Mount Kenya has influenced the customs of the people who live in its vicinity. The Kikuyu tribe, who dwell on the mountain’s southern and western flanks, regard Mount Kenya as the holy seat of their god, Ngai. Houses built by the Kikuyu used to have doorways that faced the sacred mountain.
The Kikuyu (also Agikuyu/ Gikuyu) are a Bantu ethnic group native to Central Kenya, while they are found in Tanzania in much smaller numbers. With a population of 8,148,668, they make up 17.13 percent of Kenya’s overall population, making them the country’s biggest ethnic group.

Meaning of Kikuyu

The term Kikuyu comes from the Swahili word Gikuyu.

The name “Gikuyu” comes from the word “Mukuyu,” which means “sycamore fig (Mukuyu) tree.” As a result, Agikuyu translates to “Children Of The Big Sycamore” in Kikuyu. The alternate name for Embu, Gikuyu, and Meru is Nyumba ya Mumbi, which means “House of the Potter” (or “Creator”)

The Kikuyu People and their History

Kikuyu, also known as Gikuyu or Agikuyu, are Bantu-speaking people who dwell near Mount Kenya in the highlands of south-central Kenya. The Kikuyu ethnic group totaled around 4,400,000 people in the late twentieth century, accounting for over 20% of Kenya’s total population. Gikuyu (also known as Agikuyu) is their own name.

In the 17th–19th centuries, the Kikuyu migrated from the northeast into their current homeland.

Intensive hoe cultivation of millet (the primary crop), peas, beans, sorghum, and sweet potatoes supported their traditional economy. Coffee, corn (maize), wattle, and fruits and vegetables are the most important contemporary cash crops. Irrigation and terracing were used by some cultures. Animal husbandry was a valuable addition.

The Kikuyu used to live in distinct domestic family homesteads, each of which included a hut for each woman and was bordered by a hedge or stockade. However, during the Mau Mau revolt of the 1950s, the British colonial authorities relocated the Kikuyu to villages for security concerns. Many Kikuyu chose to keep this structure once the emergency ended because of the economic benefits of village settlement and land consolidation.

The mbari, a patrilineal group of males and their wives and children ranging in size from a few dozen to several hundred people, is the local community unit. The people are split into nine clans plus a number of subclans beyond the mbari.

Kikuyu are also divided into age groups, which have historically served as the primary political institutions. Each year, new groups of males are introduced, eventually forming generation sets that dominate for 20 to 30 years. Traditionally, political power was vested in a council of elders representing a certain age class during its reign as ruler. The Kikuyu believe in an all-powerful creator god named Ngai, as well as the spiritual presence of their ancestors.

Mau Mau Rebellion by the Kikuyus

The Kikuyu were the first local ethnic group in Kenya to engage in anti-colonial agitation in the 1920s and 1930s, in response to European farmers and other immigrants’ colonization of their highlands. In 1952, they conducted the Mau Mau rebellion against British control, and later in the decade, they led the movement for Kenyan independence. They rose to the top of Kenya’s economic and political echelon after independence. Kenya’s first prime minister (1963–64) and president (1964–78) was a Kikuyu named Jomo Kenyatta. He was also one of the first Africans to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology from the London School of Economics and to publish an ethnography (Facing Mount Kenya, 1938).

Facing Mount Kenya – A Tribal Life of the Agikuyu

Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, authored this colorful series of articles for Bronislaw Malinowski’s anthropology course at the London School of Economics, and they were published in Britain in 1938 as a monograph about the Kikuyu people’s life and traditions prior to colonial subjugation. Kenyatta set out to establish that Africans were “conditioned, by the cultural and social institutions of ages, to a freedom of which Europe has no conception,” by challenging the prejudiced preconceptions of settlers, missionaries, and colonial authorities. The colonizers had confiscated African farms under the pretense that tribal property was communal, despite traditional norms controlling individual land ownership, which Kenyatta describes in great detail.

Colonial control had brought the Kikuyu social order to rubble, and its inhabitants to serfdom, from an affluent, moral, and healthy way of life. This classic, like Chinua Achebe’s brilliant masterpiece “Things, Fall Apart” (1958), depicts the anguish of colonial “cultural contact” from an African perspective. Despite its author’s political undertone, it also holds its own among the major works of African ethnography.

Social Life + Kikuyu – Mount Kenya Politics

There were nine clans in the Agikuyu country. Each clan traced its roots back to a single female ancestor who was Mumbi’s daughter. The clans were not confined to any single geographical location; they coexisted. Some clans had a well-known chief, while others didn’t.

The ruling council of elders for each clan, however, wielded true political authority in both cases. The leader of each clan’s council was then forwarded to the community’s supreme council of elders. A headman or the nation’s representative led the overarching council of elders representing all the clans.

The Gikuyu are credited with being the first indigenous people to organize utilizing colonial-era structures such as voluntary societies, autonomous schools, and churches to fight British control. The Mau Mau colonial and civil war (1952–1956) fundamentally altered Gikuyu’s social fabric and cemented the process of Christian conversion.

Under the leadership of a Gikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta (1963–1988), the war’s tragedy prepared the path for independence. Following Kenyatta’s death, Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin, took over as president, ending Gikuyu elite socioeconomic and political advantages until his forced retirement in 2002. The elections were won by Mwai Kibaki, Moi’s former vice president, who returned power to the Gikuyu. His two periods in power were marred by corruption scandals—not uncommon in Kenya—and ethnic riots, which killed over a thousand lives in the aftermath of Kibaki’s close victory in the disputed 2007 elections. When Uhuru Kenyatta, the first president’s son, won the first round of the 2013 elections, political power stayed in Gikuyu’s hands.

Gikuyu people are still a diverse group, split by area, class, religion, and other factors. Among the well-known Gikuyu are Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and authors Koigi wa Wamwere and Ngugi wa Thiongo.

Mount Kenya & Kikuyu Religion

The Supreme Creator and Giver of All Things, Ngai or Mwene-Nyaga, is the Supreme Creator and Giver of All Things. He established the first Gikuyu settlements and gave them everything of life’s necessities, including land, rain, plants, and animals. The sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors, thunder and lightning, rain, rainbows, and the big fig trees are all manifestations of Ngai (Mugumo).

These trees were used as sites of devotion and sacrifice, and they marked the location where Gikuyu and Mumbi – the Giukyu’s forefathers according to folklore – initially resided at Mukurue wa Gathanga. Ngai has human traits, and while some think he resides in the sky or in the clouds, Gikuyu tradition claims that Ngai visits the world on a regular basis to check it, dispense blessings, and administer punishment. Ngai sleeps on Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga) and Kilimambogo (kiirma kia njahi) when he arrives. Thunder is thought to represent Ngai’s movement, while lightning is the weapon he uses to clear the path when traveling from one holy site to another. Ngai is said to have a home atop Mount Kenya, according to some.

According to mythology, while on an inspection trip of the planet, Ngai chose the mountain as his resting spot. Ngai then led Gikuyu, the first man, to the top of the mountain to show him the beauty of the land he was gifting him.


Related: The Chagga tribe of Mount Kilimanjaro

List of Famous Kikuyu People from Kenya

  • Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first environmentalist to win the prize. She is the first Kenyan woman to earn a Ph.D.
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Gikuyu-language author, father of the author, and professor
  • Uhuru Kenyatta, fourth and current President of Kenya, former Deputy Prime Minister. Expected to see out his two-term presidency on August 9th when Kenya goes to the polls.
  • Rigathi Gachagua, politician and current vice-president of Kenya vied under the UDA party ticket together with William Samoei Ruto who is the new and 5th president of the republic of Kenya.
  • Martha Wangari Karua, politician and former presidential candidate, and current key member and vice president hopeful in former prime minister Raila Odinga’s presidential campaign for Azimio -ODM party which lost in 2022 general elections.
  • Ng’endo Mwangi, Kenya’s first woman physician. The Mwangi Cultural Center at the Smith College in Massachusetts is named in her honor Carole
  • Wamuyu Wainaina, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management at the United Nations
  • Helen Gichohi, ecologist and President of the African Wildlife Foundation
  • Olive Mugenda, first woman to head a public university in the African Great Lakes region
  • Thumbi Ndung’u, HIV/AIDS researcher and the first to clone HIV subtype C. Recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s International Early Career Scientist award
  • Dorothy Wanja Nyingi, ichthyologist and recipient of the Ordre des Palmes académiques (Order of Academic Palms)
  • David Muchoki Kanja, the first Assistant Secretary-General for the Office of Internal Oversight Services at the United Nations
  • Simon Gikandi, English professor at Princeton University
  • Gibson Kamau Kuria, lawyer, and recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award
  • Paul Muite, lawyer, politician, multiparty activist, and former presidential candidate
  • Maina Kiai, lawyer, human rights activist, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
  • Rebeka Njau, author and playwright. Her one-act play The Scar (1965), which condemns female genital mutilation, is considered the first play written by a Kenyan woman
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, author, LGBT activist, and a winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing
  • Boniface Mwangi, photojournalist and sociopolitical activist
  • Wanuri Kahiu, film director
  • Wahome Mutahi, a humorist popularly known as Whispers after satirical column he wrote
  • Jeff Koinange, Emmy Award-winning journalist
  • Julie Gichuru, news anchor and entrepreneur
  • Liza Mũcherũ-Wisner, a semi-finalist in The Apprentice Season 10
  • Edi Gathegi, stage, film, and television actor
  • Tom Morello, Grammy Award-winning guitarist, son of Ngethe Njoroge
  • Eric Wainana, musician
  • Janet Mbugua, news anchor
  • Patrick Ngugi Njoroge, Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya
  • Samuel Kamau Macharia, founder and chairman of Royal Media Services, the largest private radio and television network in Eastern Africa
  • James Mwangi, group CEO and largest individual shareholder at Equity Group Holdings Limited
  • Chris Kirubi, industrialist and largest individual shareholder at Centum Investment Company Limited, the largest listed private equity firm in East Africa
  • Sam Thenya, founder and group CEO at Nairobi Women’s Hospital
  • Betty Muthoni Gikonyo, co-founder and group CEO at Karen Hospital
  • Simon Gicharu, founder of Mount Kenya University, East and Central Africa’s largest private university
  • Tabitha Karanja, founder and CEO of Keroche Breweries, Kenya’s second-largest brewery
  • Paul Wanderi Ndung’u, entrepreneur and co-founder of SportPesa, one of the first African businesses to sponsor a Premier League team
  • Esther Muthoni Passaris, businesswoman and politician
  • Dorcas Muthoni, an inductee to the Internet Hall of Fame
  • Joseph Mucheru, former Google Sub-Saharan Africa Lead and current Cabinet Secretary for ICT in Kenya
  • Waiyaki wa Hinga, 19th century leader
  • Waruhiu Itote also known as General China. Mau Mau resistance leader
  • Bildad Kaggia, freedom-fighter and politician. Member of the Mau Mau Central Committee and the Kapenguria Six
  • Mutahi Kagwe, politician
  • Josephat Karanja, former Vice-President
  • Lucy Muringo Gichuhi, first person of Black African descent to be elected to the Australian Parliament
  • Kung’u Karumba, freedom-fighter and member of the Kapenguria Six Njenga Karume, politician and businessman
  • Peter Kenneth, politician, businessman and former presidential candidate
  • Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya, father of Uhuru Kenyatta
  • Margaret Kenyatta, fourth and current First Lady of Kenya, wife of Uhuru Kenyatta
  • Ngina Kenyatta (Mama Ngina), former First Lady, wife of Jomo Kenyatta, mother of Uhuru Kenyatta
  • Lucy Kibaki, former First Lady, wife of Mwai Kibaki
  • Mwai Kibaki, third President of Kenya Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau resistance leader
  • Mbiyu Koinange, former Minister of State, brother-in-law of Jomo Kenyatta, first Kenyan holder of a master’s degree
  • Moses Kuria, Member of parliament, Gatundu South.
  • Eliud Mathu, first African member of the Kenyan Legislative Council (LegCo)
  • Kenneth Matiba, businessman, politician, multiparty activist and former presidential candidate
  • John Njoroge Michuki, politician and businessman
  • Githu Muigai, Attorney General
  • Njoroge Mungai, politician and businessman. Personal doctor and first cousin to Jomo Kenyatta
  • Njoki Susanna Ndung’u, Judge of the Supreme Court of Kenya
  • Charles Njonjo, former Attorney General and Minister for Constitutional Affairs
  • George Saitoti, former Vice-President Harry Thuku, freedom-fighter, and Independence Hero
  • Anne Waiguru, former Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning and a key member of the current Deputy of President, William Ruto’s UDA party presidential campaign.
  • Manasses Kuria, second African Anglican Archbishop.
  • John Njenga, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church
  • Samuel Wanjiru, first Kenyan to win the Olympic gold medal in the marathon, 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon Champion, 2009 London and New York Marathon Champion, 2009 Rotterdam Half Marathon champion
  • John Ngugi, World Cross Country Champion four consecutive titles between 1986 and 1989 and five titles overall. 1988 Olympic Champion 5000 metres
  • Catherine Ndereba, four-time Boston Marathon Champion, Olympic marathon silver medalist in 2004 and 2008.
  • Henry Wanyoike, Paralympics Gold medalist over 5,000 meters, holder of various marathon and half marathon records
  • Douglas Wakiihuri, 1987 World Championships in Athletics Marathon Champion, 1988 Olympic Marathon silver medalist, 1990 London and New York Marathon Champion
  • Patrick Njiru, rally driver with Subaru World Rally Team
  • Joseph Gikonyo, 100 and 200 metres sprints gold medalist at 1990 African Championships.
  • Boniface Tumuti, 400 metres hurdles gold medalist at the 2016 African Championships, silver medalist at the 2016 Olympics.
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Climbing Mount Kenya

Frequently Asked Questions about the Kikuyu People

Frequently Asked Questions About the Kikuyu Tribe

What is the Kikuyu tribe known for?

The Kikuyu tribe is known for being the largest ethnic group in Kenya. They are recognized for their rich cultural traditions, agricultural practices, entrepreneurial spirit, and significant contributions to the economic and political landscape of Kenya.

Where do the Kikuyu people come from?

The Kikuyu people originate from the Central Highlands of Kenya. They have a long history in the region and are believed to have migrated to their present-day homeland from other parts of East Africa.

What language do the Kikuyu people speak?

The Kikuyu people speak the Kikuyu language, which belongs to the Bantu language family. Kikuyu is one of the most widely spoken languages in Kenya and is recognized as one of the national languages alongside English and Swahili.

What are some traditional customs and practices of the Kikuyu tribe?

The Kikuyu tribe has a rich cultural heritage that includes various customs and practices. These include ceremonies such as birth rituals, marriage ceremonies, and initiation rites. They also have traditional music, dance, storytelling, and proverbs that reflect their way of life and wisdom.

How do the Kikuyu people practice agriculture?

Agriculture plays a vital role in Kikuyu culture and livelihoods. The Kikuyu people are known for their expertise in farming, particularly in cultivating crops such as maize, beans, and vegetables. They employ sustainable farming techniques and have a deep knowledge of the land and its resources.

What are some famous landmarks or sites associated with the Kikuyu tribe?

The Kikuyu homeland is home to notable landmarks and sites of cultural significance. Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya and a UNESCO World Heritage site, holds deep spiritual and cultural importance for the Kikuyu people. Additionally, places like Karura Forest and the Aberdare Range offer beautiful natural settings for exploration.

How do the Kikuyu people celebrate their culture?

The Kikuyu people celebrate their culture through various festivals and events. These include ceremonies honoring their ancestors, traditional music and dance performances, and cultural gatherings where traditional attire and customs are proudly displayed.

What is the role of traditional leadership among the Kikuyu people?

Traditionally, the Kikuyu people had a system of governance led by elders and a council of respected individuals. These leaders played a significant role in decision-making, conflict resolution, and upholding cultural values. While modern governance structures have evolved, the influence of traditional leadership is still valued.

Can visitors experience Kikuyu culture in Kenya?

Yes, as a visitor to Kenya, you can experience Kikuyu culture through cultural tours, visits to Kikuyu communities, and participation in cultural events and festivals. Engaging with the local community offers opportunities to learn about their traditions, taste their cuisine, and appreciate their artistic expressions.

How has modernization impacted Kikuyu culture?

Modernization has brought changes to Kikuyu culture, as it has to many indigenous communities. Factors such as urbanization, education, and globalization have influenced lifestyles, attire, and economic pursuits. However, the Kikuyu people continue to hold their cultural heritage in high regard and strive to maintain their identity.

What is the significance of traditional attire among the Kikuyu people?

Traditional attire holds cultural and symbolic significance among the Kikuyu people. Traditional clothing includes garments such as the kikoi (a wraparound cloth) and the kanga (a colorful rectangular piece of fabric). These clothing items are worn during important ceremonies and cultural events to showcase pride in their heritage and identity.

How do the Kikuyu people pass down their cultural traditions to younger generations?

The Kikuyu people have a strong emphasis on the passing down of cultural traditions from one generation to another. This is achieved through oral storytelling, where elders share myths, legends, and historical accounts with younger members of the community. Additionally, participation in cultural events, rituals, and ceremonies helps younger generations learn and appreciate their cultural heritage.

Are there any famous Kikuyu personalities who have made significant contributions to society?

Yes, the Kikuyu community has produced many notable personalities who have made significant contributions in various fields. Wangari Maathai, a renowned environmentalist and Nobel laureate, hails from the Kikuyu tribe. Other prominent figures include Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a renowned author and playwright.

What role does music play in Kikuyu culture?

Music holds a central place in Kikuyu culture and is used to convey emotions, tell stories, and express cultural identity. Traditional musical instruments such as the isikuti drum, the nyatiti lyre, and the flute are used in various ceremonies and celebrations. Kikuyu musicians also incorporate modern genres such as benga and gospel music into their repertoire.

Are there any specific dietary customs or traditional dishes associated with the Kikuyu people?

The Kikuyu people have their unique dietary customs and traditional dishes. The staple food is irio, a mixture of mashed potatoes, maize, and beans. Mukimo, a dish made from mashed vegetables such as pumpkin leaves, maize, and potatoes, is also popular. These dishes reflect the agricultural practices and food preferences of the Kikuyu community.

How do the Kikuyu people celebrate major life events such as weddings and births?

Weddings and births are significant events in Kikuyu culture and are celebrated with elaborate ceremonies. During weddings, traditional rituals such as dowry negotiations, blessings from elders, and communal feasts take place. Births are celebrated with naming ceremonies, where the child is given a Kikuyu name and blessings are bestowed upon them.

Are there any Kikuyu traditional crafts or artistic expressions?

Yes, the Kikuyu people have a rich tradition of crafts and artistic expressions. Woodcarving is a prominent art form, and intricately carved items such as stools, walking sticks, and household utensils are produced. Basket weaving, pottery, and beadwork are also practiced, showcasing the creativity and craftsmanship of the Kikuyu people.

8. Do the Kikuyu people have any specific religious beliefs?

Traditionally, the Kikuyu people practiced an indigenous religion that revolved around belief in a Supreme Being called Ngai or Mwene Nyaga. They also believed in ancestral spirits and practiced rituals to honor and communicate with them. Today, Christianity and Islam have also gained prominence among the Kikuyu community.

What are some traditional games or recreational activities enjoyed by the Kikuyu people?

The Kikuyu people have various traditional games and recreational activities. Mûgîkûyû (wrestling) was a popular sport in the past, showcasing strength and skill. Board games such as mancala (bao) and warri (mûchukù) are also enjoyed. Traditional dances, such as the mùgithi and mùthiithia, provide entertainment during social gatherings.

How do the Kikuyu people contribute to Kenya’s economy?

The Kikuyu people have a reputation for their entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen. They are involved in various sectors of Kenya’s economy, including agriculture, trade, manufacturing, and services. Many successful Kenyan businesses and enterprises are owned and operated by individuals from the Kikuyu community.

Are there any traditional Kikuyu ceremonies or festivals that visitors can witness?

Yes, there are traditional Kikuyu ceremonies and festivals that visitors can witness and participate in. One notable festival is the circumcision ceremony, known as “ngurario.” This rite of passage marks the transition from boyhood to manhood and is a significant event in Kikuyu culture. Visitors can experience the cultural rituals, music, dance, and festivities associated with this ceremony.

What are some common Kikuyu proverbs and their meanings?

Kikuyu proverbs play an important role in conveying wisdom and cultural values. Some common proverbs include “Agikũyũ ndagũkũnywo” (The Kikuyu people do not get tired) and “Mũtumia akĩria nĩ ũtheka” (A servant eats what is left). These proverbs highlight the resilience, hard work, and resourcefulness of the Kikuyu people in overcoming challenges and making the most of their resources.

Can you explain the role of elders in Kikuyu society?

Elders hold a respected and influential position in Kikuyu society. They are the custodians of traditional knowledge, cultural practices, and governance systems. Elders play a vital role in decision-making, conflict resolution, and passing down cultural heritage to younger generations. Their wisdom and experience are highly valued and sought after in matters of community welfare and development.

How do the Kikuyu people traditionally greet each other?

Traditional greetings among the Kikuyu people involve expressions of respect and acknowledgment. The common greeting is “Ũhoro wa wĩra” (Peace be with you), to which the response is “Wa wĩra na wendo” (Peace and love to you). Handshakes accompanied by a warm smile are also common during greetings.

Are there any Kikuyu traditional healing practices or herbal medicine traditions?

Yes, the Kikuyu people have a long-standing tradition of using herbal medicine for healing purposes. Traditional healers, known as “waganga,” possess knowledge of various medicinal plants and their therapeutic properties. They employ techniques such as herbal remedies, massages, and spiritual rituals to promote healing and well-being.

What are some famous Kikuyu cultural landmarks or heritage sites?

Kikuyu culture is deeply intertwined with the land, and there are significant cultural landmarks and heritage sites associated with the Kikuyu people. The Sacred Fig Tree (Mũkũyũ) in Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga is considered a sacred site and is believed to be the point of origin for the Kikuyu people. Other landmarks include traditional homesteads (thīgi) and sacred caves (mũrũthũ).

Are there any Kikuyu traditional dances and musical instruments?

Yes, traditional dances and musical instruments are an integral part of Kikuyu culture. The Kikuyu people have various dances, including the acrobatic mũgithi, the energetic mũtigania, and the celebratory mũthiithia. Musical instruments such as the gĩcũmbĩri (harp-like instrument), ngede (flute), and tharaka (drum) are used to create rhythmic melodies during performances.

What are the main family structures and kinship systems among the Kikuyu people?

The Kikuyu people traditionally have a patrilineal family structure. The extended family (rũrĩri) plays a significant role, and the lineage is traced through the male line. The family unit includes parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives. Strong kinship ties and the concept of collective responsibility are emphasized within the Kikuyu community.

How do the Kikuyu people traditionally mark the end of the mourning period?

The end of the mourning period is marked with a ceremony known as “rũracio.” This ceremony signifies the completion of the mourning process and the acceptance of the deceased’s departure. Family members gather to share a meal, exchange gifts, and perform rituals to symbolize closure and the beginning of a new phase of life.

Are there any Kikuyu cultural organizations or initiatives promoting Kikuyu heritage?

Yes, there are cultural organizations and initiatives aimed at promoting Kikuyu heritage and preserving cultural traditions. These organizations organize cultural festivals, language classes, and workshops to educate and engage the Kikuyu community and the wider public. They play a crucial role in fostering pride in Kikuyu culture and ensuring its continuity for future generations.