Gīkūyū Marriage Ceremonies. Ūhikania: Part 1

The coming together of a Gīkūyū man and a woman in marriage is not a union of merely two people but two families. By families it is meant the extended family or Mbarī. The Mbarī is still a very big affair. The Gikūyū are organized into ten clans, Kenda Mūiyūru, each clan with very many Mbarī, and the Mbarī into Nyūmba or family proper, The Nyūmba into several Ithaku or step families from different co-wives and finally the nuclear family, Mūciī. The clan, Mūhīrīga, does not take an active part in marriage ceremonies as this is strictly a family affair. The clan deals with broader issues like governance, law etc. Negotiations for bringing two families, Nyūmba, together are done at the Mbarī level. Today some negotiations involving such a serious family affair are not protected and can sometime involve total strangers.

When a young man is wooing a lady he breaks the ice by making sure their paths meet and by making some personal remarks that go just beyond the acceptable normal talk between a young man and a lady. It is called Kūmūringa itherū and if she responds positively he gets the hint and the relationship can develop to the point where he asks her whether she makes good porridge and if he can visit her home to sample some. She can tell him that her porridge is not for the likes of him. He will understand that he has reached the end of that road and either abandons the project or keeps trying. If she says, “You are quite welcome to come and sample it. It is the best porriage in the village” He will reply, “I will definitely come.” They will cross their index fingers in goodbye. Up to then the young man and lady have never touched each other. The young man goes home with heart beating knowing that he has started the journey into making a home – the most important thing he will ever do in his life. The worst mistake a young man can make is to tell her, “I hear you make good porridge.” She will retort, “From who? Kwani you think I make it for any Kamau or Njoroge. Kwenda kabisa! Fool!!” The proper statement is,”Can I come to your home for some porridge? I believe your porridge must be very good”

The girl will tell her mother that a certain young man would like to come and take porridge in their home and the mother will tease her, “Oo wee? Wakiīire ūū ūcūrū? Kaī wana-kioī!!” Of cause teasingly for she is not ignorant of her daughter’s change of behaviour since day one of meeting the young man. The preparations are simple. The best porridge, ūcũrũ wa gūkia, some arrowroots, ndūma to go with it and some ripe bananas. The young man will speak with his older father, today called uncle on the father’s side and the uncle will tell him, “If it is those people, go ahead” Alternatively if the two Mbarīs have a no intermarriage clause, its a dead end and the young man informs his lover that’s its a no no. If its ok and the day arrives, the young man with two (three maximum) fellows of his age walk to the bride-to-b’s home and arrive at around 2 or 3, mīaraho. When one visits a Gīkūyū home, formally, one doesn’t go empty handed and the young men will be carrying a huge piece of yam carefully wrapped in banana fibre. Today young men make this visit by passing by a supermarket and buying sugar, tea leaves, a packet of unga and sometimes chapati flour. The mother and daughter welcome the young men into the man of the house’s thingira and she takes the yam. The man of the house on this first visit will have made himself scarce. The ūcũrũ is brought + the ndūma and bananas. They are placed before the group by the girl’s sister or herself and she leaves them to eat and drink. They clear everything but do not touch the ndūma.

After about an hour or less of the young men talking by themselves, the girl or her sister reappears and they say that they would like to leave. They are escorted out of the thingira and then a whole bunch of friends of the girl appear as if from nowhere and they escort the young men out of the gate. They never went too far but now the girl and young man are teased by their mates. When the father returns in the evening the mother of the girl tells him that there were people who came to visit her daughter and they have a matter, for they couldn’t touch ndūma. Mauma na ūhoro tondū ona ndūma matinahutia. The father will reply that if his daughter feels she is old enough to make ūcūrū for young men who is he to object. The matter then goes into another phase when we await what is called “Asking for the girl” Kūūria Muiritu.

The thing about Gīkūyū manner of doing things is that it is loaded with symbols. If one is not able to decode the symbols, one comes out of a Gikūyū experience with “what was all that?” kind of thing. There is a symbol for every part of the Gīkūyū marriage ceremony and one should be educated into this interesting aspect of Kikuyuism, or Ūgīkūyū.

In this first part of the preliminaries, porridge, ūcūrū, the arrow roots, ndūma, and the yam, gīkwa are the central symbols. Among the Gikūyū, crops and their husbandry are gendered. A man tends yams and a woman tends ndūma among other crops. The symbolic significance of the yam which is a creaper, and its supporting tree, the Mūkūngūgū tree is love. They intertwine until in maturity it is impossible to separate the two. The Gīkūyū say, “Mendanite ta gīkwa na mūkūngūgū”– they love each other like the yam and its support. The man in the union of yam and mūkūngūgū is the mūkūngūgū and the woman is the yam. He tends the yam and supports her. He is a shoulder for her to lean on and we are going to meet the shoulder in another stage of these ceremonies. He comes on the first day carrying a yam to show that he is now a man enough to tend them. ” Look at how big I have made this one”. The ndūma is exclusively grown and tendered by women and just like no woman grows yams, no man grows ndūma.

The girl serves her guests ndūma to show them that she is a good ndūma farmer and no longer a young girl. The ndūma is a gummy kind of food and it sticks to the fingers. Young men are proud and will not mess their hands with ndūma on a first visit. “We will come back for the sticky stuff when we are ready to discuss stickiness. For now, no stickiness.” After the father comes home in the evening and hears that the ndūma was not eaten, he nods and says, “yes, these are serious people. Roast for me the yam” By asking for the yam he shows that he has no problem with the process so far. If there was no yam then of course these were just people passing by.
Ūcũrũ, porridge, is a long story and can be read here.


The Arrow Root plant tended by Gīkūyū women
The Yam plant and its support, mukungugu. The relationship is one no one can put asunder.
Cooked and served ndūma
Freshly dug, uncooked yam

11 thoughts on “Gīkūyū Marriage Ceremonies. Ūhikania: Part 1

    • If you are keeping the girl, then you must send a delegation of three men to the girls home with three large guards of beer, Nyanja. They arrive unannounced and are welcomed in the man’s abode, Thingira. After sitting and exchanging greetings and lots of snuff, they tell the father that among his sheep, he may have found one missing and that the missing lamb has joined their fold an is very comfortable. They would like to keep it and the question is “is there anything that would prevent them to do so?” Here they are asking to be allowed to pay the bride price. The owner of the little lamb will have been joined by another one or two neighbours by now and he will ask his guests to repeat the story. They will plead that the lamb owner accept a horn of beer from the 3 large guards they came with. If he accepts he will tell one of his companions to draw the beer with his own Ndahi, fill the horn and then call the mother of the lost lamb. She will be told the story by her husband and he will then ask her, “should we drink from this horn?’ If the answer is yes, which it must, the man will drink and then pass the horn around. They all drink merrily and the guests leave at their leisure to prepare for the day they will bring the dowry.

      If the girl is still in her Father’s house after getting pregnant then this is a complicated matter of litigation and owning up. The process to find out who has broken the lamb’s leg and what he needs to do is another long story.


      • Thanks.
        I have the girl and she is pregnant….
        Do I still need to send men before hand and also are the discussions the same?
        What are they likely to ask for?
        Again, thanks


        • Step 1 send the delegation. The beer is an apology enough
          The rest of the marriage negotiations are the same whether the girl is pregnant or not.


  1. I want to learn more about dowry procedure expecially when one is already married and have not started the process. I want to know the steps.


    • Bwana Mwangi
      There is nothing complicated about this though we love mystification. You will be going to your wife’s parents to pray for blessings and thus the gift to her people. The gift is pure and uncontaminated (mwatī na harika) and thus not a collection from every Kamau and Njoroge. Pure sweat which they will bless that you two go and prosper and get more where the two little goats came from. If its donations from friends its them who will be blessed and you too as a perpetual beggar. Take care of this one point and take whatever small gift from your own pocket and you and yours will be blessed.


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