Chief Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu of the Kikuyu


Chief Kinyanjui in the 1890's

The period in which Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu entered the history books is the 1890’s with his demise in 1929. This was in the territory of the now famous Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga. At the time, what became the British protectorate belonged to a company – The Imperial British East African Company (IBEA). From the early days of Swahili and Arab traders, Waiyaki’s Kihingo (fortified Village), was a sort of supermarket. Caravans stopped over to trade with the kikuyu near the later location of a fort . Fort Smith was established when it became imperative to protect caravans on the Uganda Road and later the Uganda Railway besides acquiring provisions for the long journeys to and from the coast. The fort was established by Eric Smith in 1891, after the earlier one at Dagoretti (Kiawariua) was abandoned by Wilson following continuous harassment. As soon as he left for Machakos, the fort was razed down by the Kikuyu.

Trading before the IBEA company

Before the administration of the IBEA was established at Kikuyu, traders announced their arrival by firing in the air. When the Warriors ascertained the party was a peaceful one, women would stream down with all manner of produce for sale. Several of the Swahili guides on the Uganda/Mombasa route became frequent buyers of ivory from the Kikuyu with one, Juma Kimemeta earning a notorious reputation. Others like Kijanja from Tanga and Juma Mussa could speak the Kikuyu language. It is likely that Kinyanjui who was a guide during at least one of punitive missions after Waiyaki had fallen out with the white men, had honed his guiding skills as a porter in the company of these men. Kinyanjui’s meteoric rise to prominence was actually linked to Waiyaki’s exit from power.

Origins of Kinyanjui

According to Prof. Mathu of the Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi, Kinyanjui belonged to the initiation age set called ‘Njenga.’ Kinyanjui had been banished from his home area in Githunguri for some transgression which caused him to relocate to Southern Kikuyu. Muriuki gives his origin as Kandara. It is not clear at which point he joined Waiyaki’s company as a servant.

During Kinyanjui’s stay in Karura, he made a girl pregnant, an act that was considered ‘gross misconduct’ by the Kikuyu. Girls were expected to remain pure till their marriage day. Any girl who was unlucky enough to have a child out of wedlock would have to marry an old man who already had many other wives. The girl, whose name was Ngina belonged to the Mureithi family (Mbari ya Mureithi). Needless to say, the Mureithi family was extremely annoyed by Kinyanjui’s misdemeanour. In the view of the Mureithi’s, a propertied and well connected Kikuyu family, Kinyanjui as a servant of Waiyaki, was not fit to marry into their family. It would appear that matters cooled sufficiently for Kinyanjui to marry Ngina as his first wife. In his long ‘family career,’ Kinyanjui married over 50 wives, most of whom were ‘given’ to him in his honour as a chief in a custom a custom that mirrored the large harems of Shaka Zulu and even King Solomon.



The rise of Kinyanjui from humble beginnings

In the trade caravans attached to the fort, one man stands out as the cause of Waiyaki’s problems, and the beginning of Kinyanjui’s rise. His name was Maktubu, a former slave from Malawi, who was frequently sent from Fort Smith to buy food from the Kikuyu. Maktubu was a seasoned and trusted servant who had served under several white men. The relationship between the fort and Waiyaki reached a point of no return when sometime in August 1892, Maktubu went to Githiga (Guruguru) with one Kamaru Wamagata, ostensibly to buy food. The real intention was however to claim Wamagata’s dowry. Apparently there was some resistance in the demand perhaps due to breach of protocol in the methods used to demand it. Kikuyu customs on dowry are observed with some decorum and two parties are expected to show respect to each other at all times. There is a saying that “ũthoni ndũrangarangagwo,”- one does not leave too many footprints at his in-laws. The use of arms the by hired marcenaries must have been an insult of the highest order for Wamagata’s in-laws. Maktubu who was known for a quick temper attempted to use force to recover the animals and a war cry was issued. In the ensuing melee, the small armed party was annihilated except for one survivor by the name of Abdulla bin Omar. The survivor ran off to report that they had been attacked by the kikuyu while ‘buying food.’

Purkis who was the administrator at Fort Smith at the time was not going to take the death of Maktubu lying down and a punitive expedition was planned. But when the xpedition arrived in the location of the culprits, there were no animals in sight. The people had driven off their cattle, sheep and goats into safe areas. Kinyanjui who was the guide in that expedition was dismayed as were his masters to learn from a captured woman that Waiyaki had warned his friends of the impending attack. It should be noted that all the parties in an expedition gained by sharing the booty recovered in the raids, a reward which increased their zeal to accomplish the mission. Waiyaki, fearing that his animals would also be targeted sent his two sons, Munywa and Githagui to hide them among his relatives. Read more on Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga of the Kikuyu and how he died at Kibwezi on his way to deportation at the coast. Thus, Kinyanjui became the beneficiary of Waiyaki’s misfortune.

When Waiyaki was exiled, Kinyanjui was imposed on the people as a Paramount Chief. The Kikuyu form of government did not have the position of a Paramount Chief. This was a creation of the colonial invaders but Kinyanjui was to perform his duties with uncharacteristic zeal. The circumstances under which this happened are not very clear, and it is quite likely that the Swahili traders who had worked with him in the caravans recommended him for the position to protect their interests. What is clear is that Kinyanjui did not disappoint his masters.

Kinyanjui as a Paramount Chief

According to Muriuki the Historian, Kinyanjui enriched himself by taking over other people’s land besides acting as the principle land dealer when settlers wanted to buy land in the area of his jurisdiction. But Prof. Mathu thinks otherwise. In his opinion, Kinyanjui was merely shrewed, having seen what had happened to Waiyaki and the futility of resisting the colonial masters with spears and poisoned arrows. If a white man, with the government’s approval wanted certain land in Kinyanjui’s jurisdiction, Kinyanjui got it for him. It was the only way to survive in the early days and those who thought otherwise paid with their lives.

It is no wonder then that Kinyanjui was submissive to a degree that perplexed even his British bosses. His compliance with official demand went further than expected. In one incidence, a settler was attacked when he went to investigate a sound in his cattle enclosure. he was hit with a club. Kinyanjui, as government’s representative among the Native population in that area was asked to apprehend the culprit. He was given seventy two hours to accomplish the feat, failure to which a government reprisal against the Kikuyu in his constituency would be imminent. Before the expiry of the deadline, Kinyanjui returned to Nairobi followed by a column of warriors who had been bound together with rope. After the ‘clubbing’ suspect had been handed over, the then Governor, Sir Eliot demanded to know who the other bound people were. Kinyanjui listed several crimes committed in the recent past as he pointed at the offender in each of the transgressions.

Kinyanjui and Karen Blixen

Kinyanjui lived nine miles from the Karen Blixen coffee farm which today is a suburb of Nairobi called Karen. The House of Karen Blixen is the Karen Blixen Museum, managed by the National Museums of Kenya. Kinyanjui was a friend and frequent visitor of Karen Blixen.

Karen gives an interesting account when Kinyanjui visited and found her in the company of a visitor. She offered him a drink so that he may wait for a while. Karen made a strong one, so that it should keep him busy for a while. The drink was whiskey, whose strength Kinyanjui underestimated. The man took it all in one gulp, perhaps in the manner of the Kikuyu liquor by the name muratina that was taken from a cow’s horn. Moments later Karen was called by her panicked workers who reported that Kinyanjui was dead. To see him lying there motionless and stone cold, Karen felt like one who had ‘shot an elephant.’ She frantically tried to get her car started so that she may take him to see a doctor but the car failed her that time. When she tried to send Farah for the doctor, Kinyanjui’s councilors begged her to wait a little longer. An hour later Karen was worrying about the ensuing scandal (of giving liquor to a Native, a crime of sorts) when her servants rushed to inform her that Kinyanjui had gone home. After being splashed with water several times, the Chief had come to and with the help of his servants and coucilors, walked home without as much as a word of goodbye to his host.

Kinyanjui had many children as would be expected of a polygamist. According to Prof. Mathu, he did not favour educating his children, and many did not attend school. The few who did were the tũmĩũkũ - children who for one reason or the other were not suitable for traditional chores like herding. One of these children was Christened David. The young man had been to the mission school. Perhaps he is the son who became his driver. During Karen Blixen’s time, Kinyanjui bought a car from the American counsul in Nairobi and drove to her house to show off. Karen records that he looked regal in a ‘monkey skin cloak’ and a skullcap that the Kikuyu made from a sheep’s stomach.

How Kinyanjui got his numerous wives

It is stated in the story of Kinyanjui that he had over 50 wives. One wonders where a busy man like a Paramount Chief got time to ‘tune’ a girl, to use common parlance from number one, to fifty. The customary requirements alone would take all his waking hours. Before a marriage takes place, the two families have to meet to ‘get to know each other’s homes’, to ‘pay a commitment fee’ and ‘to negotiate the bride price.’ Finally after the meeting to ‘pay the bride price’ the wedding takes place on the appointed day, when the ‘shoulder of the goat’ is cut. This is the equivalent of cutting the cake and is the final binding ceremony for man and wife. As stated above, it would be time consuming to go through every step in order to marry 50 or more wives. There had to be a short cut.

Prof. Mathu tells me that everybody wanted to be associated with a powerful chief such as Kinyanjui. The easiest way was to have him marry one of your relatives, which would turn him into an instant in-law. So when a clan heard that Kinyanjui would come visiting in their location, they went into a frenzy in search of a girl among their daughters who would be willing to be one of the great chief’s wives. Such a rich man did not lack willing maidens. The next step would be to pay dowry to the father of the girl. Since it was not the Chief’s idea to get a wife in the first place, the old men of the clan got together, negotiated and raised the necessary bride price among themselves and gave it to the father of the girl. When Kinyanjui finally arrived for the much awaited visit, he was presented with a maiden as a wife among other gifts, all ‘duty paid.’ When I asked the professor if the first wife would not go into a fit of jelousy, I was much surprised by the answer.

“The first wife was very happy because she had found someone to shave her head.” All other future wives served under the command of the first wife. The first wife called the shots, and her sons were the true heirs. Perhaps that is how harems in the old times were administered, under the direction of the first wife – the Nefertiti. In the meantime, when the clan that had ‘donated’ the girl wanted the Chief’s ear, they made a visit to see how their daughter was doing. The Daughter would then alert the Chief about the presence of his in-laws, and he would give them his ears – easy as that.

Death of Kinyanjui

According to Karen, Chief Kinyanjui had some of his flock among his Maasai relatives where a daughter was married. Due to a rinderpest epidemic, the government had quarantined Maasai cattle to ensure that they did not roam around to cause infection in districts that were free of the pestilence. When eventually the quarantine was lifted, Kinyanjui made haste to go for his animals which, according to custom would include the calves born in captivity. While rounding up his cattle, he had been attacked by a cow which had jabbed him with a horn in one of his thighs, causing serious injury. He had been nursed for some time by his married daughter, but the wound had been stubborn. Eventually he had desired to return home, and his servants had to carry him on a stretcher all the way. When he had arrived safely in his hut, he had asked for Karen. By this time the wound had gone gangrenous.

Karen had arrived in Kinyanjui’s homestead with Farah his Somali servant, to find a dilapidated car in the compound and a gravely ill Kinyanjui lying on a bed in his hut. A doctor from the Mission hospital had been to see Kinyanjui and then left to fetch a lory that would take him to hospital.

According to Prof. Mathu, Kinyanjui had not gone to claim his cattle from the Maasai as Karen Blixen has stated in ‘Out of Africa.’ He had visited one of his homesteads, since he had married into the Maasai. While there, his thigh was pricked by a barbed wire, which seemed like a small innocuous stab. He had proceeded to walk back to his home in Kikuyu with his retinue, a somewhat long distance by foot. The wound had turned septic and the lymphatic glands had swollen rendering the march back very difficult. When he arrived home, his whole body had been poisoned.

According to Karen, Kinyanjui had not wanted to go to hospital. He had wished that Karen should take him with her to her house before the Mission people arrived with their lorry. Fearing that Kinyanjui would die in her car, Karen had declined and bid farewell to the dejected old man and his family. Kinyanjui died that very night at the Thogoto Mission Hospital in 1929.

The Burial of ceremony

Kinyanjui’s funeral was described by Karen as a “European and clerical affair.” In old times, the Kikuyu did not bury a commoner, but very rich men were buried. The ceremonies that followed to cleanse the family and those who had come into contact with the body would have been out of reach for many. Karen Blixen was a little romantic about Kikuyu treatment of the dead:

“The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vulture to deal with. The custom had always appealed to me, I thought that it would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and be so promptly, neatly and openly picked and cleansed; to be one with nature and become a common component of a landscape.”

When Kinyanjui’s body was brought down from the Mission on a lorry, what followed was a state funeral with nothing remotely resembling a Kikuyu rite of passage. The District Commissioner was represented by two government officials from Nairobi. The French mission, Church of England and Scotland were also prominently represented. Several of his peers in government service such as Chief Kioi were also present. Kinyanjui’s youngest wife, Nduta wa Kibera, died sometime in the 1970’s


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Comments 6 comments

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

THanks Wahu,

Give me more insights (from what your Grandmother told you) and I will update the story of this great man.


wahu2 3 years ago

Kariuki, that was what Kikuyus used to do. He is my great grandfather so those were the stories my cucu used to tell us.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Wahu, I am most grateful for that piece of illuminating information. This shows that in-laws do look forward to the dowry they will receive so as to solve their own problems - How lucky for Kinyanjui that such an expectation on the side of his in-laws actually to be saved his life.


wahu2 3 years ago

point of correction Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu became paramount chief after working for the whites and saw how hardworking he was so they rewarded him.

When kinyanjui wa Gathirimu impregnated Ngina he was to be killed by putting him in a hive and burn him but the brother to Ngina, who was to marry with the dowry that Ngina was to fetch, begged the people not kill him.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Unfortunately not. But that calls for some reading.


ynw 4 years ago

do you know anything of karimi wa itherero or kamiri wa waitherero?

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