A Gikuyu home, Muciĩ, “is that which has a woman and a man, for an unmarried man has no home of his own and one gets a home when he marries or is married. A man when he marries is when he builds his new wife a house for no two married women share a house.” This is a translation of the first lines of chapter 3, on “the Gikuyu home” in Stanley Kĩama Gathĩgĩra’s book , Miikarire ya Agikuyu. (Customs of the Kikuyu) published in 1934. “Mucii ni uria uri mutumia na muthuri, amu gutiri mwanake uri mucii wake, ni undu mundu agiaga na mucii o aahikania kana aahikio. Mundu aahikania nirio aakagira muhiki wake nyumba, tondu gutiri atimia eri matuuraga nyumba imwe.”
In translating the above Gikuyu into English, one runs into a number of difficulties as the word ‘house’ in the English language does not properly communicate the meaning in the Gikuyu. The word nyumba in Gikuyu today generically means any house, even a commercial building like a shop, but traditionally the word nyumba meant the specific structure built for the habitation of a married woman. Inside a Gikuyu homestead, the Nyumba was the main house and the man’s hut, thingira and other structures like granaries and animal shelters were secondary. A Gikuyu home, mucii was one with at least one Nyumba. The ceremonies accompanying its erection and the taboos that were associated with it made it the centre of the homestead life.
The word ‘hut’ does not properly describe this Nyumba and conjures in a Gikuyu mind the man’s hut, thingira. In speaking of the Nyumba today it would be a grave injustice to refer to it as ‘a woman’s hut’. Any reference to it today must always be in the Gikuyu as Nyumba and to differentiate it from any generic modern house must be capitalized. All Nyumba layouts were exactly the same. The man’s hut, thingira can however never be capitalized as there were many designs of thingira.
Gathigira however says, “a home is that which has a woman and a man”, meaning that an unmarried man may build a house to live in and however big it is people always say of him, ndari mucii, ‘he has no home.’ This according to Gathigira also applies to a single lady. She has no home even if she has a house.
Gathigira also says that no two women share the same house. A Nyumba is specific to a specific woman. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the eminent Gikuyu author when He was forced into exile left a home in Limuru. His wife, Nyambura later died and the house has been under the caretaking of a relative of Ngugi since then. Ngugi however remarried but being a strict Gikuyu cannot take the new wife Njeeri to his former home in Limuru. Njeeri has her home in the USA and has yet to establish one in Kenya. In such a case Ngugi’s Limuru home is said to have finished with the death of his wife – Niwathirire.
In rural Gikuyu, today the homestead is always made up of a main house, nyumba, a kitchen, riko, and several other structures all usually around a courtyard of bare earth swept daily and kept perfectly clean. This courtyard space is called the Nja and is owned and managed by the woman, mundu-wa-nja, ‘Person of the Nja’. The homestead can have an extensive compound but the Nja is a specific area defined by the bare earth and taking the feminine operations of the homestead eg. food preparation, washing, drying farm produce and a man does not sit in there. It is a woman’s realm. There is usually a bench under a small tree for shade and many small structures, holding all manner of small animals and birds beyond and round about the Nja. In one such bench the men may sit. Cows are not allowed into the Nja and most cattle today are in zero grazing units as few small farmers can afford the luxury of a pasture. The toilet and bath are usually in a separate structure but a bit removed from the Nja.
The word homestead is used especially in architecture to mean a group of domestic dwellings or structures in a compound and related as an entity by use of an organizing principle like a courtyard without necessarily having the social religious overtones of home. The relationships in a homestead are primarily spatial and structural rather than social as in the case a home, mucii. Thus a compound with structures constituting a single lady’s or bachelor’s habitation is a homestead but not necessarily a home.
Gathĩgĩra, Stanley Kĩama. 1934. Mĩikarĩre ya Agĩkũyũ. (Customs of the Kikuyu.). Nairobi, Equatorial Publishers Ltd.