Betrothal ceremonies before a marriage among the Kikuyu of Kenya
How can one Identify a Kikuyu?
You will not be able to identify a Kikuyu by the manner of dress or adornment today. They all dress in modern attire. They are as African as they come, very similar to a Nigerian Ibo or Zimbabwean Shona. All the skin shades are represented, though on average they tend to look Ethiopian. The majority are Christians with a small Islamic population. Most traditional customs have therefore been thrown out of the window and forgotten by many except for the inquisitive and those that are inclined to study anthropology. However, matters relating to marriage have resisted the wind of change. Ceremonies relating to betrothal and marriage are tenaciously followed by all, including the “saved” Christians who will have nothing to do with the Kikuyu “heathen” past.
Due to the fast pace of modern life and the expenses that would accrue in lengthy tranditional ceremonies, what is practiced today is an abridged version of what Kikuyu ancestors considered to be beffitting for a bride and her groom. The abridged betrothal practices are discussed here with some references to the past practices. If you are marrying a Kikuyu girl, you will not escape this betrothal process, and if you do, her people will remind you about your obligations for the length of the marriage. The custom of paying dowry for a girl has been equated to selling by some people. This is very far from the truth. The process is more important than the dowry itself. It is calculated to bond the two families together for a lifetime. Divorces are minimised where this binding involves both the couple and their extended families.
1. Boy meets girl (or vice versa)
In Kikuyu culture, girls and boys were expected to find each other during the numerous dances that were organised by their youth leaders. Parent always had a preference for a certain family and disdain for others. They would tactily communicate to their son or daughter about their preferences long before the children matured. The youths had however a free hand to find a mate for themselves. Where a parent felt that the other family was unfit to be in-laws, they talked their child out of the planned union or threatened excommunication if all failed.
A formal proposal was not made to the girl in the Western sense. The boy started by informing his own parents so that a formal proposal could be made to the girl’s family.
In the old days, the boy brewed some beer for his father and father’s friends before informing him that he had identified a girl that he wished to marry.
Today, the boy should ideally inform his parents that he will bring a special visitor home. They will probably have seen the girl with their son, but when this special visit is planned, they know the boy is serious about settling down.
During this visit, the boy’s mother studies the girl, asks her about her origins and any questions she thinks will inform her on her suitability as her son’s wife. The boy’s father will usually maintain some dignified distance except for a few pleasanteries. It is usually too late to make the boy change her mind but a mother with strong feelings against a potential daughter in-law will choose the right time to open up.
A day or two after the visit, the boy broaches the subject of marriage. Unless the boy’s mother has any strong feelings against a union, the parents are expected to state their approval. The next step, which is important even today, is to propose to the Girl’s family.
Special note 1
It is important to state from the outset that neither the Boy’s parents nor the Girl’s parents speak directly to each other during formal meetings. They will have picked representatives who will speak on their behalf just like lawyers in a court room. The boy is also expected to have an agemate friend as representative. In a few cases, like when he needs to state exactly which girl he fancies (see step 3) he will speak for himself. These formal meetings employ euphemisms and proverbs to the maximum. One avoids very direct and straightfoward talk. The spokespersons are chosen with that special gift in mind.
2. Proposal to the girl’s father
In the olden days, the boy went to the girl’s father and through his spokesperson told him that “my father wants to make a lasting friendship with you.” After probing the young man in a bid to understand which of his daughters had caused the interest in his homestead, he accepted the invitation to a feast at the boys home and to also partake in the “beer of the asking” (Njohi ya njũrio). The girl’s father was accompanied by his own wife or wives, his brothers and their wives, his close friends and their wives and a retinue of clan men and women who could not be left behind. This group participated in all future meetings and ceremonies and had to be notified in advance. During this feast, the proposal was discussed by elders of both sides and formally accepted. This step of “beer of the asking” is skipped by modern Kikuyu’s who start with the step 3 below.
Special note 2
The term “beer,” referred to the food, porridge and roasted meat for the feast and not the actual drinking of beer. Though there had to be some beer, only married men with children and women who had grandchildren were allowed to take beer.
3. The beer of knowing the Girl’s home
For this ceremony, the boy’ father and his clan send word (through the bride to be) that they will be bringing the “the beer of knowing the girl’s home.” The girl’s clan prepares a feast for their guests who arrive with many gifts whose value is calculated to match the expected generosity of their hosts. The hosts pretend they do not know what the meeting is about but invite their guests to feast anyway because “hunger is not asked questions – it is satiated first.” Feasting and small talk ensues.
When everybody is well fed, an elder from the girl’s home who has been picked for the role, requests the guests to “go home now that you have been fed - unless you had any other business, in which case your spokesman should stand up and tell us.” This is a signal for the formalities to begin.
The spokesman from the boy’s clan stands and praises the reception and feast. Then in a roundabout manner states that “their sheep was lost, and they believe it entered this home.” This may go on for a long time with laughter and mirth all round until finally the matter is out. The boy may be asked to stand up and pick out the girl of his choice from a group of girls that have been paraded. The girls will have been well camouflaged or veiled to confuse him and to add to the fun. Women on both sides are fond of this procedure. Should the boy pick the wrong girl, the roof will almost come down with the laughter that will ensue as it is an indication that he has not taken time to know his girl. Apart from the slight embarassment on the boy’s part, this does not ruin the day.
In the old days, the gifts accompanying this “beer of knowing the Girl’s home” would be in the form of farm produce, goats and sheep. Today, even though they may be referred to as goats, the currency is in shillings (or dollars for diaspora Kikuyu). Goods from a supermarket replace the farm produce in urban areas. This gift is followed by another gift known as “planting a beacon” (kuhanda ithigi) - to ensure that no other boy brings “beer of Knowing the Girl’s home” to this same household. This is given before departure. No matter how big this gift is monetarily, it is not part of the dowry and will not be counted in the negotiations that will follow. Many people try to keep it small for fear that if the dowry demanded is big, they will have overpayed. On the other hand, this gift is not ordinarily contested no matter how small. Stating that it is inadequate would give the Girl’s family a bad image. However, in case the boy’s family have been received more lavishly than they expected, it is customary for them to request to be allowed to go out for a brief deliberation “in camera” (gũthiĩ ndundu) calculated to raise more money among themselves to add to the gift lest they appear mean.
Once the Girl’s family accepts this gift, the girl is symbolically betrothed and all that remains are dowry negotiations and marriage arrangements.
4. Sacrifice to God Ngai
In the old days, the boy’s father who was also the spritual head of the family, would have sacrificed a ram to God Ngai seeking blessings for the union that his son was about to enter. This ram was called “... of buying goats,” (mbũri ya kũgũra mbũri).
This step is skipped today as it is deemed to be a heathen practice.
5. The beer of breaking the sticks
The next step was dowry negotiations, which were referred to as “breaking sticks” (kuna miti). The Kikuyu prefered euphemisms and proverbs rather than categorical statements. The boy’s father would communicate through his son to the girl parentw about the intended day for the dowry negotiations. He then arranged for the delivery of some animals as an advance payment of the yet to be demanded dowry. These animals were delivered in two lots as described below.
In the wee hours of early morning, before anybody in the girls’ family had woken up, a number of goats were driven into the Girl’s family’s cattle and goat pen. At dawn when the Girl’s family had woken up, a second group of goats were driven into the compound. The women of the household pretended that they were angry for the violation that took place before they had woken up and demanded an ewe. This was promptly handed over since the demand was expected.
After the feasting that followed, the spokesman of the Girl’s clan demanded to know why animals had been brought to the homestead. The Boy’s spokesman responded that the animals were for “breaking the sticks” (kuna mĩtĩ) and that Boy’s clan was ready to hear. This was a signal for the Girl’s clan to make a demand.
· If for example, the dowry demanded was 30 goats, the two lots delivered at night and dawn would be substracted.
The following was demanded in addition to the goats above:
· The Girl’s eldest paternal uncle demanded “goats for going away” (mbũri cia ũgendi) which would be about 10% of the goats demanded by the father.
· 6 immature he-goats (Irũhi)
· A woman’s spokesperson would demand clothing, utensils etc on behalf of the women of the clan
· An item call “Tene’ Voice” (ya mũgambo wa tene) or “in Memory of Tene” was stated and demanded (I take this to be “in memory of Akhenaten).
Today, since animals cannot be driven into a homestead at night, the boy’s family must hand over a cash gift while pretending that it is the full dowry. They cannot come empty handed. This token, no matter how small or big will be stated to be inadequate (which is expected). The Boy’s clan then demands to know what is adequate and presently receives an oral list.
Special note 3
In modern negotitions, the items may be stated as “goats, sheep, cattle or even water tanks but they are usually converted into cash at an agreed exchange rate. A goat may be calculated at 1000 shillings for example or any conversion at the whim of the Girl’s clan. Parents demand such modern things as water tanks, rain coats, cooking utensils etc. In a few cases, a physical water tank may be demanded in place of cash.
6. The counter argument
The boy’s clan does not take the demands lying down so to speak. They will have picked their spokesperson well in order to get a bargain. It is customary to stretch the arguments for long in order to tire one side into accepting a demand or to lower a demand. To waste the host’s time, the boy’s clan will request to go outside to deliberate “in camera” only to return with the same stand of a lowered dowry. All these deliberations take place in a merry atmosphere, though some demands cause tensions and tempers to rise. In the end an agreement must be arrived at and a date for bringing the dowry is stated.
In the old days, a few more goats were handed over as sign of sealing the deal. The boys father would have sent for more beer from his homesteads as the beer for folding the sticks (njohi ya gũkũnja mĩtĩ).This would signal that a deal had been made. This step is skipped today.
Upon arriving home, the boy’s father sent over to the girl’s father a fat ram that had been specially fattened as “the ram for saving the goats” (Ngoima ya kũguraria mbũri). This is skipped today.
7. Settling the Dowry Issue
Traditionally, up to five rams would have been slaughtered on diverse days leading up to the final payment of the dowry and the actual wedding ceremony. This was a considerable cost for both families. Modern life does not allow for that largesse. It is usual for the boy’s family to plan one last trip to the Girl’s family to pay the dowry as demanded and request for a wedding. The request for the wedding is a mere formality since in most cases a church wedding has been planned long in advance with the purchase of clothing, payment of venues and other matters at an advanced stage.
To avoid stressing the Girl’s family with hosting yet another large group, it is now common for the Boy’s family to appoint a group of four or five persons to deliver the dowry to a similar small group.
Traditionally, the girl was supposed to show great relactance to move away from her friends and relatives to her new home. After all the ceremonies were over, the boy arranged with his agemates “to steal the bride” and run off with her. Before the girl was stolen, two animals were delivered – “a goat for burning the roasting grill” (mbũri ya gũcina ndara) and a goat for “requesting for farm hand (Mbũri ya kũhoya mũrimi).
The groom and his agemates would pounce on the girl when she was working in the fields or gathering firewood. Though the girl would have been alerted by her husband much earlier, she was expected to show great reluctance by fighting off her abductors and crying all the way to her new home. It would appear that in the distant past, there was a time when a bride could only be acquired through theft. The young warriors from the bride’s side followed the bride in earnest and attempted to steal some goats from her husband’s home. If they managed to steal a goat or two, t it was taken as their retaliatory right. However, in case they did not manage to steal anything, they were customarily given “the goat of the raid” (Mbũri ya mũtharĩko) in compensation. The new bride then went into five days of mourning with. Her close friends kept her company and ensured that she “agreed” to eat, though she would only eat food brought from her own mother.
Today, the two goats are not delivered, brides are not stolen and there is no period of mourning. Honeymoons in the western sense are expected. However, on the wedding day, the girl can only be handed over to the women of the groom’s clan by the women of her clan at a fee. To ensure that something is paid before she joins her bride groom in church, it is customary for the women of her clan to deny her exit until their demands for gifts are met. These demands are accompanied by much singing. The women from the groom’s clan respond in song to request for the lowering of the demands. The bride groom should not be seen in the surroundings otherwise a fine can be added to the demands. Usually the groom proceeds to church to wait anxiously for the women of his clan to bring the bride. In some unreasonable cases, a bride has been withheld until the priest gives up and goes on another mission. To avoid spoiling this important day, the groom’s clan, upon hearing the demands, gets together for an impromptu fundraising.
For anyone marrying a Kikuyu girl, the following must be observed:
· Meeting the girl’s family to propose (with a cash gift)
· Planting a beacon (with a cash gift)
· Eventually pay a dowry as demanded.
Special note 4
Making friends with her family shows your commitment to make the marriage work. In the old days it was an insult to pay the entire dowry demanded at one go. You were expected to retain a balance that would be paid in small instalment for a lifetime. Since the payment of these instalments involved the same clan members that attended earlier ceremonies, it ensured that the two families will have an excuse to get together for many years to come.