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Kikuyu, Meru, Gumba and Chuka Myths of Origin

Mount Kenya is the sacred Mountain of the Kikuyu, the abode of God Ngai

Mount Kenya is the sacred Mountain of the Kikuyu, the abode of God Ngai

The Main Kikuyu Myth of Origin

The Gikuyu and Mumbi is the most popular myth of origin of the Kikuyu. Gikuyu is the Adam and Mumbi, literally, and the potter is the Eve. Kenyatta (1938), Cagnolo (1933), and Gathigira (1933) have all narrated the story of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. It is a story that was told to every Kikuyu child in the past as part of the tribe’s history. God made Gĩkũyũ and placed him near Mount Kenya at a place called Mũkũrwe wa Gathanga God saw that he was lonely and gave him a wife, Mũmbi. Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi were blessed with nine daughters, but no sons. The daughters’ names, arranged from the eldest to the youngest were as follows:

Wanjirũ, Wambũi, Njeri, Wanjikũ, Nyambũra, Wairimũ, Waithĩra, Wangarĩ, and the last one was Wangũi (Leakey 1977).

There was a tenth daughter (who was not mentioned by Leakey) who according to tradition was not counted due to an incestuous relationship (Kabetu 1966, p. 1-2). The daughters were always said to be ‘nine and the full’ perhaps to imply that the tenth daughter was known but was unmentionable. The Kikuyu were averse to counting people to the exact number because it was believed that a curse would befall them.

Gĩkũyũ had to sacrifice to God (Mwene Nyaga or Ngai) to get husbands for the daughters.

This is how I interpret the myth - It is likely that Gĩkũyũ found himself in a new location where men were not circumcised and could therefore not marry his daughters. The only choice was to Kikuyunise the local community by either coercing or cajoling the youth to get circumcised in order to marry the girls. This is perhaps the reason why circumcised young men are called 'Anake', a short form of 'his children.' There is a story in one of my articles where some youths say that "if we do not marry the daughters of the sun, we shall forever remain the 'ichagate' (the unwelcome) types.

The Second Myth of Origin

Middleton and Kershaw (1965) narrated a second myth. According to this myth, the first man, who also created the world, was Mũmbere, and he had three sons. These sons were Maasai, Gĩkũyũ, and Kamba. He gave them the choice of a spear, bow, or digging-stick: The Maasai chose the spear; the Kamba chose the bow, and Gĩkũyũ preferred the digging-stick. “A similar myth says that the three sons were Maasai, Gĩkũyũ, and Dorobo; the Maasai were told to hold the plains and keep livestock, Gĩkũyũ was told to live by agriculture, and Dorobo to hunt game.” Kenyatta (1966, 4) in my people of Kikuyu states that long after the nine clans of ‘Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi,’ had been formed, “the people increased and… separated into three main divisions: the Kikuyu proper, the Meru and the Wakamba. The evidence above implies that a tripartite agreement between tribes or subtribes existed in antiquity.

The Third Myth of Origin

The 3rd myth of origin is from folklore as narrated by Cagnolo, (1933). In this myth, a man wandered from place to place. Then one day his knee developed a swelling. He made an incision and out came three boys. He raised them as his sons. The boys eventually matured, and by some luck, one of the boys learned to domesticate wild animals and became the first pastoralist. The other boy learned to grow wild plants and in the process domesticated the plants. He became the first agriculturalists. The last boy discovered by a stroke of luck the art of smelting iron and making iron implements. He became a ‘moturi,' forge of iron. Soon the boys wanted to marry. Their father went back to his country of origin and convinced some girls to follow him and marry his boys. In a short time, they occupied the best parts of Kikuyu country. This myth indicates that the originator of the tribe had migrated from elsewhere.

The Fourth Myth of Origin

The 4th is from outside the Kikuyu grouping. It is from the west of present day Kenya. According to Ochieng (Ogot ed. 1976) the Gusii and the Kikuyu have a common ancestry. Their great ancestor was Muntu who begot Ribiaka; Ribiaka begot Kigoma; Kigoma begot Molughuhia; Molughuhia begot Osogo and Mugikoyo among other siblings. Osogo is the ancestor of the Gusii and Mugikoyo is the ancestor of the Kikuyu, Embu, Meru, and Akamba. This myth is summarized in Fig 2.16.

The Fifth Myth of Origin

Routledge gave a 5th myth of origin in his explanation for the origin of the Manjiri age set described above. According to the Myth, God finished making the world and apparently, spoke to the first man Mamba. Mamba, in turn, spoke to his son Njiri and gave him instructions to separate dry land from the waters. To achieve this, “Njiri dug channels and when he came to the sea built up a bank of sand.” Nothing more was said of this myth after the bank of sand was built.

Meru Myth of Origin

The Meru - Meru traditions are very similar to those of their neighbours, the Kikuyu. Many early scholars identified the Meru as a section of the Kikuyu. This group’s traditions give more details about their origins than can be gathered from the myth of origin of the Kikuyu.

The Ameru say that their Father who was also a God was called Mukunga. His wife, a Goddess was called Ngaa. The Ameru may exclaim at odd occurrences by saying "people of Mukunga, this is strange." Apparently the word Mukunga can be applied to all humanity or the public. One can say that children belong to "Mukunga," meaning that you may not treat a child as you wish.

Mwaniki (nd. p. 132.) narrates that the Meru fled from captivity at Mbwaa and went to Misiri. Nyaga (1986) on the other hand states that they left Nthi-Nkuru, and passed through Maiga-a-nkenye - which was a place where women were circumcised. On reaching a place called Nkuruma and Nkubiu some men picked some buuriu girls and some cows and left places called Kariathiru and Gachiongo, Kariene and kaamu. According to Mwaniki, when in Misri, the Meru were ’created’ (nd. p. 132.) but a disagreement followed (in Misri), causing the Meru to leave for Mbwaa. Fadiman (Ogot ed. 1976 p. 140) describes the origin of Meru as Mbweni, or Mbwaa, and suggests that it was “a small irregularly shaped Island…on the ocean…. near the mainland…” Apparently humans and animals could be viewed on the other side. Fadiman’s informants said that the water used to go to eat grass, a description of low tide. The tide frequently drowned domestic and wild animals such as elephants that moved between the mainland and the Island. Fadiman suggests that Mbwaa was probably originally pronounced as "Mbwara" and he gives the place called Mbwara Matanga on Manda island’s western peninsula” of Kenya’s coast as the possible location (Ogot 1976, p. 140). The word Matanga in Kiswahili means the mourning activities before burial.

Mwaniki identifies the possible location of Mbwaa as North, probably in Ethiopia, which was referred to by his informants as Pissinia. Note similarity with Abyssinia. Meru traditions name the Nguu Ntune – red cloth - as the ruthless people who subjected the Meru to slavery.

During departure from Mbwaa, the Meru crossed some waters. One group crossed at night. Another group crossed at dawn. The last group crossed during the day. These three groups were to form the three colour clans of the Meru – Njiru (Black); Ndune (Red) and Njeru (White). The arrival was from the right hand side – urio - which Nyaga calls a downward trend via Mount Elgon and Lake Baringo. They then proceeded southwards, before veering eastwards past Kilimanjaro and on to the Indian Ocean. They parted with many groups along the way, among them the Kisii. From the coast, they returned to Nthi-Nkuru – old homes (Nyaga 1986).

A human sacrifice had to be done during the crossing of the river. Three men volunteered to be sacrificed by having their bellies opened up. Their names were Gaita, Muthetu and Kiuna. One man, a bearer of a stick – thanju- stood by to beat them up if they should turn back on the promise (Mwaniki, nd. p. 125). My theory is that the Antubathanju were a kind of police force. The three volunteers survived the ordeal, and started clans, which go by their names; Gaita - Antubaita; the Muthetu - Amuthetu and kiuna – Akiuna. Antubaita and Amuthetu clans are also called Njiru – black because they did the crossing described above at night. The Ndune clans are also called Antubathanju and Akiuna are also called Nthea and are associated with the Njeru clans that crossed before midday (Nyaga 1886). The three colour clans are more pronounced in Imenti (Mwaniki nd. p.125). According to Nyaga, the Imenti are a former Maasai-Meru group – Amathai Ameru. Apparently, one group was absorbed by the Turkana on arrival.

Fadiman (Ogot ed., 1976) wrote that the arriving Meru were called Ngaa. Nyaga, (1986) on the other hand said that they were called Ngaa because their Godfather was Mukunga and their godess-mother was Ngaa. The Ngaa entered Tharaka area in three divisions- "Thaichu (or Daiso, Thagichu, Daicho), a name now applied only to contemporary Tharaka…south of the river Tana….” The second division may have been Chagala (Mathagaia, Mathagala.). The earlier unity of the Ngaa gradually dissolved, and they entered an era recalled in Meru and Tharaka traditions as Kagairo- the dividing" (Ogot ed. p. 151). My theory here is that the Meru arrived with a Chief and his queen who proceeded to divide up the land to settle his people. this must have been in a land inhabited by less pwerful people - the Gumba hunter gatherers.

The Gumba of Kikuyu traditions are a group claimed by the Meru as being one of them at some time in the past. But the Gumba were derided by the Kikuyu as dwarfs with children’s eyes (Routledge 1910).

Gumba Myth of Origin

The Gumba- Regarding the Gumba, Fadiman (Ogot, ed. 1976 p.159) raises questions about the authenticity of Kikuyu accounts that they were hunter-gatherer dwarfs. Muthambi, Mwimbi and Igoji traditions, according to Fadiman, have a people called variously as Gumba, Umba and Umpua. The Imenti, besides using all theses names to describe them also use Mbubua, Raruinyiiu, Rarainyiru, Lumbua, Mirama, and Koru. Nyaga (1986) claims that the Gumba of Kikuyu and Embu traditions are the same people the Meru call Uumpwa.

Both Meru and Kikuyu traditions claim that the Gumba lived in pits, which were connected to each other by tunnels. The Gumba apparently disappeared into these pits. The Kikuyu, Muthambi, and Mwimbi refer to them as dwarfs, but the Imenti describe them as "…tall and muscular rather than slender, and black or brown in colour ("like us").” The Gumba had long “shoulder-length hair plaited into a small number of thick ropes,” with beards (Ogot ed 1976, p. 59). Nyaga (1986) wrote that the Gumba were just Meru who had parted very much earlier and reached Meru from a different direction. Mwimbi traditions on the other hand claim that an earlier group preceded the Umpua. These were the Ukara and Mokuru (Ogot 1976, p. 163). Nyaga D (1986) gives other the names - Mwooko, Thamagi and Matara – as other terms that refer to the Gumba. The Imenti also remember them as “cattle keepers rather than hunters, tending sizable herds of long horn cattle (Ogot 1976, p. 159).” To Imenti, the Gumba were very ordinary people who had chosen to live away from the other settlers.

Chuka Myth of Origin

The Chuka - Fadiman (Ogot 1976) records that the Chuka traditionally kept their cattle concealed in pits, a trait he believes was learned from the Umpua. The Chuka who also claim to have been in the coast Mboa are descended from an indigenous people and another group, which was composed, of the migrants from Ethiopia who later formed a group called the Tumbiri (Mwaniki, nd). According to Mwaniki, all the mount Kenya people have elements of the Tharaka and Tumbiri within them. While the Meru named the leader who got them out of Mbwaa as Koomenjwe, the Chuka stress the “Mugwe” as their leader (Mwaniki nd). Koomenjwe was also called mũthurui or Mwithe (Nyaga 1986).

Kabeca gives the names Pisinia, Abyssinia, Tuku, Mariguuri, Baci, Miiru, and Misri as synonyms of Mbwaa with some informants stating the above location to be the place of the “Israels.” The Embu were called Kembu and came as hunters looking for ivory” (Mwaniki, nd. p. 130 - 133). Mwaniki concludes that the available oral evidence demonstrates that the language spoken by the mount Kenya people may be indigenous, from the south or east but the main corps of the people came from the north. (Mwaniki, nd. 135).


  1. Kabeca M. A., (n.d.) Pre-colonial History of the Chuka of Mount Kenya c1400 - 1908. Dalhousie university, n.p.
  2. Kenyatta, J.,1966, My People of Kikuyu, Oxford University Press, Nairobi.
  3. Leakey, L.S.B., 1959, First Lessons in Kikuyu, Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi
  4. Kenyatta, J., 1938, Facing Mount Kenya, Kenway Publications, Nairobi.
  5. Middleton J. & Kershaw G., 1965, The Central Tribes of the North-Eastern Bantu, (The including Embu, Meru, Mbere, Chuka. Mwimbi, Tharaka, and the Kamba of Kenya), International Africa Institute, London.
  6. Nyaga, D., 1986. Meikariire na Miturire ya Ameru. Heinemann Educational Books, Nairobi.
  7. Ogot B.A., editor, 1974, Zamani, a Survey of East African History, East African Publishing House, Nairobi.
  8. Ogot B.A., editor, 1976, Kenya Before 1900, Eight Regional Studies, East African Publishing House, Nairobi.
  9. Routledge, W. S., and Routledge K., 1910, With a Prehistoric People, the Akikuyu of British East Africa, Edward Anorld, London.
  10. Sir Johnstone, Harry.,1919, A Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi Bantu Languages Vol. I, Clarendon Press, London.

© 2010 Emmanuel Kariuki


Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on January 11, 2012:

Thanks. I have looked at that site and will be reviewing from time to time.

kamau on January 11, 2012:

Hi there am very happy to see your work, especially about the Gikuyu people and the history of Egypt.

However your work is good but you do need to have a look to what the people with authority have to say about their heritage do have a look at the Mt. Kenya College of Seers at there will be more to come especially the explanation of Nyaga and Nyagathanga and their civilization.