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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Kenya Highland Bantu mind-mapping diagram

Part Ten
Spread of Pastoralism to the Bantu
— 44 —
Kenya Highland Bantu

When the Northeast Coastal Bantu arrived in Kenya, one branch, instead of following the coast into Somalia, moved north into the eastern section of the highlands, where a substantial number of Bantu reside today. That the latter are descended from the former is attested by an unmistakably close linguistic relationship. The immigrants occupied both the plateau country, where they presumably found only Bushmanoid hunters in possession, and the more elevated slopes of the Pare Mountains and of Mounts Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and Meru. Here they seem to have been preceded by Megalithic Cushites practicing intensive irrigated agriculture on terraced fields, for the mountain Bantu still continue these practices and also exhibit a variety of other customs of indubitable Cushitic origin. They doubtless followed the same process of encirclement, infiltration, intermarriage, and ultimate absorption to which the Nilotes of the Nandi cluster subjected the indigenous Cushites whom they found in the mountainous country northeast of Lake ictoria. The parallel will become strikingly apparent when we survey the ethnog raphic data.
The Bantu of the Kenya hig hlands form a progressive and relatively homogeneous cultural pro,·ince, in which the following seven tribal groups can be distinguished.

  1. Chaga (Chagga, Dschagga, Jagga, Wadschagga), with the Kahe and Meru. They occupy the slopes of Mounts Kilimanjaro and Meru and number about 260,000.
  2. Kamba (Akamba, Wakamba). They number about 600,000.
  3. Kikuyu (Akikuyu, Giguyu, Wakikuyu). Recent population estimates range from 665,000 to 1,115,000.
  4. Meru (Mweru), with the Chuka (Suka), Embu, Mbere (Emberre), Mimbe (Amwimbe), and Tharaka (Arharaka). They occupy the slopes of Mount Kenya and number about 150,000.
  5. Pare (Asu, Wapare) , with the Taveta. They occupy the Pare Mountains and number about 100,000.
  6. Shambala (Sambara, Wasambara, Washambala). They were reported in 1935 to number about 80,000.
  7. Teita (Taita, Wateita). They number about 60.000.

Agriculture provides the primary basis of subsistence among all the peoples of the province, and the methods of cultivation followed by the mountain tribes reveal a special affinity to those prevailing on the southern slopes of the Ethiopian plateau. Like the Konso, the presumptive kinsmen of the.legalithic Cushites (see Chapter 25), the Chaga, Meru, Pare, Shambala, and Teita make extensive use of irrigation and keep their fields in permanent cultivation through the use of animal manure as fertilizer. The Chaga even resemble the Konso in confining their animals in order to conserve their manure. Instead of grazing them, they bring grass, leaves, and other fodder to them in their stalls. Cereal grains rank first in the agricultural economy of the province.

Kikuyu Girls Grinding Meal.
Kikuyu Girls Grinding Meal. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.)

Only the Kamba and Kikuyu, to be sure, cultivate sorghum to any considerable extent, but eleusine constitutes the staple among the Chaga, millet among the Kamba and Meru, and maize among the Jikuyu, Pare, and Shambala; the last two crops, in fact, hold important positions everywhere. Except for cereals, the Sudanic complex provides only small quantities of cow peas and gourds, and the Ethiopian complex only coffee, a major modern cash crop. Besides maize and sweet potatoes, a near staple in many societies, the American complex is represented only by small amounts of haricot and lima beans, manioc, pumpkins, and tobacco.
The cereals are supplemented mainly by importations from India and Southeast Asia. Nearly all groups depend heavily on the Indian legumes-pigeon peas and gram, hyacinth, and sword beans—and cultivate substantial quantities of the Malaysian bananas, sugarcane, taro, and yams. Bananas, indeed, attain the status of the ranking staple among the Shambala and of a co-staple among the Chaga.
The major crops of the Chaga fall into three categories which differ in the amount of ritual associated with their cultivation and in their allocation in the division of labor by sex. The first category, grown only by women and with the heaviest ritual incrustations, includes beans, sweet potatoes, taro, and yams. The second, cultivated only by men and with less prominent attendant rituals, embraces bananas and eleusine. The third, comprising only maize, may be grown indifferently by either sex, and its cultivation involves no ritual activities. We have already alluded to the hypothesis (Gutmann, 1913) that these categories reflect successive levels of historical introduction and to its bearing on the problem of the antiquity of the sweet potato in East Africa (Chapter 28).
Animal husbandry adds variety to the diet and also provides an important supplement. All groups keep considerable numbers of cattle, goats, sheep, and bees, but remarkably few have dogs and chickens. They usy milk and in most cases make butter. They likewise exhibit the Cushitic practice of drinking blood drawn from the necks of living animals. The Meru, and doubtless other tribes as well, observe dietary regulations in the consumption of meat and milk. Except for the Teita, the Bantu of this province do very little hunting and little or no fishing, and in general observe the Cushitic taboos against eating fish and game fowl. They engage fairly extensively in trade, and many groups hold regular markets. The men clear land, construct and maintain irrigation ditches, and herd livestock, though Chaga women feed the animals. Except among the Chaga and Pare, women do the bulk of the cultivation. They also do the milking among at least the Chaga, Kamba, and Meru, although the Kikuyu apparently assign this task to men.
Marriage invariably entails the payment of a substantial bride-price in livestock. Most tribes prohibit unions between first cousins, but the Pare allow them in the case of cross-cousins; and the Chaga, who favor marriage with a woman of one's mother's sib, permit marriage with a mother's brother's daughter. General polygyny prevails, but only in the nonsororal form. The first wife enjoys a preferred status, but each married woman has a house of her own. Residence adheres strictly to the patrilocal rule. The Kamba and Teita have extended families, but in all other groups the household unit compries only a nuclear or polygy nous family . Except for minor traces of a possible former matrilineate among the Chaga and hambala, descent, inheritance, and succession follow the patrilineal principle. II tribes are organized into patrisibs, usually exogamous and occasionally toremic, within which a segmentary lineage srstem prevails. Kin groups tend to be localized as patricians, coextensive sometimes with the local community as a whole, sometimes only with segments within it. Kinship terminology conforms to the Omaha pattern among the Chaga, Kikuyu, and Teita, but the Shambala use cousin terms of the Hawaiian type.
All the peoples of the province live in neighborhoods of dispersed family homesteads, though the Shambala formerly occupied palisaded villages, and all groups build houses of the cone-cylinder type with low walls of mud or wattle and daub and with thatched roofs descending nearly to the ground. Despotic forms of government have developed only recently, and in only a few tribes. Thus the Shambala have a tribal state with a Zigula dynasty imposed by conquest, the Teita are ruled by petty district chiefs, and during the nineteenth century strong leaders among the Chaga created about thirty small chiefdoms controlling a few settlements each and exacting tribute from their inhabitants. Except for the development of a class of chiefs' retainers and dependents among the Chaga, social stratification scarcely exists. The Chaga, Kikuyu, and Teita, indeed, have never even kept slaves.
This relatively egalitarian social system reflects the former prevalence of republican political institutions of the Eastern Cushitic, or Gada, ty pe among all the tribes of the province save the Shambala and Teita. With these exceptions, all groups are organized into age-grades of the linear type, and most of them still vest political authority in a council of elders representing a particular age-class during its occupancy of the ruling grade. Boys enter the first grade by initiation with circumcision (girls are subjected to clitoridectomy), and the age-classes, composed of annual age-sets initiated over a period of from twelve to fifteen years, advance at regular intervals through the sequence of grades, holding political office during one such period and retiring at its termination.
The Kikuyu tribe has attained world-wide notoriety in recent years through its participation in the ill-fated Mau Mau movement, led, interestingly enough, by the author of one of the authoritative ethnographic monographs cited in the bibliography below.

Note. That author was Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978). He wrote Facing Mount Kenya. The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (London, 1938), with an introduction by Bronislaw Malinowski. Nicknamed “Burning Spear,” Kenyatta spent nearly a decade in jail under British colonial rule. He became Kenya's Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964. Elected the country's first President in 1964, he died while in office in 1978. His son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the current president of Kenya. — T.S. Bah

The Chaga people have achieved a lesser but more solid reputation through the extraordinary financial success of their tribally managed coffee-marketing cooperative. Its profits have gone into the erection of a multistoried and ultramodern block of buildings in the town of Moshi which, in addition to housing a commercial college, provides the community with its finest business offices, an arcade of high-class specialty shops, and an excellent roof restaurant commanding a magnificent view of Mount Kilimanjaro. The reader who wishes to glimpse for himself the future of Africa should visit Moshi.

Selected Bibliography