Gusii people

Gusii - Kisii

Gusii / Kisii / Abagusii / Mksii / Wakisii

The Abagusii (also known as Kisii, Mkisii or Wakisii in Swahili, or Gusii) is an East African ethnic group that traditionally inhabit Kisii County (formerly Kisii District) and Nyamira County of former Nyanza Province of Kenya. The Abagusii are also found in other regions of geographical Western Kenya including former Nyanza Province. The Abagusii speak Ekegusii language which is classified together with the Great Lakes Bantu languages. Mogusii is culturally identified as their founder and patriarch. The Abagusii are however, unrelated to the Kisi people of Malawi and the Kissi people of West Africa, other than the three very distinct communities having similar sounding tribal names.

Kisii town - known as Bosongo or Getembe by the locals - is located in Nyanza Province to the southwest of Kenya and is home to the Abagusii people. However, the term Kisii refers to the town and not to the people. The name Bosongo is believed to have originated from Abasongo (to mean the Whites or the place where white people settle(d)) who lived in the town during the colonial times. According to the 1979 census, Kisii District had a population of 588,000. The Abagusii increased to 2.2 million in the latest Kenya Census 2009.



At the end of the 1700s, Bantu-speaking peoples were scattered in small pockets at the northern, southern, and eastern margins of the Kisii highlands and in the Lake Victoria basin. Around 1800, the highlands above 4,970 feet (1,515 meters) were probably uninhabited from the northern part of the Manga escarpment south to the river Kuja. At that time, the lowland savannas (grasslands) were settled by large numbers of farmer-herders who were ancestors to present-day Luo and Kipsigis. These farmer-herders displaced the smaller Bantu groups from their territories on the savanna. The Gusii settled in the Kisii highlands; other related groups remained along the Lake Victoria Basin or, as the Kuria, settled in the lower savanna region at the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The British invaded these lands and established a colonial government in 1907, declaring themselves rulers. Native peoples initially responded with armed resistance, which ceased after World War I (1914–18). Unlike the situation in other highland areas of Kenya, the Gusii were not moved from their lands. The seven subdivisions of Gusiiland were converted into administrative units under government-appointed chiefs. Missions were established to attempt to convert Gusii from their indigenous (native) beliefs to Christianity. This mission activity was not initially very successful, and several missions were looted.

After Kenyan independence in 1963, schools were built throughout Gusii lands, roads were improved, and electricity, piped water, and telephones were extended to many areas. By the 1970s, a land shortage had begun to make farming unprofitable. Since that time, education of children to prepare them for off-farm employment has become a priority.



Gusiiland is located in western Kenya, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Lake Victoria. Abundant rainfall and very fertile soils have made Gusiiland one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kenya. Between 70 and 80 percent of the land can be cultivated. Since 1989, the Gusii as a single ethnic group have occupied the Kisii and Nyamira districts of southwestern Kenya. The area is a rolling, hilly landscape on a plain reaching altitudes of 3,900 feet (1,190 meters) in the far northwestern corner of the territory, and 6,990 feet (2,130 meters) in the central highlands. Average maximum temperatures range from 83° F (28.4° C) at the lowest altitudes to73° F (22.8° C) at the highest elevations. The average minimum temperatures are 61.5° F (16.4° C) and 50° F (9.8° C) respectively. Rain falls throughout the year with an annual average of 60 to 80 inches (150 to 200 centimeters). In the nineteenth century, much of present-day Gusiiland was covered by moist upland forest. Today, all forest has been cleared, very little indigenous (native) plants remain, and no large mammals are found.

In 1989, the number of Gusii was 1.3 million. The Gusii are one of the most rapidly growing populations in the world, increasing by 3 to 4 percent each year. The average woman bears close to nine children, and infant mortality (the proportion of infants who die) is low for sub-Saharan Africa (about 80 deaths per 1,000 live births).



The Gusii language, Ekegusii, is a Western Bantu language. It is common to name a child after a deceased person from the father's clan for the first name, and one from the mother's clan for the second name. Children may also be named for a recent event, such as the weather at the time of the child's birth. Some common names refer to the time of migrations. For example, the woman's name Kwamboka means "crossing a river."

Talking about personal feelings is prohibited. Hence, questions about a person's mental state are answered with statements about physical health or economic situation.



The Abagusii play a large bass lyre called obokano. Drums and other musical instruments like flutes were also used. They are also known by their world-famous soapstone sculptures "chigware" mostly concentrated in the southern parts of Kisii County around Tabaka town. Circumcision of boys at around age of 10 as a rite of passage without anesthesia is common among the Abagusii. Abagusii do not marry or get married to tribes that do not circumsice although culture has been eroded and the later generations may not consider this. The girls also underwent clitoridectomy as a form of circumcision at an earlier age than boys. This ritual takes place annually in the months of November and December followed by a period of seclusion during which the boys are led in different activities by older boys and girls are led by older girls, and is a great time of celebration indeed for families and communities at large. Family, friends and neighbors are invited days in advance by candidates to join the family. During this period of seclusion only older circumcised boys and girls are allowed to visit the secluded initiates and any other visitor could cause a taboo. Its during this period that initiates were taught their roles as young men in the community and the do's and the don'ts of a circumcised man. The initiated boys and girls were also taught the rules of shame ("Chinsoni") and respect ("Ogosika"). Unlike most communities in Kenya where the circumcised boys and/or girls joined an age set or age group, the circumcised Gusii boys and girls did not join an age set or age group given that the Abagusii lack age sets and age groups.

Some of the notable musicians from the Abagusii community include Nyashinski, Rajiv Okemwa Raj, Ringtone, Mwalimu Arisi O'sababu, Christopher Monyoncho, Sungusia, Riakimai '91 Jazz, Embarambamba, Bonyakoni Kirwanda junior band, Mr Ong'eng'o, Grandmaster Masese, Deepac Braxx (The Heavyweight Mc), Jiggy, Mr. Bloom, Virusi, Babu Gee, Brax Rnb, Sabby Okengo, Machoge One Jazz,among others.



The social organization of Abagusii was also decentralized in nature and clan based. The Abagusii society was never based on social/caste stratifications and there were no hierarchical strata based on caste or social status. For instance, certain professions such as iron smithing known as Oboturi in Ekegusii and worriors known as Oborwani/Chinkororo in Ekegusii and some other professions were generally respected, but did not constitute a strata or caste in the Abagusii society. The Abagusii also lack the age-set/Age-groups that are prevalent in most communities in Kenya.



Gusii oral tradition contains a number of prominent figures linked with historical events, especially migrations into the current homeland and the arrival of the British. These prominent folk figures are usually men, but a few are women. Nyakanethi and her stepson Nyakundi are two historical figures linked to the establishment of a densely populated area, the Kitutu. Nyakanethi and Nyakundi fortified themselves in the highlands to the north and gave shelter to families who fled attacks by neighboring peoples. These families were given a home in Kitutu with Nyakundi as their chief.

Other heroes are related to the establishment of the colonial administration. The prophet Sakawa, who was born in the 1840s and died around 1902, is reported to have predicted the arrival of the British in 1907 and the building of the district capital, Kisii Town.

In 1907–08, a prophetess called Muraa tried to start a rebellion against the British. In 1908 she gave her stepson, Otenyo, medicines that she believed could protect him from bullets, and she sent him to kill British Officer G.A.S. Northcote. Although Otenyo wounded Northcote with his spear, he survived and later became the governor of Hong Kong.



Prior to Introduction of Christianity and Islam to Africa, the Abagusii people were monotheistic and believed in a supreme God called Engoro. This same God is also popularly called Nyasae among Abagusii. The Abagusii believe that Engoro also known as Nyasae created the Universe and was the source of all life. Death and disease was considered unnatural events brought on by evil spirits, bad luck or witchcraft.The sun 'risase' in Ekegusii, was important in the Abagusii religion. The stars in the sky were also revered. Ancestors were also very respected. The Abagusii also believed in medicine men and the spirits of their ancestors called "Ebirecha". The displeasure of ancestor spirits was evidenced by disease, death of people and livestock as well as destruction of crops. However, today a majority of Abagusii people practise Christianity with the Adventist protestant Christianity being the most dominant and a few practising Catholicism. A minority of Abagusii still adhere to their traditional religion and some being dual religion observing Christianity alongside their traditional religion. The practise of Islam among Abagusii is very little to absent.



The social organization of Abagusii was also decentralized in nature and clan based. The Abagusii society was never based on social/caste stratifications and there were no hierarchical strata based on caste or social status. For instance, certain professions such as iron smithing known as Oboturi in Ekegusii and worriors known as Oborwani/Chinkororo in Ekegusii and some other professions were generally respected, but did not constitute a strata or caste in the Abagusii society. The Abagusii also lack the age-set/Age-groups that are prevalent in most communities in Kenya.



In the traditional Abagusii society, labor was divided between males and females. The women specific duties included cooking, crop cultivation and processing, fetching water and firewood, brewing, and cleaning while the men specific duties included herding, building houses and fences, and clearing cultivation fields, and other duties. Men were also involved in crop cultivation but with less responsibilities than women. Herding was primarily carried out by boys and unmarried men in the grazing fields and girls and unmarried young women helped with crop cultivation. Today the division of labor between males and females has significantly changed and is now disadvantageous to women as they perform most of the duties traditionally meant for men. There is no longer equal distribution of labor between men and women as it was traditionally.



The most important Gusii ceremonies are associated with initiation and marriage. Initiation involves genital surgery for both sexes: clitoridectomy for girls and circumcision for boys. The ceremony is supposed to train children as social beings who know rules of shame (chinsoni) and respect (ogosika). Girls are initiated at the age of seven or eight, and boys a few years later. Initiations are gender-segregated, and the operations are performed by female and male specialists. Afterward, there is a period of seclusion for both genders.

Funerals take place at the dead person's homestead, and a large gathering is a sign of prestige. Christian elements, such as catechism-reading and hymn-singing, are combined with the traditional practices of wailing, head-shaving, and animal sacrifices. Before burial, the corpse is dissected in order to determine whether death was caused by witchcraft. The Gusii tend to fear the spirit of a dead person. They believe the dead person may be angry for having died and may punish survivors. Therefore, sacrifices must be made to the spirit of the dead person to appease it.



Daily interactions follow strict rules of politeness. There are rules for avoiding sexual shame (chinsoni) and rules governing respect (ogosika). These rules are many and complicated. They regulate proper behavior between women and men, between generations, and between different kinds of relatives. For example, although anyone within the same generation may joke with each other and talk about sexual matters, this is prohibited between different generations. A father may not set foot in his son's house; a son-in-law has to avoid his mother-in-law; a daughter-in-law must not come too close to her father-in-law (she cannot even cook a meal for him). In everyday interaction, the expected behavior is one of respect and deference by young people toward older people as well as by women toward men. The Gusii are very careful about personal appearance and avoid showing themselves even partially naked. Similarly, bodily functions must not be mentioned or implied between different generations or between women and men. It is important to avoid being seen on the way to the lavatory.

A Gusii person distinguishes her or his own father and mother by specific terms: tata (own father) and baba (own mother). Likewise, parents distinguish their children as momura one (own son) and mosubati one (own daughter). However, all women and men of the same generation are considered "brothers" and "sisters." All women and men in one's parents' generation are called tatamoke (small father) and makomoke (small mother). All members of the next generation are omwana one (my child), grandchildrens' generation are omochokoro (my grandchild), and grandparents' generation are sokoro (grandfather) and magokoro (grandmother).

Hospitality and respect toward strangers is common. At the same time, the Gusii are very reserved, polite, and in many ways suspicious about others' intentions. Although interpersonal conflicts are common, people are not supposed to show outwards signs of anger. The strong emphasis on peaceful conduct and emotional control can result in explosions of violent behavior under the influence of alcohol.

One always greets strangers as well as acquaintances of one's own generation with a simple phrase similar to our "Hi, how are you?" (Naki ogendererete). However, when visiting a homestead or meeting a relative, a more complete greeting ritual is necessary. This includes asking about each other's homes, children, and spouses. Unannounced visiting is not considered polite; a message should be delivered before a visit.

Body language is reserved and gesturing is kept to a minimum. Between people of unequal status, such as young and old or woman and man, the person of lower status is not supposed to look directly into the other's eyes.

Interactions between unmarried young people were once strictly regulated. Today, young men and women meet and socialize in many places outside the home. Premarital sex is common, and many girls end up as single mothers. Young people write love letters to each other, and in general subscribe to Western ideas of love.



Traditionally, a typical Gusii family is polygamous with one man having more than one wife that live in the same homestead. The polygamous family was divided into two constituents namely the homestead called "Omochie" and the cattle camps called "Ebisarate". The married man and his wives and their unmarried daughters and uncircumcised boys lived in the "Omochie". The "Ebisarate" were situated in the grazing fields and were protected by male warriors against theft by cattle rustlers and raiders. The traditional Gusii compound also had elevated granaries for storage of crop harvests such as millet and other crops. The Abagusii traditionally built fortified walls around their homesteads and villages for protection against cattle rustling wars,and raids by neighboring communities. The Abagusii also dug trenches around their homesteads for the purposes of protection against raids. The fortified walls built around homesteads and villages as well as trenches also served as a protection against dangerous wild animals. However, the cattle camps were abolished in 1913 by the British forcing Abagusii to live in dispersed homesteads as compared to traditional homestead set up. A typical traditional Gusii house is mad-walled with a conical grass thatched roofs that is mainly round and sometimes rectangular in shape. The modern houses are still mad-wall with round and rectangular shapes but the roofs have corrugated iron sheets and grass thatched. The Abagusii also built stone-walled houses today.



Mothers are ultimately responsible for the care and raising of children. However, they delegate many childrearing tasks to other children in the family. Fathers take very little part in child rearing. Grandparents play a supportive role and are supposed to teach grandchildren about proper behavior and about sexual matters. Mothers seldom show physical or verbal affection to children. Children stop sleeping in their mother's house when they are still very young.

Marriage is established through the payment of bride wealth (in the form of livestock and money), paid by the husband to the wife's family. This act establishes a socially approved marriage. Residence is at the husband's family's home. Divorce is rare and requires the return of the bride wealth. Upon the death of a husband, a widow chooses a husband from among the dead man's brothers.

Until the 1960s, everyone got married as soon as possible after puberty. However, at the end of the 1960s, elopements started to increase. Since then, the period between the beginning of cohabitation (living together) and payment of bride wealth has become increasingly long. In 1985, at least 75 percent of all new unions between women and men were established without the payment of bride wealth. The lack of bride wealth payment means that a union has no social or legal foundation; this has resulted in a large class of poor single mothers with no access to land.

Households are based on nuclear (husband, wife, and children) or polygynous (multiple-wife) families. In polygynous families, each wife has her own household and there is little cooperation between cowives. With the decline in polygyny, a domestic unit typically consists of a wife and husband and their unmarried children. It may also include the husband's mother, and for brief periods of time, younger siblings of the wife. Until the birth of the first or second child, a wife and her mother-in-law may cook together and cooperate in farming. Married sons and their wives and children usually maintain their own households and resources.



Among the Abagusii community, traditional marriage was arranged by the parents, using intermediaries called "chisigani", who also acted as referees for the bride and groom to be. The parents negotiated the dowry and organised a traditional wedding. The traditional wedding ceremony involved a mentor called "omoimari" who could provide continuing support to the newly married couple. Currently, civil and Christian marriages are recognized among the Abagusii. It is essential to note that traditions within the Abagusii community prohibit marriages between members of the same clan. Marriage was officially established through payment of dowry in the form of cattle to the wife's family. Payment of dowry allowed man and woman to be considered husband and wife and gave room for a traditional marriage ceremony. Divorce is traditionally not allowed among Abagusii as marriage is considered a permanent union that is only disrupted by death.



Western-style clothing is always worn.



Their staple meal is Obokima (dish of millet flour, or Sorghum flour cooked with water to a hardened dough-like consistency). It is often served with rinagu, chinsaga, rikuneni, enderema,emboga,omotere, risosa, egesare among other locally available green leaves consumed as vegetables. It can also be served with any other stew. The word for "having a meal" [ragera] usually connotes a meal involving [obokima] at the centre. However, by 1920s maize had been introduced to Gusiiland and had overtaken finger millet and sorghum as staple crops and cash crops which ensured that maize became the new dominant staple crop. As a result, maize flour is now largely used to prepare Obokima although millet and sorghum flour is still used to a lesser extent. The Obokima was also served with milk particularly sour milk from livestock. Although frequently associated with "ritoke" (plural "amatoke", cooked and flavoured bananas), this is usually supplemental and not considered to be a proper meal, but a popular snack.



Older people know many traditional songs. The favorite instrument is the obokhano (lyre).



Traditional dancing and music were once popular, but today few outlets exist in the countryside for such entertainment. Among men, a main form of recreation consists of drinking beer.



In pre-colonial Gusiiland, a variety of goods were manufactured: iron tools, weapons, decorations, wooden implements, small baskets for porridge, and poisons. Pottery-making was limited, and most pottery was made by the Luo people and imported. The most technically complex and valuable items manufactured were iron implements, made from smelting locally obtained ore. Smithing was reserved for men, and blacksmiths became wealthy and influential.

Gusii soapstone carvings have become internationally recognized. The stone is mined and carved in Tabaka, South Mugirango, where several families specialize in this art. The craft is bringing a sizable income to the area through the tourist trade.



Alcoholism and violence toward women are the most severe social problems. Traditionally, only older people were allowed to drink large amounts of locally brewed beer (amarua). Today, social control over drinking has broken down, and traditional beer and home-distilled spirits are served in huts all over the district. Probably close to 50 percent of young and middle-aged Gusii are regular drinkers, with a larger proportion of men than women. This heavy drinking leads to violence, neglect of children, and poverty. The Gusii also have high murder rates compared to the rest of Kenya. Although violence toward women (such as rape and beatings) has been part of Gusii culture since earlier in this century, alcohol is probably a factor in its increase.

The exploitation of women in Gusii society is a serious human rights problem. According to customary law, which is usually followed in the countryside, women cannot inherit or own land, cattle, or other resources. This makes them completely dependent on men for survival and attainment of any future security. Until a woman has adult sons, she is under the authority of her husband and has to ask permission from him to leave the homestead. In addition, the Gusii practice female genital mutilation, which is practiced regularly even though it is prohibited by law. Sometimes called female circumcision, this surgery robs girls of the possibility for sexual satisfaction. The practice is intended to keep girls and women "in line," and it has attracted the attention of human rights advocates around the world.