The Kikuyu ethnic group is a Bantu-speaking people forming the largest group in Kenya. The Kikuyu live on the highlands in the Mount Kenya region, just like the Meru, Chuka and Embu-Mbeere who share with them similar culture and way of life. Farmers, the Kikuyu live on family farms, growing millet, sorghum, beans, peas and sweet potatoes. Some also raise large and small livestock to supplement their diet, but practice very little hunting and fishing.

Since colonization and especially since independence, they grow crops for export (tea, coffee, green beans). Recently, the Kikuyu have been exploiting the khat (flowering plant which contains hallucinogenic substance); khat leaves are shipped the same day by air into the Horn of Africa. The Kikuyu follow the patrilineal lineage (formerly polygamous) led by a council of nine elders. Traditional society practices initiation, allowing access to the status of “elder”; two age classes elevate their powers (authority) every thirty years or so during a transmission ceremony. The Kikuyu are established in the region after several migrations of peoples of various origins, mainly from the north. During colonial times, they were driven off their land by the massive arrival of British colonisers and forced to work on white farms. At the beginning of the 1950s, their demand for a fair share of land quickly took on a nationalistic dimension, while in the countryside appeared the secret society of the Mau Mau. This secret organization, built from traditional beliefs, attacked Europeans and Kikuyu who were at their service. The state of emergency was then declared, while the nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta, accused of clandestinely supporting the rebellion, was arrested. He was elected prime minister when Kenya gained independence in 1963. After his death, power passed into the hands of the small minority of Kalenjins, originally chosen to maintain the balance between Bantu Kikuyus and Luo Nilotics. However, leader Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi, in power from 1978, is accused by the Kikuyus of stirring up community tensions by relying on the antagonism between pastors Luo and Kalanjins and Kikuyus farmers

Social and political organization

Kikuyu society was organized according to several principles: descent, territoriality, age. According to tradition, Kikuyu and Moombi had nine daughters, ancestors of the main clans. In the beginning matriarchal rule prevailed. The women began to tyrannize the men who revolted successfully. The system became patriarchal and patrilineal.
The clans were divided into lineages defined by the ownership of a land. The responsibility of the lineage did not fall automatically on the elder: the chief was unanimously chosen for his wisdom, his tact, his competence in religious matters; the sale of a share of the lineage or its temporary transfer to a “farmer” was subject to his agreement; it was he who officiated at the religious ceremonies of the lineage. The extended families of the lineage were each subject to the authority of their patriarch. The Kikuyu had a decentralized, efficient and democratic leadership system. The English strengthened the authority of the council of elders’ spokesman, thus they made them their “obligee” and exercised though him an indirect administration. As a result, this “spokesman” lost his traditional legitimacy.

Education and age classes

The Kikuyu organization required strong social cohesion. It was obtained through the age-class system which provided an education based on the individual desire to participate in the group. The ideal man was honest, sober, polite, and respectful of customs; qualities facilitating social life. The solemn initiation into an age class marked the end of childhood. A social event, accompanied by dances and songs, initiatory rituals were simultaneously endured by a group of boys and girls. Those who were initiated together belonged, until death, to the same age group. The rituals were preceded by a long instruction on the responsibilities of each to the Kikuyu community and not only to the lineage. During the ceremonies, the initiate was sworn to assume all his responsibilities for the protection and well-being of the tribe. The painful operation of circumcision or clitoridectomy was only the apparent sign of this moral commitment. No one had the right to marry or to have sex if he was not initiated. The virginity of girls was required until marriage. However, they could sleep with boys of their age group without having sexual relations. Those who violated this law were ostracized by the group. After the initiation, the social roles that a man plays successively in his life (warrior, married man, father of a family, father of a circumcised child) were marked by ceremonies. To each of them corresponded a teaching given by the elders, about the laws of the tribe. The best were chosen as judges or members of clan and territorial councils.


Religion had several aspects: divinity, ancestors, and natural forces. Mogai or Ngai is the supreme, almighty god, present everywhere, although residing especially at the top of Mount Kenya. Its cult was organized at the level of territorial zones, the rurongo, where a sacred tree, surrounded by inviolable bushes, sheltered the place where rams without defects were sacrificed. Any fugitive could find shelter there. L. S. B. Leakey, in his book on the Mau-Mau, believes that this religion is the vestige of a former solar cult. The ancestor cult was, of course, in relation with the clan organization. Each man was supposed to have two minds: the first, individual, joined after death the company of the ancestors, and must be honoured by the living. The other is a family spirit, which takes possession of children during the rite of the second birth.
The two cults were connected: a prayer was addressed to Mogai before performing an act of family worship; in the same way, the ancestors of the participants were honoured after a sacrifice offered to the supreme god. Mogai depended on the well-being of all: satisfied, he granted rain, good harvests; dissatisfied, he overwhelmed his people with epidemics. So the offerings made to him were meant to give him thanks and to appease him. The deceased ancestors watched over the customs: an act, even involuntary, not in conformity with the tradition, attracted their anger, and serious trouble, which could only be avoided by a conciliatory sacrifice. Leakey estimated at one and a half, per year and per person, the number of animals sacrificed to Mogai and the ancestors. Finally, the Kikuyu religion contained animist beliefs, probably the oldest: to trees and rocks, to rivers and waterfalls, and even to epidemics, was attributed a supernatural force independent of Mogai or the dead, and which was important to respect.