The Gikuyu woman’s house, Nyumba, was the centre of the family traditions and ceremonies just as the Fig tree, Mugumo tree was the centre of tribal ceremonies. Its sacred position in Gikuyu psyche can be likened to that of a temple in Hindu psyche. Indeed the characteristics of a temple are clearly visible in the Gikuyu Nyumba. The four cardinal directions, place of ritual, symbolic geometry, elemental clarity and lucidity yet embodying secrecy and mystery are a just a few of the underlying themes of the Nyumba. Below is an annotated plan of the Nyumba from the PhD. Thesis, “Transformation of Kikuyu Traditional Architecture” by Dr. Joseph Kamenju published 2013 in Oslo and available here.
As can be seen from a study the plan, it is a simple geometry of a Square within a Circle in plan and a cone on top of a cylinder in form. This kind of simple geometry is expected of complex universal symbols embodying cosmic meanings. The World card in the Tarot, Yantras in India, the Christian New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse just to mention a few, are all sacred Mandalas, or patterns that represent mystical truths in geometric form. They usually incorporate a circle and a square and the central point.
In the Nyumba, the circle stands for the Woman, the all-inclusive, container, fold, nest, the mother and sustainer of life, Mumbi. Mutumia is Woman in Gikuyu, and the adjective Gutumiria is to hold in the mouth, to contain. A Mutumia is a container. The Male Principle is the point which stands for the absolute, the locus, pivot, piercer, the central stake, muratho, at apex. Guthura is to point out, to point, thus Man in Gikuyu is Muthuri.
The entire Gikuyu mandala can thus be interpreted as interplay of the male and female principles. Universally, the four sides that arise out of the interplay of square and circle are the four primal elements of the planet earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. The Gikuyu woman seated at the head of the cross is mother earth, Mumbi and she has stored all her clay pots in her private store, Thegi. The Girl is Water as she draws the water placed at her corner, Kibacia. The man seats at the Ruri side and that is where the firewood stack stands so he represents Fire. The boy seats at the Kweru side which is the only side of the square without a screen thus free flow of air, therefore he stands for Wind. At the centre is the hearth of three stones representing a combination of all four elements, Fire, Ashes wind and the water coming out of the firewood. If there is a round traditional clay pot cooking again, clay, water, steam and fire are all represented. The stirring of the cooking porridge with a stirring stick, Munduri is the great cosmic dance of male and female coupling.
Gikuyu numerology accords odd numbers to the male gender and even numbers to the female gender. Thus the square is feminine in the geometry of circle and square and the masculine must be represented by the triangle formed by the three stones on which another circle of the clay pot sits and a point as stirring stick in it. That is why a girl is announced with four ululations and a boy with five. It is also why there is confusion as to the number of Gikuyu clans. From Gikuyu, the man’s point of view he sacrificed a ram over nine rods, ndara, an thus he got nine young men to marry his daughters. From the woman’s point of view they were and have always been ten daughters.
Below are some numeric examples of the odd and even interpretations by the Gikuyu.
1 – Mukuyu, Gikuyu the man. (the tree of life, Origin, the stake, muratho, on top of the cone roof, The Universe coalesce into One)
2 – Woman (Creator, Mumbi, Ewe and Kid – Mwati na Harika)
3 – Man (Fire, Three stones, Man’s three legged stool, Njun’gwa)
4 – Girl (Four Ululations for a girl, Square Riko, Woman’s four legged stool, Giturwa)
5 – Boy (Five ululations for a boy)
6 – Young ewe Mwati (Muhiki, Bride)
7 – He-goat, Thenge (Muhikania, Groom)
8 – Kid, Harika (Eight Primary rafters, Miitiriro that sets out the cone roof of Woman’s Nyumba)
9 – Ram, Ndurume (what was sacrificed to produce the nine men for the ten daughters of Mumbi)
10 – Nyumba, House of Mumbi (Ten clans of the Gikuyu named after the ten daughters)