The Gĩkũyũ People Art of Dying – Revisited

Burial as depicted by Fr Cagnolo, The Akikuyu, 1933

Any discussion of the Gĩkũyũ people’s art of dying and especially one that is open to the non-Gĩkũyũ reader would have to begin with defining certain words and concepts that relate to death among the Gĩkũyũ.

Gũkua: means “to break” as in “breaking a pot”. It also means “to cease to live”, “to die”

Gũtuĩkana means the actual moment of the break with life. The passage from the living state into the realm of “those who sleep eternally”, Ngomi.

Gũtuĩka is “to be” or the act of becoming. It also means “to break” like in “the rope has broken”

Ituĩka means “The Great Break of Becoming”. It is one of the greatest and probably the most important Gĩkũyũ ceremony involving the entire tribe when one ruling generation hands over the instruments of governance to a younger ruling generation. This takes place every 30 to 35 years and is the centerpiece of Gĩkũyũ conception of the passage of time and ages.

Ngomi means the “eternally sleeping ones”. When one becomes a Ngoma (sing), one qualifies to speak directly to MweneNyaga (God) and is therefore an intercessor for kith and kin. It is therefore standard practice that before they sip anything all conscientious Gĩkũyũ always pour a libation to the living earth wherein their Ngomi sleep. Since the Ngomi had a very close religious relationship with their people, a relationship closer and more immediate that the distant MweneNyaga, the christian missionaries targeted them more and designated the word Ngoma to mean the devil. This lie was preached with so much vigour that it is very hard for many Gĩkũyũ christians today to believe otherwise.

The entire process of making a purposeful conscious break with the living and becoming one of the Ngomi is faced not with trepidation, fear or trembling but with a purposeful sense of mission and responsibility for those kith and kin left behind. Each Ngoma intercedes for its immediate family and the intercession becomes weaker and weaker the further it gets outside the circle centered on the family, Nyũmba

When one consciously enters the process of becoming a Ngoma, after a life well lived, one prepares not just self but those closest to him/her. If a man, he begins to unburden himself of his material possessions and places the burden on his sons and any unmarried daughter without prospects and any unfortunate daughter who has returned home from her husband, Gĩcokio. If he had not unburdened himself while still strong and active, he then calls all his sons and those daughters for a final discussion with them. This discussion is called kwĩgaya, or dividing his physical self between his posterity. Other close members, favorite grandsons, favorite daughters, daughters in law and wives gather around him and await in a silence beyond description for that momemt of moments when he unburdens himself of this body and joins the privileged status of a Ngoma. All those kith and kin left behind with the things are irĩ (they have) and their children and children’s children, irĩri. The dead man is “mũtiga irĩ na irĩri”, “one who leaves descendants with bounty”. The sons immediately make arrangements for the disposal or burial of the useless body on the same afternoon or the following afternoon if the events happened at night.

If to be buried, the body was laid and wraped in a cow hide on its right side in a pre-natal position and right hand on his cheek, a process called kũhetwo. From this came the saying, “mũrega akĩrwo ndaregaga akĩhetwo”, meaning one can refuse to hear when alive but can never refuse being laid to rest in the manner of kũhetwo.

The passage of a woman was exactly the same as that of the man save for the fact that as lands and livestock were the man’s to dispose of, she had only to give out her jewelry and other personal items to her favored daughters and daughters in law.  She becomes “mwendwo nĩ irĩ na irĩri”, “beloved of her bountiful children and children’s children”. Her role as intercessor for the living in the Ngomi realm was just as powerful as that of the man.The effectiveness and power of the intercession however depends more on the prayers and actions of those who seek it but that is a discussion for another day when we discuss Gĩkũyũ spirituality and prayer.

Today, and we do not want to dwell too much on this as it is a distressing and tiresome subject, dying among the Gĩkũyũ people has become a painful, stressful, expensive and ultimately a sad affair despite its fanciful billing as a celebration of a life well lived.

From the moment the time comes to the so-called celebration, the entire process is an exceedingly painful and spiritually strange affair not just for the principal traveler between realms, but also for those left behind. The traveler is surrounded by strangers, in uniform, shiny, cold stainless steel and showy equipment whose value is extending life for the unfortunate victim by a few extra days or weeks. The unfortunate fellow gives up all autonomy and independence and helplessly awaits the angel of death to release him from the misery. When the moment arrives the poor fellow dies all alone, curtained off and cut off from family. Family and “friends” then gather facelessly online or sometimes face to face to raise funds to pay for the showy machines and final humiliation. Sometimes the dying bill will be in the millions of shillings and the family has to wait sometimes for months to be allowed by the death managers to pick their body.

To add insult to injury, and here we will just make a passing remark, not for want of space but for the distastefulness of the subject. All too often we have seen, and especially due to inheritance national laws, post death wrangling over who will bury who, who will inherit what, ad nauseum. Subject closed.

Those who really want to die well without that kind of insensitive bureaucratically managed death opt for a quiet homely hospice care or better still, a home death. One of the purposes of building a Gĩkũyũ Thingira or separate man’s room away from the main house, a kind of Japanese Tea Room, is precisely for the purpose of having a dignified space in which to prepare for the honor of becoming a Ngoma while surrounded by my intimate family members.

14 thoughts on “The Gĩkũyũ People Art of Dying – Revisited

  1. Very informative 👏 and beautiful illustration of the elaborate plans by our forefathers. Thank you for the information.

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  2. Among the Agĩkũyũ these days,death is taboo among other taboos but it does not look like it used to be that way in the past and neither is it in Christianity. As for dying at home,I remember being told (I was not around the country then) that my father gave instructions after visiting the dialysis centre at the Kenyatta National Hospital (he was diabetic like many Agĩkũyũ -and why is this?) that he was never to be brought there. He eventually died at home – no hospital bills and associated trauma. I too would not want my last days to be spent in a ward.

    However, there is a spiritual controversy today with a tag of war between “Christianity” and “Ũgĩkũyũ.” For me, it’s a very simple matter: There can’t be two Gods in heaven. It can not be that the God of the Mijikenda created the ocean around our coast but that around Mumbai was created by the Hindu Gods. And which God owns the moon as it traverses the earth?

    Therefore, the most critical mission of those who talk of these matters is to find out who is the true God. Returning to the past is clearly not practical for the global citizen of the 21st century but the past is of very great interest because there are valuable lessons to be learned from there. For example, moral standards were much more strictly enforced then than in today’s Christianity. Indeed, immorality has become commonplace among today’s clergy. I have witnessed it first hand.

    May those who can write truth continue to do so.

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    1. I believe it’s one God interpreted by different communities differently, thus creating different religions. We’re lucky with all the information we’re getting thus we can choose which religion helps you serve God best.

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  3. Thanks for the inspiration.
    It enumerate the truth that many would wish to stay hidden.

    Few areas to ponder is, who really was considered an interceding Ngomi? is it everybody who died?
    And what form of death and what age and placement in the society.
    Thinking of Mindu wa guikio kiharuruka-ini na mwatu.

    Were there ceremonies, magongona, that one while living never prioritised that could tie one even in death.

    I also tend to believe these is very clear in the Bible, only that most of us are religious and not at all biblical.
    Just thinking of Elisha in grave Interceding, thereby raising the a dead man.

    Genesis five enumerate men who died but of proper behaviour only etc.

    That is only my view, but should be considered well.

    Once again thank for opening to us what most don’t discuss.
    Wina matu nikaigue..

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    1. I think it is clear that a so called natural death, one that happens because you have arrived at a ripe old age, is what qualifies one to be a Ngomi. A child, a sudden accident or what u refer, a person killed for crimes cannot qualify. MweneNyaga knows His people. We may designate people as Ngomi but it is MweneNyaga who knows all.

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  4. It is difficult for the modern Gikuyu to accept that Ngoma is not the devil nor the Ngomi a mentally unstable person.
    Today the Gikuyu will hold onto the Christian Bible even refuting that it has been altered and is a collection of stories and legends from different people around the world.
    There is One Creator of all things and in the wisdom allowed different people to see Creator and creation differently. Unfortunately Christianity teaches that their way is the only true way and so does Islam and Judaism.
    How truly can we as humans confine the Creator of all things in books. Our ancestors knew that the spiritual influenced the physical and thereby lived their lives accordingly.

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    1. Waithera, You say “Today the Gikuyu will hold onto the Christian Bible even refuting that it has been altered and is a collection of stories and legends from different people”

      This is only one of the many lines of conflicting evidence that has been published by authorititive sources causing among the Kikuyu mental dissonanse, or a refusal to face the evidence. It is called cognitive dissonance and ypu can see it on display when people are faced with a choise to question an entrenched belief even in the face of clear evidence. Unabe to resolve the conflict, the mind chooses to shut out the discondant noise. 911, Covid saga, who wrote the bible? are examples that trigger cognitive dissonace in many people, thus they refuse to engage in any honest discussion.

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      1. The past informs our present and there is no reason why we cannot go back and reclaim our belief systems to guide us as they guided our ancestors before the white man brought his religion. Every community has its own concept of God informed by its worldview. The Christian God is European just like Mwene Nyaga is the Gikuyu God. They are both relevant to their respective people and none is better than the other. It is just that colonialism universalized one and denigrated the other.

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  5. What an eye-opening article, thank you for it. I have been a hospice worker for about 20 years and it is interesting to watch people’s reactions to death. This process is marvelous and humbling and it is a shame that it has been institutionalized and turned into a booming business the world over. I hope that, one person at a time, we can come back to our senses and embrace the simplicity of this amazing, natural process and soon turn the tide…

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    1. Ooh how beautiful to be able to work in a hospice and have the opportunity to accompany souls in that final journey. The process, you say is “marvelous” and “humbling”. Thank you for that insight from the inside. We need many many more voices like yours to awaken our people from the hypnotic and mesmeric hold of the technocratic medical system that has made death to be a horror saga.

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    2. Whenever I watched someone die, as they slowly or quickly went through that process before the final breath, it is as you said a humbling moment and it made me think about life itself and my own passing whne it comes.

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  6. Well researched and written.
    Point of correction;
    Both departed men and women are Mutiga iri na iriri as they have left both people and earthly belongings behind.
    Endwo ni iri na iriri are still alive; men or women! We should all aim to be Endwo ni iri na iriri so that we can be the former when we cross the great divide.
    This often confused terms are well explained by Itotia wa Kimacia in his 1937 book
    ~Endwo nĩ Irĩ na Irĩĩri

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  7. yes it is true that among the agikuyu people when the intimate persons die they becomes our saints especially the parents and the people we are named after, today, christians believes that their saints are the ones mentioned on the Bible, when a living-dead appear to them in their dreams and visions they rebuke them in distress which is wrong…

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