well unlike today where for example one of the Christian religious sects prominent in Gīkūyūland has switched the genders. The women wear blue and the men some sort of ochre. But this is probably a correct statement of the switched gender relations in Gīkūyūland and especially in that particular sect.

The Gīkūyū circumcision dancing shield, Ndome as photographed by Routledge 1910, “With a Prehistoric People”

Young circumcision initiate in full regalia as photographed by Routledge,1910
Father Cagnolo’s photograph of the initiates also wearing the Ndome shield in “The Akikuyu”, 1933
The drawings of the Kikuyu Ndome shield done in color by Routledge, 1910, “With a Prehistoric People”
Lot sold at Sotheby’s auction for US$ 10,000 Date: 16th May 2008
Kikuyu Ndome showing outside view, left and inside view right. The inside had a slot to insert the arm. it was held at the biceps.
Lot sold at Christie’s Auction for Euros 45,600 or Ksh 5.2M Date: 20th June 2006
Kikuyu Ndome showing the 3 colours used. White was always the background on which the play of blue and ochre held their conversation.
Maasai war shield
The essential colors of the Gīkūyū Trinity, showing their interrelationship. We should therefore end our prayers, “Na rĪtwa rīa Awa, na rīa Ma iitū ma rīa Mwene Nyaga, Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai!,” that is, In the Name of our Father, our Mother and our God, let the Peace Infinite prevail!

More Shields online