Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 12 Kikuyu

The Kikuyu

- the Kikuyu have special importance because they developed a nationalist movement very quickly and early; also, the Mau-Mau resistance movement in the 1950s and the long war focused world attention on Africa and helped to speed up ‘the winds of change’ which brought independence to most of Africa in the early 1960s. See map of Kenya

- also, the political system is very interesting because Kikuyu society was about half-way between a stateless society (or anarchy) and some sort of authority structure.

- their economy was primarily subsistence although there was occasionally some barter trade with the neighbouring Masai and Kamba; agriculture produced 2 harvests a year and livestock were primarily sheep and goats. Cattle were scarce and only the wealthy had any.

- there were clan identities, although clans were not organised. Each clan had a totem (usually an animal), certain food taboos and prohibitions on marriage with another clan matter; there were few other functions or roles.

- as with most African societies, the Kikuyu had clearly defined life stages which governed participation in social and political life.

Kikuyu Life Stages and Status

- the terms for these stages were given by Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya

Legal/Political Structures

- there were no centralised political structures or judicial authorities. Problems, disputes etc. in the family and the clan were settled by the leaders within the family and clan.

- however, relations between families and clans required other means to handle problems and disputes— a system of councils; the councils were primarily for legal disputes. Two main authorities, Jomo Kenyatta and L.S.B. Leakey, are agreed that there were 3 levels of councils although they give slightly different names:

- these were more or less permanent dispute-settling bodies.

- Leakey says that disputes between ridges were settled by ad-hoc committees or councils; therefore, there were no ‘national’ councils.

- each council elected a spokesman, but he was not a chief. He might have a good deal of influence with the other members of a council, but he expressed the decisions of the council, not his own. While family connections and wealth were a big help in achieving leadership, individual talent and merit were the main qualifications. Especially, someone who was a good speaker and who acquired a good knowledge of the law, including a store of precedents, could acquire a great deal of respect and influence, even from humble origins. Later under colonial rule, the British tried to turn these spokesmen into ‘chiefs’, but this was not very acceptable to the Kikuyu.

- the council system was primarily designed to solve legal problems. It seems to have been an attempt to avoid recourse to feuds and reprisals; elders worked to get disputants to a council.

- in methods and practices, councils aimed to discover the truth. Thus, anyone could question witnesses or give evidence. If unable to sort out conflicting testimony and decide on who was right and who was wrong, then there was recourse to divination or ordeals (usually oaths). Both sides would be required to take the oaths which threatened terrible consequences, not only on the persons taking the oath but also on their kin. Because of this, the kin would usually want to be sure that their family member was telling the truth before allowing it to go this far.

- the verdict of a council, expressing public opinion, was usually enough and kin would usually go along; councils had only limited powers of enforcement.

- councils tended to work towards consensus, rather than majority vote. As a result, decisions of councils really expressed public opinion. Councils had limited means for enforcing their decisions. However, with a broad base of public opinion supporting the decisions, most families would go along.

- for example, the death penalty could only be imposed with the consent of the individual’s family; usually, it would only be imposed for repeat offenders whom even the family had not been able to restrain and for whom they would have been forced to pay large compensation in earlier cases.

- in fact, more usually, the kin would withdraw their support and protection; as a de facto ‘outlaw’, such a person could be attacked by the kin of his victims without fear of reprisals.

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