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The Kikuyu are indigenous people from East Africa.

Their religious beliefs do not refer to the existence of a heaven and a hell. Their supreme God is omnipresent and omnipotent, he dominates everything, and nothing happens without his consent. Usually, God manifests himself on the top of Mount Kenya. In their vision, there is the « black » God, specific to the Kikuyu, and the « white » God, who belongs to the Kamba and Massai peoples.

They believe that every living being possesses :

– an individual and ancestral spirit, also called shadow or wind, which, after death, reaches the space of ancestors

– a family spirit which later reincarnates in a newborn.

The religious rites are officiated by someone who is at the same time priest, mage, and diviner. The cult of the ancestors takes place in a strict relation with the clan organization.

The ancestors make sure the traditions are respected. All actions contrary to their expectations may attract their anger and cause serious trouble.

Thus, to appease them, they are offered many sacrifices: commemorative (in the deceased’s memory, to remember him) or protective (to protect themselves).

Kikuyu women

The ancestors can transmit messages to the living through certain animals like the hyena, the jackal, the birds of prey, and the snake. They are all treated with respect in their quality of spirits’s messengers. Sometimes, these messages can predict future evils, and therefore, to try to circumvent them, they practice sacrifices.

For the Kikuyu, death is surrounded by discretion and unsaid. Death is welcomed with a certain degree of fatalism.

Compared to other indigenous peoples, the Kikuyu are not afraid of being haunted by the deceased’s spirit. However, death usually brings a sort of pollution that must be eliminated as soon as possible.

For that reason, to avoid being contaminated by death, they practice, for instance, ritual coitus. That practice allows again the circulation of the transcendent entity’s energy, called the «The Possessor of the Force».

Their funeral rituals include many public activities and festivities, such as feasts, dances, and lamentations. These actions are almost therapeutic since the mourners can publicly express their sadness and recognize the deceased’s achievements.

Any contact with the corpse is strictly forbidden. All seriously ill people are preventively put aside by their entourage to avoid such contact. When a person dies in the house, the corpse is left there. Then they pierce a hole in the house’s wall intended for the hyenas.

The Kikuyu distinguish the dead according to their social status: the « accomplished » (the respected old men and women, having left behind a line) and the « unaccomplished » (the ones who disappeared without descendant, by accident, by murder, by the curse of a sorcerer or by one relative’s malediction).

Kikuyu group of persons

They do not bury the unaccomplished beings because their soul does not reincarnate. 

The relatives wrap the dying or the deceased in a leather shroud, then they place him in the bush, in a specially prepared place, to be devoured by the hyenas and the scavengers. The body returns thus to nature.

They demolish the deceased’s house, then his personal belongings are abandoned and scattered in the same area as the body. Even if is known that his soul survives, it does not reach the spirit world, the defunct cannot reach the ancestor’s status. The soul is condemned to wander forever. The defunct’s name is forgotten.

Woman and child

The soul of the accomplished beings reincarnate. They can die in their home and receive a funeral. That is a privilege because, according to Kikuyu’s belief, the individual spirit lives underground. The burial responsibility falls to the clan. They confide the corpse to the younger sons, who later have to purify themselves.

The men and the women receive an almost identical ritual, split into two steps: a burial and an «exhumation». The defunct’s unmarried sons dig the tomb only with their hands and a stick. They place the body inside, on its right side, wrapped in clothes and blankets. They cover the tomb with stones and place the stick on top of it. Afterward, the sons are obliged to seclusion in the hut of the deceased.

A month after the burial, they organize for nine days, the second phase of the ritual, known as « the exhumation” ceremony. That represents the gradual return to normal life, and the gradual recovery of sexual activity, which marks the separation between the dead and the living.

Kikuyu women
Women in traditional dress

On the first day of the exhumation phase, they organize a ceremony in the bush behind the defunct’s house. They prepare grilled meat and drop a part at the bottom of a tree as an offering to the deceased and other spirits.

The offering symbolizes a successful transformation and his integration into the world of the dead. In the evening, takes place the first ritual coitus, also called « piercing the death » between the widows and the men who have agreed to perform this service for a fee (they are called « those who sell their sword »).

Then, every other day, other ritual coitus is performed under identical conditions.

During the six weeks of the mourning period, the wives’ (or spouses’ ) fireplaces must remain burning continuously. They stop all sexual activities, have to coat themselves with certain substances, and reject the houses related to the death. The mating of cattle is also prohibited.

The family has to shave their hair, to suspend some of their activities until the end of the ceremonies. Shaving the hair is a symbol of separation and hope. Death does not destroy life, the spirit of the deceased is born again in the same way that hair grows back.

The Kikuyu commemorate the dead, their spirits are regularly honored by offerings. When they remember the deceased and pronounce his name, that is a sign he is not dead: he remains alive.

Kikuyu tribe

Sources:

(https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kikuyus)

Adam Michel. Espace et temps chez les Kikuyu du Kenya.

(https://www.persee.fr/doc)

P P Cayzac, La Religion des Kikuyu (Afrique Orientale)

(https://www.jstor.org)

Gourou Pierre. Une paysannerie africaine au milieu du XXe siècle : les Kikuyu et la crise Mau-Mau

Anne-Marie Peatrik, Le chant des hyènes tristes. Essai sur les rites funéraires des Meru du Kenya et des peuples apparentés

Muchugu Kiiru, Going Gentle into That Good Night: Indigenous Therapy on
Death in Kenya

Kikuyu warrior man
Spiritualité Autochtone