The Gikuyu Tribal Organization and How It Was Constituted

‘Muhiriga’ brings together several family groups who have the same clan name and are believed to have descended from one family group.

The Gikuyu Tribal Organization and How It Was Constituted
Agikuyu Elders. Source: Time.

The 3 Basic Constituents of the Gikuyu Tribal Organization

The Gikuyu tribal organization is based on three factors, and the same three principles govern every individual:

  1. Family group. [‘Mbari/Nyumba’]
  2. Clan. [‘Muhiriga’]
  3. Age-grading system. [‘Riika’]


‘Mbari/Nyumba’ brings together all those who are related by blood, i.e., a man, his wife(wives), and children (and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren).


‘Muhiriga’ brings together several family groups who have the same clan name and are believed to have descended from one family group. Due to the polygamous marriage system, it was possible to have a family group holding a hundred members or more due to the rapid increase of children.

Hence, they bonded through the clan identity, thus facilitating the feeling of rendering mutual support in the interest and welfare of the clan. The representatives of the clans met on big events occasions where the younger members were introduced to each other and carefully informed on their lineage links to follow the footsteps of their ancestors in promoting the unity of the whole clan.


‘Riika’ united and solidified the whole tribe in all its activities. Both boys and girls became members of one age group, irrespective of their family group or clan, through initiation or circumcision almost every year. They had a strong bond of brotherhood and sisterhood and acted as one body in all tribal matters.

The Tribal Origin of the Agikuyu People (The Agikuyu Origin Story)

Who was 'Gikuyu'?

‘Gikuyu,’ the founder of the tribe, was given his share of land and everything in it by ‘Mugai’ [Divider of the Universe] when humanity started to populate the earth. Mugai made His resting place on a big mountain which He called Mt. Kenya [‘Kiri-Nyaga’] and showed Gikuyu the beauty of the country He had given him.

Where is 'Mukurwe Wa Gathanga'?

Gikuyu was shown a spot full of fig trees [‘Mikuyu’], and Mugai ordered him to descend from the mountain and establish his homestead on the selected place he called ‘Mukurwe Wa Gathanga.’ Mugai also told him that whenever he needed assistance, he should make sacrifices and pray facing towards Kiri-Nyaga.

Who Was 'Mumbi", Gikuyu's Wife and How Many Daughters Did They Have?

When Gikuyu got to the spot, he found that Mugai had provided him with a wife, who he named ‘Mumbi’ [one who molds/creator]. They had nine daughters and no sons.

Where Did Gikuyu's Nine Daughters Get their Husbands From?

Gikuyu called unto Mugai since he lacked a male heir. Mugai told him to make a sacrifice under the Mukuyu [fig tree], go back home, and there he would find nine handsome men who would marry his nine daughters.

As Mugai told him, he found the young men and took them to his homestead, where they were welcomed and treated with hospitality. Gikuyu struck a deal with them whereby if they wished to marry his daughters, they would live in his homestead under a matriarchal system.

What is 'Mbari Ya Mumbi'?

They agreed, and the Gikuyu people established family sets after all the daughters were married. They were joined together under the name ‘Mbari Ya Mumbi’ [Mumbi’s family group] in honor of their mother. Gikuyu and Mumbi acted as their heads.

The Nine Principal Gikuyu Clans

Due to the rapid increase of the family, some moved after inheriting their parents after they had died, making it impossible to live together without forming more family sets and clans. Thus, each daughter called together all her descendants under her name, forming the nine principal clans, which were:

  1. ‘Acheera.’
  2. ‘Agachiku.’
  3. ‘Airimu.’
  4. ‘Ambui.’
  5. ‘Angari.’
  6. ‘Anjiru.’
  7. ‘Angui.’
  8. ‘Aitherandu.’
  9. ‘Ethaga.’

The nine principal clans extended the system of kinship to several clans and family groups. However, more or fewer variations to the original ones have been formed.

Which other Gikuyu clans do you know of? Do you belong to one? What is the name of your clan?

What is 'Ruriri Rwa Mbari ya Mumbi'?

The Gikuyu people formed a large group to bring together all these groups under one strong bond of kinship known as ‘Ruriri Rwa Mbari ya Mumbi’ [children/people of Mumbi/Mumbi’s tribe]. Women continued to rule, but later on, the system changed from matriarchal to patriarchal due to the following reasons:

  • Women holding superior positions had become domineering and ruthless fighters.
  • They practiced polyandry, through which many men were killed for committing adultery or other minor offenses due to sexual jealousy.
  • Men were subjected to all kinds of humiliation and injustice besides capital punishment.

A revolt was planned by men, which they decided to do when most women leaders were pregnant. This involved deceiving them by flattery. Hence leadership was transferred, and polyandry was abolished, and polygamy was established.

What is 'Ruriri Rwa Mbari ya Gikuyu'?

The men were able to change only the original name of the tribe from ‘Ruriri Rwa Mbari ya Mumbi’ to ‘Ruriri Rwa Mbari ya Gikuyu’. They were unable to change the clan names since the women considered it as a sign of ingratitude. The women threatened to kill all male children born due to the treacherous plan of the revolt if they dared change the clan names. The proper names of the nine daughters from which the clan names were derived are:

  1. ‘Wacheera.’
  2. ‘Wanjiku.’
  3. ‘Wairimu.’
  4. ‘Wambui.’
  5. ‘Wangari.’
  6. ‘Wanjiru.’
  7. ‘Wangui.’
  8. ‘Waithera.’
  9. ‘Mwethaga/Warigia.’

Behavior Patterns Which Governed Relations in the Gikuyu Tribal Organization

Behavior Patterns Which Governed Relations Between Members of One Kinship Group [‘Mitugo ya Nganyiiti’]

Behavior patterns that govern relations between members of one kinship group or ‘Mitugo ya Nganyiiti’ are very similar and common in many family groups but differ due to factors such as:

  • Patrilineal and matrilineal descent.
  • Division of labor.
  • Responsibility between men and women in every society.

The Patrilineal System in the Gikuyu Tribal Organization

The patrilineal system, in which the father is the head of the family, governs the Gikuyu society. He is called ‘Fafa’ [my/our father], ‘Ithe’ [his/her father] and ‘Thoguo’ [your father].The mother is referred to as ‘Maitu’ [my/our mother], ‘Nyina’ [his/her mother], and ‘Nyokwa’ [your mother]. A mother is respected and honored by her family and community and reciprocates this by being hospitable to visitors and those in need. Normally, she is the one who manages to reconcile the father and his children hence avoiding conflict in the Gikuyu Marriage System.

Polygamy in the Gikuyu Tribal Organization

In a polygamous family, wives address each other as ‘Muiru Wakwa’ [my partner/co-wife]. The husband addresses his wife as ‘Mutumia Wakwa’ [my wife], and the wife addresses the husband as ‘Muthuuri Wakwa’ [my husband]. When the wives are many, they address him as ‘Muthuuri Witu’ [our husband]. The relations have been broken down into different categories as follows:

Relations between In-Laws

The husband’s brother is nicknamed by the wife, which he reciprocates as a sign of endearment, and at times a present is given as a sign of naming. The husband addresses the wife’s sister as ‘Maramu’ [sister-in-law]. All other wife’s relatives are in-laws [‘Muthoni Wakwa/Athoni Akwa’]. The wife refers to her husband’s parents as ‘Maitu’ [mother] or ‘Baba’ [father]. The parents address her as the daughter of so-and-so as a sign of endearment and respect to the parents.

Relations Among Children

Children may be of two bonds:

  • Children of same mother and father.
  • Children of the same father and different mothers.

The Bond of Kinship between Children of the Same Mother and Father

In the first case, the bond of kinship between children of the same mother is strengthened by the mother. The children address each other as ‘Muru Wa Maitu’ [Son of my Mother] and ‘Mwari Wa Maitu [Daughter of my Mother]. ‘Irigithathi’ [the eldest sibling] is referred to as ‘Mukuru Wakwa’ [my senior] by younger ones. The younger one is referred to as ‘Muruna Wakwa’ [one who follows me] by the elder one. The last child is known as ‘Kahinganda’ [one who closed the womb].

Normally, the firstborn is regarded as the center of affection and precious to parents, while the last-born is held dear, particularly by a mother. This bond is inseparable, having slept in the same womb [‘Maraire Nda Imwe’] and suckled the same breast [‘Mongire Nyondo Imwe’]; they are of the same flesh and blood and hence ought to live for one another.

The Bond of Kinship between Children of the Same Father and Different Mothers

In the second case, the bond of kinship is strengthened by the father, addressing each other as ‘Mwari/Muru wa Baba’ [son/daughter of our father]. The connection link is robust as long as the father is alive. They are free to break up the common homestead and establish separate ones with their respective mothers when the father dies, hence becoming two or more distinct units acting almost independently, thus starting sub-clans. Clans are an essential part of The Roots of Gikuyu Culture.

Relations between Children and their Father’s Relatives

All father’s relatives are referred to by the name “our father” in comparison to the age of their real father. The elder brother is ‘Baba Mukuru’ [elder father], and the younger one is ‘Baba Munini’ [younger father].In turn, they reciprocate it in the same way, which is often based on their richness and being able to entertain the children.

The brothers’ children are referred to as ‘Muru kana Mwari wa Baba Mukuru kana Munyinyi.’ The father’s sister is referred to as ‘Tata.’ She is less influential on her brother’s homestead or children unless in social functions. Her children and those of her brother refer to each other as ‘Muihwa’ [cousins].

Relations between Children and their Grandparents

‘Guka’ [grandfather] and ‘Cucu’ [grandmother] have great affection for their grandchildren. Children belong to the same age group as grandparents; hence the first male child represents the paternal grandfather, and the second male child represents the maternal grandfather.

The same thing applies to a female child. As a sign of endearment, the grandmother refers to the boy as ‘Muthuuri wakwa’ [my husband], and the girl is ‘Muiru wakwa’ [my co-wife]. The grandfather calls the boy ‘Wakine’ and the girl ‘Muhiki wakwa’ [my bride]. Normally, grandparents are very close with the grandchildren and hence frequently visited.

Relations between Children and their Mother’s Relatives

The mother’s sister is ‘Tata’ but is looked upon by the children as their mother. The children refer to each other as ‘Mwari or Muru wa Tata’ [son or daughter of my/our aunt]. The mother’s brother is ‘Mama’; hence the only one who takes the title “uncle.”

He has a certain influence on the children, especially during rites of passage. The Gikuyu tribal system ensures unity among clans and that individuals and families of the same kinship know each other and how they are related; hence they can cooperate.

Etiquette in the Gikuyu Tribal Organization

Some of the etiquette observed in the Gikuyu tribal organization include:

  • A child should politely talk to the father, and the father should reciprocate in the same way unless when reprimanding or correcting.
  • One should not address the father by his own name. One should speak of him as ‘my/our father’ or ‘father of so-and-so’ unless he is a rascal or when in a collective sense, e.g. ‘Mbari ya Maina’ [Maina’s family].
  • It is impolite to mention one’s mother indecently.
  • Relations between co-wives are based on collective possession of the husband and not on ownership of property within the precincts of a wife’s hut or granary.
  • Co-operation in land cultivation, planting, or harvesting depends entirely on mutual agreement between the wives and husbands.
  • Every ‘Muthoni’ must treat one another with politeness regarding the customs and traditions of Gikuyu culture.
  • Both sides gave each other a great deal of mutual help. Numerous gifts are exchanged among them, especially in ceremonies connected with initiation, marriage, or religion. The exchange of gifts is governed by the principle of “Give and Take.”

Compiled from:

  1. Kikuyu People by E. H. Mugo.
  2. Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta.