GĨTARURU – Gikuyu Winnowing Tray

GĨTARŨRŨ is a winnowing tray of the Gĩkũyũ tribe in central Kenya that was and still is an indispensable household utensil in many homes. It has multiple uses. It is mainly used for winnowing grain and the true test, if there was one, of a true Gĩkũyũ woman is the dexterity and grace of her body coordination when winnowing with the gĩtarũrũ. It is really a dance for the body sings. It is the most rhythmic body exercise ever devised and no wonder women were so stoic and elegant. A small one is called a gatiti.

Gitaruru in 1905 from Routredge’s “With a Prehistoric People”
Woman Winnowing – from Red Strangers, A novel by Elspheth Huxley 1939.

The gĩtarũrũ is made from thin strips of the Mũgio (Triumfetta tomentosa) cut longitudinally and held together tightly by the buck of the same Mugio into a width of a forefinger and done into an ever expanding spiral adding more strips as you go.  The difficult part is getting the bottom after a diameter of about two feet to make a gentle curve and an upright of about 2-3 inches making it into a tray that can hold grain.

Woman making a gatiti from Il Popolo Kikuyu.

It was used for all manner of things besides winnowing and a home cannot do without one even today. It was so efficient in preparing beans for cooking as you just run your hand over the beans and the sand and stones get caught in the valleys and you just pick up the clean beans – simple.

Women preparing a feast from the Akikuyu by Cagnolo 1933
Food preparation outside the house. From Il Popolo Kikuyu

After food was served from the pot, the remaining food was placed on the gĩtarũrũ and usually placed somewhere cool like the granary. Anyone could help himself or herself of the food thus stored including passerbys.

A good gĩtarũrũ was smeared with cow dung on both sides. Some people have queried the usefulness of this and out of ignorance have slowly made the cow dung gĩtarũrũ a thing of the past by making it look unhygienic. Ironically it is just the opposite. It is more unhygienic to use a gĩtarũrũ without cow dung.

Cow dung as it dries becomes very moisture hungry. When a half calabash of Irio (maize and beans mashed with green bananas, pumpkin leaves or whatever other green) is placed on this kind of gĩtarũrũ, the moisture hungry gĩtarũrũ begins to suck the liquid from the food. Within hours, the food has hardened and by the following day it is like a rock for hardness. This way it can last for several days without going bad or having a bad smell. I used to love this kind of three day old food when eaten cold. Put the same food on one of these modern metal trays and within hours it is drenched and swimming in its own watery slimy base. In a day or two it has attracted mould and is already stinking. So now you know that nothing passes from the gĩtarũrũ to the food. Any movement is from the food to the gĩtarũrũ. The gĩtarũrũ is a cleanser, a preserver, an African fridge.

The same principle works in a mud wall treated with cow dung like the Maasai dwelling or a traditional Gĩkũyũ dwelling. The outside was so moisture hungry that it sucked air right out of the hut leaving it ice cool inside. This is why an elephant or buffalo rolls in mud when it is very hot. It is cooled by the layer of mud quickly drying up and also healed of any wounds as germs are sucked out of the wounds.

Muddy Elepphant cooling off.

Since the cow dung for the treatment of walls was also mixed with urine, it was a powerful treatment against insects and fleas. In the absence of animals in a hut or even the compound due to poverty, the house is infested with all manner of parasites including jiggers. As a matter of fact in traditional Gĩkũyũ dwellings the goats always spent the night in the huts in either a pen or freely in an area called kweru.

Their presence thus in the hut is of the greatest value, as the alkali in their urine prevents the ingress of the burrowing flea or jigger. Where no goats are present as in the case of very poor people, the children and sick persons may be seen with their fingers and toes dropping off in the consequence of the jiggers in their hands and feet¹.

African Renaissance

¹ Routredge Scoresby and Routredge Katherine, 1910. With a prehistolic people: The Akikuyu of British east Africa, London, Edward and Arnold.

3 thoughts on “GĨTARURU – Gikuyu Winnowing Tray

  1. Wow this is a very informative piece. I remember my grandmother making a gitaruru (complete from migio and cow dung) for my mother is the late 70’s. My mother was not amused by the use of cow dung on it. For a long time it was never used until my grandmother made noise and removed it from the store. Incidentally it out live the numerous swahili teo that my mother had.


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