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Gikuyu Traditional Morality

Updated on March 27, 2018

THE ORIGINALITY OF THE GIKUYU'S: MORAL CODES

INTRODUCTION

The Gĩkũyũ, a people from the Bantu stock, are the single largest ethnic group that traditionally lived around Mount Kenya since the 15th century, combining settled agriculture with animal husbandry.[1] Just like many other African societies, it has its own well-ordered moral system. It is this moral system without any admixture of Christian or Western influences that constitutes what we construe as “Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality”. The many 19th and 20th centuries’ attempts by European scholars and missionaries to analyze and interpret this system have largely been criticised to be shallow and variously prejudiced.[2] Nevertheless, in 1983, Hannah Kinoti, an indigenous scholar, in her text, “African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality”, presented a rather extensive analysis and near accurate interpretation of this system. Since our major preoccupation in this paper is to expose Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, Kinoti’s text will be our primary source of information. In what follows, we shall consider the basic understanding and foundation of Gĩkũyũ traditional morality, its foundation, means of communication and enforcement, major aspects and recent changes. The last section will be devoted to an elevation of this study and its relevance.

1.0. BASIC UNDERSTANDING AND FOUNDATION OF GĨKŨYŨ MORALITY

1.1 Basic Understanding of Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality

In traditional Gĩkũyũ society, morality was understood as a set of norms, precepts, observances, customs, codes, taboos or standards that define, guide and regulate the conducts, behaviours and actions of individuals.[3] Hannah Kinoti tells us that it was conceived as “the reasonable order of things.” [4] In this sense, its role was to maintain, promote and ensure the wellbeing and stability of the society and to keep the fundamental unity of things—natural and supernatural.[5] Hence, while anything that harms or disrupts the harmony and wellbeing of the society was considered evil, wrong or bad, that which fosters them was considered good. Consequently, there was a common understanding of the interrelationship between society wellbeing and morality. This social or communal dimension to the understanding of morality gave it a force such that its practice was considered a duty which individuals owe one another in the community.[6] It was therefore imperative to develop such essential virtues as honesty (wĩhokeku), generosity (ũtaana), justice (kĩhooto), courage (ũcamba) and temperance (wĩkindĩria). And since, morality was considered as an integrated whole, a morally good person possessed all the virtues.[7]

Furthermore, there were many motivations for cultivating the moral ideals of the society. Key among them were wealth (irĩ) and honour (irĩĩri). These were considered rewards for moral integrity. While wealth was viewed as sustenance, fortune, property including wives, children, livestock and gardens, honour was consider as the reputation, gratitude, public appreciation and respect given to an individual by those who have seen his good works.[8] It was the belief that every individual was capable of attracting these rewards and that they do not come automatically. An individual had to earn them by leading a virtuous life which was neither easy nor lucrative. This is why for the Gĩkũyũ, riches only came through diligence in tilling the ground.[9]

Further on, in traditional Gĩkũyũ society, moral rightness or wrongness may be determined by age or moral integrity.[10] For instance, while young men assisted in brewing beer, it was morally wrong for them to drink it since beer was the exclusive privilege of elders in their later years. Again, in the sense of moral integrity, it was not morally wrong to do harm or treat contemptuously those who wantonly disregard the laws and customs of the society—thieves, idlers, murderers, arsonists, witches, perjurers, and the stingy or mean.[11] These were those who disrupt the order, peace and stability to the society.

1.2 Foundations of Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality

Among the Gĩkũyũ, it is the belief that God (Ngai) is the source, foundation and authority behind morality.[12] They believe that, together with their agricultural way of life, God gave them certain laws. These laws are rules of conduct or moral codes which are inbuilt in creation and those that have been passed on through the mouthpiece of generation of seers, diviners, prophets and parents. They also include prohibitions and injunctions against stealing, swindling, murder, wicked behaviours, self-love, disrespect for and disobedience of parents and so on.[13] Again, it is God who approves certain institutions and customs for society to function. Every individuals had the awareness that he was accountable to God for his conduct. They believe that God is angered by people who contradict his laws.[14] In the same vein, they believe that they pleased him through their good conduct. It is also the belief that God was involved in the daily lives of individuals, blessing the good and punishing those who broke moral rules.[15]

Gĩkũyũ conception of the source of morality is strikingly different from the social welfare derivation advocated by Kwame Gyekye.[16] For the Gĩkũyũ, God gives moral laws, rules of conduct and customs in order to ensure the wellbeing of society.[17] God was the basis or bedrock of morality. This implies that, for the Gĩkũyũ, morality and religious beliefs are inseparable since morality ultimately derives its authority from God.[18] A compromise would be that although Gĩkũyũ traditional morality is religious by nature, it fulfills social, moral and cultural functions.[19]

2.0. COMMUNICATION AND ENFORCEMENT OF GĨKŨYŨ MORALITY

2.1 Communication of Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality

The Gĩkũyũ social system consists of different groups with their senior and junior camps. While those in the senior camps are older, the juniors are young. It is therefore expected that the older members of every group communicate, transmit or inculcate the moral codes of the society to the younger ones. The older ones are considered as the immediate human agents that maintained the vital link between the community and the supernatural, that is, God and the ancestral spirits.[20] Traditionally, their words built up the society in moral consciousness.[21] They generally carried out their roles by giving good examples, admonitions, tests, stories, music and songs.[22]

Since it is within the family circle that a child obtains most of his education, it was the duty of parents and elders to nurture their children to maturity (ũgima). Hence, parents taught their children to cultivate virtues. They taught them that actions have consequences and that every individual is largely the author of his own welfare. This teaching is often informal, spontaneous and constant.[23] Parents carry out this task diligently since they never wanted the behaviour of any child to bring them embarrassment. This was why a mother warned her daughter to guard against illicit sexual intercourse since it brought disgrace to the family.[24]

In other groups too, moral teaching was also on. For instance, among the warriors, it was common to find senior warriors organizing lessons in order to teach newly initiated young men never to disgrace themselves or the group by over-eating or eating greedily.[25] Again, older boys and girls took it upon themselves during the final stage of initiation to point out the acceptable behaviours of the society to the newly initiated. The latter were accommodated in the same facility to receive instruction on the need to prize a good reputation highly and to treat the opposite sex with great respect. It was here that young men were taught that the girls with whom they danced (ngũcu) and practiced nguĩko (approved mutual fondling) did not belong to them.[26]

2.2 Enforcement of Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality

Gĩkũyũ has a highly organized system for sanctioning, maintaining and enforcing its morality. This system consists of two groups of agents. The first consists of superhuman agents (God and the ancestral spirits).[27] The second consists of human agents (parents, peer groups, warriors, elders, kinsmen and the local community). Generally, the ideas of reward, punishment, taboos, immediate retribution and compensation were also central in the maintenance of Gĩkũyũ traditional morality.

With regard to the supernatural agents, the Gĩkũyũ have a strong belief in God’s justice.[28] For them, God who created and rules over the world actually carries routine inspection of the society to ensure that people adhered to his rules. In this inspection, he punished whatever was wrong and rewarded right or good actions. Consequently, disease, plague, failure of seasonal rain, defeat in battle and a general lack of vitality in man, beasts and plants were indications of his punishment of moral failure. When things prospered, it was taken for granted that he was pleased with the conducts of the people. In a similar vein, ancestral spirits were considered guardians of traditional morality. A sure way to accord them respect was to avoid behaviours that displeased them.[29]

Concerning human agents, social organizations used different means to exert pressure on their members to observed proper morality. In the family, parents and kinsmen had the express responsibility to sanction their relatives or children. It is the belief that God ratifies the blessings or curses which they pronounce. On the community basis, elders who were considered custodians of morality constitute themselves into a court or council (kiama)—a traditional legal and political system.[30] This council sought God’s help in order to uphold justice as well as maintain peace and harmony. Through lawsuits and open disputes, it tried offenders who steal, commit adultery, fornication, murder, land trespassing and so on. This council determined whether an offender’s punishment was reformative or terminative. Reformative punishments included: admonition, payment of compensation, ridicule, banning or ostracizing. Terminative punishment which purifies the society was for habitual criminals and was marked by killing.[31] More so, peer groups ensured that their members behaved properly. They applied corrective measures on any member whose conduct they did not approve.[32] In the same vein, the warriors were keen on maintaining morality. They communicated and enforced the decisions of the council of elders, maintaining discipline and punishing offenders.[33] For instance, it was their duty to upbraid and beat up initiated boys and girls who were disobedient and expressed stingy and antisocial behaviours.

In all, there were both positive and negative sanctions aimed at maintaining and enforcing the moral order. While those who were considered morally virtuous were appreciated, respected, received assistance and had their properties protected, offenders were punished accordingly.[34] Communal consciousness or solidarity and the notion of immediate judgment contributed to the observance and enforcement of morality as a communal responsibility.

3.0. ASPECTS OF GĨKŨYŨ TRADITIONAL MORALITY

3.1. Childbirth

Children are considered as the wealth and reward of their parents. Among the Gĩkũyũ, the birth of a child is celebrated by the family and indeed by the whole community. The sustenance of a child’s life is considered the responsibility of all. This is symbolically represented after a child’s birth. In the event of a baby, although it was ordinarily wrong to steal, it was the tradition that its parents were allowed to harvest token of certain food crops from the gardens of neighbours.[35] More so, there was the practice of “seclusion” after the birth of a child. During this period of four or five days, a mother was expected to be nursed by another woman. The other woman was obliged to abstain from sexual intercourse during this period.[36]

3.2. Initiation

In Gĩkũyũ traditional society, initiation marked a period of serious training in morality. It was usually introduced by four different “stages of cutting” which were aimed at instilling maturity in the growing child. These stages include: the extraction of the lower front permanent teeth (kwehwo) at age 6 or 7; the piercing of the upper ears; and the piercing of the ear lobes.[37] Irua, the rite of circumcision (or clitoridectomy for girls) which is the fourth stage took place during the actual ceremony of initiation. While boys were initiated at approximately 18 years, by 12 years, girls were already initiated. The newly initiated were expected to take a solemn oath, promising to observe strict personal and public morality.[38] A curse was invoked on those who contravened the rules. Initiation is believed to cancel or atone for all unconfessed guilt.[39] Henceforth, the individuals were to conduct themselves as befitting their new status of mature adulthood.[40] After initiation, the new adults were given practical instructions regarding prohibitions, privileges and rights. For instance, while the act of engaging in sexual intercourse was prohibited, they had the privilege of engage in mutual fondling (nguiko) and the right to own properties.[41]

3.3. Marriage

In traditional Gĩkũyũ society, marriage was between two consenting initiated adults. This implies that marriage to an uncircumcised person was forbidden. This does not, however, disallow polygamy. A woman is said to belong to a man as wife once he has presented a virgin ewe, a virgin he-goat and thrown the sacrificial feast (ngurario) of a fattened ram to her clansmen. It is believed that the sealing of the marriage negotiation cancelled all former wrongdoings.[42] The man had the obligation to look after his family by making adequate provisions for their clothing and food. Through diligence, fidelity and cordiality, a woman was expected to maintain her home. In a polygamous family, the wife that excelled more in virtues is usually the favourite. While a man may discipline his wife for failing in her duties as mother and wife, the clanswomen were jointly against any man who was unduly authoritative and a hard taskmaster.[43] If a man had only one wife, he was obliged to abstain from sexual intercourse when she did. If a woman deserts her husband, he had the right to demand from her father the entire ruraacio (bride wealth).[44] A man and woman who conduct the affairs of their family very well usually have a good reputation in the community.

3.4. Death

Traditionally, it is believed that death does not put an end to an individual’s participation in the affairs of the society. The spirits of the deceased continued to belong to the various groups they had belonged to in life. While those who died living a virtuous life become good spirits, those who were habitual offenders continued as bad spirits.[45] Habitual offenders were often given “terminal burial” by their relatives so that they never return to trouble the living. Consequently, it was in the interest of people to live virtuous lives. More so, it was believed that the death or murder of an ostracized or disinherited individual counts for nothing at all.[46]

4.0. CHANGES IN GĨKŨYŨ TRADITIONAL MORALITY: WESTERN INFLUENCES

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries witnessed the coming of British colonial masters and Christian missionaries to Kenya. The simultaneous activities of these groups brought about a complete change in Gĩkũyũ traditional morality. Jomo Kenyatta tells us that their activities produced regrettable effects on the morality of the society.[47]

4.1. Influence of the Colonial Masters

The colonial masters impacted on Gĩkũyũ traditional morality through the changes they introduced into Gĩkũyũ political, economic and social systems.[48] Traditionally, elders were in charge of the leadership of Gĩkũyũ society. Leadership was more or less egalitarian. However, the British colonialists created chiefs, native tribunals and local native councils to administer executive, legislative and judiciary roles. Those who served in these capacities were to serve the interest of the colonial leaders as against tribal integrity. It was the case that they violated the customs and traditions of the people and undermined traditional institutions. More so, the introduction of the cash economy brought about a widespread of dishonesty and corruption. People no longer worked without the inducement of money. The prosperity of the corrupt challenged the traditional belief that misfortune followed misconduct. Again, the colonial labour policy made Gĩkũyũ parents leave home in search of work, abandoning crucial traditional roles.[49]

4.2. Influence of Christian Missionaries

Christian missionaries directly impacted on Gĩkũyũ traditional morality by undermining its cultural and religious basis. Converts to Christianity were made to believe that traditional customs were pagan, superstitious, heathenish and sinful.[50] The missionaries taught against certain aspects of the people’s traditional beliefs and behaviour patterns. For instance, they taught against the belief in taboos and the customs of polygamy, female circumcision, drinking of native beer, tribal dances and nguiko, (mutual fondling).[51] The Christian teaching of a reward in heaven and the Day of Judgment waned traditional morality which advocated immediate reward and retribution. Traditional religious activities which ensured family unity and the authority of parents were taken to mission centres. Hannah Kinoti’s informants relate that since the missionaries were unable to provide a new firm foundation for morality, decline in moral standards began to set in. Communal solidarity gave way to individualism. There came a widespread of social evils such as corruption, robbery, prostitution, broken homes, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity and teenage pregnancies.[52]

5.0. EVALUATION AND RELEVANCE OF GĨKŨYŨ TRADITIONAL MORALITY

A contemporary ethical evaluation of the Gĩkũyũ traditional belief that moral obligations come directly from God and that morality is communal and ought to be approached with a sense of duty associates such concepts as the Divine Command Theory of morality, moral objectivism, altruism and deontology with Gĩkũyũ traditional morality. An understanding of these concepts shows that Gĩkũyũ traditional moral principles can be utilized in the development of the abundant human and material resources in modern Africa.[53] Nevertheless, it must be noted that a complete return to the practice of traditional morality is impossible. What is sought after is a healthy integration of the positive elements of Western and traditional values.

Gĩkũyũ traditional morality presents a very effective means of communicating and transmitting morality which appears absent in contemporary times. This is the method of teaching morality by showing good examples. Hannah Kinoti’s informants tell us that “Christian” morality failed in the area since there were hardly any role models or examples to emulate. For them, while some Christian elders swore to take only one wife, their attitude showed that they were not convinced about the rationale for monogamy.[54] Hence, a commitment to live the moral life by parents and elders fosters the practice of morality among the youth. More so, contemporary politics and economy has a lot to learn from Gĩkũyũ traditional morality. An adoption of its emphasis on communal solidarity, brotherhood, diligence, honesty and hard work has the capacity to nurture leaders and citizens who are concerned about the common good.[55]

Although this study appears to suggest that the consequence of western influences on Gĩkũyũ traditional morality is quite devastating, there are also positive elements in their activities. For instance, their condemnation of clitoridectomy (female circumcision) raised the awareness of the people to its side effects. In the same vein, the traditional “stages of cutting” which disfigures an individual and exposes him to diseases will become no longer relevant with the intervention of the West.

CONCLUSION

So far, we have attempted to expose Gĩkũyũ traditional morality by highlighting its basic understanding of morality, foundation, major aspects, means of communication and enforcement and the many changes that have taken place after its contact with the West. This study exalts aspects of Gĩkũyũ traditional moral principles and institutions and advocates that these aspects be integrated with the positive aspects of Western morality or political organisation in order to build a more economically, socially, religiously, and politically stable Africa.


[1] Cf. John Shoup, Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011), p. 150.

[2] Cf. Emmanuel Udokang, “Traditional Ethics and Social Order: A Study in African Philosophy”, Cross-Cultural Communication, Vol. 10. No. 6 (2014), p. 266.

[3] Cf. Gerard Bennaars, Ethics, Education and Development (Nairobi: East African Publishers, 1993), p. 13.

[4] Cf. Hannah Wangeci Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality (New York: Rodopi, 2010), p. 231.

[5] Cf. Sung Park, Christian Spirituality in Africa (USA: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), p. 180.

[6] Cf. Sung Park, Christian Spirituality in Africa, p. 180.

[7] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 231.

[8] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 35.

[9] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 219.

[10] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 207.

[11] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 120.

[12] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 28.

[13] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 28.

[14] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 28.

[15] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 232.

[16] Cf. Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought (USA: Temples University Press, 1995), p. 129.

[17] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 29.

[18] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 232.

[19] Cf. Emmanuel Udokang, “Traditional Ethics and Social Order: A Study in African Philosophy”, p. 268.

[20] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 33.

[21] Cf. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John Levison, Return to Babel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999), p. 205.

[22] Cf. Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, s.v. “Aesthetic Thought”.

[23] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 64.

[24] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 215.

[25] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 205.

[26] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 134.

[27] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 48.

[28] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 170.

[29] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 33.

[30] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 24.

[31] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 156.

[32] Cf. Jomo Kenyatta, My People of Kikuyu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 36.

[33] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 24.

[34] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 117.

[35] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 131.

[36] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 80.

[37] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 62.

[38] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 227.

[39] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 163.

[40] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 63.

[41] Cf. Nicholls B, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading (USA: Ashgate, 2010), p. 35.

[42] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 163.

[43] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 145.

[44] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 135.

[45] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 33.

[46] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 128

[47] Cf. Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: the Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (USA: Vintage Books, 1965), p. 241.

[48] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 37.

[49] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 51.

[50] Cf. Emmanuel Udokang, “Traditional Ethics and Social Order: A Study in African Philosophy”, p. 268.

[51] Cf. Sung Park, Christian Spirituality in Africa, p. 181.

[52] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 15.

[53] Cf. Emmanuel Udokang, “Traditional Ethics and Social Order: A Study in African Philosophy”, p. 266.

[54] Cf. Hannah Kinoti, African Ethics: Gĩkũyũ Traditional Morality, p. 93.

[55] Cf. Emmanuel Udokang, “Traditional Ethics and Social Order: A Study in African Philosophy”, p. 269.

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      Of course. :)

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      I love anthropology.

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