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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part one. Puzzling generations: or, how the system really worked

Chapter one

Making a way through life

Texte intégral

1The biological and social process that shapes an individual from birth to the last days of life is universally recognized, and every society on earth distinguishes between childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. At first glance, this common measure of mankind appears too banal to deserve much attention, but it actually conceals a wide diversity of arrangements. The many transformations of the human body over its lifetime, combined with other ways of appraising the passage of time, provide so many landmarks for the demarcation of different ages. Depending on the society or period studied, the number of ages identified and the relative importance attached to each of them vary, as does the transition from one age to the next, which may range from the overlooked crossing of a threshold to a ritual involving the whole community. The allocation of a beginning and an end to human existence represents an additional source of diversity that often sheds light on the meaning of the trajectory through the matrix of time: it can represent progress or loss, combine these two contradictory principles, or cover an ontogenesis or even an anthropogenesis. The multiplicity of models could supply enough material for an encyclopedia of customs, since the ages of life appear to reflect the deeper structures of a society and its transformations, to such an extent that age as an object of knowledge per se dissolves into it. However, this widespread variability is reduced through a limitation specific to the category of age. Like the criterion of gender, the criterion of age is the result of an interpretation of the biological data. Beyond this shared origin, however, the two criteria convey very different dynamics. By demarcating a limit within a continuous process, the criterion of age creates a discontinuity and a permanent disequilibrium entailing the redefinition of categories and the reorganization of thresholds. In other words, an intrinsic instability that does not exist in the categories of gender: the individual is always between two ages, but only occasionally between two sexual identities.

2As in every society with an age system, the Tigania-Igembe add (added) something more to this universal method. From the ages of life, they derive the main principle of their social organization: through it, we move from age category to age grade, and address the question of the combination of age and gender criteria, because such a principle does not fail to concern both men and women; in sum, the entire population and the whole structure. After a presentation of childhood, in which gender is relatively undifferentiated, we shall examine the progression of men and women separately. The former is easier to grasp, because the rites of development for men take center stage, to such a degree that it was long believed that these were exclusively male issues. In reality, things are more complicated: the system of progression cannot be understood without the feminine side, although it is, nevertheless, the advancement of men through the scale of ages that gives the measure of time.

1. Childhood

3Mwana (pl. aana) is the generic term that designates a child, and kaana (pl. twana), constructed by adding a diminutive prefix, means “infant”. Childhood is a prolonged state interspersed by rituals that vary from one family to another; a situation of which people are aware and which they attribute to particularities specific to the father’s clan, destined to weaken or disappear during subsequent ages. Nevertheless, a general pattern, composed of milestones laid down in one way or another, can still be identified.

4Childbirth takes (took) place in the wife’s hut. Women past the age of pregnancy, a mother, a mother-in-law, a neighbor and a friend help the woman giving birth. At the moment of delivery, they make absolutely sure that the baby does not touch the floor. Sometimes the umbilical cord is cut in a distinctive manner, using an arrowhead for boys and a small knife for girls. To ensure the baby cries, it is plunged into cold water and then warmed up and massaged with castor oil. The women broadcast the birth and sex of the baby by ululating three times for a girl and four times for a boy. There follows a period of seclusion that continues until the umbilical cord, a length of which has been tied around the right wrist of the new-born child, has dried. Neither mother nor child can leave the hut, and no one other than the women helping the mother is allowed to enter. The afterbirth is kept inside the hut, on a bed of banana leaves, and its increasingly pervasive smell makes the atmosphere nauseating. The mother recovers her strength by drinking fresh blood drawn from a cow’s jugular vein and goat’s meat provided by her husband, in exchange for which he will be allowed to see the child.

5When it has dried, the umbilical cord is placed, with the afterbirth, on the household waste heap, the kiara. The baby has survived and can be brought out of the hut in which it has been confined with his mother since birth. This transition from the darkness and air fouled by the stink of afterbirth and feces—a sort of prolongation of intra-uterine life—to fresh air and the light of day takes the appearance of a new birth. The baby is carried on the back of a sheep, or by young children from the neighborhood, who come forward and give him some water to drink. The mother, who has also emerged from the hut, then asks the children to give her the baby. The children refuse, have to be begged, and eventually agree to hand over the baby in return for a handful of finger millet or gruel offered by the mother. This intervention by the children of the neighborhood is the first manifestation of the company of age to which the baby belongs. This is indicated by the payment the mother must make to “obtain” him: in this case the term kûgûra is used, in the same way as a man “obtains” a wife in exchange for a bridewealth. Sometimes the father brings a sheep, discovering the baby by using one of the sheep’s feet to lift the skin in which (s) he is wrapped. He then cuts one of the sheep’s ears and sprinkles the blood that flows from it over mother and child. This is said to protect the child from the bad people who could make him cry until he dies, or protect him from the blood that is spilled during fighting.

  • 1  Yams, like sugar cane, bananas, beans, taro, maize and tobacco, are species of American or Asian o (...)

6Some time later, the women of the neighborhood are invited to a celebration in the family kraal, where they are offered sugar canes and yams that the husband has harvested from his gardens. The sugar canes, cut into a number of pieces corresponding to the gender of the baby, are distributed: the upper part of the shaft is for the mother and the rest is offered to the guests. As a sign of prosperity and longevity, the women throw the pieces of sugar cane over the thatched roof of the mother’s hut several times, and ululate three or four times to announce the birth to all and sundry. The yams, roasted and peeled, are then distributed. The mother is given a piece that she chews into a paste, with which she feeds the baby. Henceforth, in addition to the mother’s milk—and to the great displeasure of colonial hygienists—the baby is fed with bits of pre-chewed yam or banana that represent the paternal contribution to its feeding. The sugar canes used in this case are of the ndiirû variety, and the yam given to the newborn child is naaro; these two varieties are reputed to be the oldest ever cultivated and for this reason beneficial to the child1. Shortly afterwards, the father, if he has a herd, will bring cow’s or goat’s milk that the child will drink, while continuing to be breastfed.

  • 2  A sort of clay with a persistent smell extracted from the crater of Igombe to the north-east of th (...)

7The name-giving ceremony comes later, after a period of time that varies from one family to another, or even from one child to the next. The rules of attribution consist in giving the child the name of a grandparent, living or dead, of the same sex, chosen according to a principle of alternation. The first-born child is given a name from the father’s side of the family, the second-born from the mother’s side, the third from the father’s side, and so on. When all the grandparents’ names have been used up, names of the grandparents’ friends are used, because the principle requires that they are all taken from the alternate generation. Very often, these names denote traits of character that the giver and the receiver are supposed to share. By bearing the name of a grandparent, the grandchild gives rebirth to him or her; whence the resemblance. It is like a seed (mbeu) that you replant, say the elders, using this metaphor to explain the process at work in name-giving. Conjugated differently, the verb gûciara has three meanings: to give birth, to be born and to give rebirth to a parent. Name-giving reflects the major imperative, for all Tigania-Igembe, of giving rebirth to their parents. On the agreed day, the old people of the neighborhood, of the mwariki grade, come and shave the mother and her child, whose hair is cut and thrown on the kiara for the first time. They then rub them with butter or castor oil until their bodies glisten all over. Blessings are proffered as they draw and redraw a white line with iraa2 on the child’s head, from the end of the nose to the fontanel. From then on, the child is called by the name of the grandparent that he or she has been attributed. In some families, the shaving of the child’s head and the giving of the grandparent’s name are performed by the children of the neighborhood, in return for which they are given yams. At the age of about three or four, or sometimes later, to celebrate and protect the child who is growing well, the father invites the mwariki of the neighborhood to come and bless the child. He offers an animal—a sheep for a girl, a billy goat for a boy—which is killed and then eaten by the elders. From the skin, a necklace and a garment are made for the child.

8The ability to carry out certain tasks serves as the reference point for weaning, which takes (took) place at the age of five or even later, when girls are capable of fetching water and lighting the fire and boys can herd the calves and small ruminants. At this moment, the child becomes a small girl (gakenye, pl. tûkenye) or a small boy (kaijî, pl. iwîjî), although the generic term mwana (child) is still used. But unlike this last word, the new terms specify two things: the child’s gender and the absence of initiation. When the milk teeth have fallen out and the adult teeth have developed, the father or an adept neighbor pulls out the child’s two lower incisors, without any further ceremony. This action, presented as a precautionary measure allowing someone with lockjaw to take food or drink, is the first body marking the child undergoes; later, as an adult, he will spit through this opening as a sign of benediction, endeavoring to spit through the top teeth, on the contrary, when he wishes to curse. At puberty, a boy becomes a mwîjî (pl. îjîîjî); a girl becomes a mûkenye (pl. nkenye). In sum, when (s) he is weaned, the child moves from the stage of “small non-initiate” to that of “big non-initiate”, thus entering into the life cycle of men or women through a countdown towards the moment of initiation.

2. The life cycle of men

9Weaned late, the boy becomes a kaijî who helps with housework and gradually joins in the activity of his neighborhood companions. He can still sleep in his mother’s hut, but is more likely to sleep in the grandparent’s hut, if there is one, or in a purpose-built hut if there are many boys in the family. The breaking of his voice is the sign that he must stop sleeping in the family kraal, although he still takes his food there. At night, he stays in the dormitory of the non-initiates of the “neighborhood” or ntoora, the basic territorial division comprising several family units mentioned earlier. Having become a mwîjî, a “non-initiate growing up”, he acquires a second name, given to him by the other mwîjî and only used amongst themselves. The non-initiates form a sort of republic of adolescents and children, within which the older children inculcate obedience in the younger ones— sometimes quite harshly—and in which the girls mingle. However, the adolescent continues to participate in the work of his family unit. His help is indispensable, particularly for herding the livestock and working the gardens: he is the one who, perched on a platform and armed with a sling and a whip that he cracks, protects the cereal crops from the birds. During these years, along with his brothers and sisters, he has his ears pierced by the mwariki, the elderly, in a prestigious ceremony (gûtûra matû) organized by his father in the family kraal.

10The sometimes prolonged wait for initiation is a source of acute tension and increasing frustration. This is because the non-initiated state does not end when the candidate reaches a certain age; it depends on his father’s position in the age grades and his own rank among his siblings: a younger brother cannot be initiated before his older brother. At the two extremes, initiation hardly ever takes place before the age of seventeen and can occur as late as thirty-five; on average it happens between the ages of twenty and twenty-four years old. The young man waiting for initiation can become a quasi-outlaw, especially when non-initiates in his neighborhood, younger but better-placed, are promoted. The initiation is a group ceremony held on the public ground, involving a form of circumcision followed by a year-long seclusion, during which he is visited and cared for by his “caretakers”. As a ntaanî, he can only go out at night. Ntaanî, noun derived from the verb kutaana meaning “to circumcise” or “to excise”, is the term that designates the liminal state of forced inactivity during which the circumcised man puts on weight, his skin gets lighter and his hair grows. When he comes out of seclusion, he is shaved by his mother before going to live in the warriors’ dormitory, the gaaru, of which there is one in every territorial section. He will live here, with the other warriors, until his marriage or even until the birth of his first child. Here, he is given weapons and a third name, known as his gaaru name, chosen by his father but proclaimed by his fellow warriors. He now belongs to the class and division of generation to which he has been recruited through the initiation. As an initiate, he can inherit from and succeed his father. As a warrior, he protects the country from enemies, whom he sometimes attacks; in return he is fed by the community. He must also be handsome, know how to dress his hair and coat his body with ochre and fat, sing and dance, and represent his territorial section with honor in the jousts held between warriors of neighboring sections. Nevertheless, he remains a “bushman” (muthaka), an outsider who talks to no one other than his companions and his mistresses, who owns nothing other than his weapons and the right to roam the wild lands. Only someone of this kind can experience the state of waangi, a kind of trance in which he is seized by the desire to kill his enemies. During a raid, he must earn himself a fourth name, known as the nthukî (“generation”) name, derived from the manner in which he had killed an enemy or a wild animal. In this way, a valiant warrior can earn as many names as he has accomplished exploits. Depending on the situation, the condition of bachelor-warrior may last up to ten years or so, until the Fathers of the country grant the class of warriors the right to marry.

  • 3  Murau (pl. arau), a synonym sometimes used, is a term of Nilotic origin; the same is true of îmura(...)

11Access to marriage and fatherhood is therefore belated. Exceptionally, it may be acquired at the age of twenty five, but it is usually later and up to the age of forty. The former warrior and new father devotes himself essentially to family life: he has to build a mûciî, cultivate his gardens, increase his livestock, bring up his children and earn the respect of others. He can be present at the deliberations of the council of Fathers, but he cannot participate in them. The term mûrumî (pl. arumî) 3 used to designate this age grade means “man” in the sense of “human being of the male sex” (ûrumî, “male sex”). This designation indicates most clearly the gulf between this state and the preceding state of “bushman”, although in certain contexts a young father may still be described as muthaka, because this word also means “son”. In organizing the expensive ritual of gûtûra matû or “ear piercing” for his children, the father demonstrates his success through his progeny, operated on and blessed by the mwariki, people of the most senior age grade who alone can officiate in these circumstances. This celebration of accomplishment in the family is also a harbinger of the next stage.

12Together with the other men in his age set, an individual attains the grade of Father of the country when the preceding set agrees to retire from political affairs. At this stage, the mûkûrû, the “man who has matured,” possesses political and legal authority over the country, and exercises power within councils (kiama, pl. ciama) for the next fifteen years or so. He now has the possibility of initiating his son or sons. However, although it makes him a full-fledged father, the initiation of his eldest son also signifies the end of his right to procreate, unless he takes another wife. This is why a father may delay the initiation of his eldest son. If he has a penchant and talent for the res publica, the Father of the country becomes a respected speaker and adviser (mugambi, pl. agambi) whose opinion influences that of others: through his speech (mûambo, pl. mîambo) and intelligence, he is capable of settling conflicts and restoring harmony, a particularly esteemed quality in what is a rather quarrelsome society. More mundanely, this is the grade where the adult man moves closer to the companions of his generation, with whom he spends most of his time deliberating and feasting, thanks to the payments made to them by plaintiffs and culprits.

13But the progression is not finished yet. To be considered one of the Accomplished, the man who has reached the grade of Father of the country must cross one last threshold. When his age set has handed on political power to the next age set and he has, in theory, initiated all his children, a man has the right to carry out a prestigious and expensive ritual through which he becomes a mwariki. This noun is derived from the verb kwarika, meaning to close or complete. At this time, he acquires a fifth name, the mwariki name of his grandfather’s grandfather (on the paternal side), and he becomes “Entirely Mature” (ûmûnyoru mûkûrû). In Tigania, this grade is called by the synonymous word îthûngi, the “Erect”, derived from the verb kûthunga, “to stand upright”, by reference to the fact that the head, over the course of the ages, is regarded as the last part of the human body to take shape. Retired from political affairs and liberated from domestic worries, he has also become a grandfather as the Tigania-Igembe understand the term, meaning that one grandson, at least, has taken his name and thereby ensured his “rebirth”. So close to the creator principle called Ngaï or Murungu, the mwariki or îthûngi enjoys great freedom of action. He no longer fears anything, not even death; he does what he wants and goes where he will. He makes sacrifices to rectify atmospheric disorders and epidemics, and officiates in the ceremonies that punctuate the progression of individuals and the lives of families. Finally, a man whose existence extends distinctly beyond this threshold is qualified as ntindiri, a noun derived from the verb gûtinda, “to wait while doing nothing”, designating what people in Western societies might refer to as a “great age” but which, in Kimeru, also emphasizes what makes the individual unclassifiable.

3. The life cycle of women

14The life cycle of women runs parallel to that of men, with the exception of one grade, the absence of which obviously has a most striking effect (see fig. 2). Young girls pass through the same stages as young boys: leaving the mother’s hut, the feast of sugar canes and yams, the head-shaving and giving of the name of the grandmother whose turn it is, the late weaning, the pulling out of the lower incisors, the feast of the sheep, and the ear-piercing. The girls are also given domestic tasks, such as looking after the infants, fetching water and firewood or weeding. Like their brothers, they join the groups of neighborhood children. However, the condition of “non-initiate growing up” is marked by a particular ambiguity. When her first period arrives, the adolescent girl must, without any further formality, join the group of young women, with whom she will now share many activities, starting by bathing in the stream. She must also inform her mother, who will transmit the news to her father. The society of mûkenye is organized, and the girl receives a second name, kept secret as custom requires, chosen for her by the older girls. Unlike the adolescent boys, she continues to live within the family kraal, in a specific hut that she shares with her sisters. The girls can form relationships with boys, but the boys are divided by their respective conditions and by the rivalries exacerbated by the very position of the mûkenye: the warriors keep a jealous watch over the girls whom they consider to belong to them, trying to keep them away from the non-initiates, to whom they refuse all droit de regard over the girls. A girl can be courted by a warrior with a view to marriage, although this is far from always being the case, but in any event that occasion is even further removed for non-initiates. Whatever the status and intentions of the lover, sexual relations are permitted in the form of fondling and various forms of coitus interruptus (ngwiko), but they must never result in the birth of a child. In the event of pregnancy, resorting to abortion or abandoning the newborn baby in the bush is inevitable.

Fig. 2 — The different ages of life.
a) Men

kaana (twana):


mwana (aana):


kaîjî (îwîjî):

“small uninitiated boy”; boy, small boy

around 5 years old

mwîjî (îjîîjî):

“big uninitiated boy”; adolescent, young man

around 14 years old

ntaanî (ntaanî):

“one who has been operated on”, “circumcised”; novice

17-35 years old

muthaka (nthaka):

“Bushman”; warrior, son

18-36 years old

mûrumî (arumî):

Man, young father

25-41 years old

mûkûrû (akûrû):

Father of the country, adult man

40-55 years old

mwariki (ariki):


55-70 years old


“he who endures”

over 85 years old

b) Women

kaana (twana):


mwana (aana):


gakenye (tûkenye):

“small uninitiated girl”; girl, small girl

around 5 years old

mûkenye (nkenye):

“big uninitiated girl”; adolescent, young woman

around 14 years old

ngutu (ngutu):

novice; one who has been operated on; excised

16-29 years old

muka (aka):

Woman, young mother

18-30 years old

mwekûrû (ekûrû):

Mother with kaaria, female warrior

35-44 years old

mwariki (ariki):


50-60 years old


“she who endures”

over 75 years old

The ages on the right indicate the approximate age of entry into the category or grade. The grades are underlined in Kimeru and written with a capital letter in English; they refer to statuses interrelated with generation sets. Some ntaanî were circumcised as early as 17, while others have waited anything up to the age of 35. However, this time scale measured in years gives an erroneous idea of the passage of time among the Tigania-Igembe.

Ill. 7 — Thaicu/Igembe small and big uninitiated girls (tûkenye and nkenye), both curious and staying away from the explorers

Ill. 7 — Thaicu/Igembe small and big uninitiated girls (tûkenye and nkenye), both curious and staying away from the explorers

1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.

Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)

Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)

1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.

15Tharia nguû, “tearing the mantle”, is the main feast organized by a father to present the daughter who is growing up to his generation companions. She offers mead to the men of her father’s class, thereby signaling her position as “daughter” with respect to them, a form of distancing that preludes her destiny as initiate and future wife, since her matrimonial category of reference, determined as it is by the position of her father’s class, orientates the field of alliances. Initiation takes place after puberty, from about the age of seventeen up to twenty-five, or maybe even later. Such delays, which particularly affect the eldest daughter, are explained by the consequences that initiation has for the parents. As in the case of boys’ initiation, the initiation of the eldest daughter signals the end of the parents’ right to procreate. For younger daughters, further delay arises due to their relative position among the siblings. Initiation, which is marked, among other things, by excision on the public ground, prepares the candidate for her future status of wife and mother, and constitutes an essential element of matrimonial transactions and in the establishment of bonds of alliance. The fate of the girl who has just been operated on, the ngutu (a word of which the literal meaning has not been determined), can be compared to that of the ntaane, since she must live in seclusion for a period of a few months or more, in a hut built next to her parents. She can only leave this hut at night, but her caretakers come and look after her, and her fiancé can also visit her. Compelled to inactivity, she does little but eat and sleep; she puts on weight, her skin lightens and her hair grows longer. Her leaving of the hut is organized when the marriage payment has been made, and ends with a ceremony, after which she sets up house with her husband.

Ill. 6 — “Embe [Igembe] girl carrying wood”

Ill. 6 — “Embe [Igembe] girl carrying wood”

Most probably a young woman, given her bracelets and necklaces. On each side, tents of the expedition.

1892-1893 Rokeby Archives (etching in Chanler 1896: 231).

16Women marry at a fairly late age, but they are still younger than their husbands, since male initiation does not lead to marriage, but to the long-lasting state of warrior. Upon marriage, a woman joins the class of wives linked to her husband’s set. Like the fathers, mothers go through several stages of development. On the birth of her first child, a woman becomes muka (pl. aka), which means “young mother”, but also “human being of female gender”; uka denotes the female genitalia. Muciere (pl. aciere), “woman of childbearing age”—one of several terms derived from the verb gûciara, “to give birth”—is also used. A husband calls his wife by the wife’s name chosen by her father when she leaves the family home. This is her third, and final, name. She is promoted to the grade of mwekûrû (pl. ekûrû), or “mature woman”, on the day that her husband’s set reaches the grade of “Fathers of the country”. She herself now belongs to a recognized and named class of wives that possesses a particular authority symbolized by the kaaria, a body paint made from white clay, which is the prerogative of this set. Together with the other women in her set who sit in female councils (kiama kia aka), she exercises her powers over the young mothers and girls, and acts as a counterbalance to the power of men and male councils. A woman who owns the kaaria is in a position where she adorns herself with the attributes of a warrior: firstly because of the initiation of her eldest child, she stops having children and during rituals, she sports wooden weapons reserved to women: a small shield, a stick and a sword. She has the reputation of wandering all over the place, spending most of her free time with her age-set companions making threatening and aggressive war songs and dances.

17Although it takes place independently, the transmission of powers to the next generation runs parallel to that of the men. While the men of a set pass on their authority to the new set of Fathers of the country, their wives transmit the kaaria to the new set of wives, at their own rhythm. Any woman who refuses to do so runs the risk of making her daughter and daughter-in-law infertile. Having passed on the kaaria, a woman reaches the final stage of her progression. Having retired from political affairs, she has become a grandmother in the sense that one of her granddaughters has given rebirth to her, by taking her name. Her life cycle ends like that of the men. As his wife, she participates in the ritual that makes her husband a mwariki; she is herself then recognized as mwariki. As such, together with the other men and women of the same status, she performs the rituals that are incumbent upon them. Like men, women who live a particularly long time after this are also described as ntindiri.

4. Age grades, individual progressions, and human longevity

18Presentation of the stages of life according to the Tigania-Igembe brings to light the singular problem of analysis raised by a form of organization in which the destiny of the individual recapitulates the destiny of the society, and vice versa. Here, the founding question of the links between the society and the individual finds an unusual echo, because on its own, the chapter on the ages of life already contains all the principles of social organization, and could have been expanded to the point of providing the whole material of the book. It would clearly be impossible to proceed in such a manner. By starting with the life cycles, we have chosen a course of action that is not immediately obvious in the study of these societies, since it is customary to start by presenting the age sets, which are, admittedly, the first thing to come to the attention of the observer. In reality, the organization of the sets and the dysfunctions provoked by certain rules cannot be fully understood until one has examined the course of individual progressions (Peatrik 1995a). These latter raise questions of a very diverse and sometimes totally new nature, which must be mentioned from the outset. The sociology and anthropology of the criterion of age are domains in which much of the groundwork remains to be done; certain questions influence our interpretation of the ethnographic material and underpin subsequent analysis.

  • 4  As a counter-example, one could cite the case of the Kikuyu. Although culturally close to the Tiga (...)

19Over the course of his or her life, the individual—man or woman—is destined to pass through states that are ascribed successively, but the rules of progress over the whole ladder are not governed by homogeneous mechanisms. The criteria that come into play often, but not always, combine biological and sociological elements. When it is not individual, the progression takes place by sets, and can also associate these two principles. Sometimes it happens imperceptibly, and sometimes it is marked by rites, the very scale of which is another source of questioning, since they range from childhood feasts to rites that have repercussions on the whole society. What happens during adolescence gives a good illustration of the complexity of the process. Here, the quintessential transformation of the human body that is puberty, for which numerous ethnographies have described spectacular rites, gives rise to the most mundane changes, which are treated almost with indifference4. The girls go and wash in a different part of the stream, and the boys start sleeping in the neighborhood dormitory. Without further ceremony, both girls and boys change their category of age individually within the larger category of non-initiates, and then gradually adopt other traits of behavior that are both sanctioned and precipitated by the giving of a new name, kept secret, chosen by their companions. The groups of youngsters, in which the children socialize from an early age and progress up until their initiation, are not sets, insofar as the latter involve constraints of recruitment, examined in the next chapter, relating to the organization of power. Here, we are dealing with groups or associations of age, which does not mean that they are of subordinate importance—quite the contrary—but it makes it easier to affirm the differential character of the conditions of entry. The circumstances governing progression through the higher grades are a different case. A father must organize the great feast during which his children’s earlobes are pierced by the mwariki, but in practice he does this at what he considers to be an opportune time—provided, however, that he respects the rule that the ear-piercing must precede the body markings performed during initiation. In addition, he cannot have his son or sons initiated until his set has reached the grade of Fathers of the country, but even then, initiation may not follow immediately because other rules come into play. Similar observations can be made about the kaaria which every woman possesses at some time in her life: it cannot be obtained until the husband’s set has reached the grade of Fathers of the country, but a woman may receive and subsequently transmit it a long time after that condition has been satisfied.

20Over the course of their progression, individuals enjoy certain latitude, to which informants attach such importance that we believed, during the early stages of our study, that the dynamics of these trajectories were a matter of individual choice, as if our informants wanted to convey the image of a society in which freedom of action exists, and were seeking to manipulate what sociologists designate by the terms ascribed and achieved status. It was inevitable that the old interaction with Europeans and their values—admittedly contradictory, but in which the concept of individual freedom is defined as such—should find an echo in the judgment the Tigania-Igembe pass on their own society. But this questioning is also a very direct consequence of the conflicts that have beset the society, particularly during the nineteen-thirties. During that period, the question arose of whether the new grades should no longer be recruited automatically but by selection, or even by force, and the crisis that followed had repercussions that are still felt to this day. The idea of individual choice therefore appears to be a consequence of the entry of the Tigania-Igembe into the world system. However, this decisive aspect is only part of the story.

  • 5  In Kimeru, this name has the value of a title, whence the use of a capital letter in the English t (...)

21Effects specific to the age system also throw light on the issue: at the same time as individuals are called upon to follow an identical course, the dimension of individual destiny is highlighted, and through it, the possibility of considering the question of freedom of choice. As we shall see, a similar tension is present within the classes, where the mechanism of recruitment entails the incorporation of every individual into their ascribed class, but also leads to situations of marginalization conducive to the individual affirmation that generates secession. In sum, the possibility of the autonomous accomplishment of the individual is both contained in and denied by this mode of social organization. The figure of the mugambi, who asserts himself through his intelligence and moral rectitude alone, while remaining within the framework of the system, embodies this tension. The figure of the kîgwîria, “He who makes people happy”5, who, in addition to his ability to restore harmony, attracts prosperity to himself, indicates the same thing. The question of the emergence of the singular individual (Lukes 1989) or the exemplary man (Tornay 1989a) finds a new field of application here.

22That being so, the gathering of life histories of elderly people with a view to resolving this question does reveal disparities between individual paths, but it also brings to light the unicity of trajectories and the recurrence of stages, an unexpected consequence of a method intended rather to give an account of the diversity of individual lives. It is fair to speak of life cycles insofar as the different stages follow each other according to a predictable order; the last grade, moreover, complete the idea of return, since it is believed that a grandparent is reborn in one of his or her grandchildren. But the successive states that are taken on do not have the same social significance, and the progression over the course of age combines categories and grades. Belonging to a certain category gives the individual an identity and role defined by behavioral norms, to which the grade adds a distribution of powers and an order of precedence in a society that is fundamentally egalitarian, since everyone exercises the successive functions, if they live long enough. So the category and the age grade are differentiated by the attributes of the role, but they have in common the fact that they both mark limits in a continuous biological process, of which two different but related aspects—gender and longevity—become especially significant.

  • 6  These observations differ from those made in the pioneering article by F. Verdeaux (1995), based, (...)

23Comparison between the progression of men and women adds an unusual dimension to the question of gender categories. On the basis of the ages of life, women, by their nature, carry a temporality that one might have expected to provide the framework for gender differentiation. And yet, not only is that not the case, but the limits imposed on male procreation, following the example of what happens for women, aligns the cycle of the former on the cycle of the latter and enables the two to be synchronized. However, the cycle of women undergoes a compression and inversion compared with that of men: the initiation of girls is the propaedeutic to the state of women of an age to marry and have children, whereas the initiation of boys is a prelude to the lasting state of warrior. This is an additional grade that offsets the girls in relation to the boys and introduces an age difference between men and women when they marry. Women pass through three grades and men pass through four: the numbers that are used to identify the sex of the new-born baby. After marriage, the lives of a man and his wife or wives return to a parallel course, and it is on the same basis that their conjoined classes of husbands and wives beget a new generation. During the grade of political power, however, it is the turn of the women who have stopped having children to enter a state marked by warlike attributes. Admittedly, the mode is theatrical, but it represents a counterpart to the warrior state of the young men, to whom, what is more, these women’s class is ritually connected. In sum, the combination of the criterion of age and the criterion of gender introduces a dynamics in which the identities of men and women are constructed over the course of time and cannot be reduced solely to the function of reproduction: the age during which procreation is authorized far from covers the age of biological potential, preceded as it is by a long phase of adolescence and then followed by the grade of political power and then the ritual functions. In some grades, the men borrow from the women, in others the women borrow from the men, and in yet others the criterion of gender is neutralized. The difference between the sexes is interpreted in such a diversified and egalitarian manner that only the artifice remaining to be analyzed—women have one grade less than men—makes it possible to introduce a difference in age between men and women when they marry, and precedence of the former over the latter6.

  • 7  The same observation was made by G. Kershaw (1973) for Kikuyu girls.

24Combined with this last question, the longevity implied by such an accomplishment also raises the question of the appreciation of ages (see fig. 2). We know life expectancy has increased over the history of the human race; the ages, presented here in number of years, are more like the levels reached in developed societies than in societies considered to be archaic. It is impossible to satisfy the requirements of demographic analysis, but we can highlight certain aspects that provide part of the answer. The life stages, however marked they may be, are many and varied, and correspond to precise roles and social functions that must be taken on. Unless we return to outdated theories that ascribe a ritual function to these systems without any organizational role, it is difficult to imagine why a population should endeavor to conserve asset of social positions, some of which would remain permanently empty. What is more, the Tigania-Igembe are far from being a unique case in the region, and their scale can be compared, among others, to those of the Kikuyu and the Borana, who have progressions of considerable temporal depth. The ages and age differences are extrapolated from the period of time separating two transfers of power, reconstructed by cross-checking oral tradition with colonial archives. Every fifteen years, on average, the recruitment of a new class causes the other classes to move up the grade scale. When they are asked about the age at which one or another transition occurred, the informants specify from the outset they do not count years in the same way as white people do—a practice they discovered very early on, since surveys for tax purposes were introduced in the earliest days of the conquest— and then try to explain themselves in terms of bodily changes: they speak of the rites that take place long after puberty, when people are really adult, they mention the appearance of white hair or the case of women for whom “there are no more children in their bodies.” The age of fourteen attributed to the puberty of boys and girls is a plausible approximation. It is very possible that girls’ puberty has been later, inasmuch as the elderly explain that it now arrives at a younger age7, a change they attribute to the more frequent use of salt in food. We have then moved forwards in periods of fifteen years, starting from an age range at initiation (which is always held after puberty) of seventeen to thirty-five for men and sixteen to twenty-nine for women. Reconstructed in this way, the ages testify to longevity that could be an average, a mean or a maximum, but which must correspond to something in terms of food, sanitary, epidemiological and perhaps sociological conditions, which could not have been entirely unfavorable. The presence, at the end of an already-long life, of a final age that stresses a particularly marked longevity is along the same lines. Thus, in Tigania-Igembe, people remember a class whose nickname is Theng’eng’e, “Those who walked on their knees,” because they reached such an old age that they could no longer remain on their feet; the only thing they could ingest was milk, which one could see going down their throats (Lambert 1945, typescript: 419). The age limit of seventy-five for women and eighty-five for men, beyond which an old person is described as ntindiri, has been calculated by adding fifteen years to the mwariki grade, the period of time before a new class is ready to be promoted to this function. The women reach this state at an earlier age than men, in number of years. The first reason for this is that they have one less grade to go through. This difference would be reduced if the puberty of girls occurred appreciably later than that of boys, in which case the lesser number of grades women have to go through would compensate for their falling behind their male counterparts at puberty. The difference in years could also mean life expectancy is lower for women than it is for men. However, there is nothing to support even a plausible hypothesis to this effect. The data on upper age strata published in censuses can hardly be used, because it is impossible to see how the census takers can attribute a precise age to old and not-so-old people who do not know their year of birth (see fig. 3).

Fig. 3 — Sex ratio of old people in the 1989 census.
a) for the whole of Kenya


# of individuals



70-74 yrs old

174 178

47.6 %

52.3 %

75-79 yrs old

127 076

52.4 %

47.5 %

≥ 80 yrs old

176 280

46.6 %

53.3 %

b) for Meru District:


# of individuals



70-74 yrs old

11 096

47.2 %

52.7 %

75-79 yrs old

7 469

52.2 %

47.7 %

≥ 80 yrs old

11 033

47.2 %

52.7 %

In both cases, the sex ratio is favorable to men in the 75-79 age band, but to women in the strata on either side. It is difficult to say any more than this, however, because we are probably dealing with an artefact due to the mode of data collection and presentation.

25Whatever the case, it is hard to imagine that such an elaborate development of the age criterion could have occurred in societies with very low life expectancy. Can the growing interest in questions of age and ageing in our societies be separated from the long-term lengthening of life expectancy and the concomitant changes in the age pyramid? Although it is devoid of statistical significance, all this information nevertheless constitutes a body of evidence that it is hard to neglect.

5. The ages of life and the measurement of time

26The analyses sketched out above are based on age defined in a number of years. This process is certainly a useful way to appreciate certain problems, but it cannot precisely recreate the models at work in the construction of time. As is so often the case when dealing with customs, the Tigania-Igembe are not very eloquent on the subject of the organization of ages, which seems obvious to them. The few myths and historical narratives contain some relevant information, mixed up with much else, and they will be studied in due course, in Chapters 5 and 9. For the moment, it is simpler to examine the vocabulary of categories used to appreciate the passage of time, together with certain funeral practices that shed a retrospective light on the nature of the journey through life.

27The length of the journey and the variety of positions held during successive stages are considered as a whole, in which every advance in age is called etaalia (pl. mataalia), a noun meaning “step” derived from the verb kûtaalia, “to take a step forward to measure” (a field, for example), which is different from the verb that simply means “to walk, to go” (gweta). The idea of measurement and quantification can be found in related terms: more generally, kûtaalia means “to measure”, using the thumb and index finger, the forearm or a stick, and gwûtaala means “to count”. The noun etaalia clearly contains the idea of stage and measurement, and designates life as a series of measured steps of which women are destined to pass through three, and men four. Lambert (1950: 10) cites an expression, roughly transcribed and probably recorded in the Meru sections of Mount Kenya, which indicates the same thing. To wish somebody who is ill a speedy recovery, one says:

Ukora, niu werirwe ni Karuru na Gatarira.
You will grow like Karuru and Gatarira said.

28Karuru is a noun drawn from a word that designates the placenta and amniotic fluid; Gatarira comes from the verb meaning “to count” and designates human destiny, life expectancy, with a denotation that is not completely unrelated to life expectancy as defined by demographers.

29The process at work in this progression is designated by the radical –ûrû, which expresses the idea of maturation, not only that of individuals but also that of crops or livestock, which can be found in the first term of the “get well soon” phrase cited above. The titles of individuals who have reached the grade of power, mûkûrû for the men and mwekûrû for the women, are formed from this radical, and all blessings of children include the phrase ûkûra bweega, “grow well”, in the sense of “mature well”, the imperative form of the verb gûkûra. The Tigania-Igembe scale of degrees of age is a scale of maturation, an observation whose apparent banality conceals a very particular conception of ontogeny, in which at birth, the individual is considered an immature being, a rough draft that can only be fulfilled by the well-ordered passage through the successive grades, at the end of which he or she is umunyoru (complete, accomplished), a state that also qualifies the names of the last grade, mwariki and kîthûngi.

  • 8  For more details on funeral rites, see Peatrik 1991.

30Although they are not very elaborate, in contrast to the other rites of passage, funeral rites provide information about the meaning and nature of the journey through life, in the different way the deceased is treated according to whether he or she died as an Accomplished, or before or indeed after having attained this final stage8. The body of an Accomplished is placed on the kiara or family waste heap by the sons—men on their right side and women on their left—and left to decompose before being buried there. The body of anyone who dies before this stage is taken away by a poor wretch, the mwenje, who leaves it in the bush for the hyenas and vultures, although he still respects the rule about left and right sides. This difference in treatment is related to a particular theory about the body and the person. The death of an individual who has not reached the last grade is a tragic setback, and his or her corpse, considered to be hot, is believed to carry unfulfilled and hence dangerous vitality, the mûgiro. Very specific rites are performed to protect survivors from the upsets of an inauspicious death and restore the natural order of things. The corpse of an Accomplished, on the contrary, is laid on the kiara, like the other products of successful growth: placentas, umbilici, and manure from the livestock. Neither mourning nor funeral in the strict sense of the term, the discreet and austere ritual surrounding the body of a mwariki celebrates the accomplishment of a process, the completion of a cycle of life. Whatever the sorrow the relatives may feel, the death of an Accomplished is not considered as a rupture or as the manifestation of a dangerous transition. The Tigania-Igembe do not define a form of life after death, nor do they “ancestralize” the deceased, but the grandchild who takes on the name of a grandparent testifies to the continuity of their person. Although it is, of course, marked by physical weakening, old age is not equivalent to decrepitude. The mwariki is someone who has grown to reach the final grade, the only time when the individual is completely fulfilled, in that he has experienced the successive states of the human condition, as the Meru define them, and he has come within close proximity of a divine, or creator, principle called Ngaï (Nilotic term) or Murungu (Bantu term). This supreme authority, in which missionaries could not help recognizing a biblical influence, actually covers an abstract principle, an energy (inya) that is actualized by respecting the social rules and accomplishing rituals at the right moment. This idea is illustrated in another way by the condition of the ntindiri. These old people, who have lived a long time after reaching the final grade, confuse the issue, forming a category about which one is unsure what to think or do. The body of an ntindiri is neither laid on the kiara nor carried into the bush; it is buried. Far from representing a promotion or a celebration, this is a way to cover up a deceased person who has, as it were, overstepped the mark. Except for this particular case, the burying of bodies is (was) strictly forbidden, because of the deleterious consequences is it feared to have both for humans, whose line of descent is thereby covered over and annihilated, and the earth and rain, the cycle of which is disturbed by the presence of the body. The burial of an ntindiri is the result of a makeshift arrangement to deal with the unclassifiable: he is buried to make an end of an abnormal longevity, but it is also judged that the vitality of the corpse is so weak that it cannot be prejudicial to the cycle of the earth and the crops.

Fig. 4 — The circadian cycle, its sub-multiples and multiples

ûtukû (pl. matukû):

night, also the circadian cycle




in full daytime, around midday, day



Other divisions of the circadian cycle (ûtukû)



rera nyungo eritawa riiko:

“when the pot is taken off the fire”


in full night-time


end of the night

kainda ga ûkia:





morning has broken


“warming the lizard”

mûû jwa gwata mwîrî:

“the warmth enters the body”


end of the morning


“the calm of the birds”, sun’s zenith

meoko ya riûga:

“descent of the sun”


“setting of the sun”

mîano ya ngombe:

“return of the cows”



Multiples of the circadian cycle (ûtukû)*









kûlui (Ig.), riûarî (Ti.),

narua (Im.):






* The number of circadian cycles can also be expressed by counting the number of “nights” (ûtukû, pl. matukû).

Fig. 5 — The year and its divisions. the seasons

mwaka (pl. mîaka):


kiingo (pl. cingo):

farming season (about one semester)


dry, cool months (August, September), change of year


farming season from September to March


dry, hot months (January, February)


farming season from March to August

mweri (pl. mîeri):

lunar month

Lunar months and cultivation practices


dry, cool months (August, September)


approach of the wet season,

preparation of gardens and sowing


weeding the gardens


the beans are flowering


in November


harvest of the nthûrûkû (pigeon peas, in December)


dry, hot months (January, February, sometimes March)


[meaning not found]


[meaning not found]

muo juria mucheke:

the coolness can be felt

muo juria munene:

the coolness is increasing


[meaning not found]


the coolness has set in; harvest of the nthûrûkû planted in March


very cold, very dark, many clouds (July), one does not know when the sun sets; sorghum harvest


the sun warms, the nchûgû (beans) are ripening

mweri jwa nchûgû njaru:

“the month of white nchûgû”, nchûgû harvest


dry, cool months (August, September), new year

A number of the terms given above have become obsolete, because new divisions gradually became established during the colonial era. Variations can be observed between one place and another and between one informant and another. The women focus more on cultivation practices, whereas the men tend to list a series of twelve names corresponding to the lunar months. However, the same names tend to recur.

31The course of the trajectory is thus clearly indicated, attaching great value to the accomplishment of things at the right time, but it gives no indication about the moment when a step should be taken and the grade changed. The Tigania-Igembe possess a range of concepts to appreciate the passing of time (see fig. 4 and 5). Certain astronomical and meteorological phenomena serve as points of reference. The territory of the Tigania-Igembe, situated on the equator, sees very little variation in the length of days and nights. Nightfall is the starting point of the circadian cycle, which is divided into four or fourteen units that mark the passage of the day. The circadian cycle is also divided into three colors: it starts in black, passes through a transition phase in red and ends in white. The return of the livestock at sunset announces the return of the night and the beginning of a new circadian cycle. The color black denotes antecedence and seniority, whereas the term “white” also means light and newness.

32Over the course of a year mwaka (pl. mîaka), which sees the return of certain constellations and the succession of lunar months (mweri, pl. mîeri), other divisions appear that are not exactly the same. One difference comes from the rhythm of the two rainy seasons, interspersed with two dry seasons, added to which there is a perceptible contrast between the hot months (around January) and the cooler months (around July). The combination of these different characteristics defines two farming seasons kiingo (pl. cingo), each composed of wet months in which the crops are planted and dry months in which the harvesting is done: uruura (from September to March) and uthima (from March to July). These two seasons, roughly corresponding to semesters, follow on one after the other, but the dry months are distinguished by factors of another nature. The dry, hot period called ekanga, corresponding to the months of January and February, is the season when raids used to be carried out at the expense of enemies who, like the animals, moved up towards the Nyambene hills in search of grazing and watering holes. Conversely, the dry, cool period in July and August, called thaano, is the time when the granaries are full and things are relatively peaceful, since potential enemies are far off in the lowlands. It is the moment when one passes from one year to the next, and when the stellar, solar and lunar rhythms come together, considering, the elderly explain, that the thaano period lasts longer than a lunar month. Every four or five years the initiation of boys and girls is (was) performed during this period; in other years, the thaano is the time when other public or family celebrations marking the progression of individuals are held.

33The Tigania-Igembe also have a base-ten numeral system with multiples of ten, within which there is a vigesimal division and a base seven. This latter can be found in the fourteen subdivisions and seven multiples of the circadian cycle, and in the symbolism of the human person, where seven is the sum of the female three and the male four. In brief, people possess astronomical knowledge and a system of numeration to count the passing seasons and years and to appreciate the passage of time. They count the kiingo, seasons of half a year that separate one session of initiation from the next, assess the lifespan of certain buildings built by the community, and they designate with a specific name the mîaka ya mpaara (“years of fatigue”) marked by famine and misfortune, but they do not use this knowledge either to draw up a calendar or in the appreciation of individual age, which is not seen as an accumulation years. However, age is a quantifiable reality, as expressed in the idea of the distance covered and the number of grades to be crossed: the “measurements” (etaalia pl. mataalia) of Tigania-Igembe life are a version of space-time.

34The changes undergone by the human body from birth to old age are of course taken into account, but the ages of life appear to be only approximately linked to physiological realities. This is understandable insofar as biological processes manifest themselves by a number of signs that herald multiple transformations, and provide no clear landmarks or limits. Nevertheless, the Tigania-Igembe appear to go further, to the point where everything happens as if human physiology was part of a process activated by the social organization. This theory can be observed in what happens at the time of puberty of girls and boys. We have seen that it results in a change in age category, to one where sexual activity is permitted but not procreation, which is unimaginable for the girls before initiation and for the boys before they leave the state of warrior. Any pregnancy of an uninitiated woman ends (ended) in abortion or the abandonment of the new-born baby in the bush. This can be seen as the consequence of relentless social control, but this control is also based on a very particular representation and belief. Conception under these circumstances is considered to be monstrous, in the sense that the creature conceived by non-initiates is ill-formed, and therefore dangerous for their family and for society. It would be unthinkable not to get rid of what is called a kitheega, “Malignant being, Harmful being”, from the verb kûtheega, “to harm”. On the contrary, a child conceived by an initiated woman and a man who is no longer a warrior is considered a normal creature, as if the capacity to be a fruitful progenitor depended on one’s position in the age grades. Likewise, male and female menopause, in which physiological changes bring an end to the reproductive capacity, are treated not as the result of physical incapacity but as the consequence of a social proscription. Individuals of adjacent generations cannot procreate at the same time. Initiation activates the reproductive capacities of individuals, and the parents’ sexuality threatens the fulfilment of the children’s sexuality; as soon as their eldest child is initiated, the parents must stop having children.

35Age is not seen as an accumulation of years and illnesses, and it is only approximately linked to physiological changes. It is defined by the position the individual occupies in the age-set system: people have the age of their set, not the age “that they feel”. It is now time to present the age- and generation-set system of the Tigania-Igembe, which will help to explain how the sets and grades are connected, and to analyze the discrepancies that inevitably arise between the maturing of individuals and the progression of their sets.


1  Yams, like sugar cane, bananas, beans, taro, maize and tobacco, are species of American or Asian origin that arrived either via the Nile valley or from the coast at some unspecified date in the past. It is interesting to note that this rite specifically employs two exogenous species in the oldest cultivated varieties. The old people know that they were not always used, and to make things clear, they specify that “certain people came with them and brought them”. Other rites make use of cereals—ûembî or finger millet, which is native to eastern Africa, but also millet or sorghum—and products of the herd, in other words resources that have “always” existed and whose origin can be traced back to the appearance and spread of cattle keeping and farming in these regions.

2  A sort of clay with a persistent smell extracted from the crater of Igombe to the north-east of the Nyambene Hills, or obtained from the Mwimbî, a group that live on Mount Kenya to the south of the Imenti.

3  Murau (pl. arau), a synonym sometimes used, is a term of Nilotic origin; the same is true of îmura or murei which is sometimes used in songs to designate the warrior.

4  As a counter-example, one could cite the case of the Kikuyu. Although culturally close to the Tigania-Igembe, they differ precisely in the great attention they pay to the puberty of girls, who must be initiated before they have their first periods.

5  In Kimeru, this name has the value of a title, whence the use of a capital letter in the English translation.

6  These observations differ from those made in the pioneering article by F. Verdeaux (1995), based, it is true, on an ethnography of the Lagoon Peoples of the Ivory Coast, but they are complementary to those made among the Bijogo of Guinea-Bissau (Henry 1994) or the Joola of Basse Casamance (Journet and Julliard 1994). All these studies are part of a field of research in which the works of J. La Fontaine (1978) are an important point of reference.

7  The same observation was made by G. Kershaw (1973) for Kikuyu girls.

8  For more details on funeral rites, see Peatrik 1991.

Table des illustrations

Titre Ill. 7 — Thaicu/Igembe small and big uninitiated girls (tûkenye and nkenye), both curious and staying away from the explorers
Crédits 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.
Fichier image/jpeg, 218k
Titre Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)
Crédits 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.
Fichier image/jpeg, 478k
Titre Ill. 6 — “Embe [Igembe] girl carrying wood”
Légende Most probably a young woman, given her bracelets and necklaces. On each side, tents of the expedition.
Crédits 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives (etching in Chanler 1896: 231).
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k

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