Gīkūyū Traditional Skirt – Mūthuru

The Gīkūyū traditional woman’s skirt was called  the mūthuru, a simple leather wrap-around that was accompanied  by a soft leather pubic apron that was worn under the skirt opening, mwengū at the front. The pubic apron is called the same as the gap it deals with, mwengū. The upper part of the body is protected by a cloak, nguo ya ngoro, or nyathiba, which can vary in length to just below the waist or up to the ankles. Because the skirt and apron were worn under the rather loose cloak, Routledge Scoresby writing in 1910 refered to the skirt as a petticoat. The cloak is made from three to four goat skins whose hair has been scrapped with a knife and then treated with ochre and castor oil until it was soft. Leakey in 1977 showed the method of cutting and combining the pieces from the four skins. 

Fine 1905 photo by Scoresby showing an upper cloak reaching just below the waist. The skirt, mūthuru, seems to cross itself enough to not need an apron but she must have one. From her ear ornamentation, we know she has an initiated son or daughter.

The sewing lines and repair lines for patches that would appear later were oftentimes decorated with beadwork. The cloak was knoted on the right shoulder and it dropped free unlike the Maasai women’s cloak which was always held in addition to the shoulder knot, by a waist belt. The loose cloak allowed enough air movement as the two vertical ends were not sewn together. The body was wrapped and this formed the significant difference between it and the white man’s dress, matonyo, or ‘a thing you enter’. Only the cloak was removed at night and used as a covering together with other old decommissioned garments. The skirt and apron remained in place even during sleep or coitus.

The Gikuyu women needed the skirt as it was an appropriate working garment that gave the knees and legs a lot of freedom. During cultivation and other demanding sweaty work, the upper cloak was removed or tucked around the waist being held in place by the skirt.. The skirt was made from two sheep skins, (never goat’s). It was designed to taper behind the legs so that it protected the lady nicely even when she bent over. There were no issues of indecent exposure as strong leg calfs, ikere and thighs, ciero, were highly valued as symbols of strong motherhood and were not seen as nakedness. The cloak could sometimes “accidentally” reveal a wonderful lightning grimpse of a shadowy thigh or leg something young men’s cloaks tended to do with crazy abandon. This sensuous state of affairs was one that could not be tolerated by the colonizers and was one of the first things they attacked declaring it obscene and primitive. Colonial visions of how Kikuyus ought to look like is best illustrated in the Karatina Coat of Arms, done under the direction of The College of Arms in Nairobi, an institution which until recently was nothing but an extention of The College of Arms, London.

The little leather apron worn under the skirt provided all the undergarment there was and for young boys and girls constituted all the clothing they had. A leather beaded apron, Gicoco, sometimes decorated with cowrie shells and worn over the skirt if there was one, indicated the girl was uninitiated, a Karīgū or Kīrīgū. It dangled the hoves of a duiker or Dik dik, thiya, probably signaling in a subtle way that here was a duiker, “gaka nī gathiya.” A fully beaded tracery apron, mūniūrū, was worn during the initiation ceremonies and thereafter until conception of the first child when the woman exchanged it for a broad beaded belt, ndohi, that supported the pregnancy. This was known as kwoha nda, or tying the pregnancy. It is still an expression used today to descibe a pregnancy though the belt is no more.

Today many of our ladies, young and old, have abandoned the skirt and taken up the trousers – (matonyo for the legs). The history of the pantalone is well known and is a  solution to the cold North as it traps air as insulation. When you wear pants as tights, it even interferes with the pespiration of your skin through the pores, a natural cooling mechanism of human bodies. This is probably okay for the Northerner especially in winter but certainly suicidal for an African. Some African women will wear what they call a biker, little knowing that these wollen or cheap nylons are detrimental to their health. On top of the biker, a pair of wollen tights and on top of this a skirt or dress. The purpose of the skirt then is cosmetic and serves no other purpose than to pretend to be. It does not provide crucial ventilation down under. Don’t forget that sometimes, a pair of panties and even some sanitary padding are also included. Throughout all Africa, the skirt was and should still be the centerpiece of rational clothing. African men are slowly, after being civilized into pants also tightening the noose around their vital parts, something that is playing havoc with their fertility. Africans by tightening up are in danger of ending up like European men, with dangerously low sperm counts and erectile dysfunction.

It is not just in clothing that we have got this whole traditional science wrong. The architectural scenario is worse. The traditional buildings had skirt roofs that kept the area down there wonderfully cool. The walls were mostly porous and breathed. Today glass encased buildings trapping heat inside are dotting the African urban scape. The glass towers like those in Nairobi are ‘Biker Buildings’, trapping heat and causing dis-ease inside. Dis-ease is just another name for disease. Our mismanagement of the heat condition in Africa and related subjects like the mismanagement of metabolism in this hot environment means that rapidly ‘modernizing’ Africa is hit hardest by diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, including cancer.

Detail of a Gikuyu woman”s dress showing the various layers. Ginnungagap in Norse mythology is the “Mighty Gap”, the primodial void that existed prior to the creation of the manifest universe. In Gikuyu, this is the Mwengu, The Great Gap
Antique photograph showing the relationship between the cloak and the skirt. On the woman’s right side the cloak opened in a yawning gap exposing the skirt. This is why Scoresby mistakenly took it for a petticoat.
Fine Gikuyu vintage photograph showing how the yawning  gap on the right of the cloak exposed the skirt underneath. If the cloak was short it resembled today’s loose blouse
Two girls with wonderfully sweet, stylish cloaks showing the beaded sewing lines. Notice the power of economy in the beadwork unlike modern designed so-called traditional dresses decorated with careless abandon of cowrie shells, Chinese glass beads etc.
As pounding grain is hard work, women always removed the upper garment and remained with the skirt. The girl to the left is likely unmarried as she wears the beaded apron, mūniūrū. The one on the right is certainly married and with child.
As grinding millet is also serious work, the upper garment is always removed. Since she always had to be on her knees and bending over while doing this, we see here the logic of the tapered design.
The logic and utility of the skirt was so well illustrated here in a picture by Scoresby somewhere in Nyeri around 1905
Gikuyu women bringing the millet harvest home.
Gikuyu old woman wearing the loose cloak, nyathiba. We urge our readers to educate themselves on reading photographs. This one has just passed menopause.
The long cloak for the Gikuyu woman was always left to dangle loosely unlike among the Maasai where women always wore a belt. Here we see the effect of the lack of a belt producing the characteristic yawning gap.
Left: The soft leather pubic apron, mwengū, worn with the skirt, mūthuru. Right: decorated leather apron, gīcoco, for uninitiated girls. The antelope hooves dangle on the lower border.
Beadwork apron, mūniūrū, for initiated girls, airītu
Gikuyu giirl posing with variously long cloaks. Some of the girls’ skirts can be seen stickong out under the cloaks.
Karatina town Coat of Arms show how the colonials wanted to view Africans. The motto is Mwana wī Kīyo Ndagaga Mūthambia or in English “A Diligent Child Never Lacks Someone to Wash It.” Karatina women, we say have today had their eyes licked by cats. Nī macūnirwo maitho nī nyau. The cat is The Mzungu and his ways. 

Tights even for a Mzungu are unhealthy says experts

13 thoughts on “Gīkūyū Traditional Skirt – Mūthuru

  1. I never noted the difference between the massai and Kikuyu cloak, now am busy asking myself why such a subtle difference.
    The science of heat and dealing with the high temperatures makes a lot if sense. If I ever decided to fashion design… This would be my always go back to knowledge.
    Ohh and thumbs up for finally getting to it.

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  2. Good research. I have noted less is beautiful. Minimal beadwork unlike the modern so called “kikuyu outfits ” plenty of Jewellery which we now avoid.

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  3. Mùtongoria….I love the balance between the science ( logic ) and the poetics ( intuitive insights about the aesthetics).

    Also the joy and provocation to improve. We improve when reality is anchored in a liberating truth. The essential purpose in life,besides suffering, is improvement and enjoyment.

    Ngemi, rí..ciumaga na mùcii

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    1. Wamũthee,
      I enjoyed this write-up just like you. The point we need to comprehend is that a thourough understanding of our African condition will be the key to our survival. Tũtige gwĩtĩkĩra gũkuuo ũrimũ.

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  4. This really makes sense and it seems that there’s also a connection with it,but was yet stolen and became perverted.I really enjoyed this read and the break downs.Yeah the colonizers truly stripped us from everything and made what was natural for our people, seem perverted or demonic

    “Return back to the ancient paths”

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    1. There is a section of the political economy that is preoccupied with notions of “manufacturing”. This has been one of the things highlighted as the four agenda items that constitute “measurable social development”

      If you consider apparel from a social anthropological standpoint ( material culture ) and we look critically at historical phenomena that potrays a dress code and fashion design informed by a home grown standard….then a sustainable truth and model emerge…that can be engaged passionately and with no small measure of depth is planted in our consciousness.

      The tastes and influences we have acquired then become a catalyst and fuel for examining, exploring and engaging what is essentially a highly functional and beautiful articles of clothing ….whether this examination is academic,to advance a progressive attitude and understanding, …. or whether it’s designed to make a contribution to the vocation/profession of local apparel design, construction,craftsmanship and fashion.

      This is the optimistic twist we must assign to the labor of investing time in the study of míthuru,míengú,mírumbo…. and other charismatic and appealing material cultural products connected to a rich heritage of meaning, making/manufacturing.

      This is how we may wish to characterize and materialise innovation. Somehow, we must generate the courage to analyze and unpack our history, heritage…empirical anthropological phenomena… and then spring from concept to reality like our forbearers…and tormentors alike.

      Just the process alone will be fulfilling and liberating.

      Never mind the product, which itself will be a powerful incentive.

      The truth is, we can’t engage the “big four” in ‘midair’…

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  5. This is great. I just read a Gīkūyū folktale which saysone of the women, after being sent down in to the ground, was made a goatskin attire by her spouse’s family when she returned. This write up helped me understand the meaning of the goatskin, and a lot more to help with the logic-attire-Westernization pieces.
    appreciate from the Southeastern USA, racialized Black American

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