In every Gikuyu traditional homestead, the woman’s house, Nyumba, belonged to a specific married woman for no two married women shared a Nyumba. In a polygamous homestead the number of Nyumba corresponded to the number of wives unless the widowed mother of the man was also housed in the homestead. In that case the old lady also had a Nyumba. All the Nyumba opened into an open courtyard called Nja which was kept of bare earth and cleanly swept. Here the day to day women functions of the homestead happened. The man inhabited a separate hut, thingira, which was set apart near the entrance of the Nja. A young unmarried man’s thingira was far removed from his father’s circle of several Nyumba. The Girls until marriage slept in their respective mother’s nyumba.
Because the social and private spaces were gendered, the friction between the sexes especially to do with modesty and social etiquette was lessened. The taboo system, thahu, to do with the different sexes and age groups also enforced a strong religious kind of purity in the social relationships of the inhabitants. For example a circumcised man may not under any circumstance approach the side of his mother’s side of the kitchen or touch her bed. It was taboo for a father to touch his daughter bed. A man does not hold a baby girl, kugwata mwana. It was taboo for a person to pass under the support pole of a banana plant. A girl does not look directly at an old man but looks to the ground on her side. If he is talking to her she can draw figures with her toe and generally not look interested. These and many more does and don’ts ensured the purity of the home.
The history of how the thingira was lost goes back to the colonial forces of transformation that saw the traditional homestead change into a modern one with a “main house” and external kitchen as very well documented in a PhD thesis here. In 1954-58, a forced villagization programme in Kikuyuland happened in order to isolate and defeat the Mau-Mau uprising. In a massive military operation all the homesteads in the reserves were burned and the people herded into the hilltops, especially where there was already a school, a shopping centre or a chief’s camp. All the homes and cattle bomas in most of Kikuyuland were wiped out in a matter of hours. Most of the men were herded into detention or ran off into the forest. Each hut in these so-called villages was designated to each married woman. (They were in reality concentration camps). When the men came back after 1958, the villages were being dismantled in another far reaching exercise of land consolidation under the Swynnerton Plan. It is thus that men lost their headship of the homestead and became squatters in their wives’ huts since a man cannot own a Nyumba. There were no thingiras allowed in the concentration camp villages. This was probably the most painful part of the men’s homecoming and had far-reaching consequences to future configuration of the homestead and settlement pattern of the entire Kikuyuland.
With the loss of the thingira, today in the corridor of the main house a man will brush shoulders with his daughter in a night dress and find things hanging in the bathrooms that no man should see. The son will also see his mother in a night dress. When young women and men reach puberty, certain glands begin to secret smells that require a separation of the siblings as of old. The women have their particular smells and men theirs and these are supposed to trigger a mature interest in sex which then requires a separation. The social dynamics of the current sitting rooms are also not conducive to smooth family relationships especially in the evening and this is one reason why men come in late after everything has settled down nicely.
It has been suggested that the bar and the hotel, mukawa was the replacement for the external space just inside the gate, boi-ini where a man sat and held discussions with his friends before entering the Nyumba or his thingira for supper or sleep. There was usually a fire on chilly evenings and therefore it made sense to replace this with hot cups of tea. The hotel and the bar in rural shopping centres is still a very male domain. Politics and all manner of discussions are held there. Darts and Pool are sometimes provided by the bar owners as added attractions, It is likely that the huge SUVs popular with upper class men in Nairobi are their modern day thingiras. The SUV acts as a thingira on wheels moving from the house of one spouse the other without the women relating in any way. Thus the modern men are polygamous in fact while being monogamous in law. Court cases to do with inheritance of the SUV and other objects are legion when the various Nyumbas meet, sometimes for the first time when, after a life well lived, the SUV owner is promoted to even higher glory.
The design of the modern family house is wanting and architects do not seem to consider these spiritual and cultural dynamics as important to the design of modern family houses. The social-cultural dysfunction that the modern family in Kenya is experiencing today may be rooted in this serious deficiency in architecture.
Mugo wa Kibiru, the renowned Gikuyu seer and prophet prophesied that not until the great thingira is built at Githunguri kia Wairera will the Gikuyu be free of colonial domination. He certainly did not merely mean the literal domination visible in the Queen’s flag but the much deeper colonization of the mind that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has written about in his works especially “Decolonizing the Mind”. The thingira therefore stands for much more than a mere hut. It must be re-erected in Gikuyu consciousness.
See also Gikuyu Man’s Abode – Thingira