The Interesting Culture of the Abagusii Tribe
Migration and the Birth of New Tribes
The Abagusii are a people primarily found in Western Kenya whose roots are from North Africa. They crossed into Kenya from the westside as one, amorphous group, but eventually they reached Kisumu and split into two. One group, the Maragoli, opted to move northwards settling in present day Western province. The second group moved southwards and are the current Abagusii. The Abagusii continued south until they reached the Kano plains and, again, split into two. One group moved towards the southwest and are the current Suba people (Omosoba). The Suba people were later assimilated into the Luo tribe. The main group moved towards the southeast and are the Abagusii and Kuria. These groups later settled in what is now known as South Nyanza, which are the Kisii and Nyamira regions.
The Abagusii culture is rich in all aspects of life. Let us now focus on these traditions and customs.
Abagusii Women and Pregnancy
When an Abagusii woman was pregnant, she was treated the same way as any other woman because she was required to be active throughout the pregnancy. That meant carrying out all the duties any woman would do such as going to the farm, fetching firewood and water, and the completing daily household chores. The idea behind this custom was that immobility would lead to a difficult delivery. Being active up until birth ensured a smooth and fast delivery. This was very crucial because in those days, there were no hospitals.
The woman had to make sure she was eating a health diet of filled with plenty of traditional vegetables such as managu, chinsaga, risosa and enderema. It was also important that she was sleeping on her side and never on her back.
The Birth of a Child
The birth of a child was a women's only affair. The tribe had traditional midwives who possessed a vast amount of experience in birthing babies. These women were usually elders who received their knowledge from their ancestors before them. The knowledge could only be passed down to a select few, and the person was usually a mature lady who would accompany the midwife each time there was a delivery.
The midwife was consulted once a woman knew they were pregnant, especially if it was their first child. She advised the woman regarding taking care of herself in terms of her general health and diet. Occasionally, she would visit to massage the pregnant woman's stomach using oil prepared from milk cream. She would also check whether the baby was doing well and sleeping in the correct position.
Since the pregnant woman went about her duties to the very end, a baby could be delivered anywhere. It could be near the river, by the roadside, at the market place, outside when it was rainy or sunny, at night or even in the forest while fetching firewood. As a result, children would be named depending on where they were delivered at, the weather or the prevailing circumstances. Children were also named after there dead relatives and never those who were still alive.
The midwife would be called to attend to the woman, and, if birth had already taken place, to complete the process by cleaning her and the baby. The midwife applied herbs on her body and gave her a concoction of herbs to drink to prevent infection. The child would be named on the eighth day, and the father would be the one to say which name the child should be given.
The Ekegusii Language
an uncircumcised boy
tomorrow / morning
I do not want
The Roles of Abagusii Children
To grow up in Abagusii culture was to live by clear societal roles. Children below the age of eight years old stayed at home or accompanied their mothers to the shamba (farm). Older children (mostly girls) were tasked with caring for the youngest sibling whenever the mother was not around.
The boys spent their days grazing the family's livestock and hunting. During the dry season, they would look for pasture far away from home. This meant leaving very early and coming back late. They were also tasked with milking and checking on the animals through the night. They did this with the help of an older male in the family such as an uncle or the father.
The older girls looked after their younger siblings, fetched water and firewood, cooked, cleaned and performed general household maintenance. They also took lunch to their mothers at the farm. As the boys approached adolescence, they would accompany the women to the farms for one to two hours maximum to familiarize themselves with farm work.
Rites Of Passage in the Abagusii Community
Rites of passage among the Abagusii involved the whole community. The rites took place between the ages of 10 to 16 years. This was a very significant period because it marked transition to adulthood for both boys and girls. It was signified through circumcision and clitoridectomy, respectively. It was a publicized affair involving all children in this age group. They were circumcised in groups in each village (ekenyoro). And yes, both boys and girls were circumcised separately.
Boys would be assembled together in an agreed homestead by the older men. A goat would be slaughtered and shared among themselves. They would be informed of the impending task and why it would be performed. They were also given advice on how to behave on the material day, during healing, and after healing. They were not expected to scream or cry during the 'cut'.
On the material day, they would be woken up as early as 4 p.m. The boys would be taken to the nearest river naked save for a piece of cloth around their groins. One by one, the initiates would stand in the middle of the shallow river and be given a spear. They were told that if they screamed, they would be speared to death. So they were required to look straight ahead, without wincing , and receive the 'cut' from the traditional circumciser . After that, each would walk majestically to the other side of the river quietly and wait for the others.
In a group formation, they would go back chanting war songs to a separate house (saiga) that had been built for them away from their parents' homes. Each house would accommodate about 6 of them, so others would go to other homesteads as pre-arranged. They would stay there for two months to recuperate and receive teachings on manhood from the male relatives. To heal faster, the men taking care of them (no woman was to set foot in that hut) would apply certain herbs that would also numb the pain.
They mostly survived on a diet of sour milk and ugali (stiff porridge). The women would prepare the food, and the younger boys in the homestead would take the food to them.
After the two months, a big ceremony would be organised, and the entire village would join in the celebrations. Bulls would be slaughtered and amaru y'emeseke, the traditional brew, was served generously. These initiates were now officially adults. They would no longer sleep in their parents' house, but in the hut (saiga).
Meanings of Some Common Abagusii Names
Nyanchera: delivered by the roadside
Okerosi: born in the plains or where there is no water
Kemunto: delivered where two rivers meet
Makori: born by the roadside
Kerubo: delivered in the plains (where there is no water)
Nyamache: born near a river or stream
Bwari: born without difficulty (easy delivery)
Omariba: born during the rainy season
The girls' clitoridectomy is no longer practiced in the community, but, historically, it took place within the homestead. Girls in the age group of 9 to 14 years old would be gathered in groups of six per homestead. That is, siblings, cousins and close relatives would agree on which homestead to gather. On the eve of the circumcision, the girls would be informed of what will happen and why it was happening. They would be given advice on how to conduct themselves during and after the healing process.
Unlike the boy initiates, the girl initiates remained in their homestead, but gathered in the kitchen that was built outside the main house. This hut was to accommodate them for those two months that they would be healing.
On the material day, they would be woken up at 4 a.m. by one of the older women (normally an aunt who had no child among those girls). The traditional female circumciser would arrive early that morning and perform the cut to each of the girls. And like the boys, they were cautioned against crying. For the girls, maize flour (obosi) would be applied to the private parts to deaden the senses.
That hut (kitchen) would be their abode for those two months. No adult male was supposed to enter that hut nor see any of those girls during that time. They were served a diet rich in traditional herbs to hasten the healing process.
Upon healing, there would be a ceremony to mark their entry into adulthood. It was also official for them to get married at any time after that.
Courtship Among the Abagusii
After transitioning into adulthood, these new and young adults would now be allowed to attend cultural dances held at the market circle regularly.
It was not courtship per se, but rather an opportunity to identify the right person for marriage. Once the young man and woman agreed to be friends, they would get to know each other in that one meeting. The young man would then inform his parents about the girl he had met. The parents would inquire about her background and really research about her and her family before giving the green light for marriage to proceed. This was to prevent marrying from a family that had a questionable history as sorcerers, murderers or carriers of genetic disorders.
In case a young man was unable to get a girl from the market dances, he would ask his parents to help him find a good marriageable girl. If this happened, the boy would then proceed to the girl's place and declare his intentions to the girl's parents.
Marriage in the Abagusii Community
Marriage was also a communal affair where everything was done publicly in the presence of witnesses. The boy's father and uncles first went to the girl's home to notify the parents about the impending marriage and to negotiate dowry. Dowry was a token of appreciation given to the girl's parents that is still practiced to this day. In those days, it was in form of cows. The men from both sides needed to agree on the number of cows to be given and when they would be taken to the girl's place.
On the material day, the girl's relatives would gather, prepare food and receive the visitors. After the meal and the handing over of the cows, the visitors would leave together with the girl. The girl would be escorted to her new home by her sisters and female cousins.
After a month, the girl's parents and relatives would visit their daughter's new home. They took brown ugali (stiff porridge) and a fully-cooked goat. The food was carried in specially weaved baskets called getonga. It was a way of cementing the relationship between the two families.
How Did the Abagusii View Death?
Death brought a somber mood in the family and village at large. The men were tasked with all the preparations including date of internment, identifying those to dig the grave, arranging for food to be served on the material day and the person to conduct the final prayers.
The bereaved family was given maximum support. Inheritance was common those days, and a wife could be inherited by an older brother of the husband upon his death. There were no morgues back then, so the body would be embalmed using crushed charcoal. The charcoal was from a special tree. It would also be disposed of as fast as possible, usually within 2 to 3 days.
Your Cultural Takeview quiz statistics
- My 87 year old grandmother - Naomi Nyamwange Gesisi
- Kenya National Bureau of Statistics
© 2019 Carole Mireri