In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Traditional Gikuyu Life Course
  • Gikuyu Popular Culture and Global Influence
  • Gikuyu Journals and Novels

African Studies Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
Yvan Droz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0185


As with other peoples in Africa, the Gikuyu—also spelled Kikuyu—comprise people of different origins. The 10 million Gikuyu (22 percent of the Kenyan population) live mainly in central Kenya, Rift Valley, as well as in Nairobi. They belong to a northeastern Bantu-speaking group. They are believed to have belonged to a long-term movement of Bantu-speakers who migrated from Central Africa or Tanzania in precolonial times. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Gikuyu—a highly heterogeneous population—reached their current settlement, which stretches from Nairobi in the south to the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, east of the Nyandarua Range (Aberdare). During British colonization (1898–1963), British immigrants took over land cultivated by Gikuyu people for European settlements and forest reserves in areas that soon became known as the White Highlands (mainly the Nairobi area, the Central Rift Valley, and Laikipia Plateau). At that time, Gikuyu subsistence was based on crops (millet, beans, potatoes, and maize) and animal husbandry (cattle and small ruminants). Cattle were necessary for paying bride-price, needed to marry and beget children, and were thus endowed with enormous symbolic significance. Gikuyu maintained strong relations, including economic exchange and intermarriages, not only between their own nine clans but also with Maasai’s sections of the Rift Valley, as well as with the Meru people of the north of Mount Kenya and the Embu and Mbeere people to the south. From the 1920s onward, the Gikuyu started to convert to Christianity and attend missionary schools. Some of them also became small entrepreneurs who spearheaded the economic development of the Colony of Kenya, while others remained landless and dependents of wealthier landlords. The Gikuyu’s success made them an economic threat to the British settlers, the majority of whom were themselves struggling farmers. Gikuyu are considered to be the first indigenous population to mobilize using colonial-introduced forms such as voluntary associations and independent schools and churches, which they did as a means to challenge British hegemony. The Mau Mau colonial and civil war (1952–1956) transformed Gikuyu social fabric thoroughly and sealed the process of conversion to Christianity. The tragedy of the war paved the way for independence under the leadership of a Gikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta (1963–1978). After Kenyatta’s death, Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, succeeded the nation’s founding father, putting an end to Gikuyu elite socioeconomic and political privileges until his forced retirement in 2002. Mwai Kibaki, Moi’s former vice president, won the elections and brought power back to the hands of the Gikuyu. His two terms in office were tarnished by corruption scandals—not unusual in Kenya—and ethnic clashes, which claimed more than a thousand deaths during the aftermath of the contested 2007 elections, narrowly won by Kibaki. Political power remained in Gikuyu hands when Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president, won the 2013 elections in the first round. People known as Gikuyu remain a heterogeneous population, divided by region, class, religion, and more. Among well-known Gikuyu are the late Wangari Maathai, Noble Peace Prize recipient, and writers Koigi wa Wamwere and Ngugi wa Thiongo.

General Overviews

Archaeology, linguistics, and oral traditions teach us that Gikuyuland was a complex theater of language and peoples. Based on oral and written sources, Leakey 1977 and Muriuki 1974 believe that Gikuyu migrants arrived in central Kenya in the 16th century and intermarried with local hunter-gatherer groups of Okiek or Ndorobo to acquire land. For Gikuyu, the only secure way to gain property was to obtain land rights through marriage and to cut down trees to transform the forest into farmland, on which they cultivated millet and finger millet. As new edible plants—maize, beans, and potatoes from the Americas—reached the area Gikuyu incorporated them, and they are now considered “traditional” foods. Milk and meat from cows, sheep, and goats complemented their diet and were often accompanied by wild vegetables and fruits gathered by the women in the forest. Gikuyu also brewed honey beer (mûratina), drunk mainly by the men during their meetings or offered as a way of welcoming visitors. Precolonial Gikuyu achieved a mixed economy, where foraging for honey or wild fruits and vegetables, as well as rearing livestock, played important roles. The Gikuyu were a relatively egalitarian, but at the same time strongly hierarchical society, where “big men” (politicians) attracted poor clients to till their land and herd their animals. Gikuyu agriculture is often contrasted with their pastoralist neighbors, the Maasai, with whom they forged changing alliances including intermarriage. Such alliances even led to joint raids against other neighbors. Central Kenya did not remain isolated from the rest of the world, however, and both Gikuyu and Maasai encountered Arab—or Swahili—caravans and European explorers and adventurers during the late 1800s.

  • Leakey, L. S. B. The Southern Kikuyu before 1903. London, New York, and San Francisco: Academic Press, 1977.

    In spite of Leakey’s conservative approach to Gikuyu politics, this ethnography offers an accurate and comprehensive study of precolonial Gikuyu society.

  • Lonsdale, John. “The Moral Economy of Mau Mau: Wealth, Poverty, and Civic Virtue in Kikuyu Political Thought.” In Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa; Violence and Ethnicity. Edited by Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, 315–504. London: James Currey, 1992.

    The author highlights the local—as well as national—fabric of Gikuyu ethnicity, which oscillates between a contested moral ethnicity and fierce political tribalism.

  • Muriuki, Godfrey. A History of the Kikuyu 1500–1900. Nairobi, Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

    The first scientific history of the Gikuyu people. Even if its style and some of its interpretation has suffered from the passing of time, it is still considered as an important contribution to the history of central Kenya.

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