How “cleanliness in the home” was sold to the Kikuyu

Baby, Bath and Broom from The Book of Civilization, 1935

Utheru thiini wa mucii or ‘Cleanliness in the Home’ was a popular colonial teaching book in the 1950s. It targeted women because as the colonial thinking went, African women were to be civilized using the 3B’s – Baby, Bath and Broom while the 3R’s – Reading, wRiting and aRithmentic, were to be used to civilize the men. The colonials argued that it was important to teach the natives things that matter rather than waste time teaching them such highbrow subjects like philosophy, literature and art. Teaching the natives such ‘practical’ subjects as why mosquitoes breed in roof gutters or why rats are bad seemed to the colonials as much more useful. Tropical hygiene was infused into the native curriculum and such books as the 1933 Carey Francis’ “Hygiene: Notes written in simple English for African schools” were all the rage. They explained ‘in simple English’ to Africans, why a pit latrine is useful, and why drinking water needs to be boiled etc. etc., complete with the drawings on how to construct the new kind of structures needed.

One Blacklock writing her “Elementary Course in Hygiene”, explained that “Dirt is the cause of disease – do not have any refuse about your house or compound.”
Cleanliness was taken to be next to Godliness and this mantra was preached with as much vigor as the doctrine of the clean Ghost, (Roho Mutheru -Kikuyu name for Holy Ghost) and the Clean Father, (Baba Mutheru – Kikuyu name for Pope). It is easy then to see why white was seen as clean and holy, and why the new converts into the new religion were given white Calico sheets to wear replacing their dirty leather skin garments. Children in school were introduced to little Snow White, the fairest of them all and there was no mention of dark Nyanjiru and her search for her father’s lost guard.

Books like “The Book of Civilization: On cleanliness and health, the care of your children, food and how to get rid of flies” went into great detail to inculcate the new lifestyle and contrasted it with the old in beautifully drawn Before and After scenarios. This before and after method was used later very successfully in marketing skin lightening creams to African women. In a very insidious way, the implication was quite clear: pink skin is nearer white therefore cleaner, healthier and holier. Black skin is dirtier therefore unhealthy and evil for we should never forget: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. The Holy Virgin is referred to in Gikuyu as Maria Mutheru or ‘The Clean Mary’. You can’t get cleaner or holier than that! Many of the civilizers and missionaries used the supposed uncleanliness in and around the home as the main reason for their instituting an aggressive program of transforming the Gikuyu and their architecture. One of the famous missionaries, Father C. Cagnolo wrote, “Our hygienists would be horror-struck to see the black children.” Yes, black – and imps as he refered to them in another part of the same book.

Before and After according to the missionary Father C. Cagnolo, The Akikuyu, 1935
Care of boiled water according to Carey Francis, Hygiene Notes for African Schools, 1933

Today, the mantra that cleanliness is next to Godliness continues to be propagated. The aggressive marketing and sale of antiseptics has certain religious connotations and is not necessarily driven by actual danger of germs. As a matter of fact research has shown that excessive obsession with cleanliness is detrimental to overall health. One needs to make friends with germs as humans are embedded in micro-biological communities. The harmonious coexistence within these communities of which human beings are but a small part constitute health and the raging battles constitute dis-ease. A child that grows up in a pure and antiseptic environment will develop a very weak immune system while the converse is true. Thus we have come full circle as it is now horrifying to see the kind of pristine antiseptic environments that children are growing up in and the danger they are thus exposed to. One side effect of this removal of germs and microbes is that the body has somehow to find an accommodation with a much decreased metabolic activity and thus obesity is the result. Obesity seems to have a direct correlation with cleanliness.

Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You

Cleanliness is Not Next to Godliness: It’s Sheer Stupidity

Some of my best friends are germs – New York Times

9 thoughts on “How “cleanliness in the home” was sold to the Kikuyu

    1. Sorry for the delay. I do personally own all the books cited in this site. My Kikuyu library especially is one I would like to one day open to the public through Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga Trust as an archive. As for now we are still building it up.


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