MARRIAGE IN THE KIKUYU CULTURE.
The Kikuyu believed in a supreme being called Ngai, who created their ancestors Gikuyu and Mumbi. Although some sources claim they were ten, Gikuyu and Mumbi had nine daughters. Ten is considered unlucky in Kikuyu culture, so they say the daughters were kenda muiyuru, nine in full. When these nine daughters were ready for marriage, Gikuyu prayed to Ngai, and he sent nine young men to marry them. These nine daughters form the nine clans of the Kikuyu. The marriage rituals, therefore, vary among different clans.
A Kikuyu girl was considered ready for marriage a few years after circumcision and the onset of her periods. This was usually at fifteen to seventeen. A Kikuyu man could not marry anyone who descended from his line.
Marriage in Kikuyu culture was not merely the unification of two people. It was the unification of two families, known as mbari.
The description of wooing varies from different accounts. In one account, the young man approached the girl and presumed she was capable of making very good ucuru, which is porridge. She said this was so if she liked him and invited him to her home to sample it.
In another account, the young man informed the girl that he had a lot of property in his father’s house and asked if she would like him to buy her.
In most clans, the young man’s parents would have done their due diligence before wooing could begin. After the man spotted a potential bride, he informed his father. His father looked into the girl’s family for anything that could prevent the marriage. These included a reputation for witchcraft, divorce and other undesirable characteristics, relation by blood, and the character of the intended bride. If found all to be okay, the young man was given the go-ahead.
Here, the account also varies.
In one narration, the girl would then inform her father of her impending marriage. The dad would confirm her affection for the young man. Her mother would also enquire if she liked anyone else. If she answered negatively, they would proceed to the next stage.
Other sources say that the young man’s father would brew beer and use a special envoy to invite the girl’s father to a party. The bride’s father would then be informed of the reason for the invitation. The girl’s father would then give her a horn of njohi, native beer, to give to the man she had chosen. A close relative from her side would ask her if she permitted the njohi to be drunk in the presence of witnesses.
As above, the process varies.
In one account, the young man’s friends brought two gourds of njohi, the native beer, to the girl’s home. The girl then took the beer and poured it into a horn. The father confirmed once more that she liked the man before drinking.
In a different account, the next step was the ngurario, the equivalent of an engagement. This provided an opportunity for relatives from both sides to know each other. A ram was slaughtered with the participation of the girl. She was given the roasted kidneys to eat. The amount of bridewealth to be paid was agreed on, and blood from the sacrificed ram was poured to symbolize the coming together of the two families.
In the first description, the young man would return home and tell the father he wanted to buy the girl. The young man’s father would then enquire about how many goats the girl’s father wanted. They would then inform the mother. If he said thirty, they would set aside fifteen goats after returning home from grazing. They would only pay fifteen because the payment of the bride price is meant to be a lifelong process. It was considered in bad taste to pay all of the bride’s price at once. The young man’s friends would drive the goats to the girl’s home, with the young man following behind. The girl’s father would demand sheep the following day.
In the second account, the next stage after ngurario was ruracio. Ruracio was paying of the bride wealth. The young man’s family and clan helped him offset this debt, especially if he was marrying for the first time. This was usually thirty goats and five or six sheep, although the number varied from clan to clan. Only half was paid before the marriage to ensure the families maintained their relationship. If a man died before offsetting the debt, the responsibility fell to his oldest son.
In the first account, the young man took sheep to the girl’s father on the following day. He would then return home and make njohi. The day after, he would go to the girl’s home with an entourage, including his friends, his father and his friends, and his mother and her friends. They would be carrying presents like njohi and bananas. The girl’s mother would then serve her guests gruel, after which the older women would dance the getiro, a traditional dance. In this narration, young men were not allowed to take alcohol, so they went away and left their elders drinking. The elders then slaughtered a ram. Women were not allowed to eat or see men eating meat, so they retreated to their huts.
In the second account, after the ruracio the next step was gutinia kiande, the cutting of a goat’s shoulder. The groom gave the kiande meat to his bride, and they shared it with their friends. This symbolized that the girl had joined a new family.
After consulting his father, the young man would dig a big piece of land for his bride. He would then invite the girl to see the land. When he asked her whether she had seen it, she would say no even if she had. This was to preserve modesty and not show eagerness in leaving her home. Her father would also inspect it for productivity. The girl and her friends would then go back and cultivate the land. The young man would then build a hut with the help of his friends. After the hut was complete, the young man would take njohi to her father and ask permission to take her.
In the second narrative, guthinja ngoima followed the gutinia kiande ceremony. This was a thanksgiving ceremony that involved the slaughtering of a ram. Both clans participated. The bride would be regarded as a grown woman henceforth. She ate a piece of meat to signify this. The groom was now at liberty to take her.
The young man’s friends would abduct the girl when all was ready. She would put up a spirited fight. On arriving at the young man’s home, she would weep day and night for four days. On the fourth day, the young man’s mother would gift her with fat and ochre. She would then use these to beautify herself so she could visit her mother for a few hours. She was accompanied by two friends on this visit, each holding one of her hands. She would then return to the man’s home and consummate the marriage.
After guthinja ngoima, the girl would be abducted by the young man’s female relatives. The girl put up a fight, and her relatives and those of the man engaged in a mock fight. It signified the loss of a valued member of the clan. She then stayed in her mother-in-law’s hut for eight days to symbolize rebirth. During this time, she ate food from her home.
The young man would then take the remaining goats to her father. The bride’s father would give her wedding gifts, including an iron collar and arum lillies. The girl’s mother would provide the hearthstones for her new home. If her mother were dead, the girl would go to the riverbank herself and find the stones.
In the second account, there was feasting on the eighth day. The bride started eating food served in her new home. A sheep or goat was slaughtered. The tatha, innards of the sacrificial animal, were used to bless the couple on entering their hut. Ngwaro, meat from the skin and stomach, cut into strips, was put on the man’s right leg and the girl’s left. It would also be sprinkled on their bed, signifying their love and unity. On the ninth day, they consummated the marriage. If the girl was found to be a virgin, she was showered with gifts. Her mother received a ram from the man’s parents for raising a responsible daughter. If she lost her virginity before the marriage, she would be returned to her parents, or a demand for the reduction of her bride price would be made.
Polygamy was widely practiced in the Kikuyu culture. A man with only one wife was considered poor.
The wives themselves demanded the addition of helpers for the division of labor. It also increased men’s prestige as a man with many wives and children was respected and admired.
Unlike the first marriage, a man’s other wives were a personal expense he had to bear on his own.
The modern way of doing things.
Since the advent of Christianity, marriage between Kikuyus is now a mixture of the traditional and modern. Couples mostly choose to conduct the traditional wedding ceremony before the white wedding. Cultural practices that are not accepted in Christianity, like drinking alcohol and making blood sacrifices, may be left out. Marriage still creates a lifelong relationship between families, and the bride price is paid. The couple dress in traditional attire for the occasion. Traditional marriage rituals are crammed into a single day, with many steps skipped. This may be due to the expenses of throwing a feast, the difficulty in gathering people together due to some relatives living far away from each other, and the work obligations of the participants.
Wooing is no longer structured; couples may meet in different social or formal situations. After his proposal is accepted, the young man informs his father he wants to marry. The young man must be circumcised. Girls are no longer circumcised in Kikuyu culture.
The first step is kumenya mucii, knowing the girl’s home. The groom’s family meets the bride’s family. This is to ensure they are not related and that nothing stands in the way of their nuptials. Kumenya mucii is nowadays combined with kuhanda ithigi, which means planting a branch. This signifies reserving the girl so no other man may pay the bride price for her. The groom’s family leaves for a while and returns to notify them that they will be returning on a different day. Kuhanda ithigi is marked by giving some money to the bride’s parents as a token, usually by the groom. Both families select representatives for the bride price negotiation on this day. The negotiations then begin. The length of time this process takes depends on how quickly both parties agree. Some clans hold that a girl can only cost as much as her mother, making the price clear cut. The parties then leave for home and will return to pay the agreed bride price.
The next ceremony is the ruracio, which is catered for by the groom. It takes place at the bride’s home. On arrival at the bride’s home, a fine is charged for the groom and his relatives to be relieved of their shopping; this is called wauri. This money is shared between the bride’s female relatives, excluding her mother. Next, the groom is expected to pick his bride from several girls covered in lesos. This is called gucagura muka wake. A leso is a piece of cloth tied around the waist. It is borrowed from the Swahili culture and is not native to the Kikuyu. If the groom picks the wrong girl, he is fined. After the guests have introduced themselves, the groom’s spokesman says they have spotted a beautiful flower in the compound that they would like to pluck. The visitors will then be required to bring forth what they have brought. This is done in cash. The girl’s father will then call her forward and ask her if he should drink the alcohol or soda the visitors have brought. The women ululate after the bride says yes; this is called ngemi.
After the ruracio is completed, the visitors are served the prepared feast. The next stage is gutinia kiande. The couple feed each other pieces of meat from the shoulder of a goat. They will also feed each other goat ears to signify listening to each other. Gutinia kiande is the equivalent of a ring in a white wedding and means the couple is officially married.
Gukundania ucuru, is the next step. This means taking porridge. The wife feeds her husband some porridge from a calabash. He refuses to take it at first, and she has to soothe him.
The last step is gucokia guoko, thanksgiving. The visitors may give a token of appreciation for their warm welcome. Guests are then free to leave at their leisure. Some clans practice itara, where the bride’s parents visit her after a while to see her new “nesting place.”