Kikuyu people and the goat as legal tender

The goat was the 'Legal tender' of the Kikuyu
The goat was the 'Legal tender' of the Kikuyu | Source


The Goat in the life of the Kikuyu

The Kikuyu economy was agricultural, supported by a few livestock, namely cattle, sheep and goats. They neither kept donkeys nor fowls. No self respecting adult would eat wild game, birds or fish. Of course the Kikuyu of today are cosmopolitan and eat virtually everything. Fowls, pigs, and fish are raised and eaten with relish. The donkey is particularly useful as a beast of burden, especially in areas where water is fetched from longs distances. It is the goat that stands out as the favourite of all animals that are kept by the Kikuyu. The goat is much valued for its meat, but as we shall see, it was much more than livestock.

Sheep and goats frequently slept in the same huts as the owners. According to routledge, their acidic urine discouraged jigger infestations and only very poor people who had no goats were infested. Modern living eventually pushed the goats out of sleeping quarters and the jigger acquired its freedom to sample the rich as well.

When cultivated land became exhausted it was abandoned and allowed to remain fallow. This fallow land was referred to as ‘possession of the goats’ – kwa mburi. The term Mburi is used for a flock of both sheep and goats. As a young boy, I used to hear that the milk of sheep was used as medicine to treat certain condition. It was definitely not used for any other purpose, and I have never seen the milking of a sheep, which must have happened very rarely in the life of any Kikuyu. On the other hand, goats were milked by women. Young boys learned the art of animal husbandry by taking care of goats.

Goats were herded with a special stick (ruthanju) that was about four feet long, the one for herding cattle was longer at about 6 feet long. Since goats were hearded by young boys, it was natural that the stick be shorter, besides its less injurious effect when the goat was struck. The tree used to make these 'thanju [plural, ruthanju - sing) was the mugono, muhutha or mutathi. The mutathi was also reputed to have medicinal properties.


The goat as legal tender

In pre-colonial times, most people had only sheep and goats to meet all tribal obligations that required payment. It was the rich man who had cows. The goat was the ‘legal tender.’ When one required the services of the medicine, or to join the society of elders, or even to get married, the fee was always valued in goats. Going by the old and current exchange rate, one (1) goat is equal to ten (10) cows. The Kikuyu claim that their forefathers purchased land from the Ndorobo and Athi with goats. Apparently the payment of 30 goats allowed the buyer to measure out as much land as he and his family could cultivate. Before the power handing over ceremony called ituika, the elders who were about to hand over the reigns of power to the ‘generation in waiting’ were paid their enormous fees in goats.

As ‘legal tender,’ all references to mburi should be taken to mean goat. However, when sheep and goat were out grazing, they were collectively called mburi. When a distinction between goats and sheep is desired, sheep are referred to as ngondu. Ngoima is sheep that was kept indoors the purpose of fattening. The fat of the ngoima was much prized as an ointment for the skin besides being applied to the leather garments. The very poor who could not afford this oil had to make do with castor oil.

Goats as payment for religious instruction

When a first born child was about seven years of age and could take religious instruction, his mother’s brother of a woman was asked to give permission to piercing the ear lobes. The three sticks that were inserted on the upper cartilage were called ndugira. Thisboy’s uncle was called Nyarume.He charged seven goats and sheep but had to wait until the boys initiation several years later to receive his animals. the Ram was called ‘Ndurume ya Kirira, - the ram of instruction.


The goat as currency for Bride Price

Bride price was valued at 30 goats. According to Routledge, a chief’s daughter was compensated with about 70 goats. During marriage negotiations today, it is not unusual to hear the family of the girl demand 50 goats. Though the implication is that the young man and his people can pay with 5 cows a conversion into cash is what is expected. Most have no place to put the 50 goats or 5 cows, let alone raise them and the natural thing is to convert the goats into cash. A goat today is worth about Sh. 5000 (about $62 dollars). The groom to be needs to raise about Sh. 250,000 (about $ 3125). The young future groom need not worry unduly if he and his family cannot raise the ‘goats.’ Negotiations are always designed to give both parties a soft landing through bargaining. The 50 goats can easily be lowered to 20 goats. If the girls family is adamant about their figure of 50 (or whatever figure), they are reminded that the ‘in-law visits many times,’ which is really a plea to pay in installments. This is rarely denied since the object of demanding bride price is not to enrich the girl’s family but to compensate for the loss of a helper in the family and to build a lasting relationship between the two families. In case the girl changed her mind after the betrothal goats had been paid, the man’s family reclaimed their courts in a traditional court and in all likelihood, he goats were returned.

The goats place in court fines

Traditional courts had members of the ruling council of elders in attendance. The number of elders was dependent on the complexity of the case, which could be as high as 30. The accused would be represented by an age-mate and some elders from his clan and the same applied to the accuser. Should the accused decide to plead (guilty or otherwise), he was allowed to step aside with his age-mate and clansmen for a discussion after the accuser had made his plea. His age-mate would then return with the plea (a confession or a denial) and the council of elders would decide. Before the decision, the elders would also walk away discuss in seclusion before the unanimous verdict.

In case a woman was killed accidentally, the killer and his clan compensated the woman’s family with 30 goats, the same amount that was paid for her betrothal.

Stealing a goat was not condoned either, nor the theft of any other property. If the stolen goat was kept with the thief’s herd, the traditional court, upon hearing the case, would fine the offender 3 to 4 goats. If the offender had killed the goat and eaten it, the punishment would be severe - 10 goats. In all cases, the elders were likely to include a sheep for their own feasting.

A thief who appeared in court for the second time risked banishment from the locality. If it was the third time, the sentence was death. Habitual offenders were not condoned. The execution was effected by wrapping the thief with grass and burning him. What I heard when I was a small boy was that the thief would be put in barrel, the kind used to make beehives, and then rolled down a slope to drown in the river.

On 25th Dec. 1907, a man who had been accused of stealing a cow, and who admitted of the fact, was fined 15 goats to be paid in six days.


The goat as a sacrificial animal

In the old days, a sacrificial goat (or sheep) was held by the nose and throat until it suffocated. The throat was then slit and the blood that gushed out was allowed to spill to the ground. But if the goat was not sacrificial, the blood was collected in a calabash for use later in the mutura - a long sausage made buy stuffing the large intestines with pieces of meat and the blood.

The goat for meat

The goat is still a much treasured ceremonial animal in Kenya. It is impossible to imagine a gathering in a homestead for any reason- reunion, birthday, x-mas, Easter or just for business without roast goat. At least not in Central province where the Kikuyu abound. The goat culture is now a Kenyan phenomenon, which has been exported wherever a large community of Kenyans is to be found around the globe.

The goat is no longer suffocated as that method of dispatch is unpalatable to modern sensibilities, not to mention religions. The throat is slit quickly to impart the least pain to the beast. The blood is collected in a pan which had some salt in it to hasten the clotting.

The head and the lower leg below the knee are singed in the flames until all the fur is non-existent. The black soot is then scraped off with a sharp knife. When the head and the lower limbs have been scarped to a clean grayish white, they are dropped into the soup making pot. In the meanwhile, the skin is carefully removed with as little attached meat as possible. In the olden days, it would have been prepared into a garment. Some people today will give it the same treatment as the head and lower limbs then drop in the soup pot. Some bits and pieces of meat such as the lungs and spleen are dropped into this soup pot to pre-cook for use as stuffing’s. Seasoning is added to taste.

Once the skin is off, the belly is split open, taking care not to open the stomach or puncture the intestines. The gall bladder is carefully removed, since if it were to pour its contents on the meat, it would render it unpalatable.The stomach is then punctured and the contents spilled in the ground and buried. The stomach which now resembles a towel is separated from the intestines, cleaned superficially and kept aside for stuffing with precooked bits of the meat and some of the blood. A sharpened stake is used to seal the punctured ends once the stuffing is complete. Alternatively, a string made of banana fibre is used to tie the ends. This stuffed stomach is then dropped into the soup pot.

The small intestines are roasted on the grill. They are much loved by the ‘meat preparers’ in the kitchen and serve as an appetizer before the rest of the meat is ready. They are passed round in a tray for all to sample with a little salt.

The large intestines are cleaned by an expert who ensures that evidence of the goats earlier meal remain inside to ‘spice the stuffing.’ These intestines are then stuffed with bits of pre-cooked meat such as the lungs, and other bits scraped from the skin when it was being removed. This may include some of the blood, some potatoes, onions and chilies to make it real hot to the palate. The sausage thus made is called a ‘mutura.

The rest of the goat is cut into pieces. If the goat had been contributed by someone as a present, one foreleg will not be roasted, but will be wrapped up and given to the benefactor to eat with his/her family. The act is called ‘gucokia guoko’ – returning the arm. It is a show of gratitude and good manners. When roasting goat meat, experts ensure that the forelegs and hind legs are roasted whole. This also goes for kidneys, heart and liver. The ribs and lower back may however be cut into manageable pieces.

The gathering does not wait until all the meat is ready. Each piece that is ready is passed round to accompany other food that had been prepared for the occasion. The stuffed meats are particularly popular with the ladies. The soup will be ready after the gathering is almost satiated from the meat.

The head and lower limbs are boiled over and over in renewed water to supply endless soup in the process. When the organs are thus exhausted, which would be the second day after the party is over, the head of the house invites his closest friend to ‘guatura mutwe,’ – splitting the head. The two, most likely with some beers as accompaniment, eat the brains and peel off the rubbery meat from the head as they reminisce about days gone by. I personally find this meat utterly tasteless, but to a Kikuyu it is a great summary to a goat feast.

I hope the next time you have a party you will follow the Kikuyu cuisine above and enjoy life to the fullest.

More by this Author


Comments 2 comments

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks, Paul Kuehn.

The only alternative to fresh milk was 'fermentation' - not cheese nor butter.

However, the jugular of the goat was pierced, bled into a container, and the blood was a refreshing drink. boys did this to goats but adult men (as the Maasai still do) would bleed the cattle. The incision, done with a special arrow that did not penetrate deep was harmless to the animal which of course lived to be 'bled' another day. I believe this custom developed during long migrations when grain and milk would be in short supply but the people had to survive.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

This is a very interesting account of your people and the value of the goat. I especially liked your description of the butchering process. Is any cheese made from the goat milk?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working