With a Prehistoric People: The Kikuyu of British East Africa

“With a Prehistoric People: The Akikuyu of British East Africa – Being an account of the method of life and mode of thought found existent amongst a nation on its first contact with European civilisation” was the first broad ethnographic study of the Gĩkũyũ people. Prior to that, most studies were journal papers focusing on single topics or very general discussions by people like K. R. Dundas, C. W.  Hobley , Richard Crawshay and others in Journals like The Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, Journal of Royal African Society, The  Geographical Journal etc. With a Prehistoric People is a 373 page book published in 1910 by William Scoresby Routledge and his wife Katherine. It is profusely illustrated with photographs, drawings and paintings with a surprising level of detail.

Routledge, an Englishman, came to Gĩkũyũ country in 1902 and camped at Nyeri on the site where the White Rhino Hotel stands today. He was joined by his wife in 1904 and together they made in the space of five years a surprisingly detailed study of the nearby Gĩkũyũ. They were assisted by a group of Swahili speaking servants they had picked up in Mombasa and several young Gĩkũyũ men who understood Swahili from their coastal trade journeys. Routledge learned both languages to a reasonable degree to comprehend the various issues he was investigating though even at the end he could not avoid certain glaring errors which found their place in the final published book. He also made friends with influential men like Ndũinĩ wa Mũrathimi and Wambũgũ wa Mathangani and Munge. He was even able to meet Karũri wa Gakure though Karũri’s place was quite far in Mũran’ga. His relationship with these Dons made others open up to him. His wife also endeared herself to the Gĩkũyũ women and her documentation in areas like pottery, basket making, jewelry and food attests to her intimate connection with them.

At that time the camera had just been embraced as a very useful documentation tool and we owe the accurate documentation of objects and artifacts found in the book to Routledge’s mastery use of the camera. Some of these objects were to disappear very fast and when Leakey did his study much later in the 40s, they were nowhere to be found and dramatic changes in dress, jewelry and other artifacts was clearly evident. Katherine also painted some wonderful watercolors and the beautiful rendering of a Gikuyu homestead that dons the cover of the published thesis, Transformation of Kikuyu Traditional Architecture by Joseph Kamenju was by her.

Some of the areas the couple was able to document remain to date the most serious and sometimes the only published studies notwithstanding the the so-called centers of African research that churn out PhDs like Chinese production lines. Examples of some of the Rotledges’ seriousness is their record of Gĩkũyũ iron making, chain making and a careful documentation of Gĩkũyũ pottery, Kĩondo basket weaving jewelry and dress. They were also able to document and carefully draw on beautiful fold-out sheets in color one of the most important Gĩkũyũ artifacts, the Ndome shield, a central element in the Gĩkũyũ initiation of boys into men. Neither Kenyatta, a Mũũgĩkũyũ in his celebrated book Facing Mount Kenya nor Leakey’s three volume treatise were able to document the Ndome to anything close to Routledge. The Consolata Mission in Nyeri can be credited to have at least done a decent photographic record of the Ndome in use. (See Father  C. Cagnolo’s The Akikuyu: Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore, 1933) Katherine apart from drawing the various designs accurately went as far as identifying the shade of blue used on the Ndome as ‘Reckitts’ blue’. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, the Gĩkũyũ tribe’s deepest secrets buried in the Ndome could not be revealed to them. The other subject Routledge was able to document was the Gĩcandi, a gourd inscribed with strange heliographics and that accompanies a long epic poem that like the Ndome is also a repository and the deep end of Gĩkũyũ lore. Though they were unable to decipher it they were able to draw it out accurately and give some elementary interpretations. The instrument as well as most of Routledge’s documented artifacts were donated to the British Museum and as far as I know are still there. A cartoon version of the Ndome can be viewed at the Nairobi Kenya National Museum though the internet is far better with its many photos of Ndomi in private collections all over Europe.

The Routledges were also able to pepper their book with several surprising gems they uncovered mostly by accident. In his many walks into the bush and the markets Routledge happened to notice that beehives bore distinctive markings distinguishing them by clan. He made a drawing of one design apparently belonging to the Anjirũ clan. When I upturned the drawing, (for it might have been difficult for Routledge to have known which way is up in a round hive), I noted its similarity to the Jewish Hanukkah, a sacred candlestick.

Upturned Anjiru clan beehive marking. Source:Routledge 1910
Jewish Hanukkah. Source: Google photos

A close examination showed nine candlestick prongs for the Hanukkah and nine prongs for the Anjiru symbol. I assumed the three prongs at the base of the Anjirũ symbol was a variation of the pyramidal base of the Hanukkah.   I searched my memory for where I had seen this before in Gĩkũyũ documentation and I remembered it was on the cover of the very famous old Gĩkũyũ Primer, Mũthomere, by the Missionary Beecher published in 1942. Looking closely at the header strip of the cover I saw variations of the Anjirũ Hanukkah.

Could it be possible that the other clan symbols that Routledge was unable to give us were variations of the Hanukkah as suggested by the Primer? I have met many seekers of the Gĩkũyũ Holy Grail who will jump at this to further their thesis that the Gikuyu have a Jewish connection.

Muthomere. Source: Beecher 1942
Variations of the Anjirũ Hanukkah. Source: Beecher 1942

The other surprising gem uncovered by the Routledges had also attracted the interest of another Missionary researcher, Hobley who had written that each Gĩkũyũ clan apart from having different characteristics also had its own symbol and totem animal. Hobley wrote that for instance the Aithiegeni clan had the Impala as their totem animal, the Anjirũ the Elephant, the Agacikũ the Zebra and so on. This may indicate that the Gĩkũyũ assigned a much deeper interpretation to the classifications of the Ten full clans much like the Jewish Kabbalah assigns archetypal meanings and interpretations to its ten houses of the Kabbalah. If this is so then the clans and their relationships in for example who can marry into which clan correlates very closely to how the various houses or stations in the Jewish Kabbalah relate. The Kabbalah is described by the Jews as the Tree of Life. The Gĩkũyũ is a large fig tree, the bearer of the name Gĩkũyũ or the Tree of Life.

Jewish Kabbalah. Source: Google photos

Perhaps these little gems sprung from a very prehistoric people by Routredge and now expounded by Mũkũyũ will excite the enthusiastic Gĩkũyũ – Jewish brigade and propel more research in this direction.

Download the book here: With a Prehistoric People.

Chains. The making of which was documented by Routledge source: Routledge 1910
Gĩcandĩ heliograhics and tentative decoding. Source: Routledge 1910
The Ndome dancing shield: the deep end of Gĩkũyũ symbol systems. Sorce: Routledge 1910

12 thoughts on “With a Prehistoric People: The Kikuyu of British East Africa

  1. This was really interesting to read.
    However, why is there an urge to connect Gíkúyú culture with Jewish history? There could be parallels yes, but maybe that’s because loads of human history is similar to each other. I.e like the hand of Hamsa/Fatmah being found in all Abrahamic religions and also Jainism. And other cultures across the world having their own version of protection from the evil eye. There are all similarities. All in all that’s an interesting parallel you have drawn.

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    1. Frankly Thunderwoman I have no idea why the fascination with Jews but I suspect these are people mostly in religion. An even bigger fascination is the Egyptian connection. Wow!! As you say correctly ideas at their core are universal. You remember the post we did on Plato and the old men. It surprised even me the author

      Stages of a Gīkūyū Man’s Life

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      1. Yes yes I can see the universal nature of these ideas, and you’re right it is quite fascinating.

        However, why is the research so keen to connect ourselves to those bigger civilisations?

        Are we not enough just on our own? Like yes I get we are searching our own identity and would want to see ourselves as part of a great civilisations. However, isn’t that in itself a colonial lie? That in order to validate our existence we must be the greatest of the great ? In order for us to “matter” we must have an impressive history that connects to those great civilisations. Which in themselves have been poked and prodded at for ages and so their information is readily accessible. I’m just weary of this notion as it is similar to the “Africans are royalty” trope that afro European and afro Americans have been using to validate their identities.

        It’s a tedious project to do all this research on your own, especially starting more or less from scratch. so I will give credit where it is due. You have done us proud and are teaching us A LOT.

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        1. Dear Thunderwoman

          Thank you for your comment.
          It is not so much that one seeks validation by showing that one also has red blood. It is a question of lifting everybody to the realization – hard for some – that underneath this material body, at the level of Soul and Mind, we share a commonality and essential core that is the same – the source of all knowledge, understanding and wisdom. By saying this one is not seeking validation – unless of course one needs validation, it is a question of sharing the knowledge. Because …. it is universal. That way peace on earth is estamblished. The other path – and we have made a concious choice not to take, is ignorance – the one great sin against the self.

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  2. Hello, amazing article. The chains referred in the picture were those jewellery? I like that he documented their making. Would love to get a copy of the couples’ books.

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  3. This is very encouraging information. Am afraid our history is getting lost since most of it is not documented. Most of what we read in history books is incorrect or deliberately biased.

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  4. Good article. Am also saddened by this Jewish obsession. Why don’t people learn to accept that western and eastern religions (Christianity, islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) are a colonial + modernization legacy.

    Our ancestors were conquered by the British and as is common for a conquered people, forced to abandon their way of life and adopt the victor’s, including religion.
    Trying to look for the jew in Kikuyu culture and going to great lengths to try and justify trivial correlations in cultural heritage is a sign of a very deep inferiority complex, courtesy of the British of course. It shows how inferior these people feel. The bible and Christianity itself were appropriated by the Romans to help them conquer and rule the old world. Even the British who brought Christianity themselves were conquered using the bible. There is nothing special about the jews (whose stories are told in the book) and their stories, other than carefully edited stories meant to hoodwink the masses and let the upper classes rule or misrule. Every culture that has survived to this day can write an entire bible aided creative editing and hindsight, simply because we are all imperfect and we live in an imperfect world allowing for a lot of correlations, collisions and convergences in our attempts to survive. The only reason, the bible features the jews is because it was adopted by a powerful empire as a way to unite it’s many different tribes.

    So these people should just accept that we were conquered and forced to adopt a different religion. But of course most of them have made a career out of it!

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  5. Good job on this blog.
    One correction, Hobley was not a missionary. He was in fact a civil servant and one from the first cohorts. Hobley did a great job documenting what he observed and in my opinion, we owe him and others, credit for putting down in detail what they did.

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