KIKUYU, AKIKUYU, WAKIKUYU, GIKUYI (Kenya) (2+,3,3,4-, 4,4;5,5) 


IndexAfricaKenya → Kikuyu


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Female circumcision marked the cut-off point between child and woman, signifying the transition from the state of ignorance, inactivity, impotence, and asexuality into one of activity, knowledge and reproduction (Mbiti, 1969:p123; Nelson, 1987:p221)[1]. Kenyatta (1939 [1961:p159, 161])[2]: “[…] a Gikuyu man has been taught from childhood to develop the technique of self-control in the matter of sex […] During early childhood parents talk freely to their children explaining all matters connected with sexual taboos”. Pre-initiation masturbation is considered “right and proper”; afterwards, it is said to be abandoned and referred to as a babyish habit. Girls are told it is “wrong” (p162). Formalised sex instruction is offered to girls in an initiation ceremony including circumcision (Leakey, 1931)[3].

Occasional infant and child betrothal was noted by (Routledge, 1910: p124-5)[4]. Dundas (1915:p284)[5] stated that infant betrothal was common. Usually, however, the betrothal is a girl’s own affair.


The Pre-Colonial Kikuyu were said to practice “incomplete sex play” known as ngwiko after initiation at puberty (Ahlberg, 1991:p61)[6]. Sexual intercourse is part of initiation ceremonies of both boys and girls (Lambert, 1956:p54-5; see also p34-5)[7]. For girls, it required full intercourse before nuptial age, “to be wiped clean from the soot of the knife” (kuhuuruo mbiro ya ruenji). It would take place before menarche (to avoid pregnancy)[8], and should lead to defloration (but not wholly, since virginity was valued [!]). Elders say that girls got rid of their “initiation dirt” by intercourse with immature and uninitiated boys (a heinous offence on the part of an initiated girl except for this one purpose), who, not having reached the stage when sex was socially important, would not suffer from the taint”.

During the irua ceremony, relatives and friends of the novice sing about sexual knowledge and the rules governing social relationships between men and women to acquaint the initiates with their future adult roles (Kenyatta, 1938:p141)[9]. For the ceremony, girls must be menarchal, and must not have had sexual intercourse or experience with masturbation (Bunche, 1941:p)[10]. The songs at the mugumo tree impart knowledge about sexuality and how to comport oneself in sexual relationships.

Consummation of marriage was a recognised event (Leakey, 1977 [II]:p381-3)[11], and there were routine instructions for brides and grooms (p786-8). Sexual intercourse before initiation was strictly forbidden, and it was said it would show after operation: the wounds would not heal properly (I, p398, 410). Taking advantage of the few opportunities for breaking the rule we met by severe beatings. Initiation age was lowered with the arrival of Europeans, from 17/18 to 14/15 (II, p587-8); girls were initiated at age 12 (“when their breasts were only partially formed”), though elders indicated menarche age was lowered compared to the old days. Ritual sexual intercourse is witnessed by the initiates at various occasions.

Boys up to ages 14/15 were allowed to play at mutual masturbation and sexual intercourse with girls (II, p584); afterwards, it was forbidden out of fear that they would abuse little girls. Big boys would have to settle with masturbation, sex with barren married women, or with goats or sheep, the latter both being tabooed. Most 14/15 year olds build huts proudly announced as their thingira (men’s hut), inviting boys and girls to


“play sexually in imitation of their initiated brothers and sisters. As the parents were fully aware of what went on and knew that these boys and girls would lie together, they constantly warned them that in no circumstance were they to attempt to have actual sexual intercourse, and that they had to content themselves with fondling and cuddling each other. Occasionally a boy and girl would disobey this rule, and because of this many mothers would regularly examine their daughters’ genitalia. Knowledge that there would be this examination from time to time was usually enough to make the little girls careful to obey the rules laid down for them. They knew that if they allowed the bigger boys to have full intercourse they would be found out and severely punished. For their part the boys were constantly warned that if they did more than simply play at sex, they would do themselves harm, and that when they were circumcised they would not heal quickly. Naturally, both boys and girls grew up with a considerable knowledge of sex, for in addition to what they heard and saw of the behaviour of the grown-ups, they were also taught a great deal by their parents when being told of the prohibition against full intercourse” (II, p584-5).


Decline of the age-set system, schooling, the gweko custom, and the delay of integration of sex education has changed recent matters (Worthman and Whiting, 1987)[12]. Today, Ahlberg et al.[13] argue, circumcision still symbolises becoming a Kikuyu adult, it is now performed in a clinic and no longer includes the ceremonies and open discourse that formerly conveyed sexual knowledge combined with strict social controls regulating sexual behaviour. The changes have resulted in “numerous discrepancies between cognition and practice”: although parents believe sexual intercourse should be restricted to marriage, they have employed “a prohibitive silence” that is misinterpreted by youth who have little reliable knowledge about sexual matters.




Further reading:


§  Arthur, J. W. (1942) Female Circumcision Among the Kikuyu, British Medical Journal 2,24:498

§  Blakeslee, H. Virginia (1956) Beyond the Kikuyu Curtain. Chicago: Moody Press [Chapter 16 on female genital operations]

§  Shaw, Carolyn Martin (1995) Colonial Inscriptions. University of Minnesota Press [Chapter 3 on Kikuyu Women and Sexuality]

  • Mbito, Michael Njoroge (2001) The transition from boyhood to manhood among Kikuyu men living in the United States : the experience of the male circumcision ritual in sub-Sahara Africa. Thesis (M.S.)--University of Tennessee, Knoxville





Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Jan 2006


[1] Mbiti, J. (1969) Concepts of God in Africa. London: SPCK; Nelson, N. (1987) “Selling her kiosk”: Kikuyu notions of sexuality and sex for sale in Mathare Valley, Kenya, in Caplan, P. (Ed.) The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. London & New York: Tavistock Publ., p217-39

[2] Kenyatta, J. (1939) Facing Mount Kenya. London: Secker & Warburg. 1961, Mercury edition

[3] Leakey, L. S. B. (1931) The Kikuyu problem of the initiation of girls, , J Royal Anthropol Instit Great Britain & Ireland 61:277-85. Also cited in Nalder, L. F. (Ed., 1937) A Tribal Survey of Mongalla Province. London: Oxford University Press, p48

[4] Routledge, W. S. & Routledge, K. (1910) With a Prehistoric People: the Akikuyu of British East Africa. London: F. Cass & Co.

[5] Dundas, Ch. (1915) The organization and Laws of Some Bantu Tribes of East Africa, J Royal Anthropol Instit Great Britain & Ireland 45:234-306: “Often girls are bespoken while they are children […]”. Cited by Middleton and Kershaw (1965:p59)

[6] Alhlberg, B. M. (1991) Women, Sexuality and the Changing Social Order. Philadelphia (etc.): Gordon & Breach

[7] Lambert, H. E. (1956) Kikuyu, Political and Social Institutions. London [etc.]: Oxford University Press

[8] Medicines were supposed to delay menarche.

[9] Kenyatta, J. (1938) Facing Mount Kenya. London: Secker & Warburg

[10] Bunche, R. J. (1941) The Irua Ceremony Among the Kikuyu of Kiambu District, Kenya, J Negro Hist 26,1:46-65

[11]Leakey, L. S. B. (1977) The Southern Kikuyu before 1903. Vol. II. London [etc.]: Academic Press

[12] Worthman, C. M. & Whiting, J. W. (1987) Social change in adolescent sexual behavior, mate selection, and premarital pregnancy rates in a Kikuyu community, Ethos 15,2:145-65

[13] Ahlberg, B. M., Kimani, V. N., Kirumbi, L. W., Kaara, M. W. & Krantz, I. (1997) The Mwomboko Research Project: The Practice of Male Circumcision in Central Kenya and Its Implications for the Transmission and Prevention of STD/HIV, Afr Sociol Rev / Rev Afr Sociol 1,1:66-81