Ethnographic Analysis: Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta

Yongho Kim
Anthropology 258: African Societies
October 13, 2003

Jomo Kenyatta was a Gikuyu anthropologist trained in London under Bronislav Malinowski. He was pointed by the British colonial administration as the organizer of the Independence movements in Kenya and imprisoned for eight years, but was eventually released and became the first president of Kenya in 1963. (O’Toole, 51)

In 1938, Kenyatta wrote a monograph examining the society and institutions of the Gikuyu which was published in London under the title, Facing Mount Kenya: the tribal life of the Gikuyu. This book, written ten years before the Mau Mau armed struggle for independence – mainly led by the Gikuyu – depicts a society full of sociopolitical tensions between the British colonial administration and the Gikuyu people. The book delves directly into the land tenure system, challenging the legitimacy of a British takeover of the Gikuyu land; criticizing the imposition of a knowledge-based European education conducive to a selfish personality; and defending female circumcision on grounds that it is essential for social identity, remembrance of lineage history and the anticolonial impetus. These issues are presented in the same order, along with background explanations of the Gikuyu kinship system and of the organization in the political, economic and religious spheres.

Both Kenyatta and Malinowski (who wrote the introduction) spend a good amount of time explaining why Kenyatta is qualified as an anthropologist and writer.

Malinowski expounds in a long list of positive qualities he saw in Kenyatta’s “class participation”, even though he says at first that he “shall not make any such attempt [to justify Kenyatta’s claims]”. He concludes that Kenyatta has “the full competence of a trained Western scholar” (viii), implying that an African by himself is not really qualified to analyze his own culture, and that Kenyatta is an exception to the rule than a break to stereotypes. Malinowski’s statement is a sad reflection of the state of racism prevalent in England and elsewhere during this historic time period, even when Malinowski himself may have written with the best of intentions.

Kenyatta, on the other hand, describes at length the series of life experiences that made him particularly knowledgeable of the Gikuyu custom and traditions. Therefore, he claims to able to “speak as a representative of my people”. Kenyatta’s remarks are a result of the will to emphasize the emic nature of his monograph, which is, in a sense, misguided as argument. When arguing that “the African is in the best position properly to discuss and disclose” (148) reasoning behind custom, Kenyatta confuses legitimacy of claiming and ability to observe and analyze, because these two goals are closely intertwined in his writings. To claim political, economical, and sociocultural rights certainly pertains to, and is only legitimized, when the native or the resident of the place does so – for it makes sense that a change proposed in favor of a particular groups comes from the very group to be benefited. But to argue that the African is in clear advantage, not only in knowledge, but in the capacity to observe and form judgments on its own society solely because it is his own, is a dangerous move since a Eurocentric cosmology legitimizing colonialism could be equally justified on the basis that the African doesn’t really understand the motives for which the colonial administration is undertaking this or that decision.

Kinship, Family Relations and Gender Roles

The Gikuyu origin myth is strikingly reminiscent of the Christian origin myth of Genesis. (5-8) Gikuyu, the first man, was given extensive territory and powers from Mogai, the god. Mogai also gave Gikuyu a woman, whose name was Moombi. This theme parallels the creation, and the story of Adam and Eve. The couple had nine daughters but no sons; thus Mogai tells Gikuyu to sacrifice a goat in order to obtain men who will marry his daughters. This theme parallels the barren Sarah, and the sacrifice Abraham was supposed to make of his first son to obey God, replaced with a ram. These nine daughters marry nine handsome men (parallels the angels who married the daughters of the earth) and become the nine clans of the Gikuyu people. (Parallels the formation of the twelve tribes in Israel).

It could be thought that Kenyatta had flavored the Gikuyu origin myth in order to please the Christian audience against whom he would charge in the next chapter a highly political attack, or that Christianity had somehow arrived at Kenya through the Coptic or derivative churches. According to Moyo, this may be natural, since many traditional African religions already bear large resemblances to Christianity. (Moyo, 301)

The matrilineage of the Gikuyu is explained on the basis that the Gikuyu were once a matriarchal and matrilineal society. The matriarchal Gikuyu also practiced polyandry, until one day the men rebelled while most of the women were pregnant and took power with ease. However, the clan names assigned to each of the nine clans based in the daughters’ names, remained. (8)

In this first chapter, Kenyatta emphasizes the harmony and equality shared in the Gikuyu family. Throughout the book, kinship relationships seem to dominate the social and economic spheres of activity and thus it could be said that kinship occupies the position of a primary institution. However, he holds together two difficult concepts to reconciliate: in order to claim the land from the British, he needs to argue that property in Gikuyu is essentially private and (nuclear) family-based, but he also needs to highlight the social harmony among Gikuyu kin to go ahead with his defense of female circumcision.

Girls and boys are initiated into adulthood through the irua, consisting of circumcision and designation of age groups. Kenyatta explains that boys and girls participate in a day-long ceremony involving purification, competition among peers, and general rejoicing. At midday, they are circumcised in separate groups, the boys being circumcised in the familiar way, while the girls receive the sunnah. Since this is done without anesthesia, they go into the river early in the morning to numb their legs with icy water. Then the groups stay together waiting for the wounds to heal; during this period of time, the age-group is in a period of liminality and no customs are enforced upon them. (146) Turner has pointed out that this kind of situation creates strong social ties among members of the age-group. (Gennep, 130) His theory seems convincing in light that most of social life among the youth revolves around their age-group (151). Wounds healed, each initiate follows their parents into their huts and the giving of birth is replayed to symbolize the rebirth of the girl or boy.

Irua does not only accomplish its basic social function of giving status to the initiates, but also serves as a medium of remembrance of the history of the lineage kin. Each age group is named after a particular incident of the year, such as famine, or the first appearance of syphilis in Kenya. (129. Notice the careful selection of novelties brought upon by the British colonialism – and by famine, Kenyatta may be talking about the big famine prophesized and materialized prior to the coming of the Europeans (43))

Pre and post marital sex among young Gikuyu people is also described as part of a carefully designed tradition. Young girls and boys, Kenyatta explains, need to engage in physical fondling in order to maintain good emotional health. Groups of young people may engage in social gatherings, in which a couple may end up practicing ngweko, sexual activity without the full intercourse. A series of taboos are established to ensure the physical virginity of the couple, as well as other rules prohibiting incest among the age-group of the parents and their children. Kenyatta mocks the white missionary, who believe that “since a white man would not be able to restrain himself [from full intercourse] … so the African would not be able to” and thus prohibits the practice in the name of religion, not because it religiously grounded, but simply because he believes that a couple engaging in such act cannot but engage in intercourse.

Throughout his monograph, Kenyatta shows contempt towards two groups of people: those who upon arriving at Kenya, ignorantly negate all practice that seems to be against (at first sight) his or her own practices; and those who having lived five or ten years in Kenya (presumably in isolation and only in contact with the natives through slavery and exploitation) claim to “know them [Africans] very well” (124). One such instance is seen in how the Europeans scandalize over the fact that the bride is being carried over by men and that she may be weeping or screaming, without realizing that what they see is a final ceremony of a long process in which the will to marry of both parties is confirmed in several occasions, and that ceremony itself is staged to represent the meaning of marriage in a symbolic manner. (164) Marriage begins with the soliciting boy and his friend visiting the girl and asking her in a roundabout manner whether she wants to keep seeing them. As she accepts, they come back another day to meet parents; in this occasion, the parents talk about marriage as they drink beer, and the girl is to sip beer at each question as a sign of approval. And so the ceremony goes through complicated rites until the day the men come and take the girl, which is the only portion that the isolated colonizer will see. (This description, however, didn’t match the one referenced by Ngugi (Ngugi, 74), who wrote the book thirty years afterwards, in which the girl is to give a calabash filled with cold water to the boy so that he drinks it for her. Maybe the protocols became simplified as a result of precarious life?)

A number of (Christian) moral virtues are highlighted in the description of marriage. “Homosexuality is unknown”, because sexual tensions are not put on hold as in European societies (156). Divorce is very rare, because the community does its best effort in keeping a marriage together and the presence of the wife is essential of the homestead (176). This may well be regarded as one of the countering arguments from Kenyatta against accusations of savagery and barbarism, the inability to self-governance, and (Christian) moral deficiency towards colonized societies in general.

Economic Activity and Political Structure

Land appropriation on behalf of the colonial administration seems to be a prime concern of the time this monograph was written. It can further be guessed that the argument for expropriation was that land was a communal property, and since the government was the representative of the community it had the right to dispense of the land as it saw fit. Because of this factor, I believe, Kenyatta’s description of the land tenure system clings obstinately in the notion of land as a private, family-owned, unit.

The land, Kenyatta argues, may be considered as individual or communal (23), but a communal land is only nominally so, for it may not go beyond the rent of land or a political allegiance to a given family or larger group. The notion that the land is private is repeated over and over through Chapter 2, “The Gikuyu System of Land Tenure”. The practices of land inheritance, selling of land, marking of boundaries, are all emphasized.

There is a strange account of the lands in which the pigmy lived, into which the Gikuyu seem to have settled as families grew. The Pigmies, a people frightful of the Gikuyu, disappeared after a while, while a new race, its height being a median between the short pigmies and relatively tall Gikuyu, emerged. Kenyatta identifies the racial mixing as the cause of the disappearance of the Pigmies. I would like to contend that the reason Kenyatta seems rather confused in his explanation of the pygmies is because the Gikuyu and Pigmies had conflicting interests over the land, exacerbated by the arrival of the Europeans, ending with wars that either annihilated or expelled the Pigmy population from the nearby forests. Since there is not enough evidence to assert that such thing happened, I’ll just point out that Kenyatta’s explanation for the Pigmies is a rather awkward one.

Several reasons are given as basis for which the Gikuyu, and not the white man, should own the land. First, it was given by Mgai, the God. The Gikuyu are also the people who developed (deforestated) the land, and thus should be given credit for their effort in making the land arable. But the strongest argument may still be the assertion that each individual lot of land is a private property of each Gikuyu family and thus needs to be dealt with on an case by case basis, and not in a batch through the government. (28)

Kenyatta also is wary of the conception of the African man as lazy folks who idle during the day. He explains again, the process by which men work in the land in groups to make work easier and quicker, starting very early in the morning, and finishing by noon, after which they may spend the afternoon celebrating the completion of work. (78)


Kenyatta seems to give precedence to the kinship and the institutionalized family as a primary unit around which the life of a Gikuyu person revolves, but it is hard to discern whether this is the case because the monograph is an ethnography of the Gikuyu and yet simultaneously constitutes a political statement. Emphasis upon kinship may just be an effective strategy to outline the “civilized” (as defined by the British) aspects of Gikuyu society.

Because this strategy is forced, some inconsistencies may be seen. For instance, women are said to want the division of labor because if there is not a clearly defined task destined for women, there would be no need for them once they get married. (53) However, labor division is not as strict, and many labor-intensive activities are shared between male and female workers.

The intellectual tradition in which the monograph belongs seems to be that of the Structural-Functionalists, reinforced by the knowledge that he received instruction from Malinowski, the classic Structural-Functionalist, and that the monograph was written in 1938, in the midst of Structural-Functionalist period. However, Kenyatta accounts rather well for the different types of social imbalance arising mainly as a result of colonization but also of active exchange with Europe, neighboring nations, India and the Muslim world. The interaction of political, social, and economic systems seem to rather cause disorder than maintain order. How does he achieve this?

It may be argued that Kenyatta has adopted a Marxist approach to explain the inequalities arising as a result of colonialism. This may be possible when the different interest groups across the Mediterranean are analogously compared to the social classes of industrial European nations.

Overall the information in the monograph was comprehensive and well organized in different categories.


Gennep, Arnold van. “Conclusions”, The Rites of Passage, from Readings in Anthropology of Religion. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002): 129-133

Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya. (New York: Random House, 1962)

Moyo, Ambrose. “Religion in Africa”, Understanding Contemporary Africa. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001): 299-329

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A Grain of Wheat. (Oxford: Heinemann, 1967)

O’Toole, Thomas. “The Historical Context”, Understanding Contemporary Africa. 23-54

All citations belong to Kenyatta unless otherwise specified.



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