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Chief Karuri wa Gakure of the Kikuyu
Updated Sept 2013
The early life fo Karuri
Chief Karũri wa Gakure was born in Gathigiyo, in the district of Iyigo. His father was from the Angare clan while his mother was actually called Wangare.
His brothers (from his own mother) were Kiguma and Ngaru and his three sisters were Wambui, Muthoni and Gacoki. Karuri displayed leadership qualities early among his peers who named him ‘mutongoria’ (leader) which stack like a common name. He belonged to the age set Manguchya makuru (old stealers of clothes) which was initiated around 1869. Karuri displayed his bravery during the village wars between warriors of one ridge with another.
When he was ready to marry, Karuri raised the necessary dowry and married Nduta, daughter of Kihia wa Kibe of Kanyenya-ini. Karuri built a home for his wife Nduta at Kigumo. During this time, Karuri was actively involved in elephant hunting. He traded the ivory with Arabs who came inland up to Naivasha. To augment his income, Karuri decided to practice traditional medicine even though he had not been apprenticed. With thirty goats, he bought his first batch of herbs from Githaiga wa Muya, Gikerumi wa Karura and from the Ndorobo in the nearby forests. He was eventually inaugurated in a big ceremony into the trade as a traditional Doctor. This trade made him famous far and wide. Karuri’s fame increased when he agreed to give war medicine to the Warriors of Karura (Kiambu) in their perennial wars with the Naivasha Maasai. He even led them in the battles after applying on them the medicine that was supposed to make them invincible.
It is not clear whether Karuri went with the Warriors in battle as the ‘Muthigani’ or leader of the war council ‘Njama’. The lead Chief Muthigani (lead spy/scout) carried the ‘githitu’ (war medicine preparations) without which the warriors would surely lose the raid. They easily worn due to the belief in Karuri’s medicine and his presence. This earned him enormous riches from the animals that were taken as booty from the losers. This eventually led to his ascendancy to leadership, a role he had longed for, for a long time. It may be important to mention here that the Kikuyu Chief Muthigani and his assistants together with the war council (Njama) divided their warriors into three sections – 1.gitungati (reserve). These were the very best fighters who had proved themselves in previous raids. They also acted as guards to the Muthigani who carried the precious ‘ithitu’(war charms); 2.ngerewani (advance guard). These were young warriors, some of whom would be in their first ever raid and eager to prove themselves; 3. Murima (rear guard). These were the older warriors would wait to receive the raided cattle and drive them to the safe forest edge as the ‘itungati’ and ‘ngerewani’ kept the enemies at bay.
A song by Kikuyu women
Karuri's chief enemy, Wangombe
Chief Wangombe who was allied to the Maasai of Nanyuki and Rumuruti was not happy with Karuri’s power and fame. With his Maasai allies he attacked Karuri at a time when Karuri’s land was experiencing a famine. Karuri decided not to fight and moved his weak warriors to safe areas. Wangombe attacked the defenceless villagers, burning and looting and went away with a lot of booty. He planned to come back and this time get rid of Karuri forever. But Chief Karuri was well prepared the next time round. He caused the death of close to half of Chief Wangombe’s fleeing warriors. The defeat was so resounding that Chief Wangombe sent emissaries to sue for peace. The two chiefs performed f ‘blood ritual’ for peace and friendship. The swore to never fight each other again. Karuri also defeated Chief Ndiuini wa Murathimi and his brother Ngambi. After that all other lesser chiefs feared him and caused him no more trouble.
First contacts with Europeans
Chief Karuri supplied labour to the IBEA company at Fort Smith (today’s Kikuyu Town) during the construction of the Uganda Railway. The Kikuyu around Fort Smith had already been enlisted by Francis Hall as porters between Machakos and Ravine. Hall had for sometime wished to open up the interior of Kikuyu land by starting an administrative station. It is at this time, during Karuri's travels to Naivasha and Karura (Kiambu) that he met Francis Hall. Hall had already made a treaty with Chief Kinyanjui, and it is unlikely that Karuri would pass through Kinyanjui's teritory, or even make aquintance with Hall without the knowledge of Kinyanjui. A. t. Matson in his Autobiography of Hall writes that the Muranga chiefs had been requesting Hall to build a station in their area for a long time without mentioning Karuri by name.
Bowes, the Impersonator of Government
At a time when there was no British administration in Central Kikuyu, Karuri got entangled with John Bowes, a white trader of questionable character. Bowes was the first white man that most Kikuyu in central had seen, a fact that he exploited to the maximum. He inspired much awe for the guts to venture where many dreaded. During the a famine that plagued the land around that time he was the only trader who could supply the mombasa caravan with grain from the interior which had faired better. Finally, After the Mbiri station was well established, Francis Hall ordered his capture. Karianjahi (eater of lablab beans) as the locals had named him, made thieving excursions disguised as punitive expeditions to amass wealth while staying close to Karuri in a symbiotic relationship. Bowes was charged with impersonating government. By the time of his arrest, Bowes was a rich man with three Kikuyu wives.
The Consolata Mission
Sometime in 1902, the coronation of King Edward VII was celebrated by his subjects in the new East African Protectorate, specifically in Nairobi. The Consolata Fathers had just landed in town from Turin in Italy, having come from the Mombasa port by the new railway. They had already made up their minds to evangelize the Kikuyu. They were wondering how to proceed into the interior in safety due to the numerous bad stories they had heard about the savagery of the Kikuyu. It so happened that Chief Karuri was in town. When he heard of their intention to evangelize the Kikuyu, he not only offered them safe passage but also the land on which to build their mission station. The Fathers describe Karuri as "a sagacious man man of keen insight who had already argued that with the arrival of the Europeans his country would undergo great change." After a three day journey, the party celebrated their first Holy Mass on 29th June 1902.
The Consolata Mission also credits Karuri with the kind donation of land on which Hall built a fort at Mbiri. Matson on the other hand gives the name of a Chief Riunthiwa Rangu, an unlikely name for a Kikuyu, as the chief who 'suggested the ridge above the Mathioya River as the most suitable site for the Murang'a station. The station was named Mbiri but later changed to Fort Hall in memory of Francis Hall.
The Consolata Fathers started their evangelization programme with an unrivalled zeal. After only eighteen months among the Kikuyu, they had seven mission stations in Kikuyuland.
Due to his cooperation with the emerging colonial government, Karuri was crowned as Paramount Chief. His peers were Wangombe wa Ihura in Mathira, and Kinyanjui who had taken over from Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga after the arrest and disappearance of the latter. Karuri attended church services and catechism once in a while.
Fort Hall was the pre-colonial name for today’s Murang’a town. This became a colonial administration centre for the subjugation of the inland Kikuyu. The Kikuyu nicknamed Francis, Nyahoro, (Bwana Hora, according to Matson) probably a corruption of ‘Hall’. Muriuki states that the name is derived from the Kikuyu word for cooling due to the role he played to bring peace to warring. Hall died from ilness on 18th March 1901.
The end of Kikuyu traditional government
Paramount chiefs presided over the downfall of Kikuyu traditional governments. Previously the muthamaki was accountable to the council of elders to which he belonged, not to mention his riika (age set), his Mbari (large family unit), and his muhiriga (Clan ). These Paramount Chiefs could not be questioned by anybody other than the colonial administration which they served overzealously. They took anything they fancied from their 'subjects' including land and animals as they collectet hut tax for the government. Even by European standards, they were rich - very rich.
Chief Karuri is said to have made every effort to ensure that anybody who wanted favour from the white man went through him. Those who aspired to be chiefs would bring gifts to Chief Karuri so that he could put in a good word to Francis Hall. In the end Chief Karuri became a 'tin God' as Muriuki calls him in his history of the Kikuyu. It would seem that the Paramount Chiefs had the power to appoint head men. Karuri is credited with appointing Wangu wa Makeri as the first female Kikuyu headman (some call her a chief). Wangu has become a legendary figure in Kikuyu oral history. Read more on Wangu in hubpages.
Dust to dust
On January 14th 196, the Reverend Perlo, in a great ceremony attended by all Consolata Missionaries and non believers baptised the Paramount Chief. He was at least 70 years old when he was baptised. Karuri took the name Joseph, while his wife Wanjiru took the name Consolata. The ceremony included a christian wedding. We are not told what had happened to his first wife Nduta. Karuri is known to have had as many as sixty wives who looked after his Interests In various parts of the country. Since the Catholics preached monogamy, it is likely that Nduta had died, and all his other wives were regarded as illegitimate.
On 16th May 1916, the great Paramount Chief Karuri wa Gakure passed away and was buried in Tuthu.
1. Mutaarani, A Kikuyu Reader for Std. IV, Catholic Mission Press, Nyeri, 1953
2,. Muriuki G., A history of the Kikuyu 1500 - 1900,
3. Cagnolo, the Akikuyu, 1933
Do you have some interesting information about this great Kikuyu Chief?