It is on a ridge north of Muranga town and south of Nyeri that the story of the Kikuyu begins. Here, against a backdrop of the mystical Kirinyaga with its snow-capped peaks, Gikūyu, the first Kikuyu man, is instructed by god, Ngai, to ascend to the top of Kirinyaga where he receives his mission to establish ‘Nyumba ya Mumbi’, the house of Mumbi. Ngai later sends him a wife, Mumbi.
Together, Mumbi and Gikuyu had 10 daughters but since it was a bad omen to utter the number 10, they instead called it ‘full nine’. It was from these 9 daughters, on the spot where the fig tree grows, that the house of Mumbi, the 9 Kikuyu clans of Achera, Agachiku, Airimu, Ambui, Angare, Anjiru, Angui, Aithaga, and Aitherandu, was forged.
This is the legend. The exact place that the ancestors of the Kikuyu migrated from after the initial Bantu expansion from West Africa is still uncertain. Some scholars suggest that they arrived in their present Mount Kenya area from earlier settlements further to the north and east.
Other theories argue that they, along with their closely related eastern Bantu neighbours the Embu, Meru, Mbeere and Kamba, moved into Kenya from points further north.
Archaeological evidence indicates that their arrival at the northern side of Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga), as part of a larger group known as Thagicu, dates to around the 3rd century. By the 6th century, there was a community of Agikuyu living at a place called Gatuang’ang’a in Nyeri.
From their homeland in Mount Kenya where they settled in the 13th century, the Kikuyu relied on a combination of land purchases, blood-brotherhood (partnerships), and the adoption and absorption of other tribes through intermarriage to expand their territory.
No words describe better this special affinity the Kikuyu have with the soil than Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Himself a Kikuyu, he wrote in his book, Facing Mount Kenya, that “there is a great desire in the heart of every Gikuyu man to own a piece of land on which he can build his home.”
This love for the soil made the Kikuyu great farmers but it would also later put them on a direct warpath with the British colonialists at the height of the fight for Kenya’s independence. Being shrewd business people, they today own a huge chunk of Kenya’s wealth and are accredited to giving Kenya 3 presidents.
The Kikuyu or Gĩkũyũ were – and still are – monotheists. They believe in an omnipotent god whom they refer to as Ngai. The Embu and Kamba use this name. Ngai was also known as Mũrungu by the Meru and Embu.
Mũlungu, a variant of the word which means God is also found in the far south among the Zambezi of Zambia. All sacrifices to Ngai were performed under a sycamore tree (Mũkũyũ). In case a sycamore was not available, a fig tree (Mũgumo) would be used. The olive tree (Mũtamaiyũ) was a sacred tree for women.
The Gĩkũyũ held a belief in the interconnection of everything in the universe. To them, everything we see had an inner spiritual force. This spiritual vital force originated from god, who had the power to create or destroy that life force.
To the Kikuyu people, god was the supreme being in the universe and the giver (Mũgai/Ngai) of this life force to everything that exists. Gĩkũyũ people also believed that everything god created had a vital inner force and a connection bond to him by the mere fact that he created that thing and gave it that inner force that makes it be manifested physically.
In Kikuyu folklore, Ngai has human characteristics. He comes to earth from time to time to inspect it, bestow blessings and mete out punishment. When he comes, Ngai rests on Mount Kenya and Kilimambogo (kĩrĩma kĩa njahĩ). Thunder is the manifestation of his movement and lightning, his weapon to clear the way when moving from one sacred place to another.
Time among the Kikuyu was recorded through the initiation by circumcision. Each initiation group was given a special name. These individual initiation sets were then grouped into a regiment every 9 calendar years. Before a regiment or army was set, a period in which no initiation of boys took place had to pass.
This period was known as mũhingo and lasted 4.5 calendar years or 9 seasons. Initiation would then take place at the start of the 5th year and go each year for the next 9 calendar years. This was the system adopted in Metumi, Murang’a.
In Gaki, Nyeri the system was the other way round with initiation taking place annually for 4 calendar years followed by a period of 9 calendar years in which no initiation of boys would take place. The regiment or army sets would get special names, some of which seem to have ended up as popular male names. Girls on the other hand were initiated every year.