How to Read Pictures

In a post “De-cluttering the Countryside“, ecologist and photographer Roger Butterfield presented this picture.


A friend of his de-cluttered the picture with Photoshop to the one below.


This led me to think of those nice children’s “Spot the Difference” puzzle pictures like the one below.

Spot the 6 differences
Spot the 6 differences

and also the manipulation of pictures using Photoshop like the one below.

 Osama Bin Laden is received with all affection in the White House as an American hero.....
Osama Bin Laden is received with all affection in the White House as an American hero…..

Now, the point of all this is that I want us to look critically at three pictures that show traditional Gikuyu scenes and determine what authentic cultural and architectural information we can gather from them.

The first is a photograph titled “Maidens of a Kikuyu Tribe Planting Beans – Warriors on Police Duty” copyrighted and published by Underwood & Underwood in 1909 and taken by one James Ricalton at around 1908 – 1909.

We note:

  1. The girls seem to have been asked to form a neat circle in front of the warriors and pose like they are planting. One never cultivates in front of another. they even look at the photographer. Girls of that time never would have turned to face the photographer without being asked to do so. This is a manufactured scene, though it contain certain realities.
  2. The girl on the far right and the one at the front on the left are wearing bead-work on the head and on the hips respectively, something girls did not do when at work.
  3. The leather skirts (muthuru), ear bracelets (hang’i) and leg and arm bracelets (mathaga) are authentic attire of the day.
  4. The warriors have been asked to stand at attention behind the girls purportedly to portray that they are doing duty protecting the girls, a completely impossible scenario except in Photoshop. Since there was no Photoshop in 1908 the scene was manufactured by the photographer.
  5. A careful study will eliminate the fake and concentrate on the real like the afore-mentioned attire, the implements, the bananas, the sugar cane and other food crops which the photographer could not impose on the photograph.

The second picture is taken from the novel, Red Strangers by Elspheth Huxley published in 1939. I assume the photo was taken by Huxley’s father or colleague sometime after 1910 seing that the woman is not wearing skins but a cloth, (cuka)

Here we note:

  1. Apart from the fact that it is near impossible to take a photo like this without the participation of the subject, as far as authenticity goes, it does seem far more natural than the earlier one by Ricalton.
  2. The house is very real and is quite unlikely that the photographer tampered with it, so we can get a few insights into:
  • materials and construction of that time.
  • Scale, especially the overall ratio of height to width,
  • The ratio of wall to roof in terms of scale. This is something many architectural reproductions of the traditional Gikuyu house always seem to miss.
  • The interesting shape of the coned roof. It is not exactly a cone but seems to fit like a well worn hat fits the head. It seems to hug the space beneath it and feels very heavy.
  • The shadow cast by the eaves suggest that the walls are well sheltered from heavy rains
  • This is definitely the woman’s house, (nyumba) and not the man’s house, (thingira) which is a much smaller affair.

The last picture is a contemporary painting in acrylic of a traditional homestead scene done by the artist Jane Wanjeri for sale on the Internet by the website Inside African Art.

Traditional Homestead by Jane Wanjeri. Acrylic on Canvas 76cm x 51cm
Traditional Homestead by Jane Wanjeri. Acrylic on Canvas 76cm x 51cm

A beautiful painting as paintings go but we note:

  1. The men, women and children are all using the same external undifferentiated space. Further in the hot sun!!? Usually people sit under shadows at 3 pm.
  2. The Gikuyu never played the famous game Awere which the men in the painting are playing and even today the game has never caught on in in Gikuyu heartland of Central Province, Kenya.
  3. The shape of the mortar the women are using to pound grain on is alien to the Gikuyu. The Gikuyu mortar was carved tapering slightly down straight without a waist.
  4. The woman grinding floor to the left cannot do so bending over. She would break her back. She does it on her knees nearly hugging the lower grinding stone, “ihiga” with her knees. She never lets go the hand grinding stone, “muthi”. In any case, what is our lady above grinding, or they are playing a with the stones as toys?
  5. The clothes overall are too bright and clean. Like those Photoshopped pictures of celebrities in glossy magazines today, they look too unnatural and made-up. Real clothes in the countryside take on a brownish hue much like the earth. The above picture would be perfect for an advertisement for a washing powder.
  6. The period all this happens is not clear. It seems going by the clothing to be 1970s. By the implements and food lifestyle around 1945, and the house is inspired by those of 1935. The Jacaranda did not enter the typical traditional homestead of round huts but was taken up by well to do teachers and administrators in their homes done after the 50s.
  7. The ratio of roof to wall of the huts is almost 1:1 and leaves a very high wall exposed to the elements. The door is high and one does not even have to bend to enter.
  8. The shape of the cone roof is nicely geometric like those drawings done by architects in their representation of traditional house forms.
  9. The thinness of the grass cover and its slope is certainly off. I have looked at innumerable photographs of around 1900\1920 and I am almost certain this particular roof would leak even with its steep slope.
  10. Smoke coming out of the door? I doubt it unless their is a window on the other side. These huts had no windows.

8 thoughts on “How to Read Pictures

    1. Thank you Mr. Karanja. Pictures like these encode history and one hundred years from now they will be taken as representing the truth. You can already see how much we try to read old Italian paintings and so authenticity of representation is a big issue.


  1. I have a problem with the use of the word “hut” to describe what we call in Gikuyu “nyumba” Wazungus used this word to insult our houses which are our home. I was born in such a house and I do not like to hear it insulted. I must say you are not alone in this usage.


  2. I love this website dearly! It makes me want to do anthropology so I can learn more about my culture. Thank you author for sharing your knowledge. Is there a centre we can visit?
    Wambûi wa Gîtaû


  3. What a nice article. I have always questioned some motives of this ‘formal’ education and the meaning of ‘civilization’ as painted by the missionaries. I am lucky i fell out with the system a long time ago so i have been observing my suspicions as an alien in my mind’s eye. This is a reaffirming echo. I wasn’t ‘seeing things’.


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