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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part two. Multivocal generations: Weaving kinship and politics

Chapter five

Alliance, filiation, and the generation-set system: from one gaaru to another

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1Throughout his study on the family and social organization of the peoples of the Central Province, the administrator H.E. Lambert (1945, tapus.) relates episodes of a story about the first events of life in society that he entitled The Meru Myth. Although this myth was adversely affected by the reputation acquired by the Mbwaa story (see Ch. 9), the author, referring to the 1930s, claims it was still being widely told throughout the Meru group and, in a form more or less complete, was known by all but the very youngest. According to the narrator, it sometimes relates to present-day populations, and at other times to very ancient occupants of the region. The version told by Lambert is that of an old informant of Miutini origin, a small Meru section located on Mount Kenya, just south of Imenti, which is near Tigania-Igembe, although it does not border it. During my surveys, I did not actually hear such a story, but I did find evidence relating to it. The myth throws unexpected light on certain aspects of Meru and Tigania-Igembe social organization; documentary evidence of this type is very rare in these regions because it was not collected at the time—another reason to report it.

1. The myth of Mbugi, Murutu and Mukunga1

  • 1  Presentation of records left by H. E. Lambert can be found in Appendix A, which is concerned with (...)

a) The first man was Mbugi wa Ngai. The first man is sometimes called Kibiringwa [but this name is more usually given as that of the very first age-set]. There were at that time no other people hereabouts. Mbugi lived on wild honey and roots and fruits and in fact on anything eatable that he could find in the bush. It was his habit, when he had found sufficient food, to go to the top of a hill and stay there till the food was finished. To this day the Meru sometimes call clan land Kîrima (hill). On the top of the hill he would make a fire to keep himself warm and cook any food that needed fire to make it eatable. To this day the Meru say that the territory (mburago) belonging to a clan is a gathoka (small axe), a rurindi (fire stick), and a riiko (fireplace). Mbugi used to go great distances and so had many hills with fireplaces on the top and these he would visit as convenient. One day when he returned to one of his hill-tops he found a woman there. Her name was Murutu. It is not known where she came from. She said she was lost and that there was no other woman in the country. She stayed with Mbugi, who liked the look of her. But after a time her belly began to swell and when it was very big Mbugi said he didn’t like the look of her any more and drove her away. Some time afterwards he found another woman on another of his hills. Her name was Mukunga. It is not known where she came from. She said she was lost and that there was no other woman in the country. Mbugi liked the look of her and told her to stay with him. After a time her belly began to swell and when it was very big Mbugi said “You’ve got the same trouble as Murutu. I don’t like the look of you. You’d better go away.” So she went away.
Meanwhile Murutu had gone into the forest and lived on herbs and seeds she found there. Mukunga went into the forest too and found Murutu there. Murutu and Mukunga were sisters, daughters of one woman, though it is not known who their mother was or who their father was or if they had one. When Mukunga found Murutu in the forest Murutu was feeding a child on the milk of seeds (gruel made of pounded seeds and water). Mukunga said “How did you get this child?” Murutu said “The same way as you got your swelling. I had a swelling too. My swelling is this child.” Murutu had made a dish
(rugeo) out of earth and it was with this that she fed the child. To this day pottery is women’s work. One day Mbugi, during his wanderings, came across the women in the forest. When he saw Murutu he said “I like the look of you again. How did you lose your swelling?” She showed him the child and said “This was my swelling.” He said to Mukunga “I still don’t like the look of you. Keep away from me until the swelling goes down.” Mukunga went off to her own hill. To this day the Meru do not go near their pregnant wives. Murutu gave Mbugi some of the milk of seeds to drink. He liked it and stayed with her. He said, “We will try to grow these herbs.” So he took his axe and made a clearing in the forest, and said “Now you plant those seeds in this clearing and keep it clean when I’m away.” To this day clearing new gardens is the work of men and planting and cleaning the work of women. Murutu’s child was a boy and they called him Kuongera [from kwonga, to increase]. Her belly began to swell again, and Mbugi said, “I do not like the look of you. You stay here; I’m going off to see Mukunga.” He found Mukunga’s swelling had subsided and she had a son. They called him Kuremeria. Meanwhile the herbs Murutu planted bore much seed and these she stored for eating: the herbs were millet (mwere) and sorghum (mwia). Mbugi said to Mukunga, “I want meat but have no time for hunting. I will get some magic to bring the animals near.” He built a kraal and found the magic. He made a fire inside the kraal and put his magic on it. The smoke attracted all the animals from bush and forest, and they started running into the kraal. But Mukunga saw a buffalo dashing in, and she was frightened and screamed in terror. So the buffalo ran off with many other animals, and the only animals left inside the kraal were goats and sheep and cattle and donkeys. These were tamed by the magic and to this day they like to gather around the homes of men where fires are always burning. But the other animals are afraid or angry and don’t come near except to steal or kill. Mbugi was annoyed because Mukunga had prevented him from taming all the other animals and said, “These animals which I have caught are mine and those which you drove away are yours.” To this day women have no right to sell or slaughter domestic animals. Then Mukunga’s belly began to swell again and Mbugi said, “I don’t like the look of you. I’ll go and see how Murutu is getting on.” He found Murutu had borne another son and called his name Kiindi Muriati. He settled down with her and lived on seeds and on the animals he had tamed. These sufficed their needs and so he gave up hunting and spent his time clearing more forest and protecting crops and stock from beasts. When Murutu’s belly had begun to swell he said, “I don’t like the look of you. I’ll go and see how Mukunga’s getting on.” He found Mukunga had borne another son and called his name Nkanga Nguturu. He stayed with her and cleared the bush for planting seeds. Later on he taught his sons to herd his cattle and to guard their mothers’ crops. Murutu and Mukunga went on swelling now and then and giving birth to sons and also daughters. At that time there was no such thing as death. Hyaenas, seeing so many humans in the bush, thought they had the right to eat them. But Mbugi had a leather purse with magic needles in it and every time a hyaena came and howled and tried to catch a child Mbugi pulled out a magic needle and the hyaena died instead. Later on God sent death to earth and humans started dying. So the hyaenas tasted human flesh, but only that of the dead or dying, which is what they live on to this day.
About this times Mbugi, having many sons and daughters, went to live on a hill in the plains to the North of the Imenti forest across the Luguthu river [Eastern Marania]. To this day, this hill is known as Mbugi wa Ngai. The sons were growing up and feeling very strong and active. They said to Mbugi, “Tell us where there are other people. We want to fight.” Mbugi could not tell them. So the sons said, “We will fight among ourselves.” Mbugi forbade them, but the sons persisted. So Mbugi said, “You can play at wrestling, but there must be no bloodshed. It is wrong to spill a brother’s blood.” To this day, it is wrong to spill a clansman’s blood. Mbugi divided his sons into two grades
nthukî. To this day all Meru is divided into two grades. Mbugi said, “These two grades will wrestle, one with the other.” Then he said, “I will made a third grade of the eldest. They will be peacemakers between the other two, for there must be no bloodshed.” Even then Mbugi was afraid of trouble and tried to stop the wrestling by using magic. The fight went on and on. The peacemakers join in to help their younger brothers. In the end both sides were utterly worn out and neither was the winner. But one son was killed, and the hyenas got him. For Mbugi had used up all his magic needles trying to stop the fighting. The death of his son started a feud between the families. Mbugi said, “You must go back to your mothers’ hills. I will divide my cattle between you. Let every boy stay with his own mother. Then if brothers quarrel it will be their mother’s business to act as peacemaker. But if half-brothers quarrel and the blood of one is spilt his mother will incite her family to take revenge and you will all be finished.” To this day it is a bad thing to spill a brother’s blood, but it is a very bad thing indeed to spill a half-brother’s blood. So they went to Kigairo (This is the “Place of the dividing” in the story of the exodus) to divide the cattle and then went to their mothers’ hills. To this day a man divides his cattle between his different families.
Some time afterwards the sons went to Mbugi and said, “We have seed and we have land to plant it in and we have cattle to give us meat and milk, but we have no wives to make their bellies swell.” Mbugi said, “If you did that you would not like the look of them, and you would have to send them away or go away yourselves.” The sons said, “But the swellings would subside and then we could go back. And in their place would be more children, which we need, for death is now among us.” Mbugi said, “You wanted blood to spill and I said No, but you would not be satisfied and then one family spilt the blood of the other family and let the hyaenas in. Now go and marry, but see you marry your own full sisters, not your half-sisters, daughters of the other family; those you must never touch.” To this day a woman or a husband, if her children are being naughty, will say to the boy, “Do go away, and take your wife with you”, meaning “take your sister”, but that could not be said if the children were by different mothers. So they married their sisters, but left their half-sisters alone. To this day it is a bad thing to make a sister’s belly swell, but it is a very bad thing indeed to make a half-sister’s belly swell, and a boy is taught to know he must not do it however much he likes the look of her.
ambert 1945, ms: 238-241.

2Thus ends this excerpt, which Lambert (ibid.: 238) presents as the first part of the myth, before adding that he will mention further episodes to the extent that they throw light on customs and institutions. There is therefore no in extenso version of the story, and the extracts presented are those the author has seen fit to select.

3b) One episode, from Tigania, explains the origin of the gichiario relationship that exists between Tigania and Mwimbî (another small Meru section of Mount Kenya, to the south of Imenti):

  • 2  Lambert does not specify the word in kimeru corresponding to “girl.” Regarding the gichiario relat (...)

Years ago a man called Muguru or Nguru lived at a place now called Tigania Nkuru (Tigania of old), which is on the lower reaches of the Kazita river, down in the plains. His wife was called Chiankinya. She bore two sons and two daughters. One son was called Mwimbi and the other Tigania. Mwimbi went off with one of his sisters to a place in what is now Lower Mwimbi. He married her, according to the custom of those days. Tigania stayed with the other sister at Tigania Nkuru. He should have married her, but he did not know the ‘facts of life’. One day, however, he chanced to see the girl’s pudenda2 and he thought she had cut herself by sitting on a jagged tree stump. So he got some bark of a muuti (the Corky Bark stump) and pounded it up and mixed it with honey, for he was a honey hunter by occupation. He used the mixture as a plaster, applying it to the part he thought affected. He said he hoped she would soon get better. But the bark made the girl’s vulva suffer, particularly when she urinated, and when he asked her how she was she said it hurt a lot. One day Mwimbi came to call and asked Tigania how they were getting on. Tigania said he was very well but his sister has a nasty inflamed cut which did not seem to heal and in fact had begun to bleed quite badly now and then. Mwimbi asked him where it was and Tigania said “Between her legs”. Mwimbi said “I know the medicine for that. It will stop the inflammation and very likely the bleeding too.” He told Tigania to have plenty of honey beer ready and he would come back on the third day and start the cure. In the evening of the third day Mwimbi came back, drank the beer, took the girl aside, removed the plaster, and started to use his medicine. But Tigania saw them in the act and pulled Mwimbi away. Tigania said ‘I have that sort of medicine too, though I never thought of using it. I used to wonder at time what it was for. You, Mwimbi go away and never at any time come back. Keep your medicine for your own girl, I can deal with mine.” Then Mwimbi went away and Tigania set to work to cure his sister. The inflammation and the bleeding stopped that was the start of the Tigania people. Ever since then there has been gichiaro between the Mwimbi and the Tigania.
ambert 1945, ms: 274-275.

4Lambert (ibid.: 275, 368) mentions two variations: in one, Tigania and a sister are the children of Chianguru while Mwimbî and his sister are the children of another wife called Chiakinya; in the other, Nguru marries his sister, Mwimbî, and Tigania are born from this union (fig. 29-1).

5c) Another episode explains the origin of blood money:

When the one young man had been killed in the wrestling games a vendetta started between the two families and other people were killed and hurt and there was much resentment. After a time the older sons, seeing the danger to Mbugi’s seed if this went on, agreed together and made an order, saying “Let there be no spirit of revenge. The bitterness of the wrestling games must be forgotten; there must be no talion—deaths must be paid for as the older men shall order.” To this day the Meru pay for damages and deaths outside the clan.
ambert 1945, ms: 314.

6d) An addition, presented by Lambert as the continuation of the myth mixed with elements that relate only to certain divisions—most likely the Imenti and other Mount Kenya divisions—depicts the division into tribes, the refusal to give up sisters, and the appearance of the bridewealth (fig. 29-2):

  • 3  In a footnote, Lambert explains that the Meru also call them Maa, the name the Maasai use for them (...)

Two of Murutu’s sons were Muru, father of the Masai, and Meru, father of the Meru. To this day the Meru call the Masai Oru3. After the dividing of the cattle Muru went off to his own country. When Murutu’s sons had sons of their own Muru refused to share his cattle with his sisters’s sons but kept them all for his own sons. To this day the Masai say that all the cattle in the world are theirs and they will not share with anyone. Then Muru’s sons wanted to marry the daughters of Murutu’s other sons. But these others were angry because of the cattle and they said among themselves “If they want our daughters let them give us cattle in their place.” Muru’s sons got one girl for ten cows and another girl for ten cows. But when they asked for one of Meru’s daughters he refused. To this day if the Masai want to marry girls of the other tribes they have to give many cows in exchange for them, and to this day the Meru will not let their daughters be taken away by the Masai. If a Masai wanted a Meru wife he had to stay in Meru and become a Meru. Many Masai did so years ago.
Lambert 1945, ms: 293.

7e) Lambert outlines the small variations found in different divisions (fig. 29-3):

The Tharaka [a division situated lower down, on either side of the Tana river] say that Mbugi was the father of all the Meru sub-tribes, and that they themselves are his descendants by his wife Mwiku or Ciomwiku, that the Mwimbi and the Imenti are his descendants by another wife, Murutu, and the Tigania and Igembe by yet another wife, Mukunga. […] The Tigania sometimes refer to themselves in large gatherings as Kirindi kia Mukunga (a crowd of the Mukunga), or as Mwiku wa Mukunga (children of Mwiku by Mukunga), and Mwiku was the father of them all. […] A song sung by Tigania girls is ‘I mwereru ndia iri Mukunga I’ (‘Oh, it is an overflowing thing, the lake which is at Mukunga’); it is explained as meaning that Mukunga’s seed is now a multitude of people. There is a sacred hill in lower Tigania at which certain sacrifices are offered and ceremonies held: it is called Mukunga. It is possibly Mukunga’s hill of the myth. The Tigania say that the Igembe and Imenti are also “people of Mukunga”. The Igembe agree with this, but seemed inclined to think Mukunga was a man. Informants in Igembe, as well as in Tigania, appeared never to have heard of Murutu. [In fact, the elders do remember but for them Murutu is the source of the Mount Kenya groups.]
ambert 1945, ms: 302.

Fig. 29 — Eponymous figures in various oral traditions

Fig. 29 — Eponymous figures in various oral traditions

8f) Lambert relates stories that no longer form part of the myth but that shed light on certain aspects of social organization, such as the history of the Mpuria, clan or territorial section, in the Abothanja division in Tigania, reported to illustrate the inclusion of external elements in Tigania society:

A man called Ndu had four sons and one daughter. He was fairly well off in cattle, but a Masai raiding-party seized the whole herd. He then feared that he might not be able to provide his sons with wives because the heifer he could expect to get on the marriage of his daughter would have to be returned if she failed to bear children. He had her circumcised at once and told his sons to take her and search for the Masai party. The girl’s name was Namburi. They found the Masai and Namburi crept up close to watch from the bush. She saw the famous war-leader of the Masai, Kithikuru, recognising him by the lion-mane headdress and the nderi-feather cape he always wore. She went into the village very quietly and humbly and begged Kithikuru for peace and the return of the cattle. He sent back the cattle but kept Namburi. She bore him a son, called Mpuria [rhinoceros]. Afterwards, during a famine, she returned to her father Ndu, taking Mpuria with her. Mpuria’s descendants are now incorporated in the Ndu wa Irima clan; they are regarded as part of the clan and inherit the land.
ambert 1945, ms: 324.

9And Lambert adds that, in this case, the usual rules had been applied. Mpuria was a member of the Ndu family because he had been conceived after Namburi was initiated, and no bridewealth had been paid, the cattle returned by the Masai warrior clearly not serving as such.

10g) Finally, a variation of the Mbugi story explains the origin of Meru circumcision:

When Mbugi’s sons wanted to fight and Mbugi stopped them and divided them into three age-sets for the wrestling games he was still afraid of trouble. There was a large mugumo (wild fig tree) where they lived at the places now called Mbugi ya Ngai; it had three branches. Mbugi said “Take this axe and chop down this mugumo. When it falls this branch is yours and this is yours and this is yours”, pointing to the three nthuki. Mbugi said “This branch will fight this branch and the third, the largest, will make peace between them. When you have felled the tree you can start the wrestling”. They cut the tree all day, but every time it was on the point of falling Mbugi pulled out a magic needle and the tree stood up straight and strong again. But finally the magic failed and the wrestling started. After a time they were all worn out and sat themselves down to rest, each age-set by itself. Of the two wrestling age-sets the older one, to show that they were full-grown men, started to circumcise themselves. But it wasn’t done by cutting. They simply pulled their foreskins back and tied them back behind the glans. One of their number, who had first thought of it, did this for them with rurigi (bark string); he himself was left undone. The name of this earliest circumcision-set was Kibiringwa. When the others brothers saw what had happened to their older brothers they wanted to be done too. The older set agreed to do the next and they cut their foreskins for them, deceiving them, for they themselves had not been cut but only tied.
ambert 1945, ms: 407.

11In another variation, it is said that Kibiringwa thought the solution of the bark string was impractical and decided to make a cut in the foreskin (ibid.: 415).

12The Meru have a circumcision method that is different from that of the Chuka but connects them to part of the Embu and part of the Kikuyu (Orde Brown 1913, 1915; Lambert 1945, ms: 404-405; Kershaw 1972: 89; Ambler 1988: 45). The circumcisor cuts the kimole or nkaabu, that is to say the end of the foreskin, then pulls the remaining part forward to make a buttonhole-shaped incision through which the head of the penis is passed, so that the foreskin falls below the penis; the foreskin is kept in place with a small piece of wood or a thorn until the wound heals. The posterior part, called rutaano (from gûtaana, “initiate”) or ndigi (“string”), is the reason for the nickname “two penises” that is sometimes given to the Meru. One can also cite D. Rimita, a Tiganian, who describes the operation he underwent and mentions several variations:

The operation itself is complicated. The circumcisor pushes the skin of the penis backwards and separates the sheath from the actual penis by use of his knife. He then pulls the skin towards him and puts his finger or a small stick inside. He makes a hole on top of the sheath. He pushes the penis through this new hole until the head up to the neck is outside. What remains of the old sheath is operated and joined together and after healing it forms a skin appendix called in kimeru ndigi. The circumcisor applies no medicine and the appendix has to be held and pressed in the hands of the candidates until it joins. The circumcisor must also anoint the candidates with iraa and his knife must be cleaned with milk.
imita 1988: 34.

2. The two sisters and the lonely hunter

13In this story of mythical times, the events—a series of successive advents—follows an unusual order and causality. The story contains two sequences, which partially overlap. The acquisition of various skills that enable the people to feed themselves occurs without hindrance, almost naturally, while strictly human affairs seem more tricky to organize. A phase of the first steps in relationships is followed by one of unfruitful attempts and solutions implemented in response to unexpected difficulties and specific principles.

14As his name suggests, the first man, Mbugi wa Ngaï, originates from the creator principle Ngaï. He is a hunter-gatherer who is seen evolving in the hot lowlands but who is already used to moving to the highlands where he stays as long as the reserves accumulated during his travels allow. A first pattern, territorial in nature, emerges from the use of the topographical and ecological contrasts specific to the relief of these regions. This provides landmarks, modulates a rhythm of activity that contrasts times of displacement and of immobilization, and provides the framework for an elementary sovereignty. The mountain or hill (kîrima) where Mbugi settles informs the mburago territory, which is defined by the use he makes of three tools or skills: a small axe for chopping wood, a stick for lighting fire, and a hearth for cooking food and keeping himself warm. Nothing is said about the origin of these skills, although subsequent acquisitions are always explained. This absence may be insignificant but it concerns the mastery of fire and the presence of iron tools, in short the skills of the blacksmith. In this case the silence is telling because the unspoken sidelining of the blacksmith is one of the Meru ways of dealing with this figure.

15The meeting with a woman who has come to one of these hills, the lie that she tells him, the attraction then repulsion that she inspires in him, and the discovery of a second woman with whom the story repeats itself portrays Mbugi’s first relationships with members of the opposite sex in a way that provokes laughter in an audience. Mbugi knows how to hunt, cut wood, and cook food but he and his cohorts have a lot to learn about human sexuality and fertility. At least he feels something essential, an attraction for each of them. The appearance of these additional characters—who are also sisters, more of whom later—precipitates technical innovations. These women know the forest and perhaps come from it, as Murutu goes there after having been thrown out by Mbugi; Mukunga, driven out in turn, finds her there. She notices that Murutu is feeding the product of her “swelling” not with breast milk, as one might expect, but with the “milk of seeds”, a gruel of crushed seeds mixed with water, served in an earthenware dish. Mbugi finally finds the women, who again separate, he likes the “milk”, and decides to plant seeds in a glade cleared in the forest for this purpose.

16The process whereby the wild seeds are collected in the forest by the woman, prepared and served in an earthenware bowl, fed to the child—whose mother perhaps has no more milk—and please the man, who decides to grow the grain, is sketched in just a few sentences. Agriculture stems from women and from wild grain—which is classic—from the world of the forest, but also from the need to feed a child and the pleasure of taste, perhaps tinged with a hint of jealousy experienced by the man; it’s his love of food that drives him to cultivate this wild plant. According to a widely recorded association, the woman makes pots in the same way that she “swells” and has children: the Kimeru even use the same verb in the two expressions “conceive a baby” (kûumba muntû) and “make a pot” (kûumba nyungo).

  • 4  The exclusion of women from owning herds is explained in a similar way among the Kikuyu. Because o (...)

17The domestication of animals also has its roots in man’s desire to eat meat as well as in a problem of time management—even then. Preoccupied by the displacements occasioned by his wives, who live a long way from each other, and by farming, Mbugi does not find time to hunt. He casts a spell into the fire, which attracts animals that are familiar to him as a hunter. To refer to these charms, the informant probably had to use the word mithega: these are various plants collected in the bush and forest that a hunter-gatherer would definitely know about that could be used for healing and protection. Here they are used to trap animals in an unusual way because, this time, they will not be killed; the beasts are drawn out of the bush and forest but are driven away by the cries of Mukunga, who is afraid. The only animals that remain are the few that the charms have tamed: they will become the man’s property. Her lack of self-control excludes the woman, who Mbugi spitefully blames for causing the wild animals to flee. They were bound to fall out one day4. The transition from hunting to livestock farming, the alternative between the herd and the woman, and the contrasting figures of the domesticating man and the feral woman are set out in just a few scenes. Now living off grain and tamed animals, the man no longer hunts.

18From the beginning of the story, in successive steps, the man’s relationship with nature has adapted and duties have gradually been divided between the sexes: the woman’s lot is pregnancy, gathering, pottery, sowing, harvesting, immobility, and she displays a healthy dose of savagery; the man is responsible for hunting, clearing, herding, moving from one hill to another and one woman to another, and for equanimity. The theatre of human affairs can unfold.

  • 5  Waatho (from the verb kuwaatha) is the Kimeru word that refers to the rule, in the sense of a law, (...)

19By his very name, Mbugi is a creature of Ngaï, one of the words used to designate the abstract principle that governs world order. We later learn that Murutu and Mukunga, the two women Mbugi meets one after the other, are sisters of the same mother, although we know no more than that. After all, the only thing that matters here is the establishing of a number of elements; it is enough to state that they are sisters of the same mother and that there are three protagonists in these first days: a man and two sisters. This is true, but the vagueness surrounding origins requires some clarification. For societies in these regions, a coherent story need not take into account all the components of a world established from nothing or from an initial chaos. The story of Mbugi is neither a cosmogony nor a genesis: it develops the scenario of an established world that derives from a creator principle of which we know little but that inspires boundless respect and is the context for different accounts of the history of humankind. Man must strive to achieve social order, which always stems from the desire of a father, or a set of fathers, feared and respected figures that more or less pertain to the creator principle. Mbugi, by his origin, is a case in point: issuing from Ngaï he can legitimately say what needs to be done and formulate the rules5, and that is what matters here. Moreover, the vagueness surrounding the origin of women leaves open the possibility that there exists another human breed. The sons will one day ask their father the whereabouts of enemies for them to fight and girls they can marry. The man cannot give them a reply, but the sons—perhaps encouraged by their mothers—have assumed that such people must exist. What remains unsaid concerning the origin of these sisters is the sphere of a drama that silently unfolds, beginning with the involuntary testing of a sororate, as a way of depicting the confusion that results from this type of union, and of commenting on the preferential marriage between children of sisters.

  • 6  Given the date that Lambert was carrying out his investigations (the 1930s), it is not impossible (...)

20The three protagonists having passed the stage of learning the basics of human reproduction, their naivety providing a way to ponder this elementary process, the women, on their separate hills, in turn fall pregnant. Boys and girls increase in number, grow, and learn to assist their mother and father, to the point where their proliferation ends up creating a sort of imbalance in the ecosystem; hyenas think they can enjoy this new prey as they wish. Once again, Mbugi resorts to spells in his relationship with the wild beasts, this time using magic needles6 to drive away these predators. Finally Ngaï sends death, which restores a balance, and a pact is made with the human-flesh-hungry wolverines: they can have the dead and the dying, but not the living.

21Then Mbugi, perhaps with the hindsight of age, and weary of incessantly moving between one hill and the other, decides to settle down with both his wives and their children on a third hill, to the north of the Imenti forest, in a drier region at a lower altitude. The sons, now numerous and strong, provoke unprecedented controversies and difficulties that force Mbugi to devise new rules. Their desire to fight drives them to ask where they can find other men against whom they can pitch themselves. Mbugi remains silent. Confronted with their insistence that they want to fight, this time among themselves, Mbugi decides to organize games where the sons, divided into nthukî, can fight one another without bloodshed: two nthukî separate the youngest, and a third, made up of the elder brothers, is there to intervene between the two younger groups. However, the struggles continue. For all Mbugi makes use of his magic needles, there is no way of deciding between the two nthukî who remain at a tie. In the hope of swinging the victory to one side, the elder brothers finally join forces with the youngest. The death of a son, whose body is left for the hyena, triggers a feud between the children of the two wives/sisters. This first attempt at organization that comes to an abrupt end is instructive. It presents the character of the vigorous “Bushman”, against whom the father uses his needles to attempt to restore peace: a young wild man gripped by the desire to fight with others, a desire identified in Kimeru by the word waangi, which is a feeling that is legitimate only for enemies. The organization in nthukî, which is intended to group the brothers by age and to pitch them against each other in non-violent combat, is a substitute that fails. By joining up with the youngest—that is, not the ones nearest in age but those at the opposite end of the age spectrum—the elder brothers take confusion to extremes. This situation culminates in the death of one of them, which occurs despite their father’s injunctions, and is followed by the intrusion of the hyena, which manages to remove the son’s corpse from a father once again rendered helpless.

22This double tragedy creates a disequilibrium as a response to which the sons immediately re-form ranks and fight each other according to the position of their respective mothers, a situation that emphasizes the alternative between the ranking established by the father and the division drawn up by the mothers. Defeated, the father gives up trying to reassemble his world around him. To restore order, he divides his herd between his sons and orders them back to the hills with their respective mothers. This return to a territorial and familial organization, however, is not a backward step. The division of the paternal herd separates the brothers and marks a new step in the development of social organization, which the story emphasizes by naming the place, Kigairo, where this division is carried out. The mother, while she cannot be the owner, still remains the point of reference for the distribution of the herds and becomes responsible for maintaining order among the descendants; it is in a way the manifestation of a matrifocal variation carried to its extreme as the woman becomes the head of a group. The father concludes by warning his sons of the dangers they face should battles ensue between half-brothers: incited as they would be to vengeance, no one would be left alive.

23Despite that, Mbugi has not seen the last of trouble from his sons, who continue to give him plenty to worry about. One day they come to see their father, a step leading one to believe that they have gotten together despite the ban and that Mbugi now lives alone and no longer visits their mothers. Yet again, the boys ask awkward questions, explaining that they have all they need to survive but that they do not have any women whose bellies they can make swell. Their father at first tries to dissuade them and—it must be said—does nothing to encourage the proliferation of his descendants. Death is taking his share, reply the sons, who now know how things lie. Faced with a complicated dilemma, their father resolves it by laying down principles to maintain the order he has established. Not only must half-brothers not fight, they must also not marry their half-sisters; marry your own sisters but never your half-sisters, he tells them. In these primordial times, they are not troubled with questions of incest, except that the sons first look for women from elsewhere—it is rather that their sisters or half-sisters do not suit them and that their father, put out, attempts to elude their question.

24So what is the father indicating when he tells them to choose their women nearer home? Given the basic elements represented by a man with two sisters as wives, the only way to establish an internal differentiation is to separate the latter. Settling them on two separate hills and dividing the herd between them has already dealt with this need. If the children of two sisters were to marry each other, the same situation would occur in the next generation and the opportunity to take a different approach would be lost. Marrying one’s sister is the solution that will perpetuate an elementary division without which conflicts will reoccur until death ensues. Political reasoning takes precedence over all other considerations. Mbugi’s decision is also informed by the tension between the man and the two sisters, which recurs throughout the story. Mbugi is a solitary being but the two women he in turn “makes swell” embody an organizational principle because they are sisters of the same mother. When the sons, probably steered by their mothers who understand the situation from personal experience, look among “outsiders” to find someone to fight with and then someone to marry, and thus encourage openness, their father dissuades them and leads them back to an insular grouping to find solutions. Mbugi fears an outside world represented by the women over whom he has no control; the departure of his sons would mean their scattering and his own alienation because the pre-existent matrilineal link would become the defining one and would gain ascendancy. Having failed to consolidate his world around him, he turns to the only solution left to him if he wants to be the instigator of something: he divides what properly belongs to him, his herd, sends them all to the two hills that are his, and establishes two endogamous sub-groups, each of which is headed by one of the women and that must remain separate from each other. His descendants cannot be unified, the half-brothers must refuse to acknowledge each other, but the initial link between the two women is neutralized.

25If we sum up the solutions tested by Mbugi in his sociological laboratory, we note, in order of appearance: the territorial organization; a circumstantial sororate; the dividing of tasks by sex then age; the nthukî, which he masterminded to channel his sons’ energy, a dual division, principles that both fail; the division of the herd; marriage between brother and sister. Nthukî have been present since primordial times, and the name Mbugi is sometimes replaced by that of Kibiringwa, which refers to the first generation; they meet the need Mbugi felt to control the actions of his sons and are inextricably linked to family and political imperatives. But the first nthukî served no purpose, as though it was pointless to organize them just for his own sons. Mbugi attempts to establish order from elements, some of which have a logic that is beyond his grasp. The organizational principles that he drafts emerge from a misguided sororate and from tensions between the presence of an “other” already in place and the need to be autonomous if one wants to manage one’s descendants. Subsequent modifications will occur because the solutions devised by Mbugi are either unsustainable or open to other combinations, but some elements from primordial times will remain, which the storyteller likes to remind his audience repeatedly during the course of his narrative.

26The idea that the various groups descend from one woman and a couple of siblings of the opposite sex is found with a few modifications in the oral traditions of the Tigania, Igembe, and also the Tharaka. The b episode aims to explain the origin of the gichiario relationship that links the Mwimbî, a Mount Kenya section to the south of the Imenti, and the Tigania. Muguru is no longer a bush hunter who lives high up in the mountains, but an inhabitant of the heights who settles lower down with a woman whose origin remains unknown. The siblings of opposite sex that issue from this couple leave to settle in different places. The naivety of Tigania concerning the basic acts of human reproduction is reminiscent of that of the protagonists of the Mbugi myth; Mwimbî’s attempt is reflected by the establishment of the gichiario relationship, whereby the descendants of Mwimbî and Tigania can neither intermarry nor fight each other, recalling Mbugi’s injunction to the children of the two sisters. In other variations (see fig. 29-1) Cianguru and Ciakinya are the co-wives or Nguru marries his sister. The idea of the union of siblings of opposite sex is also attested among the Tharaka in the form of a practice attributed to the Njuwe, a group that the proto-Tharaka found on their arrival and with whom they intermarried (Lambert 1945, ms: 291):

The Tharaka say that the Njuwe were closely endogamous. They say that among the Njuwe a man married his full sister if he had one; failing which, he would take his half-sister, or, failing that, his cousin or other close relative. The Tharaka say that the only thing which tended to restrict inter-marriage between themselves and the Njuwe was the fact that the latter were not circumcised but that in spite of this inter-marriage took place to a large extent, and, in the absence of further evidence, it may be concluded that the Njuwe became absorbed in the Tharaka. Hundreds of Tharaka still acknowledge that their descent goes back to a Tharaka-Njuwe union.
hackleton 1930: 202.

27The e variations attest to the fusion of these traditions and to the existence of a common mythic scheme (see fig. 29-3). According to the Tharaka, the various divisions have a common father and three different mothers while the Tigania and the Igembe now recognize only Mukunga, although they are aware of the existence of Murutu. The idea that these groups are the result of a union between a brother and a sister is also recalled in the ritual establishment of each new set. Lambert records this in a chapter in which he tries to understand the logic behind the colors of the clans:

The first young man to be circumcised in any set must be a Black and he must marry a Black girl. […] In Igembe the first two boys and two girls circumcised are of the Antuku clan, after which circumcisions start in Njea among the Antubarinki clan. The first boy and girl to marry belong respectively to the Antuku and the Antuberigi clans, which are both Njiru [Black] cha Njeme: Njiru cha Njeme claim a common ancestress so that the boy is believed to marry into his own (remote) lineage, in fact to marry a girl whom he may call mwarochia [my sister]. In Tigania the first girls circumcised belong to the Athathi (Antuambugi) clan and the first boys to the Antuanyaga. The first girl must marry the first boy. Both of these clans (or the families concerned) live on or near the sacred hill Mukunga and the Tigania say a son of Mukunga is marrying a daughter of Mukunga. All of these clans are black.
Lambert 1945, ms: 360.

Map 4 — The groups around Mount Kenya

Map 4 — The groups around Mount Kenya

28These marriages evoke the mythical time through a double transgression: the first initiates are supposed to marry each other as brother and sister, and both are Blacks.

29The d variant takes up the myth after Mgubi has forbidden his sons of the two wives from mixing. Muru and Meru are the sons of Murutu. Muru has left with the herd that has fallen to him. Then an incident occurs that establishes other principles that resolve a contradiction left outstanding by Mbugi. Muru is no longer nearby but he is still part of the group of Murutu’s descendants, who have children from marriages between brothers and sisters. Like the others, Muru has sons, and in his turn he is looking to divide his herd, which we can imagine has increased. This division concerns all the sisters’ sons, but Muru refuses to share with them. In this way, he keeps his herd for his own sons and excludes the relationship of the sons of sisters. In the same way as the division of the herd enabled Mbugi to establish two groups, the devolution that Muru works in favor of his sons, who are no longer the sons of sisters, establishes a patrilinearity and sheds light on the reputation that the Masai, presented here as the descendants of Muru, give themselves as the possessors of all the cattle in the world. This new mode of transmission triggers a chain reaction, at the end of which the Meru set themselves apart. A group is founded whose sons—seeking to marry the daughters of sisters, including the daughters of other sisters—suffer two types of reactions. Some say that because Muru refused to share the cattle, they will refuse to share their sisters. Henceforth, the sons of Muru have to pay heads of cattle, in short a bridewealth, in consequence of the initial refusal to share the herd. Meru react differently: to marry a sister, a man who is not Meru is not obliged to pay in heads of cattle but rather to settle and become part of the Meru.

  • 7  Mahner (1975) was the first to develop this theme through symbolism.

30In this new phase, the groups are differentiated by means of rules for the transfer of the herd leading to the appearance of new rules organizing marriage and the separation of groups. Brothers no longer marry their sisters and the figure of the brother of the sister becomes apparent. In this arrangement, the Meru, who will also transfer their cattle to their sons, are particularized by their loyalty to the matrilaterals, their refusal to give their sisters to another group, and the requirement that any outsiders wishing to marry a Meru settle in Meru land. If we look again at the Meru’s tension as it is mentioned in the above episode, we will see that there is now an “Other” to be incorporated. At the same time as an “outside” is created, the Meru enjoin the outsider to come into the inside. The sister does not leave in exchange for cattle, instead it is the suitor who arrives, and the story relates that many Masai became such in this way. It is the confirmation of the endogamous ideal, but also the widening of the circle of people concerned by the inclusion of newcomers. The mention of an influx of people, namely the Masai but there were many others, is consistent with the pattern of settlement of these regions, where successive foreign arrivals merge with the previous populations7. The story f, which is no longer a myth—the problem of bridewealth is acute—but the history of a clan, indicates something similar in that if at the end of a raid and a negotiation the girl becomes the concubine of a Masai, when the drought hits, she legitimately returns to her father, thus showing again the impossibility stated in the myth of being both Meru and a wife elsewhere.

3. On proper use of the gaaru

31Lambert said that he was presenting only the first part of the story and a few additions, which we have mentioned. The excerpt on circumcision will be examined later. The myth may have included other episodes that the author did not think worth reporting, but this is not certain: although they are “sociological” and a bit “prehistorical”, stories of this type do not for all that comply with the requirements of an exhaustive treatise. Their interest lies in the choice of elements highlighted, some of which may have historiographic interest, and in their assembly; the evocation of primordial time is a method that enables the teller to deduct present practices from those postulated as original and thereby to explain them. It is permissible to pursue this retrospective method while reflecting on the differences identified between the state outlined in the myth and the present state perceptible by means of ethnographic survey, even more so as other oral traditions have allowed for filling in the gaps and imagining certain dynamics.

32What changes have occurred since then? Man is no longer a solitary father; he belongs to a set of Fathers whose mission is to control the set of warriors. The nthukî generations are divided into two warrior gaaru dependant on two generational divisions (gîtiba), which successively exercise power. The nthukî include the sons of the Fathers, and not only brothers; they organize all the men as well as their wives. Already, in some variants, Mbugi is called Kibirigwa, a name that sometimes designates the first generation. Other stories that lie on the border between myth and history shed light on these divisions and the principles governing them. They are set in various contexts, following the story of Mbwaa, the other great Meru myth, when the fugitives arrive at a place named Nkubiû or Nthî Nkûrû; or as an episode occurring during the displacement of a population in search of new pastures, who arrive at a place of the same names: Nkubiû is a proper noun whose meaning is unknown to us while Nthî Nkûrû is a toponym we have already come across, which means “Ancient Land”, “Land” in the sense of sovereignty and a place distinct from another, and “Ancient” in the sense of old, previous. Nthî Nkûrû also carries the meaning of phase, the previous state, by a combination where ancient land designates the past, the olden days. Each of the episodes, presented independently by different informants, tells of crises and conflicts that caused splits, or sheds light on the origins of new rules that relate to the division of ages and the organization of gaaru. The information collected has been enriched by interviews conducted by B.M. Kangoi in 1972 in Tigania with, inter alia, informants of Kiramunya generation (as part of a Bachelor’s dissertation in history supported by the University of Nairobi.)

33A first episode explains how the Fathers came to establish two successive gaaru and to divide the gaaru into territorial sections, in short to define the rules of the distribution of warriors over time and in different localities (also reported by Kangoi 1972: interviews 2, 3, 4, 8, 10). Formerly there was only one gaaru—a single warrior house—called Nkubiû, but the warriors were constantly quarreling, and ending up killing each other and literally devouring each other, hence why the Fathers instituted two gaaru. It is often told that it was on the occasion of a distribution of meat that the warriors fought among themselves, trampled each other, and ate one of their own by mistake. Other versions relate that the crisis was provoked by a sustained drought and famine. At the same time, it became customary to divide the warriors into territorial sections. The story and its variants are remarkable for several reasons. It is one instance where the two great Meru myths (of Mbugi and Mbwaa) mirror each other. This is the only episode in which one hears of cannibalism among these people groups. This bizarre event led to the constitution and the departure of some groups (notably the Imenti, the Meru of Mount Kenya) and the division into two gaaru, which brought to an end the chaos that had come to a head in the practice of cannibalism. This is also a way to discuss and condemn, in terms of cannibalism, the mixing of the same. It is impossible to create a sustainable society without internal differentiation, and the model of a single gaaru is untenable. With two gaaru that recruited successively— and not simultaneously, because the risk remained that the warriors would devour each other—a hierarchy was established that combined a rule of precedence and a rule of alternation between one gaaru and the next. Exchanges could thereafter be organized between the territorial sections, which were individualized by means of their respective gaaru.

  • 8  I found no indication of a crisis comparable to that related with regard to the Kipsigis, and othe (...)

34A second episode (Kangoi 1972: 10), which also happened at Nthî Nkûrû, that is the Olden Days, highlights another cause of dysfunction. When pastures were showing signs of becoming depleted, the Fathers would send out scouts to search of promising regions. Various clues helped them to recognize such places: buffalo and zebra with many young and matungu fruits in abundance. If they were satisfied with the reports that these scouts brought back, the Fathers would decide to migrate and would send the warriors ahead to build houses and chase off wild animals. They themselves would arrive later with the women and children. When these pastures in turn became depleted, a new move was organized. This is what happened at Nthî Nkûrû, except that this time the scouts sent out to reconnoiter deceived the Fathers: they left with the herds and the young women and did not return. The Fathers had other children with the women who were left behind, and these children grew up. The sons became warriors and went off in search of those who had deserted; they met them in the forest of Nkunga, a corruption of Mûkunga. The warriors of the Old Men captured the herds of the deserters. The latter had become fathers but their sons were still young, and the warriors of the Old Men met with no resistance. The sons of the deserters, once they had grown up, decided in their turn to take revenge on the warriors of the Old Men, who were at that time at Nkubiû. It is also said that those who stayed at Nkubiû became the Meru, and the deserters, the Kibia or the Urû (in both cases, types of Maasai as Kibia could well be a corruption of Laikipia, see note 3 p. 165), or alternatively that the former are the Tigania and the others the Imenti. In this episode, which depicts the geographical distribution of the sets and the normal course of migration caused by the depletion of pastures, the crisis occurs because of the treachery of the sons, whose departure with the young women has two consequences: an empty set—in demographic terms—appears, forcing the Fathers to conceive more children despite the fact that the time has passed for them as their sons are warriors; the implication being that they do so with girls of the set of their sons as the mothers would be too old, thus committing generational incest. This is what the narrative alludes to by describing these children as the sons of the Old Men, an expression that includes an incongruity as Old Men are not supposed to have children. The departure of the sons also creates an imbalance that it is impossible to correct because it has repercussions on subsequent sets and feeds a desire for revenge, which alternately endangers the two groups—those who have stayed behind and those who have left. This story illustrates a contrario the rules of life in society. Sons must obey their Fathers and stay with them. A society can exist only if all ages, men and women, are represented. For this to happen, each age must in turn produce children at the appropriate time, otherwise conflicts will ensue, causing divisions and the emergence of enemies, which will signal the eventual demise of the group8.

35If we merge the episodes that occur at Nkubiû-Nthî Nkûrû to examine what they bring to the previous state left by Mbugi, it appears that, in both cases, the sets were linked to territory, either in an expansive manner that reveals the danger of secession and the effects of empty sets, or in the form of immobilization that is at risk of cannibalization. The question of the reproduction of the society that Mbugi attempted to answer, based on the same elementary relationships—that between men and women and that between fathers and sons—shows significantly different solutions. The distribution of gaaru over time and their geographical breakdown brought to an end the intermingling of the warriors and the indistinction of the territory. The discrepancy between one gaaru and the other is the means by which all ages are represented. In consequence, the members of a gaaru accede to various positions (notably those of married man and Father of the country) and, at the opportune time, yield their place to the members of the other gaaru. Membership of one or other gaaru division becomes an important criterion to define, met by the standards for the recruitment of sets and the rules of alliance. Sparring between nthukî continues to exist in the form of wrestling matches where representatives of the different sections compete against each other peacefully, but the primary objective of nthukî of sons confined to the gaaru is to fight against enemies. Compared to the initial state, there is now a foreign Other against whom to fight—in this case the Imenti or the Massai. A polity was formed.

36Another transformation was the introduction of “circumcision”: accounts agree that it has not always existed. Among the Tharaka, the Njuwe had the double reputation of not practicing it and of marrying their sisters; the Chuka (a Mount Kenya section) say that the Njuwe are Chuka who refused to be circumcised (Lambert, ibid.: 407), an assertion that links with the attitude of the uncircumcised Tigania-Igembe who threatened to leave with their future wives and become Turkana if the Fathers persisted in refusing to initiate them. The variation g, reported by Lambert, on the origin of circumcision is complementary to the episode where, by introducing nthukî, Mbugi tries to channel the aggressive energy of his sons, and to the episode where it is the hyena—and thus death—that eventually separates the brothers. Here, it is the desire of the older sons to differentiate themselves that brings about a separation that neither the division into age groups nor wrestling matches was able to establish. At the instigation of one of them, the older sons reshape their foreskins using a length of string and create a first distinction between themselves and the next batch, between older (adult) and younger brothers. This anatomical modification harbors another division between the one who had the idea and applies it to his fellows but is not himself thus initiated: an asymmetry between the initiator and the initiated that reoccurs thereafter whenever the elders, who are already initiated, are willing to help the younger men. But they deceive them with the aid of a sharp implement, obviously provided by a blacksmith, who again is not mentioned. Finally, as in this variation circumcision replaces the hyena as the factor of differentiation, it would not be straining the interpretation to see the initiation as a solution to the influence of the mother’s brother, someone else who is not explicitly mentioned yet is ever present in the myth. The story that is waved by the uncircumcised Tigania-Igembe who have not been initiated tells of the origin of the Turkana who, according to Meru traditions, are impatient sons that refused to wait any longer to be circumcised. Before fleeing to the north with the uninitiated girls, they gathered together at the place called Kambiti, “the place of the hyena” (Kangoi 1972: 7, 8).

37As for the women, it is said that they wanted to be initiated like the men: in the same way that a distinction is made between men fit for war and those who are not, so one needed to be established between women who are able to bear children and those who are still too young, a rationalization that highlights three principles at work in the political and family spheres. Nature alone is insufficient to make women child-bearers. A parallel, rich in changes by inversion, is drawn between men who make war and women who make babies: just as at some point men stop making war to make babies, so women stop making babies to make war. Finally, the parallel drawn between the men and women is also true of the relationship between the hyena and the maternal uncle in the sense that, for the woman, initiation is a way to counteract the influence of the maternal uncle.

38An additional episode that took place at Nkubiû-Nthî Nkûrû depicts a conflict that this time concerned the organization of circumcision, and the harmful results of the lack of coordination (Kangoi 1972: 20). Two warriors, one of whom was called Katharia of the Nkuloru gaaru, the other Kaibei of the Kinyaga gaaru, were in conflict over the appropriateness of initiating boys: the former was against, the latter in favor, which means that in one place they were prepared to organize circumcision and in another did not want to. One day Katharia left to go to Imenti and Kaibei took the opportunity to order the circumcision of the boys. When Katharia learnt the news on his return, he went back to Imenti to recruit warriors and attacked the Kinyaga gaaru. The newly circumcised boys, still convalescing (ntaane) and thus incapable of fighting, were evacuated to another hill where a new gaaru was built hastily for them. But many warriors were killed and many women and children were taken captive by the Imenti, who, to this day, remain enemies of the Tigania. This story supplements the previous one by asking the question as to the right moment to organize circumcision and, to this end, the need to be in agreement. It is a difficult phase during which the society is vulnerable and dependent on relationships with neighboring groups who could take advantage of the situation. The inability of the warriors to agree, the attack that results, and the consequent weakening of the representatives of a set, here the novices, lead to disorder that harms the whole society. Hence the coordination in the organization of rituals has an integrating and pacifying effect and explains the choice of the month of thaano to carry out initiations: granaries everywhere are full and enemies thus less tempted to carry out raids.

39To summarize the crises and solutions illustrated by successive stories: the division into two gaaru introduced by the fathers and the initiation invented by the sons result in demarcating an “outside” against whom battles can be fought, and in differentiating an “interior” where initiated sons—destined to make war and then to marry—are distinguished from younger sons who will have to wait their turn. At the same time that an outside Other is defined, an inside Other is established where a son can take a girl for whom he pays an initial modest bridewealth. With this alterity and exogamy in place, marriage is reconstructed close to the state mentioned in the Mbugi myth, that, nthukî after nthukî, the ritual commemorates in the nuptials of the first initiates, who are considered as brother and sister. An additional innovation is confirmed by ethnography: the man no longer moves between the hill-huts of his wives; instead, they visit him in his married-man gaaru. The father has managed to assemble his wives and his children, but he can divide his herd only when his sons are initiated; to this end the growing sons go off to the pre-initiates gaaru then the one for the initiates, institutions that now structure territorial organization. Finally, the hyena has those who have died or are dying prematurely, but not the deceased who have lived a full lifespan. In short, the descendants of Mbugi and the two sisters owe their formation to an improvement of the arrangement of primordial elements, which is the consequence of the emergence of a range of Others. Repeating the dilemma of the mythical time between the opening up to the outside and the turning inward, the society was shaped by the proliferation and widening of successive circles of inclusion. Auto-segregation remains appropriate because Meru girls are intended to be married to Meru of more or less long standing, but Others have been introduced: a close, rival Other with whom women are exchanged and a more distant Other against whom battles are fought and from whom may come individuals that will be incorporated, a tension that remains active in both the political system and in kinship.

4. Alliance, filiation, and the generation-set system

40Now that we have dealt with the principles of the generation-set system, the components of kinship, and the genesis of institutions reflected in the related myth and stories, we can reflect on the combination of the two institutions.

41The rules of the generation-set system, for which the Fathers of the country are responsible, determine the alliance and have an impact on unions in various ways that it is useful to summarize. While sons are classed in relation to their fathers, daughters are categorized by means of a rule that prohibits, under penalty of becoming a kioncho, marriages between individuals of a set of fathers and the category of their daughters, to which are added prescriptive rules, stated in Igembe, that allocate a category of girls to two sets of men, those that follow immediately in the other generational division and the set of sons in the same division as their fathers. Whether or not the prescription is stated, a rivalry exists between recipient sets, because the current warrior set maintains its supremacy and its priority over the category of the daughters of their fathers. The council of Fathers exerts another form of control over the unions insofar as it is their responsibility to authorize the marriage of ndinguri of any set, as a way to slow down or accelerate the pace of unions and the speed of perpetuation, which finds a relay in the obligation to “buy the bed” that experienced warriors impose on newly initiated warriors. In the case of serious events causing increased mortality and the appearance of “empty sets”, in demographic terms, the council of Fathers could suspend the application of certain rules, for example by extending or conversely reducing the recruitment time for a set, or even authorizing the transgression of generational incest. This contingency should not however lead to hasty conclusions: it is indicative of an awareness they had in the failures of their organization, but the adjustments to the rules authorized by the Fathers aimed to restore the system and not to render its principles conditional. Finally, it is the Fathers’ responsibility to modify, if needs be, the sum of rûracio, but the prevailing idea is that it should remain low to allow everyone to marry, and the intervention of counselors was in this regard. This clear egalitarianism has several meanings: what we know about ndûgû relationships largely explains this position given the importance of subsequent payments. Under these conditions, the increase in compensation is without merit, and this issue arose markedly during the 1940s, a time when there were significant changes to the matrimonial system and to fertility (see Part 4).

42Let us turn now to kinship, in which preferential marriages are included in the different meanings of the word ndûgû: the marriage between children of sisters, the option of taking a wife from the clans of origin of the mother or grandmothers (from different families), an Omaha terminology coupled with ndûgû payments that transform the descendants of cross cousins, themselves prohibited, into potential partners. The generation-set system and kinship both have proscriptions and preferences, but the major difficulty encountered arose from the fact that some are characterized by a terminology that ignores generational succession. We have seen by what alternative designation process agreement gradually occurs between the time of the system and the Omaha mode, and how the disparity resulting from the latter has a double effect that probably explains its repeated use from one generation to the next.

  • 9  Mahner (1975: 403) disregards the Omaha terminology and advances too fast when he writes that bait (...)
  • 10  After having presented at length the marriage services of the Kikuyu, Lambert briefly mentions tho (...)

43The Omaha discrepancy is congruent with the rule of the preferential marriage of the generation-set system, in accordance with which sons and daughters of the same set of fathers may marry each other, with the exception of brothers and sisters; the fact that, for a brother, his sister is his daughter expresses this impossibility in the clearest way possible. It combines two types of incest prohibitions: family incest and generational incest. This rule seen from the perspective of the generation-set system recalls that the set, or the generational category in which individuals of the same genealogical level are placed is not an extension, a duplication or a derivation of the sibling relationship: a generational set is not a gigantic sibling fraternity. On the contrary, sibling relationships, the most important of which is that between brother and sister, are systematically invalidated: in relation to their father, daughters are categorized while sons are divided into sets. The latter are not brothers but “brothers by circumcision”, mutanoina wa etaanua, or bamungo, “circumcized of the same oxhide”, or ûrûcia, coaffins of two sisters. Describing men of the same generational set in this way makes it even clearer that these sets are not an extension of sibling relationships; the ûrûcia relationship is like a successful combination of the generational rule and the marriage rule whereby the children of the next generation, as ndûgû, will be able to marry each other. It is a reversal of the primordial situation described in the myth as, in the meantime, sets have been formed: two sisters by their marriages to men from different clans create the relationship of coaffins. Moreover, the Omaha disparity enables a situation to be expressed in which the giver is superior to the taker, who remains obligated to the former until the relationship expires but that can also be revived by repeating or changing the direction of the previous transaction. It is, in terms of kinship, the translation of the interplay between the two generational divisions: they are each other’s muthoni (affines), or baite/baite which, bear in mind, defines in an egalitarian way the assymetric reciprocity conveyed by the muntuetû/ mwonomware relationship. Each division in turn is giver and taker. Although, in kinship, there is a stronger tendency in favor of marriage between matrilateral cross cousins—and thus a less marked one between the descendants of the other side—in terms of the generation-set system, there is the expression of a form of patrilateral cross-cousin marriage in the exchange of women, spread over time, between the two divisions. The combination of kinship and politics is subtler than was believed by Mahner (1975: 403-404), who nevertheless sensed the relationship between the two institutions9. He thought that one division gave wives to the other before relinquishing power to them. The underlying dynamic is the opposite; it is because the two divisions alternately hold power that some (not all) of the women move from one to the other. This form of power is logically incompatible with an exchange of sisters because the latter supposes a simultaneous exchange, and thus a relationship between the two parties that is subject to a rule of play foreign to the Meru, but it is compatible with a differed exchange, which may shed light on the modest size of the initial bridewealth payment10. A form of marriage with FZD is the scenario that best fits this type of situation. Here too, causes and their effects should not be inverted: it is the political system that sets the tone of the exchanges and regulates their temporality and not the other way round.

44Filiation is the other dimension that is common to both kinship and the generation-set system, but the figures of the maternal uncle and the father appear unequally in both spheres. In the previous chapter, we saw how the mother’s brother is almost invasive in terms of kinship and alliance compared with a father who appears more self-effacing, in contrast with what occurs in the generation-set system. This analysis calls for a reassessment of the role of the generation-set system in the construction of patrifiliation and paternal law. The proposal may seem redundant because a man is integrated into a generational set in accordance with the place his father has in the system: in other words the relationship between father and son is pre-existent. However, a closer analysis reveals that the inclusion of a son in a set is the moment when the link to the father is strengthened and truly established and that, more broadly, in the generation-set system patrilineal links develop at the expense of links with the mother’s brother, which simultaneously are weakened or become relativized. At birth, a child “belongs to the father and to the brother of the mother”; at his death a grandparent is an Accomplished because he has accomplished his patrilineal destiny. What has happened meanwhile?

45The names successively acquired and the various corresponding elements of status are a good indicator of what is being shaped in the generation-set system. At birth, a child receives a first name, which is that of the paternal or maternal grandparent whose turn it is. The paternal side is served first, but the bequest of a name alternately patrineally and matrilineally is indicative of a desire to placate both sides. At adolescence, the individual acquires a second name in the pre-initiates gaaru, which is used only by his peers and in principle is known only to them. Until a boy is initiated, a father has only a mwîjî to whom he can neither pass on cattle nor assign a name other than the one he received at birth. Once initiated, the boy becomes a muthaka, a word that refers to his status as “Bushman” and warrior but that also means “son” in the fullest sense of the word. A muthaka can succeed his father and inherit from him should the latter die. The important initiation rite by which a mwîjî becomes a muthaka can be seen as an arrangement by which the link with the father is established. A few elements of this should be introduced.

  • 11  Note that the Borana (Baxter 1978: 158) call their generational fraction gogesa, which means “dry (...)

46We have seen that the eldest son needed to be integrated into his father’s generational division, and that this requirement was a driving force of the system. This condition is no longer a requirement for younger sons, for whom the only requirement is to be initiated and to be recruited into a necessarily subsequent set. However, whatever the father’s division, the ideal is to see each son initiated in the session where his father and his father’s father were initiated, which reaffirms patrilineal continuity. The operation that the son undergoes at this time, only the first part of which resembles circumcision, consists in removing the nkaabu, the part of the maternal uncle, which is given to the vultures, and in making a cut in the remainder of the foreskin through which the circumcisor pushes the head of the penis, an action which is close to a symbolic acting out by the circumcisor, after a deflowering where the nkaabu represents the lost part, of penetration and procreation11. Initiates of a same session (and more broadly of a same generational set) are said to come from the same sword, rûcio imwe, a term that refers both to the circumcisor’s knife and to the fact that all were conceived by the same penis, and in this respect the blood of circumcision can be seen as that of a collective and masculine engenderment. During this phase, the candidate’s mother and his father, who for the occasion is called “night father,” must not leave the family kraal; confined in the paternal gaaru, they have a kind of ritual intercourse, in theory for the last time, as though they were re-conceiving their son outside the original uterus. Being unable to do anything else, notably look after their son when he comes back from the public ground, the parents choose a “day father,” also known as “father of the kieni” (father of the public ground) whose primary function is to take care of the novice while he is convalescing and secluded in his ntaane hut. The “day father” must be of a different generation from the “night father;” people of the same generation as the latter are forbidden, considered as “fathers of the night” whether or not they have sons of their own being initiated. For this reason, the “day father” often belongs to the other division because men of the father’s division but of a different generation are either too old or too young. The same individual may be “day father” to several sons provided that they have the same mother, but a different man is needed for the son or sons of each additional wife, proof that the “day father” intervenes not only in the father-son relationship but also in that of brother-of-the-mother—child-of-the-sister. The young man (the mentee) calls his “day father” baaba (father) and later his children will address his as jûûjû (grandfather) and the latter may entrust livestock or other assets to them. This person is a sort of mentor and, with the circumcisor, is part of a system by which the influence of the mother’s brother is deconstructed or bypassed. Belonging to the generation-set system but coming from a different set from that of the pater, the “day father” strives for the inclusion of the son in the generation-set system, while allowing the father a genuine form of paternity.

  • 12  The njuri ncheke name is also part of this logic since a father can transmit his njuri name to a s (...)

47After a prolonged seclusion during which the son passes explicitly through an additional gestation phase, described in the following chapter, the initiate—now a muthaka—acquires a so-called gaaru name, chosen by his father, and that the warriors pretend to assign him when he enters the warriors’ house for the first time. The grammatical structure of the gaaru name is far from insignificant in that it inverts the possessive form of the word muntuetû, which designates the mother’s brother and literally means “our man.” Many gaaru names begin with Muntû followed by a preposition wa then the name of the father: for example, Muntû wa Kiambati translates word for word as “Being who originates from Kiambati.” From muntuetû, that alludes to an auto-segregation, a young man moves to a relationship that links a human being with his progenitor, a son to his father, in the same way as the first man, Mbugi wa Ngaï. A warrior then acquires a second, so-called nthukî (generation) name, which takes the form of a trophy name won in a raid. Depending on whether he has brought back a spear, a cow, or killed an enemy or a rhinoceros, alone or with others, he gains a surname, at least, which is created on the basis of the name of the trophy brought back or the exploit accomplished. The nthukî name is intended to be passed down to a son or grandson but also to a nephew or a mentee, who will take it as a gaaru name prefixing it with Muntû. These trophy names expand the stock of names in use and incorporate into the society external strengths and qualities; a man is distinguished by an act of bravery or by another manner which always supposes the death of an enemy, and by the bequest of his name hands down these qualities to his descendants who derive from it a unique identity. Finally, the mwariki name, which a man receives when he reaches the last stage, completes the construction because it is ideally the mwariki name of his grandfather’s grandfather. This is how, through the bequest of names, a patriline is constructed over five generations, which also corresponds to the extent of the generational course12.

  • 13  We can quote the refrain of a well-known lullaby, sung to reassure and calm down a crying baby: Ki (...)

48The gaaru is the key place for the forging of patrilineal links and it is no coincidence that, with the exception of the mother’s house where children are brought into the world and spend the first years of their life13, the subsequent homes in which a man’s life unfolds are all called gaaru, which was a source of much confusion at the beginning of my surveys. A man lives out his life in and by means of the gaaru: that of his pre-initiation, that of his warriorhood, then the gaaru of the family settlement of which he is the founder. The link to the gaaru and from one gaaru to another is assured in the installation rite of new couples, for whom the warriors and older men build a newlyweds’ hut. In the same way, the tearing down of the large gaaru is the time when this link is reaffirmed by the distribution of pieces of the central post to all the homes founded by the men for whom the now “uprooted” gaaru was the warriors’ house. Bear in mind that ûkûûra gaaru (“the uprooting of the gaaru”) is one of the rituals that indicates the transfer of power from one generational division to the other. Children are conceived, at the heart of the family kraal, in the father’s gaaru. From the moment a boy is born, a wife addresses her husband using the gaaru name, then the trophy name, or nthukî name acquired in raids, thereby marking the passing to a new stage in the development of the patrilineality. Each stage in the maturation of an individual and in the cycle of a family calls for the presence of gaaru age-companions, usually bamungo or “circumcized of the same oxhide” Body markings, rituals, and family practices, beginning with the treatments lavished on newborns and the method of feeding them, that accompany the maturation of individuals can be analyzed as times when the nthukî is affirmed and a patrilineality developed: the ear-piercing of children, which brings together three generations of the same generational division, clearly shows this structure. After having left at the kiara his deceased father, from whom he has received the supreme power to bless and curse, the eldest son in principle settles in at the site of the deceased’s gaaru and builds his own gaaru using the wood from that of his father. This rules falls within the “nice to think” model but the ideal is interesting in that it shows the gaaru as the key factor in the development of patrilineality. Another scenario shows the same thing. A non-initiated young son whose father has died moves into the gaaru of his father and, after his initiation, stays there for his time of seclusion before joining the warriors’ gaaru, as though the stay in the paternal house compensated for the loss caused by the death of his father.

49Seen from another angle, the Accomplished, who first became a son by his inclusion in the system, then father by the inclusion of his son in a set, and finally grandfather by the birth of a grandson by whom he was reborn, is one who during his lifetime has not succumbed to the attacks of mûgiro, pollution for which the muntuetû is primarily responsible. Some purists even claim that the grandson should be initiated and a father himself before his grandfather can truly be considered as Accomplished. These specifications are laid down when it is a matter of which deceased person was or was not left in the bush for the hyenas, but they are at variance with the anxiety aroused by individuals of exceptional longevity whose remains were subject to special treatment. In this society, which prioritizes the organization of the passage of time, it is important, as it were, to be born and die at the right time. The stage of grandparent is also that at which the last ndûgû payments are made, and the point at which both the dependence on the maternal uncle and the “Omaha discrepancy” cease. This sheds even starker light on what is being developed in the different stages of life and the generation-set system: everything occurs as though the journey through the different levels and access to the ultimate level of Accomplished signified the progressive neutralization of the muntuetû’s influence and the simultaneous development of a patrilineal destiny and filiation.

  • 14  C. Henry (1994) arrives at similar conclusions among the Bijogo of Guinea-Bissau, whose age-set sy (...)

50These facts lend a new significance to the generation-set system and its divisions, which provide procedures for filiation that are to say the least unusual or have never yet been described. The generational divisions neither merge nor split. They are fixed in number: two among the Meru, three among the Gabbra, and five among the Borana, for example. There is no continuity between the patrilineal domestic unit, the family, and a lineage that does not exist; the clan is a remote reference, a category that organizes little. On the other hand, continuity is evident between the mûciî, the nthukî, and territorial organization: the domestic and family courses fall within both the generation-set system and the territorial organization inherent in the latter, which is made up of gaaru and territorial sections of various sizes. Finally, the patrilineal filiation that develops in the generation-set system does not result in the proliferation of agnates. Vertically, the generation-set system builds a relationship between father and son and father and daughter, between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, but laterally, we have seen that the relationship between brothers and that between brother and sister is deconstructed. The system develops a style of filiation that constructs paternal law and throughout which certain qualities are passed down; it integrates the individual in the society but does not confine him to a unit with limited prospects14.

51To complete the picture, we must now examine what is going on with the women. In kinship, they are the transmitters of the relationship between brother and sister because the descendants of a sister are indebted to her brother for two generations. In the generation-set system, the arrangement looks different: girls are separated from their brothers in that they are categorized for matrimonial purposes according to their father’s set before being classified as brides, the consequences of which integration need to be examined more closely. Initiation and marriage strengthen the relationship between a daughter and her father; the latter assigns a married name, declined from his own gaaru name, to his daughter, who leaves to join her husband. In terms of sets, a girl may find herself among the wives of a set of men that includes one or more brothers. It is in this context that the rule of clan and especially territorial exogamy appears most necessary because it makes the customary avoidance between a brother and sister easy to realize. Married elsewhere, the sister no longer sees her brother, which is important given the tenor of relationships that exists between sets of husbands and wives.

52Between the men of a generational set and the set of their wives there exists the nkiro relationship, a word that refers in the first place to a category of dances and songs. During festive gatherings where each set dances according to its status, husbands and wives of the same nthukî-generation present nkiro demonstrations, which are their choreographic privilege and are remarkable in many ways: in a society where the worlds of men and women are strictly segregated and where the expression of affection between spouses is systematized to the point that it seemed austere even to colonial administrators shaped by Victorian morality, the nkiro dances and songs are the only time when the complementarity of men and women is seen and when human sexuality ceases to be taboo. It is the old sets that dance the nkiro, those who no longer have children and who have handed on power, but nkiro is also the expression of a so-called bankiro relationship— the prefix ba- meaning, as always, equality—that embraces men and women of the same nthukî. It is a lawful sexual relationship made between individuals of a generational set. Munyori is a synonymous word for lover. The husband can support this relationship and help in choosing his wife’s lover. In the husband’s absence, intentional or not, the lover visits the wife and brings her yams and a goat. He helps her by assisting with certain agricultural tasks, or even by making for her an important item in domestic economy, the kirûrû, the large grain store that every woman keeps in her hut.

53The nkiro relationship does not refer only to this institutionalized custom of taking a lover; it is also linked to certain practices surrounding reproduction and growth. A woman whose child has died in infancy will have her first sexual relationship after the mourning period, which also corresponds to the inactivation phase of the mûgiro to which the child has succumbed, with a companion from her husband’s nthukî. The same applies after a breech birth. Besides the fact that these deliveries are always more difficult and thus more dangerous, a breech birth is considered to be abnormal: the baby did not turn in the mother’s womb and presents to the world not his head but his behind, a mishap that the representative of the husband’s nthukî comes to fix somehow as bearer of successful fertility. Similarly, nkiro intercourse takes place when a baby’s first teeth pierce the upper jaw, an appearance that is seen as a sign of the reversal of time because, in general, the first teeth to appear are the lower ones. The woman, or man, of a sterile couple can resort to this relationship to try to conceive a child. Nkiro relationships are also discreetly carried on by widows and widowers. Children born from such a relationship are considered to be those of the deceased pater; given that the genitor is obviously a man from the same nthukî, this allocation goes without saying and raises no questions. In these circumstances, it is understood that the sons and daughters of these individuals are not merely classificatory descendants: another meaning can be understood here of the expression that claims that children of every class come from “the same sword” (rucio imwî), irrespective of the individual who engendered them.

54This practice of institutional lovers invites explanations that go beyond the usual remarks and insinuations about promiscuity or sexual freedom that it would seem to prove. The custom of the institutional lover, which does not preclude jealousy and crimes of passion, is inseparable from various healing practices surrounding childbirth and fertility, and from the presence of nthukî companions at every stage of the family course. It is one of the processes by which is neutralized the harmful influence of the muntuetû, who is seen to be responsible for problems of fertility and human viability. The nkiro lover visiting a wife is also evidence of the intrusion of the generational set in a woman’s hut and territory and, in this way too, exercises a degree of control over the influence she has. While sexual relations between a married couple occur in the husband’s gaaru, bankiro ones take place in the woman’s hut, a liberty that a husband would refuse but that a nthukî companion can and should allow himself. The nkiro relationship is in line with the relationships that exist between a warrior set and the category of marriageable girls. The girls do not all end up in the same set of wives, but the control of sexuality and unions exercised at the time later turns into a kind of positive influence on their fertility. The distinction between pater and genitor no longer carries much weight; neither does the uniqueness of an individual’s descendants. The descendants are those of a set of fathers that bears and creates characteristic qualities: although it is not strictly speaking true that the descendants of a set are blood relations, they nevertheless share common characteristics that are summed up in the basic fact of bearing the same name and belonging to the same division. Under these conditions, marital prohibitions—and correspondingly the proscription of kioncho incest—in addition to preventing the temporal blurring between adjacent sets, become even more significant. These customs can also be interpreted in the light of the low incidence of polygyny and the preponderance of monogamy; the latter corresponds demographically with the generational mode, but the fertility problems that are usually solved by polygyny are here corrected within the nthukî, which functions as a sort of polyandry.

55Examination of the role of the wives’ sets, with regard to the issues of kinship with which we are concerned here, would be incomplete without an attempt to understand the role of the kaaria, which each female set holds for a time. The women who want the kaaria explain that they agree to give generously because they know that at the following transfer, their “daughters” and their division will receive as much. It is a form of deferred exchange—of produce—which is very much in the spirit of the generation-set system, and which the women explain very simply. While a man has a strong sense of generational division and perceives the other division as a rival, the women of the two divisions openly collaborate with each other in the exchange of kaaria. The possession of kaaria by a set of wives is not inconsequential because the presence of mothers daubed in kaaria is required on the ground where sons are circumcised; similarly, mothers with kaaria are (were) in charge of the reintegration rites for warriors who have killed. They will subsequently have to transfer it before their sons marry because, by keeping it longer, they risk causing their daughters-in-law to be infertile. This shows that kaaria helps perpetuate the generation-set system and that something is transmitted with it. It circulates from one set of wives to another and affects women in an affinal relationship with the set of fathers who hand over power to each other. Within kinship, kaaria concerns a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, that is, women between whom it is not difficult to find a ndûgû relationship. Kaaria can thus be seen as an additional element that deconstructs, along with the means deployed by the generation-set system, the relationship with the mother’s brother, here conveying a different influence via the women, in this case the wives. Kaaria is a sort of positive factor, or antidote, that the generation-set system provides to counterbalance mûgiro. This juxtaposition of kaaria and mûgiro enables us to more clearly understand what women transmit in the generation-set system and in kinship. The generation-set system develops patrifiliation and constructs paternal rule, but the affiliation of sons and of daughters does not have the same significance. A daughter is certainly categorized in relation to her father, but she is then included in a set of wives where the paternal reference diminishes in importance. Something else is developed here: successive sets of wives are affines but they are also kin, since they hand down the kaaria—a potential for propitious fertility and growth. While patrifiliation and paternal rights are asserted within the generational division at the expense of maternal ones, it is the kaaria, transmitted among sets of wives—hence through women—that facilitates alliances and allows sets and the individuals within them to reproduce.

56In contrast, in kinship, a girl remains permanently associated with her brother and, with the brothers of her mother and her grandmothers. A woman remains a sister in the pair of siblings of opposite sex, from which the amount of ndûgû payments to be made is tallied, and where the Omaha extension defines an area of consanguinity at the end of which a matrimonial alliance could be concluded again, provided that no mûgiro intervenes to disrupt the course of events. Thus filiation works on many levels and principles. The diagram of ndûgû payments revealed a very general scheme since an animal, goat or bull, is paid to the brother for each child or grandchild his sister has. Ndûgû payments are indicative of a cognatic descent, while the vocabulary, which emphasizes cross-relations, introduces a difference. Patrifiliation is developed by the inclusion of men in the generation-set system, it is a cumulative patrifiliation; at the same time the women remain the conveyors of a female line of which each sister’s brother is the point of reference. In sum, this constitutes a form of bilinearity, which conveys the notion of the body and the person: the strange passivity evidenced on the paternal side in view of the maternal side disappears when it is related to the efficiency gained in the generation-set system.

57The system leaves it mark on both matrimonial alliance and filiation by directing alliances, transforming blood relations into potential partners, and building or neutralizing what is linked with filiation; the figure of the father emerges progressively at the expense of that of the maternal uncle, while the mother remains also a sister. To turn from the perspective of the system to adopt that of the individual, every man who is a father is also a maternal uncle, and every woman, although she is a sister, is no less a mother: it works both ways.

5. Kinship and political institutions: a comparative trek

58The facts relating to Tigania-Igembe kinship are sufficiently unusual and intricate in the generation-set system not to be developed further.

    • 15  Héritier 1981: 73-136, 1990: ix-xxii; Viveiros de Castro 1993: 117-137; Copet-Rougier & Héritier-A(...)

    The vocabulary: the Tigania-Igembe have a wide vocabulary relating to kinship. In addition to the terms used in the generation-set system, the names that a son and a daughter acquire at different stages of his/her life form an integral part of the individual and of kinship and are indicators of the relationships involved, in the same way as kinship vocabulary in the strict sense. The latter, which distinguishes four different categories of cousins—five for women—shows a “Sudanese” trend combined with a very clear Omaha principle, since the sister of a brother is his daughter, but that is associated here with features that are heterodox or at least new15.

  • The discrepancy of the Omaha terminology is a component principle used to define prohibitions then preferences according to a unique process: cross cousins of both sides are designated and proscribed for a time before their descendants finally become ndûgû, between whom marriage can occur.

  • Compared with other kinship systems, prohibitions in Meru kinship are not extensive: they concern the clan, the family unit, its givers and takers of wives for three generations, the duplication of the marriage of a brother, and the sororate. And the perimeter of the prohibitions outline preferential (not prescriptive) unions. There are no arranged marriages; marriages are primarily a matter of personal preference even though pressure directs certain choices. One major matrimonial rule, which is the positive side of the clan prohibition, states that the wife must come from a different territorial section. However, the local perspective does not deal with all eventualities: prohibitions and preferences exist at all levels of the generational sets that outline an endogamous coextensive meta-system for the Tigania-Igembe, whose population numbered an estimated 90,000 before the colonial conquest. A difference emerges in this regard between the Tigania, who expressly prohibit only the union between a set of fathers and the category of their daughters, and the Igembe who add other prescriptive rules. The practices of the Tigania nevertheless conform to these rules. The mixture of a mechanical model and a statistical one is not unique to the rules of matrimonial alliances of the generation-set system since it occurs in the recruitment rules of generational sets where, remember, the proscription of the inclusion of a son in the adjacent set to his father’s is strictly enforced, whereas beyond that there are no explicit rules; the allocation of sons in the subsequent sets reflects practices that limit it statistically.

  • The formulas for preferential alliances allow for many options with the two exceptions of the exchange of sisters, which is incompatible with the taker/giver asymmetry, and of the so-called Arab marriage, which is strictly unthinkable. When it is not a case of marriage with a parallel matrilateral cousin, which is a rarely attested option in terms of preferential marriage, there may be an alliance with a descendant of patrilateral or matrilateral cross cousins, or a marriage with givers from the same clan as the mother or grandmothers but from a different family unit. The same word ndûgû, which designates a category of potential partners, covers these different possibilities. Bridewealth is also unusual: the small sum could be interpreted as a sign of the woman’s return, but it is followed by extended payments that are indicative of the taker’s long-term dependence on the giver.

  • It is impossible to simply label filiation. The bestowal of the first name, the ndûgû payments, and the funeral rites of an Accomplished reveal a cognatic filiation. The way of designating cousins, which follows the Sudanese trend, is along the same lines in that the proliferation of types of cousins means that this principle of classification no longer arranges a great deal, although it sheds light on things from the point of view of women because it particularizes the real sister and hence identifies potential partners. However, the collection area for ndûgû livestock makes a distinction between “maternal uncles” in the broad sense, and “maternal uncles” to whom sisters’ children are indebted. In addition, the family unit and the clan are patrilineal but the notion of the human body reveals a bilinearity: in synchrony, the paternal and maternal sides are equally weighted, whereas in diachrony, the balance, good or evil, goes to the maternal side, until we realize that patrilineality is constructed in the generation-set system (a kind of cumulative patrifiliation). The crux of this matter lies in the brother-sister pair that is the base from which consanguinity manages to define and redefine itself in each new brother-sister pair and in the patrilineality of the generational division (gîtiba).

  • The forms of residence are also unusual. Residence is certainly neo-virilocal with a young couple tending to set up home in the husband’s territorial division, but this rule does not mention the most important points, or masks them. Housing is doubly dispersed: residences are spread out across complementary ecosystems of the high hills and never grouped together in villages; there is great mobility within each family unit. The many gaaru where adolescents and warriors live, and the married man’s gaaru, are not simply dormitories or barracks; they are also places that are integral to kinship relationships and, especially, to patrifiliation.

  • The myth, finally, evokes unusual configurations: Mbugi is not confronted with sons who he needs to forbid from marrying sisters, or who want to exchange them, but with sons who want to seek wives elsewhere, just as they had wanted to fight with enemies. The solution the father proposes—they must marry the closest women: it is better to marry one’s sister than one’s half-sister or a stranger—is as surprising by what it prohibits as by what it advocates. The brother-sister marriage meets the need to organize his descendants and achieve sustainable order. The subsequent appearance of exogamy in the myth is not a consequence of an incest taboo but of the refusal by some to share the herd, which is the starting point for the creation of new groups that differ in the rules for the exchange of sisters. In this arrangement, the Meru are differentiated precisely by the refusal to allow their sisters to marry a non-Meru. The prevalence of the endogamous mode requires the appearance of internal differences, a need that is met by the division into two gaaru, one preceding the other, and by initiation and age-grading.

59This list of characteristics that confuses the usual points of reference is sufficiently meaningful to consider the mode of kinship typical of a particular social field. If the analysis of the Omaha terminology, whose presence is surprising, led us to investigate places and make comparisons the relevance of which was not immediately obvious, contributing here to the theory of semi-complex systems of alliance would be clearly irrelevant. Only the comparative analysis of kinship in other societies with a generation-set system will enable us to isolate concomitant variations and determine the meaning to give them. Some working hypotheses can already be laid down to the extent that they offer insights on generational systems and clarify the questions that must be asked about them.

60First observation. The case of the Meru is in no way in isolation since their system is typical of one of the major generational modes identified in eastern Africa (Peatrik 1995a). Unlike the “Karimojong mode” with its dual political positions (the Fathers of the country and the Sons of the country), where the generational sets are not coupled with the family sphere and kinship, the phased and fractioned mode of the Tigania-Igembe brings with it negative rules and, often but not always, positive rules relating to alliance formulated for all generational sets, combined with sets of wives and the custom of the institutional lover, and even demographic characteristics such as a clear trend toward monogamy and precepts that contribute to low fertility.

61That having been posited, the next step is to examine the relationships that develop between the level of the system and that of kinship. Without going into details of issues that will be developed in the following chapters, it should be noted that the Tigania-Igembe’s generation-set system typifies a sort of State, certainly an embryonic one, but whose characteristic elements allow easy identification: the set of Fathers that holds power is a sort of collective sovereign responsible for the area, for keeping peace and harmony, and for the wellbeing of the society and the country. Possessing authority, the Fathers legislate and administer and control the current warrior class, which is responsible for defending the country and maintaining public order. The transmission of powers and authority to the next set, and thus to the other division, becomes inevitable when the current set of Fathers is unable to carry out its duties, in particular suppressing disturbances caused by the overaged who have not been initiated, as was explained in Chapter 2. This State-like society is nevertheless egalitarian and only the stages and sets rank, temporarily, individuals. The political organization has direct impact on the type of housing and residence. The dispersed pattern of settlements has a wide variety of causes, but it suffices here to consider two of them. The spread of the population is a way of optimizing the use of the stepped ecosystem of the Nyambene Hills, but in reality this is only possible because the political system permits it. The land is (was) available to everyone, provided they are Tigania-Igembe, an identity conferred specifically by belonging to the generation-set system. Dispersal is also a means of defence where “civilians” spread out and thus become evasive, while the warriors—the armed force—are grouped in the gaaru or lower down in the drier lands. This last dimension is by no means insignificant. We are talking here about a system that had worked for a long time before Pax Britannica was established. Although it is a mistake to think that these societies were permanently at war—the cause of the error of those who believed that this was the origin of the age sets—it would also be wrong to conclude that issues of this kind did not arise. Generational systems are efficient machines for rapidly defining a territory and maintaining it cheaply, and this is probably the reason that they have been so numerous in these regions that have great potential but that are exposed to future risk by atmospheric irregularities and rapid ecological variations. By putting the Fathers, even if few in number, in one place, and the sons in another—that is differentiating and separating individuals according to their respective generational positions—the territory is delimited while a sovereignty is established, in short a country. While conflicts may arise and configurations vary, the principle is easily replicated. This spatial distribution of individuals clearly highlights the issue of the status and fate of womankind. It can have various solutions, which will need to be noted, but the Tigania-Igembe formula is one such, with which others may be compared.

62The scattered family units are not isolated from each other; the many links between them are forged by their belonging to a “neighborhood’ and a territorial section, as well as by different exchanges between the sections: economic ties (barter, cattle) and above all, on this scale of social relationships, by marital ties. These, as we have seen, are mainly ordered by the two-way giver and taker relationships, the first rule of which is that the wife come from another section, and which are underpinned by the different forms of preferential marriage (the three meanings of ndûgû). But the dynamics of the relationship between giver and taker in kinship is consistent with the terms of exchange prevailing in the political sphere, where power is held alternately by each of the divisions. The opposite would have been surprising: it is hard to image that in this elementary State forms of matrimony were radically separated from the political sphere, especially as in any fractional system, remember, the system of grades controls access to marriage and that women are categorized in relation to this alliance. In this model, then, two successive factors interact to shape alliance and kinship: the political system and the type of residence, it being understood that the generally established rules in regard to the latter are not relevant here (in the same way that the question of harmony or disharmony does not arise).

  • 16  Personal communication.
  • 17  D. Kettel (1975), in a thesis on the Omaha terminology of the Tugen, Kalenjin speakers whose age-  (...)

63The conclusions of the first comparative studies confirm this interpretation (Peatrik 1994, 1995a; Tornay 1995). The fractioned mode (with a fixed number of generational divisions) arises particularly among populations that have been stabilized for some time in an area, whereas the Karimojong-type dual-position mode occurs essentially in growing groups where secession and departure are a response to accumulated tensions; those who are dissatisfied, mostly the underaged, leave to start their own polity elsewhere. In a comparative study of the various populations of the Karimojong cluster, S. Tornay (1995: 68-69) detected among the Toposa of the southern Sudan, a numerically important ethnic group that no longer seems able to split by departure, the emergence of fractions (generational divisions) in their Karimojong-type generational mode. Transformation is only hinted at since there is no transmission of power between the two divisions, but the example is instructive because it illustrates the importance of rivalries and political affairs in this dynamic. It also makes it conceivable that if one day there were to be a transmission of powers between the divisions, membership of one or other division would become an issue that would have an impact on the terms of the integration of sons and daughters and thus on kinship. In addition, and this is probably not a coincidence, Omaha-type classifications have been identified only in graded and fractioned generation-set systems: Murdock (1949), Radcliffe-Brown ([1950] 1975: 18-23, 33-39) and Copet-Rougier16 among the Maasai, Tornay (1969) among the Keyo, Kettel (1975) among the Tugen17. In all these systems, the Fathers cannot marry their “daughters” and the latter also appear to be forbidden to their brothers via the Omaha discrepancy. This is, we believe, the origin of a terminology whose presence in these organizations is surprising; it is a very economical way to resolve the issue of brother-sister incest by the combination of two prohibitions, that of the generation-set system and that of kinship. Here too, it is the generation-set system that sets the tone since its classification method causes matrimonial problems—its negative and positive rules lead to brother-sister marriage—and at the same time provides the solution since, for a brother, a sister has become a daughter: moved down as one of the underaged, she falls under the generational prohibition. Two sequences of the initiation rites of a set mentioned earlier—the marriage of the first initiates as brother and sister and the promotion of a sister to the rank of gaaru mother— strengthen this hypothesis by a curious mirror effect that reveals the “thing” by reflecting its opposite. It is as though Tigania-Igembe kinship developed between two contradictory principles leading to opposite movements: the generation-set system and the pair of different-sex siblings. The former sets about, over the generations, weakening the relationship between brother and sister that is at the heart of kinship, while at the same time the brother-sister pair tends to regularly reform itself. On the one hand, there is suspended time or the timeless present that is seen in the repetition of matrilateral kinship terms, and on the other the mark of time passing proper to the political system and that is reflected in patrilineal acceleration. By transforming a sister into a daughter, the generation-set system inserts the arrow of time into the pair of different-sex siblings and forces it to invalidate itself, but at the same time allows for a new matrimonial alliance in due course. We could go further by arguing that the focus on the pair of different-sex siblings is a consequence of the generational option in the sense that from the moment a generation-set system starts to classify women—which eventually happens in sedentary populations—an important factor emerges because women, who bear children, carry a temporal and elementary generational principle activated by their husbands. In this case, the residual logic that still needs dealing with is the pair of different-sex siblings: either the woman sets the generational tempo, and she is the mother of her brother and of sets, a possibility that is revealed by the transgression performed during the induction rite; or she is engendered, and it is her brother and the men who control of the passage of time, which is indicated by the initiation rites where the men, with their wives and the intervention of the circumcisor, are the progenitors of their offspring.

64Variations can be defined between fractional systems that are entirely structured around grades, such as that of the Borana, and systems where such a structure is only partial, such as that of the Maasai; the Tigania-Igembe, and in all likelihood the Kalenjin groups, are somewhere between these two extremes. The more or less complete structure of graded sets has a direct impact on the organization of powers, which are strictly defined among the Borana, a little less so among the Meru, and much less so among the Maasai: as soon as the sets reach the stage of marriage and fatherhood, there is no further clear statutory distinction made between men. With fractions varying in number (five among the Borana, three among the Gabbra, two among the Meru) and modes of power being more or less institutionalized, we can assume that there are concomitant variations in the negative and positive matrimonial rules of the sets; in the types of residence; the relationship between giver and taker; the Omaha extension; the sum of bridewealth, which it is impossible to reduce to the sole dimension of a more or less pronounced specialization in livestock; and, last but not least, the number of children per woman. This hypothesis can also be tested among populations where the principle of fractioned generations is combined with the dual-position mode whose generational sets, remember, are devoid of negative and positive rules of alliance: cases in point are the Kikuyu, the Pokot, and the Dassanetch, who live with somewhat contradictory rules and display hybrid systems that are particularly interesting. In any case, we can better appreciate the potential feedback of kinship on the system, and the importance of other factors in the modification of a system or in the transition from one option to another.

  • 18  P. Bonte (1974, 1985) attempted to interpret the various age- and generation-set systems of easter (...)

65Indeed, the significance of these forms of organization is such that it is hard to see how to separate them from kinship relationships or from “domestic production relationships”, which was the point of view of some in the not-so-distant past, when these systems were misunderstood and underestimated18. However, it is clear that the system, by formulating prohibitions and preferences at its level, influences kinship and has an impact on its relationship with politics. Two words that appeared repeatedly illustrate this: baite/baite sums up the relationship between givers and takers in kinship and in the political system; ûrûcia describes the relationships between individuals of the same generation in a single division, and corresponds to the first form of preferential alliance, marriage between children of sisters.

  • 19  The proto-Kikuyu and proto-Meru likely have a common origin, and there is some evidence to suggest (...)

66There remains one issue to be mentioned that concerns the history of ethnology and the history of these populations, these two aspects sometimes being linked in preliterate societies. Lambert (1945) attached a great deal of importance to the hypothesis of the transition from a matrilineality to a patrilineality that pervades his study of the Bantous of the Central Province to the extent that it makes its ethnography difficult to use; it seemed to him so likely that he matched it with the other hypothesis, shown in the story of Mbwaa’s flight (see Ch. 9), of a fusion of matrilineal indigenous people with immigrants who were not matrilineal. This type of scenario was in vogue in the 1930s. B. Malinowski, who, remember, had directed the work of J. Kenyatta ([1938] 1987) on the Kikuyu, was widely read and Lambert often makes reference to him; the first reconstructions of ancient settlements were based, moreover, on a model where it was thought that whole sections of people were moving from one place to another. Elements gleaned here and there in the Central Province, the presence of a matrilineality among the Digo Mijikenda in southeast Kenya, and the preponderance of this form of filiation in a part of the populations of Tanzania, give some substance to this scenario. In reality, it is based on two misconceptions: all these cases were read in the light of the issue of clan, descent group, and unifiliation, which, it is true, were the first forms of alien social organization whose mystery was beginning to be unraveled, and of the conjoined proposal of lineages cut across by age sets that was rapidly formulated in the wake of the first. For a hypothesis of this sort to have any chance of shedding light on the dynamics at work and on the ancient history of these populations, we must reflect on the combination of a cognatic mode of filiation with a generation-set system, whether or not it was caused by the arrival of immigrants. In fact—and this is the second misconception—all the mythic and historic traditions identified confirm the generational principle: that is not automatically a guarantee of historical longevity but attests at least to the familiarity of these populations with this principle. If we must speculate on the basis of this observation, we should imagine, rather, societies whose generation-set systems have been reshaped many times as a result of the most diverse circumstances, assumptions that are in line with results already achieved by comparisons19.

67Another avenue might have been successful if traditional knowledge had been less eroded: empirically established veterinary knowledge, ways of managing and breeding herds, and the interpretations that accompanied them. The parallel often drawn between humans, herds, and bees probably went as far as establishing that, being made in the same way, humans and the herd were governed by partly identical laws. The first structure created by Mbugi the hunter-farmer was an enclosure into which he sought to attract wild animals to domesticate them. The division of the herd established the first sustainable forms of social life. In the pattern of the household, the family enclosure is based on the enclosure for the herd, and both are named using the same terms. During rites, a single sacrifice is made for the well-being of herds and the humans while another ritual is specific to rain and harvest. With no trace of irony or contempt, the elderly women recall that women, like cows, carry for nine months. In memory of the girl who left to become a wife in another mûciî, people keep the genealogy of cows born to the bridewealth heifer and ensure subsequent payments of the ndûgû cow. Both milk and blood drawn from the jugular, under the supervision of the father, are popular and indispensable foods on certain occasions. The umbilical cord and placenta of newborns who survive are buried in the manure of the kiara, as are the bones of the deceased who reached the last grade. A person who dies prematurely is known as nyamba or “breeding bull”, a nickname to keep death pollution at bay. A same word, kîruundu (pl. îrunndu), refers to the shadow of a human being and that of a bovine, while kithiîkî (pl. ithiîkî) is used for all other shadows. A person’s fate is read in the entrails of a he-goat. Kinship invites certain combinations to be accepted at times and rejected at others. I found no indigenous theory that would explain one way or another what is transmitted and prevents or allows subsequent unions. The proliferation of the herd and the perpetuation of humans must share some characteristics, but it is difficult to say more than that.


1  Presentation of records left by H. E. Lambert can be found in Appendix A, which is concerned with written sources.

2  Lambert does not specify the word in kimeru corresponding to “girl.” Regarding the gichiario relationship between the Tigania and the Mwimbî, I found the expression “son of nkenye”, that is to say son of an “uninitiated daughter”: to the Tigania, the Mwimbî are “sons of nkenye”, and vice versa. The word nkenye refers to an uninitiated girl and/or to a girl designated by the matrilaterals. In all cases, “son of nkenye” is shrouded in ambiguity since any child born to an uninitiated girl is destined to be abandoned in the bush.

3  In a footnote, Lambert explains that the Meru also call them Maa, the name the Maasai use for themselves, and Kabi. This last word has never been heard in Tigania-Igembe; in contrast, the Maasai there are called Urû, an ethnonym that also refers to a subdivision in the Kianjai location, which everyone says was once inhabited by the Maasai. Kabi is found among the Kikuyu. It is quite possible that Kabi referred to Maasai groups that were encountered a long time previously, and that Urû refers to Maasai Laikipia who settled among the Meru at the end of the nineteenth century, following internecine wars that affected these pastoralists.

4  The exclusion of women from owning herds is explained in a similar way among the Kikuyu. Because of their arrogance, the women lose their herds, which take flight and become wild animals (Beecher 1938: 81). With variations, this story is widespread in East Africa.

5  Waatho (from the verb kuwaatha) is the Kimeru word that refers to the rule, in the sense of a law, establishing a lawful order since it comes from the fathers and from the creator principle to whom all must submit. We do not know whether Lambert’s informant used it, but he probably had in mind this fundamental idea of Meru politics.

6  Given the date that Lambert was carrying out his investigations (the 1930s), it is not impossible that the theme of needles is the result of a loan that the narrator made from colonial doctors. Nevertheless, needles existed in Meru technology: they were used, among other things, to assemble hides to be used to make clothes. The needle is also one of the sacred objects kept, but never shown, by the mûgwe (see Ch. 8), the dignitary whose function is linked to maintaining peace and prosperity. Once again, this is an instrument made by the blacksmith, and, predictably enough, the myth does not dwell on its origin. Death, on the other hand, holds no mysteries in that it comes under the jurisdiction of Ngaï who sent it.

7  Mahner (1975) was the first to develop this theme through symbolism.

8  I found no indication of a crisis comparable to that related with regard to the Kipsigis, and other Kalenjin groups, Nilotic speakers whose generation-set system shares many traits with that of the Meru (Mwanzi 1977: 85-86). Following the massacre of whole battalions of warriors by a numerically superior enemy, the Fathers authorized “unnatural” unions to permit the demography and society to get going again. It was also decided to no longer use the name of the set that was contemporaneous with these transgressions. Hence the reason that the Kipsigis now have (had) only seven rather than eight recurrent set names, and that there are disparities in the recruitment rules. Such a story, not mythical but very real, suggests that the transgression of incest, generational in this case, is not just a matter of fantasy or symbolism but also a very practical issue.

9  Mahner (1975: 403) disregards the Omaha terminology and advances too fast when he writes that baite is used between cross cousins; that allows him to say that the Tigania-Meru practice a form of preferential marriage with FZD [Father’s Sister’s Daughters], an analysis that is very opportune when related to the organization of powers. Likewise when he maintains that the name bamungo is used between FBS [Father’s Brothers’ Sons], when in fact this word simply refers to “Those who have been initiated on the same oxhide”, and may or may not be FBS.

10  After having presented at length the marriage services of the Kikuyu, Lambert briefly mentions those of the Meru (1945, ms, Ch. I: 58-59), explaining that they share certain traits with the former but that the Kikuyu to whom he was describing Meru practices exclaimed, “So the Meru don’t marry!” This was valuable information that Lambert failed to capitalize on.

11  Note that the Borana (Baxter 1978: 158) call their generational fraction gogesa, which means “dry foreskin of circumcision,” which is the part that a Meru would call “string.” The method implemented by the Meru is thus not an isolated one.

12  The njuri ncheke name is also part of this logic since a father can transmit his njuri name to a son, but in the past this affected only a handful of Tigania-Igembe.

13  We can quote the refrain of a well-known lullaby, sung to reassure and calm down a crying baby: Kira mwana, kira mwana, muntuetû arî kagitonî, “Quiet, my child, quiet, your [maternal] uncle is behind the wall [of your mother’s house].”

14  C. Henry (1994) arrives at similar conclusions among the Bijogo of Guinea-Bissau, whose age-set system, while structured by very different principles, is nevertheless the place where paternal law and filiation are shaped in a vaguely matrilineal society.

15  Héritier 1981: 73-136, 1990: ix-xxii; Viveiros de Castro 1993: 117-137; Copet-Rougier & Héritier-Augé 1993: 139-148.

16  Personal communication.

17  D. Kettel (1975), in a thesis on the Omaha terminology of the Tugen, Kalenjin speakers whose age- and generation-set system is similar to that of the Tigania-Igembe, sees no need to combine the two instances, and disregards a preferential marriage that he nevertheless reports: a prohibition is noted and remembered for three generations by means of a row of cowrie shells added one after another to a ritual belt that is the property of a girl who has left to marry. When the fourth row is attained, an alliance can be made since the one that has just terminated was fruitful. (op. cit.: 36-37), a formula comparable to the line of cows descended from the bridewealth mwalle heifer.

18  P. Bonte (1974, 1985) attempted to interpret the various age- and generation-set systems of eastern Africa in the light of variations identified in family organization based on a growing pastoral specialization, and the more or less clear assertion of certain traits: a matrifocal variation of the patrilineal family and an Omaha terminology delineating proscriptions. Analysis of these systems has progressed significantly since these early attempts; one must go about things in the opposite way, in which variations in generation-set systems shed light on variations in family organization and kinship, but this change of perspective does not rule out a certain backwash-effect from one to the other.

19  The proto-Kikuyu and proto-Meru likely have a common origin, and there is some evidence to suggest that their ancestor group, called Thaichû by linguists, already had a form of age- and generation-set system (Peatrik 1994: 28-32). Differences emerged later, for at least two reasons: the Kikuyu represent a traditionally expanding population; their composite generation-set system, which combines a dual-position mode with heterogeneous grades, is consistent with this dynamic.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 29 — Eponymous figures in various oral traditions
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Titre Map 4 — The groups around Mount Kenya
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