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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part three. Ritual as means of government

Chapter six

The state of warrior

Texte intégral

1In a social organization with collective rule that involves not just a handful of individuals but the entire population of the Nyambene Hills, understanding their modes of coordination is essential, as no territorial section or individual has particular dominion over the others. Another way to approach the matter is to study the principles and workings of sovereignty. For want of a history (forever lost) of the origin of institutions, one could assume, parallel to the hypothesis of an intrinsic relationship linking sets and territory, that men belonging to set A have agreed to initiate their sons from set B. Conversely, if one favors the scenario suggested by oral tradition, one could suppose the sons of a mythical man chose to be initiated in their own manner. The movement driven as such is propagated as long as the rules of the social pact are accepted, a pact at the heart of which the gaaru constitutes the centerpiece of the territorial arrangement. The relative control of the demographic movement stemming from the rules of the system offers periods of calm followed by rises in tension that affect the decision to organize the initiations. The time come, ceremonies intended for the promotion of candidates are repeated from one section to the next; eventually a new set is formed that bit by bit shifts the position of every individual. Thus the ritual results in a synchronization inherent to the social structure, to which is added the identity of names and roles assigned to sets, and a common symbolism within the construction of each person. Through the limits they set, the exterior entities through which different kinds of relationships form, all enshrined in established codes, also contribute to instituting the polity of the Tigania-Igembe. In this genesis, the state of warrior-bushman is where everything begins over and over again, generation after generation.

1. Sets and initiation: the rituals of circumcision

2Before their initiation, the sons will ask their mothers to bring the millet beer they have agreed to prepare to the mother of the warrior spokesman of their subsection: in receiving this gift, the warriors indicate through the kaaria mother that they have consented to the boys’ initiation. Organizing the initiation falls to the warriors, to the extent that they appear as the initiators par excellence, whereas they are merely agents of the decision of the Fathers and the consent of the mothers. In each subdivision, the Fathers select a few warriors known for their personal attributes and sense of responsibility. These warriors form the lamalle (or ramare) ya mûtaanî—the “lamalle of the circumciser”—of the territorial section, and organize the initiation sessions in practical terms. Their main function is to fetch the official circumciser of the generational division, and settle him into the home of a man valued for his integrity. This home is called mûciî jwa mîthega or “family kraal of protective charms”. Any man whose son is to be initiated may fit the purpose, provided he is not a blacksmith. Should the chosen individual in any way fail in this honorary role, another father is chosen in his place. Most often the duty of the circumciser is carried out by a man who learned the technique from his own father, although any man whom the circumciser has deemed worthy of doing so can carry out the duty. Little distinguishes this person from other men; however, he does stand out in comparison to the female circumciser, who is designated by the same term followed by a different attribute: mûtaanî wa ijîîjî for boys and mûtaanî wa nkenye for girls. While the female circumciser is remunerated with fruits from the harvest and has the reputation of being a poor woman past the age of childbearing, the male circumciser, who receives goats and honey, is thought of as someone living in considerable material abundance and doted with an ardent vitality bordering on the over-active. In fact, any young woman (or women) in the crowd on the circumcision ground whom he may happen to touch with his stick or sword, or even rape if not held back by the lamalle, has no choice but to become his wife. However, the circumciser has to pay the bridewealth.

3Early morning one day, the boys whose time has come to be initiated are secretly taken into the forest by the warriors. The warriors equip the boys with carved and fashioned sticks the candidates carry during their tours that they now can set about doing to announce to all their kin of their forthcoming initiation. During these tours they can expect to receive blessings, and gifts of goats, especially from their maternal uncles: for both boys and girls, this stage is called kurîria, which also designates the category of songs chanted on the occasion (see Ch. 4). The son gives the stick used on his tours to his mother the evening before his initiation. Meanwhile, the candidate’s father must make the ad hoc payments to the companions of his generation. The feast, during which a bull is consumed along with much beer and food, takes on a more or less ostentatious character depending on the place and circumstances at the time and on the family’s wealth. Organized so “the children are not insulted by their age companions”, this feast sometimes gathers together fathers from various sections over several days on the public ground, and at others takes place more modestly within the family kraal. The father offers up a bull, which is presented by the son to the companions of his [father’s] generation; when dividing up the carcass, one thigh must be given to his bamungo—those who were circumcised at the same time as he. Once a father has completed the gift-giving in preparation for the initiation, then his obligations towards the companions of his generation have been fulfilled, and in exchange the latter will give their permission for a son who is also theirs to be initiated. A father (called “night father” for the occasion) must also choose a “day father” for his son. The importance of the “day father” has already been pointed out in the chapter on kinship. Neither the “night father” nor the “night mother”, forced to stay in the paternal gaaru and remain inactive during this period, can tend to their son, whose care remains the responsibility of the “day father”. The lamalle also pay a visit to the candidate’s father, and meet him each individually; they are the only warriors allowed to remain within the circumcision circle, and during the act will supervise the candidate as well as the circumciser. The lamalle temper the sometimes excessive ardor of the circumciser, who may be inclined to make the novice suffer more than is necessary; they also announce that those who waver during the operation (with excessive trembling, fainting, ejaculation, or urination) will “lose a goat” (guta mburi), and the goat will be given to the circumciser.

4During the days leading up to the event, other animals are slaughtered as a sign of rejoicing and munificence. The meat of a billy goat is shared among all, and the hide of this goat is cut into small strips used to make protective charms in the form of bracelets and necklaces worn by the candidate’s mother and sisters. One of the sisters must also offer a present to her brother, such as a goat’s hide. On the evening before the circumcision, the father kills a sheep. The day ahead will be tough and the son must built up strength; he eats meat and drinks broth to his heart’s content. The sheep’s hide is cut into strips and again bracelets and necklaces are made from it that are distributed among the people in the kraal. A necklace that is specially made for the son is tied around his neck. Once the celebration is over, while the others dispose of their ornaments made from the hide, the son keeps this necklace carefully for nearly another year. Early in the morning, before the lamalle come to fetch him, the father solemnly blesses his son. He reassures him and explains he has nothing to fear, draws him outside, and shows him through the door of the kraal (mwiriga), the threshold of which is covered with fruit ntongu, a symbol of prosperity, and charms intended to protect the first “measured step” of the neophyte’s existence. Turning at least three times successively towards Keremara (Mount Kenya), the top of the Nyambene, and Igombe (a large isolated crater north-east of the high hills), the father applies a white iraa line from the tip of the nose to the top of his son’s head, an action he follows with the phrase ûkûûra bwega, “grow well”, and with prayers addressed to Ngaï asking for his help. These blessings are then carried out by the mother and godfathers in turn.

5The Fathers of the section will have prepared the kieni kia gaaru (communal ground) earlier, in view of the circumcision ritual. One of the Fathers belonging to a “sheep mucîî” brings with him a large ram, which is killed, divided, and eaten on the spot. Strips are cut from the fleece and threaded onto a thin cord that is raised and attached to two posts planted at the entrance to the ground, beneath which the novices pass as they arrive and as they leave. In a variation observed in the vicinity of the Igembe mûgwe, early morning on the day of the operation, a sheep is sacrificed by this ritual elder: the candidates step over it to reach the circumcision ground, and once again to leave it. The exact spot where the operation is carried out is specially consecrated. As soon as everyone takes their place, the lamalle sacrifice a young mparika nanny goat, elsewhere a ram, in an unusual manner: they bleed out the animal from the jugular and wait while the animal staggers about until it dies (a way of sacrifice echoing that of the diviner-healer who will do the same with the he-goat whose entrails he will then read). Yet another singularity: the prepared spot as described above is called itiri (matiri) from the very term meaning “grain threshing ground”, ground that is prepared every season by coating the flattened ground with a usual mixture of ash, water and cow dung. To my knowledge, the novices are not operated on while seated on a bull hide, as implied by the designating term bamungo, but they are effectively isolated from the ground as a result of the aforementioned consecration. The symbolism of the threshing ground is present in the stick brandished by the circumciser: the stick is designated by the term îthiri, which is close to itiri, signifying the initiates are like stalks that need threshing to extract the grain that will ensure their development.

  • 1  Kenya African National Union, the ruling party since independence; during these years the authorit (...)

6One by one the candidates leave their kraal and form a procession under the guidance of women owners of the kaaria, warriors and Fathers carrying a ram. The novices are also accompanied by their sisters as they head to a nearby torrent where they must bathe themselves thoroughly in ice-cold water, in order it is said to avoid an excess gushing of blood during the operation. The ram is bathed also, and ntongu fruits are thrown around it. Cries and chanting from the procession gradually growing larger as it gets closer can be heard from the amphitheater shaped by the high hills of Athiru Gaitî (initiation held on December 22, 1986). On the now crowded communal ground, circles have formed: men and women separately. Occasionally a dancer will step out into the center for a solo dance. Nothing in their dress distinguishes the youth from the elders, who wear their everyday clothing. Some women simply have painted a white circle around the eye. The procession arrives, announced by the sound of a horn amid the crescendo of the approaching crowd. At the head are the warriors, spears covered in a sign of peace; they advance menacingly in order to disperse the crowd. The women especially keep their distance, and make a pretense of eluding the grasp of an overzealous circumciser. Very cognizant of his mission, a watchman from the kanu1 hastens to push everyone aside. A spectator, amused by this attentiveness, seeks to reassure me by explaining that the circumciser, quite old now, has a hard time leaping and dancing.

7Now the warriors have taken over the large grassy clearing and form a compact group to which are mingled the candidates, freshly shaved and wearing a cloth wrap. Further waiting ensues until, in the distance, the circumciser suddenly appears at the edge of the clearing. He rushes in, his face spotted with white, wearing the fur muungî headdress and a short cape over his trousers. Escorted by jumping and yelling lamalle, he leaps and brandishes his stick like a Robin Hood intent on righting a wrong. Eventually this small group like a swarm joins the candidates and blends in with it. The candidates sit in a semi-circle, their legs spread. The circumciser starts with the son of the mûciî, his host; one by one each boy, held down by a lamalle, undergoes the operation (which lasts about a minute) before being led, running, to shelter at the edge of the clearing. Once all the boys are “trussed up” and after they have coated themselves with each other’s blood, the circumciser throws his stick into the air to announce the end of the operation. The novices prepare to leave the circumcision ground and gather into a procession led by the warriors, who form a tight square, and brandish freshly cut tree branches. The novices are completely covered with dried banana tree leaves that hide them from the women who strictly must not see them; nevertheless as the procession winds along the paths, one glimpses beads of sweat on brows and worried furtive glances through the leaves. The boys sing with all their might to the sound of horns accompanying them; they advance, staggering about the stones. The noise from the procession diminishes while the cortege breaks up as, one by one, those who have been operated on reach their home.

8At the arrival of the novices, various blessings, described as athîîra mwana (“to apply the iraa on the child a second time”), are pronounced before he enters his seclusion hut. The mwariki draw protective marks with iraa on the noses and foreheads of both father and son; or the circumcised is blessed with iraa by his father, who gives him a goat tied to the end of a rope; he will give the goat to his mother to care for it. The seclusion hut must be erected outside the family kraal, like the chuku grainstores where the harvest is (was) stored, and its layout should build on the metaphor of the threshing ground: like the grain, the initiate must not remain in a place that is connected to the cattle enclosure, a prohibition that also indicates his being set apart, in a marginal position. The phrase kiaanda gia ntaane, which designates the hut of the recluse and literally means “shelter of the one operated on” or “workshop of the one operated on”, implies the same thing, but through another metaphor. Kiaanda chiefly designates the workshop of the blacksmith, and that of the potter, workshops that are always situated at a distance from dwelling places. The metaphor thus illustrates the isolation of the initiate, but in this case, it also alludes to the process of shaping and molding the novice, just like the objects produced by these craftspeople. The “workshop of the one operated on” is a low-slung hut erected in a hasty fashion by fixing sticks into the ground and covering them with dried banana tree leaves; a small enclosure (kithiu) made in the same way surrounds the entrance and provides concealment. The “night parents” must not enter. The mother prepares all the food and water required by her son and the day father, who visits the novice regularly in order to clean and nourish him; the novice is allowed neither to bathe nor nourish himself, nor tend the fire, and can only speak in a hushed voice. The inactivity to which he must comply is such that he is forbidden even to sleep until the wound has healed—a particularly challenging prohibition. To this end, the “day father” must stay the night with his “godson” to ensure he does not fall asleep, which would be like a return to the previous state, of the night and of beginning.

9Approximately ten days following the operation on the circumcision ground, a ritual takes place that signals the end of the wound-healing phase and the lifting of the prohibitions accompanying it. The ritual is both a public and secret one, at once buffoonish and solemn, in which the initiate is expected to grab—without burning himself—the kîoro, an iron bar obtained from the blacksmith and heated in a well-tended fire since the previous evening. The iron bar bears the same name as the tool used to mark the cattle according to its clan. On the appointed day, a loud procession of warriors forms, and marches around the territorial section. At its head, the mugaa wa ntaane (literally, the “diviner-healer of those operated on”), in costume and flanked by acolytes, leads the procession both playful and menacing, and visits each family where an anxious novice awaits. The “diviner-healer of those operated on” and his accomplices are lamalle, who even today (1986) are not afraid to prance about half-naked, bodies covered in ash and white spots, and meet with the laughter of the crowd that they pretend to attack. The mugaa wa ntaane wears a mask made of cardboard in the shape of a cow’s head and a tail resembling that of a bovine made of fibers attached to the waist. It is said that the individual hiding behind the only mask of record in this society—apart from the cover of dried leaves that hides the freshly-circumcised as he returns from the circumcision ground—is a Kamba: the fact of his outside origins is explained by informants only with the claim that the Kamba have a reputation of knowing, hence mastering, witchcraft (uroi). There exists between the Tigania-Igembe and the Kamba only a special relationship called ûciarwa, “born together” or “adopted”, by which the Kamba can easily find refuge—either temporary or permanent—in the Nyambene. In any event, what sorts of divination and treatment dispensed by a Kamba disguised as a cow is the initiate subject to? The oath sworn by all initiates to divulge not a word about the ritual makes this an awkward inquiry. It is not unfathomable that part of the answer at least stems from fears that the wound—following an infection acknowledged as a result of witchcraft—could turn septic and lead to the death of the initiate. The outside origin of the diviner is another factor to consider, as is the continuation of the activity of divination begun, let us recall, on the circumcision ground with the slaughter of an animal according to a method used by all mugaa: once again, the ritual of circumcision is linked to the act of divination.

10One day in April 1989, during the school holidays, as a procession headed towards the home of a novice situated in the dry lowlands north of Kianjai, the “day father” went to his “godson’s” hut to inform him of their approach. The shelter was empty. The adolescent, terrorized by the idea of having to grab hold of a white-hot bar, and possibly of having his “string” burnt, had run away; he had escaped through the branches of his hut. Following this, a rumor circulated that the “day father”, a Christian who condemned the “custom”, had encouraged his “godson” to do so. The warriors spotted the fugitive in the distance and chased after the ntaane (initiate) who had “destroyed the nthaka-ness”. The following day, a procession of warriors larger than that of the previous day offered a unique sight: at its head, closely guarded by the lamalle, was the initiate who had tried to run away. He was completely naked, his body covered entirely in ash, and on his shoulders he carried a cluster of unripe bananas. He ran in front of the warriors who chased him, and was forced to stop before every passerby he met and confess his fault. The procession crossed the length of the territorial section, visited every kraal that housed a novice, and finally much later arrived at the home of the failed novice. The warriors threatened the father that they would keep his son unless he handed over a variety of things—bulls, small livestock, and buckets of honey. The father attempted to reduce the exorbitant demands, but finally ended up accepting them on the condition—quite hopeless since he would be harassed—to negotiate at a later date. A ram was killed on the spot and its fat, once cooked, was applied to the body of the culprit, who was then returned to his father. Such faltering is exceptional, but it is anticipated all the same, and the punishment is always the same whenever, for any reason, a muthaka is found guilty of having “destroyed the nthaka-ness” (kûîgia ûthaka). Like a woman, the culprit must carry a cluster of unripe bananas which otherwise would never have been cut, so as to illustrate the renewal after a failed metamorphosis.

11With the threat of being burned by the kîoro, the neophyte is forced into confessing his offences, in particular any sexual relations he may have had with “older” women that are of course strictly forbidden. Here one understands how important a role the sets system plays in the control of sexuality, and that the task of the “neophytes’ diviner” is, like that of the diviner who reads entrails to detect the mûgiro of a forbidden transgression, to discover through forced confession the mûgiro of errors made by a neophyte. The trial by fire supposedly inflicted by the mugaa wa ntaane remains a simulation:

  • 2  D. M. Rimita, a native of Tigania and a lawyer, has written a brief account of customs and traditi (...)

When the confessions are over [the ntaane] is held and laid on his back. One of the participants takes the kioro outside and tells all the relatives to bless it by spitting on it. He goes in and starts shouting for water. Water is brought in and the candidate is asked to cry loudly so that he is not burnt badly. As the candidate cries the kioro is put in the water and all those present shout Cheee!!! It is then that the candidate is told that he has become a man and must obey all the instructions [...] as a circumcised man he had to.
imita 1988: 362.

12This is the secret that must not be revealed. Session after session, the novices must be kept in fear: their ability to stand up to their fear and confront their past mistakes is part of the initiation process. In fact, the “day fathers” make sure that the healing of the retracted foreskin is underway. Within the family kraal, the many guests, for whom a feast has been prepared, rejoice and celebrate the son’s victorious “first battle”. This is also when the “day father” instructs his “godson” on the rules of conduct fitting his new status and offers a true lesson on sexual education, in which everything about the female anatomy is explained, as well as how to approach a girl and how to behave with her; which, in the informants’ view, justifies the very existence of the “godfather” since it is unthinkable that a (night) father have a conversation like this with his son. Another curious lesson involves instruction on obeying the Fathers combined with teachings in trickery and subterfuge; granted, the neophytes are future warriors and these contradictory qualities are required in carrying out their duty. The point of this simulation is not just to inculcate the neophytes through fear of the ordeal with the rules of conduct. The warrior troupe—led by the mugaa wa ntaane with acolytes dressed as cows on either side—and the instrument used to mark the cattle draw yet again a parallel between humans and livestock, in this instance in the most direct manner possible: the neophyte joins his new company like he would join a herd. Besides involving an object made by the blacksmith, using a branding iron also signals a process of induration through which by cooking then cooling the neophyte reaches a new state, and slowly renews contact with the world around him, within a shelter resembling a blacksmith’s workshop. It is said it is the pain from the burn that makes a true “Bushman” out of him. This aspect following the cut wielded by the circumciser with an object made by the blacksmith will be further explored when compared with similar elements that arise during the initiation of a young woman. After that of the diviner, the figure of the blacksmith comes progressively into focus. At the end of this stage, in Tigania at least, the ntaane, led by the lamalle, would set out on a raid called guta nkûû, “throwing the firewood”, where they would have to shed the blood of an enemy, either a man or a woman. Slightly less hostile, and witnessed all over—though possibly as a substitution for, or preliminary to, the raid—the freshly made Bushmen, led by the “neophytes’ diviner”, had to dance on the public ground and exhibit their new-found virility.

13The school holidays come to an end and the newly circumcised boys must return to school: today the initiation ends here, a drastic curtailing to the customary cycle that is made up of many more episodes.

  • 3  We must not forget that four is the symbol of masculinity. The leaves of the mûumo tree (pl. eumo) (...)

14The lifting of the interdictions marks the beginning of a new stage that lasts until the subsequent thaano. Secluded in his hut, the initiate passes the time doing nothing but sleeping, eating and washing. His mother sends him food. He can go out only at night, to relieve himself, or to pay visits to companions in neighboring kiaanda. Like them, he gains weight, his skin grows paler, his hair, which he cannot cut, becomes like a mane. The “day father”, who visits him from time to time, tends to the circumcision necklace and softens it by rubbing it with sheep fat. At the following thaano, the end of seclusion in the kiaanda is marked by a small celebration called the kuuma kiaandene meaning “leaving the shelter” or “leaving the workshop”. The initiate’s hair, grown abundant after a year without being cut, is shaved by his mother, who attempts to cut it at first with four leaves from a particular tree (mûumo) held two by two on each side of his head, before fetching the kirunya razor made by the blacksmith3. The four leaves and the hair, along with the necklace that has been removed and cut into tiny pieces, are thrown on the kiara, where we know all the by-products of successful growth are laid—starting with the placenta and umbilical cord of surviving newborns. The razor is then carefully placed in a special gourd (kaaû) covered with cornhusks, as it will be used later on for the circumcision of the boy’s sisters. The same day, the initiate who has just left his “workshop” and cannot live at home, takes away with him food prepared by his mother. Coated with a mix of ochre and fat, and escorted by his “day father”, the boy heads towards the large gaaru of the territorial section. The nthaka receive the food of the new arrival who remains in the doorway and from there call out three or five greetings: “Murei murei nthaka!” His calls are left answered, until the fourth or sixth attempt, when the warriors—or his “day father”, if present—finally welcome him, calling him by the name his father gave him (and transmitted to them in view of this name-giving). Called thus by his new name—his gaaru name—the candidate, still accompanied by his “day father”, is invited to enter and then is led to the bed assigned to him. He is given a spear and a sword his father obtained from the blacksmith; the shield made of hardened leather mounted on a wooden frame and decorated with the black, white and red marks of the territorial section, is made by the warriors themselves; the club of wood and cast iron used as a projectile weapon can be obtained from a brother-in-law. Now the son is a full-fledged muthaka. According to Lambert (1945, tapus.: 447-448), in Imenti, as each neophyte entered the gaaru, he was hit—not very violently, but quite painfully all the same. Stationed at the central post, two experienced warriors slowly whipped his buttocks, alternating doling out blows with lessons in morality: “You shall obey your leaders and never ask them questions (blow dealt to the right)... You shall never lose control of yourself (blow dealt to the left)... You shall think before you speak (blow to the right)... You shall never raise your spear in anger (blow to the left)... nor your sword... your club... your hand...” A vast range of issues are raised in this way so as to harden the boy both literally and figuratively: respect due to previous generations, avoiding initiated women, sexual continence for as long as his superiors impose it, discipline during raids, respecting rules during dancing sessions, and so on.

15The sequences in this rite de passage by which the “big uninitiated boy” becomes a “warrior” through a transformation designated by three successive terms, mwîjî, ntaane, muthaka, described at the turn of the century by A. Van Gennep (1909), are easily identifiable: a liminal phase of seclusion preceded by a phase of separation and followed by a phase of incorporation. Other limits are distinguished nevertheless, once one throws in the age category and generation set to which the boy now belongs. Separation from the previous world begins at weaning, when the boy becomes a “small non-initiate”, and is reaffirmed at adolescence when he settles into the gaaru of the “big non-initiates”. Yet incorporation into society does not occur once he enters the gaaru of the warriors since, let us recall, muthaka literally means “Bushman”—in other words, calling the new recruit and his promotion by something that positions them at the low, hot, dry and wild periphery of society and its territory. During initiation, boys are both promoted and excluded.

  • 4  This is not an isolated procedure: during the adoption rituals of newcomers, strangers, refugees, (...)

16A study of the construction at work during circumcision, outlined in the previous chapter, becomes clearer now that we have a more complete vision of the ritual. That this construction is similar to a gestation is now apparent: the length of the seclusion (as recalled by old people, laughing) that used to last nine months, in a hut outside of the paternal kraal; the isolation, inactivity and passivity to which the recluse is restricted; his appearance when he comes out into the daylight: fattened and plump, the soles of his feet free of calluses, skin pale from lack of sun, copious hair; the act of wrapping him up to his neck in sheepskin he carries with him from right before the big day up until it is taken off him at the end like an umbilical cord. The passage from one state to the next happens through an engendering, followed by a phase of life in utero, as if the novice had to experience an additional gestation in order to grow and mature even more, and then a new birth. This does not mean that he dies during the preceding state to be reborn during the next. Here, death is not meant to conceptualize the passage from one state to the next but presents itself more as a transformation, or a metamorphosis. In the initiation process, transformation and reorganization occur progressively, during which a boy experiences a rupture from his maternal uncle, from whom however he does not completely draw away, and an additional period of maturation that involves as much his parents, who engender him anew4. It is important to point out that during the initial phase, when the son is operated on and then convalesces, his parents, at the risk of endangering their son, must remain immobile and do nothing. This new gestation corresponds to the construction of a patrilineality, for which the sword of the circumciser of the ad hoc generational division was the fertilizing agent, and where the “day father”—still called “kieni father”, meaning “father of the public ground”—picks up what the “night father” began, and which continues within the warrior gaaru. At the same time that the initiate becomes a son, in the full sense of the term, his father becomes a true mûkûrû who has reached true fatherhood, no longer that of a genitor under the good or bad influence of a mother’s brother, but of a pater who affiliates children in his own right through the intervention of their initiation, and a Father of the country, within the council of the Fathers of the country. The initiate also becomes a “brother in circumcision” and a coaffin, confirming his position as sister’s brother and future bride-giver or -taker. After the peregrination stick offered by him to his mother, and after the handover to his mother of the goat on a lead offered by his father, there occurs the act at the end of his period of seclusion whereby a mother shaves her son, with a razor that will be used to initiate his sisters in preparation for their wedding—a subtle reminder of the lasting link shared between full siblings of opposite sexes and the mother.

2. The warrior gaaru: a description of the structures

17The first descriptions of the gaaru, recorded by B. Bernardi (1959: 18), date from the beginning of the century: A. Champion (1912: 74) and C. Dundas (1915: 237-238) provided descriptions from observations of the Tharaka, and G. Orde Browne (1925: 114-116) of the Chuka and the Mwimbî. Lambert (1945, tapus.: 444-449, ms.: 455ii) provides several pages of information gathered in Imenti and explains that the “barracks” are no longer built and utilized according to the rules, an observation confirmed by Bernardi in the 1950s, and by my own informants, according to whom the Ithalie were the last to have constructed and destroyed their gaaru according to regulation. In the most remote areas of the Nyambene Hills, the tradition of the gaaru was maintained even through its decline until the Ratanya, after the Second World War. It disappeared completely with the advances in schooling.

18In 1910-1911, Champion stayed over a month with the Tharaka, a neighboring group whose age grades are organized in a markedly different manner. The author describes a building that is halfway between the warrior gaaru and the married man gaaru of the Tigania-Igembe. His description bears mention for its architectural observation:

The unmarried men, and those whose children are not yet circumcised, cannot sleep in the villages unless they are sick. In each settlement, therefore, the young men or ngoromo build for themselves one hut generally hidden in a thicket close to the settlement. These huts are perfect works of art. They are about 20 to 25 feet in diameter, and from 10 to 14 feet high, and built of very stout, well-fashioned poles. The doorway is about 3 ½ to 4 feet in height, and extends up to the level of the eave. The walls are composed of stouts poles placed into the ground close together. One enters by a sort of wattle passage, which is, in reality, the closed-up ends of a continuous sort of wattle bedstead running completely round the whole hut; standing in the middle it gives one the impression of a circular saloon with berths round. These huts are never occupied during the day, and I have never found any signs of habitation, except a fire. The care with which these huts are built and the excellence of the workmanship struck me very favourably.
hampion 1912: 74.

19According to Lambert (op. cit.), whose data was drawn from the Imenti section and who offers the most complete description, the warrior gaaru were supposedly large enough to house up to two hundred warriors, if not more. The ceiling height was such that a spear could be thrown from inside at an enemy entering through the doorway. The entire structure (fig. 30) rested on four posts (itugi), and the entrance (mwaari), framed by two uprights (ngecho), remained open. The roof framework had no horizontal reinforcing so that the warriors could flee in the event of a fire. When entering, the warriors set down their spears on either side, in the nooks reserved for this purpose (c). On the left when entering, a hole three feet deep was used for urinating during the night (kiumao, d). Further inside lay the berths where the warriors slept—their heads facing the walls, feet towards the center. The berths, on average two and a half feet high, were made of a small wall of logs taken mostly from mutungu (mitungu, Commiphora sp.) and mirogorogo (murogorogo, Cussonia Holstii) trees, behind which earth was packed. The berth at the back was slightly higher. The allocation of berths followed a certain pattern. Experienced warriors occupied the berths directly behind the entryway, in the areas called the kiindo (biindo). The ururi (maruri), the areas extending behind each kiindo, were occupied by the other warriors. All the way at the back was a slightly raised bunk, reserved for the neophytes (kathunguthe ka ntani). This was considered the least comfortable part of the gaaru. To reach this area, one had to step over the hearth, and as it was directly aligned with the doorway, it was subject to drafts. Moreover, space there was tight, making it difficult for one to stretch out. On top of that, from time to time, hyenas, drawn by the fresh or smoked meat hanging from the ceiling of the gaaru, would try to come in through this area. Kathunguthe, which means more or less “small place where neophytes jump up”, derives from the verb thungutha, “to jump” preceded by the prefix ka- a diminutive; ntani, as transcribed by Lambert, designates the one who was operated on in his seclusion hut, qualifying in this instance the neophytes, the last to have entered. Other rules of precedence applied, according to the right and left of the gaaru. The right side upon entering was reserved for the oldest recruits of one set, and was called kiindo kia chankanabiri, whereas the left side, the kiindo kia ntimirigwe, was for the next promotion. The chankanabiri (the first of two subsets in a set in Imenti) who were starting to wed still slept in the gaaru, but little by little left their place to the next promotion, who occupied the kiindo on both sides. The next recruits and, according to Lambert, the chankanabiri of a new generation, initially went to the back, on the kathunguthe ka ntani, and were many to have to fit onto this uncomfortable berth. Little by little, however, the most enterprising initiates grew bolder and crept surreptitiously onto the ururi to the left: instead of placing their swords between their heads and the wall, they would lay them on the berth below them and lean on it with an elbow. Spillovers like this grew in number and ended up causing arguments and fighting. The gaaru council (the lamalle), responsible for maintaining order, could, as appropriate, order the neophytes to refrain from encroaching upon the bedding of their predecessors and stay in their place, or, instead, decide that more space should be made for the neophytes squeezed onto the kathunguthe. The shifting would intensify as the married warriors began leaving the gaaru for good: in a counter-clockwise movement, the chankanibiri of a new set were soon occupying the space to their right, until, after their wedding, they themselves would leave the gaaru.

Fig. 30 — Layout of the warrior gaaru, Imenti model (Lambert 1945, tapus.: 449)

Fig. 30 — Layout of the warrior gaaru, Imenti model (Lambert 1945, tapus.: 449)

20Basically, the rules of precedence in the bed occupancy in the gaaru combine a principle dividing front and back—the experienced warriors ready to exit first lying at the entrance, followed by the majority of the group, and then finally the neophytes—with an overlapping left-junior/right-senior principle, which has them rotating from bunk to bunk over the years. The lateralization of the Imenti gaaru is the inverse of that in Tigania-Igembe, but the position of the small elevated berth at the back where the neophytes are packed in—aligned with the entrance, and occasionally exposed to hyenas—can be found elsewhere and must not be ignored.

21Elements of the description gathered at Athiru Gaitî, where the gaaru was used up until the Ratanya, offer some variants. The edifice could house over four hundred—at times six hundred—warriors (our informants may be exaggerating), and the earth bunks bordered by small stone walls were covered with bull hides killed by the warriors for their consumption. These hides were used as blankets. A similar principle of division exists between front and back, battle-hardened men at the entrance and neophytes on the elevated back (here called karathani); however, according to informants who had never been to battle, this division was so that the former could temper the enthusiasm of the latter, who were always eager to battle with the enemy. In other words, the seniors watched over the comings and goings of the juniors. Further rules overlapped this one. The kieni, the public ground where the gaaru as well as the house of the council of Fathers were built, straddled a territorial limit between Those Above that included the Red and Black territorial sections, and Those Below made up of Whites. With some variation, the same pattern that is both binary and ternary can be found inside the gaaru: the warriors of the Black divisions settled on the left side upon entering, the Whites on the right, and the Reds at the back. A small wall separated the gaaru into right and left sides: two hearths (kithetu) joined together to make one whenever one or the other side of the gaaru gave offering of a bull (smothered, according to custom, on the spot, and out of sight of women). The components of the social organization are found reflected inside the gaaru.

22There should exist further edifying arrangements within local variations here and there, but it has become increasingly difficult to find records of them. Everyone agrees the warrior gaaru were important buildings, constructed with care and attention. Their size varied according to the number of warriors to be housed, the rule being that there should be one large gaaru per territorial section. This did not prevent some particularly vast territorial sections to have several. Every time a new territorial section was established, it was accompanied by the opening of a public ground and the building of a warrior gaaru. Two names were used alternately for the gaaru, depending on the generational division in power, which identified each edifice built successively on the same spot: for instance, in Athiru Gaitî, Meria for the Ithalie, Ratanja…, division, and Githima for the other; at Kîgûcwa, Kaibû for one and Rîrimbo for the other; and at Ametho, Mitemu and Kimeria. Apart from being an additional means of constructing the patrilineal identity, the name of the gaaru of each generational division in every territorial section was added to the provisional and permanent names of initiate subsets and generational sets, which can be found throughout the entire Tigania-Igembe country. The designation of the gaaru, combined with that of the sets, traces a map in which divisions of territory and time are developed mutually.

23Each gaaru had its drum (kiempe) that was kept by an old man respected by everyone; whenever the warriors wanted to take the instrument they gave him a flask of honey. The term kiempe also designates the wooden cylinders, reinforced with sewn leather patches, used to preserve honey. A cow skin hide was stretched over a drum approximately 70 centimeters long and the width of one hand and a half; it was softened with castor oil each time it was to be played. Every section also had a rugoi horn, taken from the ntûlû (greater kudu); it was a good meter long and twisted, and was used by warriors (and can still be heard today, 1986-1993) during circumcision rituals. On the narrowest end of the hollowed-out horn of this large antelope, a hole was dug, through which one blew (and still blows) the same way as a transverse flute. A kîthiana handle was tied to it, fashioned from the skin of a goat sacrificed for this purpose; this term also designates the leather bracelets taken from sacrificed animals and worn as protective charms. In the past, to warn of danger or signal that a message was to be transmitted, one gaaru would blow the horn to alert neighboring gaaru. This meant the edifices were not spread out haphazardly throughout the clearings but set up within horn-blowing distance from each other: the sound made by an instrument used to gauge the distance separating the warriors’ houses constitutes the allotment of territorial divisions, and thus even contributes in grouping them together. W. A. Chanler (1896: 241), awaiting a delegation of elders, writes: “That night the hills around our camp resounded with the notes of native horns, which we were told were sounded for the pur pose of assembling the elders.” The polity of the Tigania-Igembe could thus be described as an ecumene of agropastoralists, in which horns respond to each other and their blows intermingle.

24The lamalle (or ramare) made up the body of warriors in charge of maintaining order; they ensured fights did not break out among warriors, nor between warriors and non-initiates, so the Fathers did not have to worry about these things; however, these latter remained mediators in the event of a conflict or lasting disagreement. Called the kiama kia lamalle ya nthaka, this “council of the lamalle of warriors” was made up of the senior warriors, and the term lamalle came to designate the experienced warrior. A ritual—probably a neo-tradition established in the colonial period during which raids were forbidden—eventually marked this passage; after every batch of new initiates entering the gaaru, each territorial subsection provided a bull, a ram and a pot of honey, to be consumed in the gaaru in celebration of the most recent promoted to the title of lamalle.

3. “Establishing” and “uprooting” the warrior gaaru

25Every nthukî had to build its own gaaru, yet choosing the actual moment depended on the state of disrepair of the edifice erected by the predecessors. According to the elderly, a building lasted on average between fifteen and twenty years, exactly the length of time spent recruiting a new set. Thus an additional means for assessing the state of the system arises, this time expressed in terms of the wear (or erosion) of a building over the years, which in a way reflects the erosion of power wielded by the set of the Fathers of the country. However, the two phenomena do not exactly coincide in time since, in general, the construction of a new gaaru occurred after the recruitment and installation of the first ndinguri subset. Accompanied by their spouses, those from the previous set would come to “uproot” their warrior house, and give way for the next set, who in turn built their own: gwaaka gaaru ya nthaka is the expression used for this occasion, literally meaning “to build the warrior house”. However, the verb gwaaka also means to “establish”, thus “to build the gaaru” is an expression used by men when they want to say their set has wielded power, or they have accomplished their duty as a set.

26The construction of the edifice represented a privileged moment in the life of the territorial section; it was the perfect opportunity for the age and generation sets to collaborate and display a symbiosis and harmony in opposition to the aggression present during the transmission of powers, on the one hand, and the withdrawal of one set during the gaaru uprooting ritual on the other. Every stage in the construction of the new gaaru was cocooned in an atmosphere of appeasement and reconciliation. The collaboration evidenced among all was due also to purely practical reasons, since the construction of such an edifice takes time, and requires much quality wood and a lot of work. The wood was collected by the young people of the section, who would gather it from high up in the forest layers. The warriors, accompanied by non-initiates, both girls and boys, chose the trees and chopped them into posts to be carried back. The posts were then placed into holes dug in a carefully traced out circumference, a meticulous chore carried out by the Fathers. Given the sleeping arrangements of the warriors, the circumference of the building was estimated according to the number of warriors that had to sleep inside—marking another moment when a sort of tally of the population took place resulting in the demarcation of an area on the ground where the number was projected onto the territory. Depending on the size of the gaaru, either one or four central posts were raised to support a framework of poles arranged in a radius, with no braces except at the extremities, since the warriors would have to be able to escape through the roof. Depending on the temperature of the place at night—and hence its altitude—the walls, made of closely spaced logs, were plastered with an earth coated with the usual cow-dung mixture. This chore fell to the young girls, just as they were responsible for building the circular berth inside that served as a bed. A feast of yams and meats, masculine foods prepared and served up by men both young and old, celebrated the laying of the thatch and the completion of the building: bundles of tall grass gathered and carried by young girls could be placed only by women past the childbearing age, or who were not active reproductively (menstruation or pregnancy). The term that designates this activity sheds some light on its interdictions. The verb kwarira means “to cover a roof”, as well as “to show off one’s prosperity” and, by extension, one’s success and fertility: to be effective, this action must be carried out by women who are not (or are no longer) having children, which makes perfect sense here because it concerns the success and prosperity of the set whose gaaru has just been built.

  • 5  Since the 1950s, the forest at the summit of the Nyambene Hills has become a military zone blocked (...)

27The building erected on the kieni kia gaaru—not in the center but at the edge of the clearing on the border separating Those Above and Those Below in the example from Athiru Gaitî—had to be blessed, in a ceremony of the “gaaru protective charms”, called mîthega gaaru or more specifically kiongoana gaaru: mîthega (sing. mûthega) is a generic term currently used to designate any plant used for curative or protective purposes and more generally any propitiatory gesture or object; kiongoana is a shortened version of the phrase kûbwithia kiongoana which means “to work for, to repair the head” and refers to the category of rituals involving anything to do with human growth and accomplishment. The Fathers would choose four girls and four uninitiated boys from the children’s generation, hence from the nthukî for which the gaaru was built. They would go to the forest at the summit of the Nyambene, accompanied by Accomplished who brought with them honey and a ram (dark-colored, naturally). Together they would head to a place called Erianinî, or “Small Lake”, which, as the name implies, is a small lake or large pond5. Once having killed the ram, the elders would circle the pond, spraying a mixture of saliva and honey while reciting prayers addressed to Ngaï-Murungu. They would wait for a rustling to be heard in the surrounding woods, and for the leaves covering the surface of the pond to spread open and let appear a patch of clear water, all signs meant to signify that their offerings and prayers had been received. The supreme, or creator, principle would materialize in the air and the wind, making the forest rustle and the leaves scatter. The path would be drawn and could thus be followed. Now one boy and one girl could choose the trees and only pretend to chop them; it was the task of those who are afraid of nothing, not even death, the Accomplished, to actually chop them. Once selected and chopped down, the four kinds of trees called mutiani, mûkuma, muthongiru, mûangua—though the four names vary—would become the protective charms of the warriors’ house. The logs carried back would be added to the wood used to make the walls of the new building, and were laid near the central post. Obtained by the Accomplished, the mîthega are symbols of the blessing and protection offered by Ngaï-Murungu to the warrior gaaru, thanks to which the new Bushmen are granted courage.

28Although the four boys chosen for the ceremony are not distinguished in any apparent way, the four chosen girls are reserved a special fate, since they are considered the “Mothers” of the gaaru, thus ascribed to a generational position that is not without consequence. It is said the gaaru belongs to them and as such they are the ones who must choose the day of its destruction. It follows that they can no longer be wed to a man of the warrior set. We saw in the chapter on kinship the structural significance of this disassociation in reverse to the generational system. The position of the Mothers of the gaaru also mirrors that of the Fathers of the country and of their spouses, owners of the kaaria, who affiliate their children through initiation but who then give up their career as progenitors. It is true that a Father can always take a new spouse, but Fathers are expressly not the beneficiaries of the Mothers of the gaaru. In Tigania, at least one of these girls is given as a spouse to a blacksmith-goldsmith, whose position is associated to that of the mûgwe, a dignitary in which the person himself is considered as a mîthega-protective charm for all the gaaru of one warrior set; this would indicate a deal with the warriors, who accept to lose a girl in exchange for receiving a protection. Some informants also point out that one boy and one girl had to come from a territorial section different from that where the gaaru was built. This rule, which establishes cross-participations, obliges them to open up and recalls the necessity for exchange, in this instance among territorial sections.

  • 6  For various reasons, a few delayed in getting married and remained in the gaaru. However, their co (...)

29The destruction of the warriors’ house is called ûkûûra aaru, the “uprooting of the gaaru”. It takes place when the ndinguri of the subsequent set have been recruited and settled in, and when the building shows obvious signs of wear. The Mothers must also give their consent. A big feast is held to celebrate the “uprooting”, attended only by the members of the nthukî concerned accompanied by their spouses. By now, pretty much all have moved on from the warrior state and have settled down in their mûciî, busy in the flourishing of a family6; by destroying their warrior gaaru, they signal that they want to become “men in their own right”, and that nothing else ties them to their previous state. Each brings two goats or a large ram, and the spouses provide the gruel and beer. The feasting lasts about ten days, during which all the animals are consumed, while the house is slowly dismantled and all the wood burned. Then comes the moment when the central post must be chopped down; everyone joins in “uprooting” the post, which is pushed over until it falls to the ground, chopped up and burned. All is burnt except for the embers—or wood, depending—that are parceled out, and brought back to each mûciî to be thrown into the spouse’s hearth.

  • 7  There exists, in Tigania at least, a simplified version of the cycle of the warrior gaaru: the gaa (...)

30Those belonging to the set that has just destroyed its gaaru and left a clean slate for the next do not participate in the building of the new house. The act of uprooting highlights that which separates the successive sets; one gaaru’s time is up, the one’s has begun, and these two cannot overlap. Episode g in the myth of Mbugi, dealing with the tree and its three branches that must be cut down, and the origin of circumcision, says the same. The “uprooting of the gaaru” is one of two phrases used to designate the transfer of power; while the other phrase uses the term ntuiko and places emphasis on the general rupture inherent to the passing of power as it shifts from one division to another and all sets change grades, the uprooting marks instead the progression of time, and the end of an era. However, the central post that young girls while cleaning the gaaru must absolutely not touch is also an agent for the vitality and continuity intrinsic to the set that lived there. The distribution of the wood or embers of the post among the spouses’ hearths ensures a continuity between this gaaru and its members who, though dispersed, belong to a single set and are marked by an identical fate of fertility. The big gaaru has scattered into many smaller gaaru of family fathers, who will bring about the next big gaaru. This is also how the patrilineality specific to the generational division is woven7.

Ill. 5a & b — “A charge of Wamsara [Muthaara]”

Ill. 5a & b — “A charge of Wamsara [Muthaara]”

Above: 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives, below: the etching by Otto (in Chanler 1896: 136).

4. Warriors in what war?

  • 8  The account of the first travellers is presented in Appendix A.

31The expedition of L. von Höhnel and W. A. Chanler during their extended stay in the Nyambene region in 1893 encountered, among other difficulties, a less than friendly welcome by the warriors of various territorial sections8. Returning from a tour of the semi-desert regions to the north, they made contact with the Muthaara in the hopes of obtaining supplies. The Muthaara was a section situated northeast of Kianjai, within a larger territorial section not yet called Tigania, whereas the other Igembe denomination, given here in its Embe form, is evidenced in this account. Apart from its description of the warriors’ gear, the episode Chanler (1896) recounts in his singular way is instructive as it reveals the principles that govern the activity of the warriors, and how they are linked to the sets of Fathers; it is a document unique in its kind.

While Lieutenant von Höhnel was making his midday observation, we heard shouts from the forest, and there soon appeared a motley band of natives, numbering some hundred. There were about fifty old men among them; the rest were warriors. All were armed. The old men carried long spears with short, trowel-shaped heads, short bows, and arrows whose tips we could see with a black substance, which we knew to be poison. They were clad in long half-tanned cowhide, fastened with a loop over one shoulder. Their heads were shaven. The young men presented a much more warlike appearance. In their right hands they carried spears nearly seven feet in length, in shape similar to those carried by the Masai. These spears had a blade three feet long, about five inches wide at its base, from which it tapered to a sharp point. Fitted into a socket attached to the blade was a short piece of wood, which was grasped by the hand. Joined to this latter was a heavy iron rod, of sufficient weight to give impetus to a blow. This, likewise, was sharpened to a point. While engaged in conversation the warriors drove theirs spears into the ground. Around the waist they wore a belt, between which and the body was stuck a short sword in a sheath, and a war-club. The latter are three feet in length, very slender where grasped by the hand, but ending in a round knob as large as a baseball. On their left arms they bore large oval shields, upon which painted in three different colours (red, white, and black), were curious decorative designs. The warriors were clad in short cloaks of untamed goatskin, looped over the right shoulder by a strip of hide, thus leaving the right arm free. These cloaks do not fall lower than the stomach of the wearer. The Wamsara [Muthaara] wear their hair dressed in the Masai fashion. From the foreheads and down almost to the eyes a thick mass of hair cut square like a bang. This is trained in small cordlike ringlets, dyed with red clay, and covered with grease. The hair at the back of the head is twisted into a queue, which is bound about by a strip of sheepskin. Many of the warriors painted both their upper and lower eyelids red, and several had adorned their cheek-bones with round red spots. In appearance they were very warlike, and their nearing was graceful and fearless. Upon nearing our zeriba [camp], the crowd of natives grew silent. They passed without deigning to favour our camp with so much as a glance, but continued their march to a point about 200 yards beyond us, where they halted, and having seated themselves, engaged in excited parley. The speakers were always old men, and but one spoke at a time, while the others, gathered about him in a circle, sat on their heels. In his right hand the speaker invariably held a war-club, by wildly brandishing which he added emphasis to his harangue. Motio [their interpreter and guide] listened attentively to what they said, and his face fell. He told us that he was afraid that the Wamsara would behave badly, and explained that they did not seem to recognize any difference between our caravan and those of the Zanzibari, which occasionally visited them. He added, moreover, that no Zanzibari caravan would dream of venturing into the Wamsara country, unless several hundred in number; and that the last caravan (numbering 200) which has visited these people had all their goods stolen, and were cut to pieces to a man.
hanler 1896: 156-158.

32The situation rapidly deteriorated, until the expedition was forced to head back and rejoin its base camp, bypassing the Nyambene Hills via the north:

[Motio] added that, as the mountains were densely populated, it would be absolutely impossible to push across them with our small force [there were about sixty of them], should the native prove hostile, and that they would so prove he declared himself fully convinced.
hanler 1896: 162.

33However, the expedition was short on water and provisions; von Höhnel and Chanler deemed it unfeasible to take the detour through the near-desertlike regions to the north, and decided to take the direct route that cut straight across to a pass marking the boundary between the Muthaara and the Igembe; these latter were not unknown to them, since the first time the caravan had approached the Nyambene Hills was from their side (ibid.: 100-106). The caravan set off at night and in passing stole a few cattle and some food. The assailants increased the attacks against the convoy that scattered under the forest cover and caused a few casualties, but the gunfire managed to keep them away. When the party reached the pass that marked the beginning of the Embe territory, the warriors ceased their pursuit. After much negotiation, the expedition was able to reach its base camp on the other side of the Nyambene Hills, the south-east side.

Half an hour’s march, and we began to enter the bordering plantation of the Wamsara. The path then became better. On both sides millet rose to the height of two feet, and the plantations were dotted here and there with what the weird moonlight looked like watch-towers. Such they proved to be. The natives had raised wooden platforms to the height of fifteen feet, on which fires were burning, and around these fires we could just descry the forms of warriors. Our advance was made as silently as possible; but we had not entered the cultivated portion of the Wamsara territory a quarter of a mile, ere from tower to tower were exchanged fierce cries, and the brightening dawn enabled us to distinguished large bodies of natives hurrying on to some point in front of us.
hanler 1896: 165.

[My men] had scarcely reached the knoll, ere with loud shouts a body of warriors, at least 200 in numbers, sprang from the plantation where they had been in hiding, and dashed toward the knoll by a road. Advancing in column, they presented a front of but five or six men […] Soon we were engaged upon all sides, and for two hours our attention was directed to stemming the onrush of hundreds of natives. Upon seeing them weaken, we would charge the retreating column with a small force, and endeavour by excessive punishment to prevent their return. For the first hour of engagement our fire seemed to daze the natives, and they would retreat to a point beyond range. They would there reassemble, and after being harangued by their chiefs would again charge us, only to be beaten back again. We, however, did not get off scot free. There were many hand-to-hand combats between my men and the natives.
hanler 1896: 168-171.

  • 9  In 1982 the work of the historian J. Fadiman was published. It was presented as a contribution to (...)

The forces of the Wamsara appeared to be divided into three parts: first the old and middle-aged, who confined themselves exclusively to the use of the bows; then the young men, armed with spears, swords and war-clubs; then the lad of sixteen and under, who employed themselves with slings. At one time and another during this day’s fighting the Wamsara had from 2000 to 3000 men in the fields sufficiently brave and active to have annihilated a force four times as great as mine, though armed with rifles; but their lack of organization and their ignorance of the first principles of warfare enabled us, as the event proves, to be more than a match for them. [Chanler, as usual, does not mince his words9].
hanler 1896: 174.

Motio told us that we had reached the country of the Embe, where we hoped to find a peaceful reception and friendly treatment […] After two hours’ marching we crossed one of the ravines, and on the opposite side were met by a large band of Embe. They greeted us with smiling faces, and had tufts of grass and small branches tucked in their greasy locks as signs of peace.
hanler 1896: 178-179.

Upon reaching an open glade, we had a palaver with the Embe and assured them of our peaceful intentions […] but they did not appear overjoyed at the news that I intended to remain a few days in their country.
hanler 1896: 180-181.

The Embe who accompanied us had most cheerfully assisted us upon the march; but had appeared, to me at last, somewhat nervous, whenever we made the slightest halt […] I soon discovered the cause of their anxiety […] Looking up, I saw 300 warriors, decked in their most terrifying war costume, dashing fiercely down the hill toward us. The elders of the Embe clung to me, and urged me not to fire […] the Embe elders shouted to them to halt. The young men listened to them, and stopped at a point about 150 yards distant from where we stood, panting with excitement, and their eyes flashing fire.
hanler 1896: 183-184.

Two elders, who said they were the proprietors of our camp, appeared and brought with them a large gourd containing delicious honey, also some sugar-cane and a bushel of millet. We loaded our visitors with present [s], after receiving which they told us that the Embe wished to make blood-brothers with us. This ceremony is termed by these people muma [generic term for all oaths]. [...] Shortly after rising the following morning some elders appeared, and told us they were ready to arrange the preliminaries of the blood-brotherhood […] I found about hundred of elders gathered in a circle. Presently an old man with a long stick in his hands arose, and in loud and boisterous tones harangued for about ten minutes. The burden of his speech was: “Why have you, the Lashomba (traders), taken cattle from our brothers the Wamsara? Why have you killed their young men?”
hanler 1896: 184-185.

At 11 am I attended another palaver. This time I found nearly 400 natives assembled, mostly warriors and old men. They were seated in a circle, on the edge of which Lieutenant von Höhnel and I placed our chairs. I learned that a preliminary ceremony had to be performed for the purpose of convincing the Embe of our good intentions, and to clean the road over which our feet had passed. They said we had entered their country prior to making a treaty with them, and in consequence each footstep we had taken from the line between their territory and that of the Wamsara might, for all they knew, have some dire effect upon their crops. They said, however, that their suspicions would be allayed, should a male sheep be slaughtered, and portions of it body strewn over the path by which we had come. This was done […] At 4 pm […] this time we found about 600 warriors and old men assembled; but when we noticed that one and all of them had come armed, we were disagreeably affected by the sight. For the gathering more resembled a hostile demonstration than one of ratification of a treaty of unending peace. On the occasion a young male goat was sacrificed. Some elders, who seemed to be impressed with a sense of their importance, together with Lieutenant von Höhnel and I, seized and held on to the hind legs of the goat, and its head was pointed carefully in the direction of the highest peak of the range. While the sacrifice was going on, the two elders, Lieutenant von Höhnel, and I gave vent in the most solemn manner to the direct curses and most vindictive threats, which, however, were to take effect only in the event of treachery on the part of the other high contracting party to this treaty. This portion of the ceremony concluded, a bit of the goat was roasted over a quickly improvised fire, and the contracting parties partook of this flesh.
hanler 1896: 186-188.

34Once again Chanler comments on the relations between the Embe and Wamsara:

The Wamsara possess larger herds than the Embe; but, on the other hand, the Embe are by far the more industrious cultivators. Although these tribes may be said to be quite distinct from each other, still the friendliest relations are maintained between them. Trading is carried on daily at a point near the frontier. The Embe bring the products of their plantations and exchange them for meat and skins produced by the flocks of the Wamsara. These, a few years before, possessed many hundred head of cattle; but we found at the time of our visit that their flock had been largely reduced by some plague (I suppose pleuro-pneumonia) [in fact rinderpest], and they were forced to undertake a little agriculture.
hanler 1896: 190-191.

35The growing demand for ivory throughout the 19th century enticed the Zanzibari to overcome their fears to venture in these regions. In the past, caravans had ventured there but never returned, and the Kamba, who handled trade between inland and the coast, maintained the reputation for ferocity of the tribes, for whom they acted as intermediary. Thanks to age sets, populations could quickly mobilize hundreds of warriors if necessary; the absence of chiefdoms and of a slave status—often linked to prisoner trades—also abolished any hopes of gain in this area. The Zanzibari caravan massacre alluded to by the guide Motio is probably not imaginary, nor is the fact the Muthaara did not distinguish between a caravan of explorers and a caravan of merchants. Eight years later, A. Arkell-Hardwick (1903: 217-220), an ivory hunter by trade, while staying with the Rendille pastoralists further north, heard about the massacre of a caravan of eighty Somali by the Igembe; his hosts (who know the Igembe well, as they are their gichiario and maintain active bartering with them) explained to him that Somalis act like whites people —they pass through quickly and do not take the time to build relations with people. The aggression of the warriors was also due to both wild and domesticated herds being decimated by rinderpest at the time, an epizootic followed by other disasters such as prolonged dry spells, grasshopper invasions, and smallpox epidemics (Dawson 1992); Chanler mentions this problem but does not associate it with the refusal or reluctance of populations to exchange goods with the caravan. The historian C. Ambler (1988) demonstrates how at the turn of the century the effects of these accumulated catastrophes facilitated the conquering of populations of the highlands of future Kenya, while contributing to shaping the image of their warriors as particularly aggressive.

36In Muthaara, Chanler does not fail to notice and record the weapons carried by the three age divisions confronting the expedition. In exceptional circumstances such as these, the elders, armed with light spears, bows and arrows dipped in poison that was active only when fresh, joined in the fighting along with the young, armed with just their slingshots; meanwhile, the warriors, clearly distinguishable by their appearance and their weapons, made up the main element of defense and attack. In this instance also, everything tends toward the notion that the decision to attack the caravan was made with the approval of the elders, in this case the Fathers, whose role it was to do so: the way in which they held a circular assembly—to the center of which each person speaking stepped—is duly described. The lookout decks, used also to watch over the fields for birds, are recorded, just like the outposts where warriors, accompanied by Fathers, gather at the foot of the high hills either to guard the livestock or ensure defense (Chanler 1896: 151-152, 199-201). In what appears here like the stalking of the party advancing through Muthaara territory, the warriors, probably less hampered by the forest cover than by the power of the caravan’s firearms, seem to have menaced and diverted more than outright attacked. The halt they made once arrived in Embe territory proves that a territorial limit does indeed exist, since when crossing it, the warriors were delayed, for a bit at least—a delay Motio (the guide) was counting on, in fact. However, the intervening of the Embe elders also elucidates the position of the warriors with respect to them. As long as the irreparable was avoided, the authority of the Fathers was enough to stop the warriors—in this case warriors of a neighboring major section and even more so, one should think, with warriors from their own section—who were preparing to attack. On either side of a territorial limit that undoubtedly exists, there prevails the same system of sets and authority. The tirade of the Igembe Fathers demanding to know why the “Lashomba” took the cattle and killed young men among their Muthaara brothers confirms this. Moreover, the preliminary ritual to which the caravan was subjected when it arrived in Embe territory stems less from the fact that the individuals were strangers than from the pollution brought about by the caravan. Indeed, its members, who were either killed or had mixed with the dying and dead bodies, were now carriers of mûgiro, which has a negative effect on the territory, the harvest, and the population (of people and livestock). In other circumstances, all warriors who have killed an enemy undergo a reinsertion ritual. This ritual of purification is conducted through the sacrificing of a ram (always used in this instance), its various parts scattered along the path travelled by the caravan. Having done this, the “blood-brotherhood(sic) ritual can be carried out: the element described above is characteristic of the kind of oath called kuringa nthenge (literally meaning “beating the goat”): all parties present, Fathers as well as outsiders (the people in the caravan), vow to a death like that of the goat if the promises declared during their oath are not respected. What happened next proves the oath taken by the Fathers of one territorial section was far from binding for all the Embe (ibid.: 191-201).

37Other indications appear in the travelers’ accounts, not necessarily acts of defense but of raids conducted by Igembe, Muthaara and Kianjai warriors (in other words, the two large Tigania divisions) against populations set up below and beyond the Nyambene Hills. Near a ford on the Ewaso Nyiro, about thirty kilometers north of the northernmost slope of the Nyambene, Chanler (ibid.: 274) notes the existence of rudimentary shelters: “These, our guide told us, had been built by the Jombeni range people [Nyambene] within the past year, while engaged in a raid upon the Wanderobbo [hunters]. As the Wanderobbo possess no cattle or goats, these raids are for the purpose of making slaves of such natives as the raiders succeed in capturing. According to our guide, the preceding raid had resulted in the capture of a dozen women and children.” Two times at least during 1894, A. H. Neumann (1898: 82, 132), an ivory hunter by trade, came across Embe warriors setting off on a raid. One member, encountered about one hundred and thirty kilometers north-east of the Nyambene, explained: “He said a large party of them had been to make a raid on the Ndorobos of Lorian but had failed to find them.” Then, towards the Tharaka, sixty kilometers as the crow flies south of the Nyambene: “We fell in with a raiding party of some two hundred young warriors from Embe, on a kidnapping expedition, bound for Thaka (a district higher up the Tana). Their idea of “the war-path” is to carry off any women and children they may be able to surprise in outlying ‘shambas’.”

  • 10  A version of this raid can be found that is recounted slightly differently yet just as unfavourabl (...)

38These accounts must of course be taken with a grain of salt and should be cross-checked with other sources, and it is quite possible to do so with the help of interviews carried out by Kangoi (1972: 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 21) with elders from the Kiramunya set; these give a distinctly different version of the outcome of raids. They explained that during the time of the Gichungî (the set around 1885-1900 which coincides with the arrival of the first travelers), Tigania warriors suffered an unprecedented setback during a surprise attack on the Tharaka because these latter had bows and arrows of a higher quality. Led by Ncamba Chiantorongo (a war leader), the Tigania crossed the Kathaita (or Kathita) River near the Kiamuri waterfall, and suffered a veritable disaster; the bodies of those who stayed were used as a ford for those who turned back and fled. Still during the time of the Gichungî, a raid was organized—this time against the Embu, residing over one hundred kilometers south as the crow flies—by the Kianjai warriors alone who took counsel from Kaibate, the mugaa who performed the act of divination before the raid. They passed through the forest but once they arrived in Embu territory they made the mistake of drinking beer; they were taken prisoners and freed in exchange for a ransom of one heifer, one bull, and one goat per warrior10. Another episode, at the time of the Kiramunya kaberia during the colonial conquest, recounts a raid gone wrong organized against the Thamburu (or Samburu) by warriors of the Akîthî, Athwana and Kitheo divisions (hence excluding those of the Kianjai and Mikinduri). An Igembe scout called Baimuthiru had located a Samburu establishment with many cattle, whose chief was called Limathula; the people were killed and all the cattle brought back. On the way back, the warriors did not follow the advice of the mugaa who had told them to head towards the left and not the right. The warriors became lost and entered into Mathara territory: the Mathara attacked them on camelback and killed them with arrows and lances—despite the gichiario relationship that existed between the Tigania-Igembe and the Mathara, the name the Tigania-Igembe gave the Rendille. Granted, the period was particularly troubled; yet it is also true that an alliance existed between the Samburu and the Rendille (Spencer 1973): between their gichiario relationship with the Tigania and their alliance with the Samburu, the Rendille chose the latter.

39Whereas only occasional attacks were led against the Samburu, larger raids were organized against the Imenti (the Meru of Mount Kenya), as well as against the Tharaka. Thus at the time of the Gichungî, a great raid was organized on the Imenti-Tigania border that gathered warriors from all the Tigania; the women who were captured remained the “property of the mwiriga” in the event the ransom was not paid. Another bit of information, this time regarding the origin of the gichiario between the Kianjai and the Maasai called Antualintu, states that at some remote period, a raid was led by the Tigania against the aforementioned Maasai, in retaliation against previous attacks. At the battle of Ngutheru Laingo, the Tigania took many prisoners, who were called, among other names, Lin-gakacha, Linguiti, Limuruto, and Limakuya. Negotiations led to the liberation of prisoners and to establishing a gichiario. Lastly, the scandalous behavior of the Kiramunya ndinguri warriors originating from Kianjai can still be recalled. They attacked the Njea division from Igembe, urged to commit this wrongdoing by the Kibia (Laikipia recently assimilated) and by Tuta, a diviner of Maasai origin. The Fathers tried in vain to stop them, but the Muthaara refused to submit to them. At first, things proceeded in favor of the Kianjai warriors, but then the situation changed. Warriors were killed, and prisoners were set free in exchange for the ransom of a young nanny goat, which may not seem like much, but the repair stems from fixing the damage committed by a warrior of the same territory primarily—not about a raid. A song still remains whose words are: Kianjai, ûkwenda thîîri, Tuta nathama Kianjai, “Kianjai, if you want peace, Tuta must leave Kianjai.” Thîîri means peace as opposed to war, and Tuta is the name of the diviner of Maasai origin. A few years before, the Laikipia Maasai had taken refuge in Kianjai, and were adopted according to the procedures of rebirth; however, their integration was not fully completed since, in breach of well-established principles, some believed they could launch an attack against an Igembe section.

40As a rule, the raids by the Tigania-Igembe warriors were conducted during the dry and hot season in January and February, called ekanga, unless prolonged dryness and epidemic led to the increase of attacks on populations headed to the Nyambene, who were always better equipped with food and water. The size of the raids varied as much in the number of warriors involved as in the populations attacked and the distances travelled. This being said, the outside populations were not an undistinguishable whole; they were separated into categories specifically distinguished by the nature of the relationships the Tigania-Igembe held with them, either peaceful or aggressive to varying degrees.

41At one end were those against whom raids were impossible, and whose status determined the position others. Violence against a Tigania-Igembe was condemned, just as his revenge was ignored. The act had calamitous consequences which Mbugi had demonstrated to his sons, and contained a logic completely foreign to the social structure: an accidental murder or a deliberate crime—the distinction was made and led to different reparations—demanded the paying of blood money to the parents of the deceased, under the supervision of the Fathers of the section who also took their share; also, the murderer had to submit to a ritual of purification. The Kamba share a similar position; they are ûciarwa, and their death amounts to killing someone of the same territory—worse still, since the Kamba have a reputation for possessing powerful medicines. With the Kikuyu, called Ekûû, who are geographically remote, the relationship is friendly because, it is said, some Tigania-Igembe went to live there and others might do the same, and vice-versa. The Turkana, whose reputation is to have taken in uninitiated Tigania-Igembe on the run, are not enemies, yet do not hold a particular category either. A similar case are the Mukogodo, a small group of hunter blacksmith-herders (sic) who lived in the hills before the Nyambene and with whom the Tigania-Igembe maintained civil relations that did not include raids: the Mukogodo would warn the Tigania of the arrival of enemy warriors. With these three groups, all assaults demanded reparations, both material and ritualistic, the substance of which was subject to negotiation. Then came the tribes who enjoyed a gichiario relationship with them, whom one could not marry, or kill, and to whom one could not refuse assistance; these are the Mwimbî, a division of Mount Kenya, and the Rendille, also called Mathara—camel pastoralists who travel north of the Nyambene. If any sort of incident occurred with these people—and it could always happen again—then, under the threat of setting a curse on their attackers, they demanded reparations, the amounts of which could be exorbitant. Such an incident pitted the Rendille against the Igembe from the Njea division, whose warriors, during the years corresponding to the war of 1914-1918, had attacked a caravan come to the Nyambene to trade hides and small livestock for farm products. In the early 1940s, the Njea grazing fields had become unusable because of the proliferation of a parasite and an invasion of ants. After consulting the diviner-healer, the Fathers of the section decided it was the result of a curse pronounced against them when they were warriors and had attacked the Rendille (Mathara) in violation of the gichiario; they dispatched messengers to the pastoralists in order to lift the curse, which the latter accepted to do in exchange for sizeable payments (archives of the Marsabit District, dc/mbt/7/5/1).

Map 5. — The maitha, or declared enemies of the Tigania-Igembe (pre-colonial period)

Map 5. — The maitha, or declared enemies of the Tigania-Igembe (pre-colonial period)

CHUKA: maitha ordeclared enemies
gichiario, neither war nor marriage

42All the other groups were maitha: in other words, enemies that could be attacked, killed or kidnapped, even if differing degrees existed within this category: the Borana (also called Chuchu), the Maasai speakers (often called Urû) including the Samburu (or Thuku), the Ndorobo, the Somali, the Meru divisions of Mount Kenya (Imenti, Chuka), the Embu-Mbeere, and the Tharaka (who represented the worst of the bunch in the eyes of the old Tigania-Igembe).

43Although not the only factors involved, economic and political considerations motivated the raids: asserting sovereignty through a show of strength in defending territory and harvests, pastures and watering holes—in particular the Laaria sources and the Ngombe crater, one of the sacred sites of the Tigania-Igembe country, which is also a strategic source of salt, and whose mining is reserved for the Tigania-Igembe alone. Defending the iron sand deposits located to the north, towards Samburu land, or to the south, beyond the Thuuri forest, the warriors would accompany the blacksmiths who reduced the iron ore on site in pits and brought back blooms that they molded at home. They seized cattle, and took captives, especially women and children. The plundered cattle was brought back to the Fathers, who disposed of it as they liked, and the captives—if no ransom was paid—were adopted. There was no intermediary status as domestic slave; the adopted prisoners became part of the family unit and the matrimonial circuit (in addition to my informants, see Lambert 1950: 15, n. 2). A female captive was never wed by the warrior who brought her back, but was adopted by the warrior’s father; he could, however, use for his own marriage the bridewealth received from the wedding of the captive who was now like a sister. By removing any hope of escape, the remoteness their place of origin—and apparently the warriors did not think twice about travelling great distances—facilitated the integration of the captives. The memory of captives who were adopted and became Tigania-Igembe is still very much alive among the Ithalie (set) whose mothers had experienced it; far from representing a marginal element, these captives contributed to balancing the demographic parameters of a population marked, as we saw, by a low fertility directly linked to the perpetuation of the generation-set system. Though it traced the outer limits of the Tigania-Igembe polity, the raid was not the only type of relationship possible with the maitha, however. Women, escorted by warriors carrying spears with buttoned-tips as a sign of peace, went on tibûû expeditions, to trade their goods for cattle products with groups who were more involved in herding. Individuals who came for refuge were adopted or wed; this was the case for survivors from the Maasai Laikipia, Borana women and children, and starving Ndorobo, whose numbers were added to those refugees from groups with whom there existed peaceful relations.

44In preparing for the raids, the figure of the mugaa (agaa), or diviner-healer, appears several times. The warriors consult the diviner-healer to discover the outcome of their expeditions, and to discuss issues of a more practical nature, tactical or geographical. Whereas in groups such as the Maasai, the Nandi, or the Turkana, amid protracted crises, these figures took on a clearly political and prophetic dimension (Fratkin 1979, Lamphear 1992), nothing here indicates that they had to be accorded a similar importance; on the one hand, the mugaa is not a diviner-blesser but a diviner-healer whom everyone—not just warriors—consults in the event of misfortune or illness. Speaking of the blessing of the raids, one could also mention the mûgwe, the “protective charm” of the warriors who lives in altitude; but, in fact, this dignitary, apart from during one raid, is effectively removed from these affairs—a point which will be revisited in due course. The case of the Kianjai warriors who, encouraged by their diviner of Maasai origin, attacked “brothers” from Igembe, is scandalous precisely because it breaks with established rules and customs. All in all, the only mugaa who appears to be in a position to instigate anything is the “diviner-healer of the novices”. Yet he is leader for merely a day, a clown disguised as a bovine prancing before his herd of warriors, projecting an image that is exactly the opposite of that of war chief. Tensions could rise, and crises occur, but the Fathers, with the help of the diviner-healers, kept the warriors under control; they also controlled the loot from the raids. They could also judge that the increase number of raids was becoming detrimental, and thus decide to the rein in the warriors’ fervor. Neighboring groups with warrior sets themselves could respond and retaliate, and the stability of the region, all else being equal, stemmed from a sort of armed peace.

45War and peace were the responsibility of the Fathers of the country, and these two contrasting states in society are distinguished by a variety of terms. Thîîri, “peace”, also called ûkiri—an ancient term meaning “calm” that designates the peace in prayers the elders address to Ngaï-Murungu—as opposed to ndwa, “war”; kûrua ndwa, “to wage war”, kuramuka, “raid”, and njûûri, “raid” and “battle”. Internal conflicts among fellow citizens is matheta or matuma; the Fathers are also called upon to settle disputes, to enforce the law (kwathûrana) and to establish it (kwaatha) again when necessary, until that time when the chaos of the ntuiko affects their legitimacy and forces them to give way to their successors, the new Fathers of the country (nthîî). The vocabulary of political institutions designates the fundamental concepts typical of a State, embryonic perhaps, but these concepts make up the conditions of sovereignty, a scenario R. Lowie (1927) envisaged when he reflected on age sets and the origins of the State.

5. Warriorhood: a junction of contradictions

46As vital as the role of warrior may be in defending territory as well as a principle of collective sovereignty incarnated by the Fathers of the country, this must not overshadow a feature in the construction of the warrior self that occurs in the raid. In order to earn the name of nthukî that he will hand down to his descendants (sons, nephews, godsons), the warrior must accomplish the task of killing an enemy or, in a pinch, a wild animal. This imperative is such that it occurs at the onset of the waangi state: beset by shivering, his heartbeat racing, the warrior is gripped by the desire to kill an enemy. Nkoro î kuringa— “the heart beats” or “the heart speaks”—is the expression heralding the transition into this altered state experienced by no one other than the warrior. It is neither trance nor possession, and is reached not with the help of drugs or drink, but by simple excitation and autosuggestion, during a dancing session or phases in preparation for an attack. If they are not setting off on a raid, the companions of the enraged must keep him under control, as he could kill anybody; for instance, they might hold him down while tying him to a tree until the fit passes, after which the warrior remains motionless for a while. The older women explain that a warrior can enter this state of fury if they see an uninitiated boy courting a girl—an explanation that may date back to when raids were forbidden by the colonial authorities, yet which draws a parallel between the impulse driving him to kill an enemy and the arousal occurring in him in the presence of a woman. Chanler provides the following description of this state, which is worthy of note as long as one overlooks the author’s presumptions:

The sole amusement of the people is dancing. The old men and women dance together, and the warriors with maidens. At the dances of the elders honey-wine flows freely, and debauchery is always the result. [One will have recognised the bankiro dances through the appraisal of this young man from New England high society.] The young people, however, are not allowed to partake of the stimulant, which among these excitable people does not seem to be necessary in youth; but by leaping into the air, and indulging in tumultuous shouts, they work themselves to such a pitch of fury as apparently to lose their reason; they foam at the mouth and hurl themselves upon the ground, where they writhe. The facility with which a warrior enters into this epileptic condition is accepted as evidence of the degree in which he possesses the martial spirit; and it is said of the experts in this line, that their enemies will vanish before them as dew before the rising sun. The desire to win such favorable opinion leads many of the warriors to assume a degree of frenzy which they do not possess; but should the counterfeiter be discovered, he is forced to submit to very rough treatment.
hanler 1896: 253.

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

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

1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.

47The example of the Tigania-Igembe is far from isolated; in the region, warriors from other populations are accustomed to this type of momentary metamorphosis, witnessed for instance in the Oromo (Baxter 1979: 79-80), the Nyangatom, and the Maasai (Tornay 1989a: 52-53). There also exists the same obligation to kill, often linked to the obligation to bring back trophies—nose and ears among the Barabaig of Tanzania (Klima 1970: 58-62), the enemy’s sexual organ among the Borana and the Rendille (Huntingford 1955: 64; Baxter 1979: 69-70; Spencer 1973: 51-55, 95-97). This obligation presumably existed among the Njuwe or proto-Tharaka (Lambert 1950: 16) as well. The Tigania-Igembe, who are allowed to touch the spoils of the Accomplished alone, are too afraid of corpses (Peatrik 1991), even those of enemies killed in battle, to engage in this sort of handling. The nthukî name the warrior earned refers only to the obligation to kill—man, woman, child… whomever, in fact—and to the circumstances of the event:


He who killed many enemies


He who killed an enemy and brought back an item of clothing


He who killed an enemy and brought back a sword


He who killed an enemy and brought back a spear


He who killed and brought back a cow (called lenua, a term also meaning giraffe)


He who killed an enemy who was very tall


He who thought about how he would kill the enemy


He who killed first


He who killed second


He who killed third


He who killed a rhinoceros…

48When a raid against enemies was organized whose purpose went beyond the stealing of cattle, after a meal of black beans and goat, the hide of which was made into protective bracelets, the warriors would gather for a dancing session on the public ground. On this occasion, they did not coat themselves in ochre but painted their bodies with charcoal, which made them appear entirely black. As the warriors cried out and leapt ever higher in their dancing, similar to the way of the Maasai, the tension would rise and prepare them for the waangi state. Two groups in the audience urged them on particularly: the nkenye, their future spouses, badgered and provoked them continually, by challenging their bravery and virility; and the Mothers, anointed in white kaaria, whose sons were warriors: they brandished their weapons and strode across the ground, performing martial dances in which their bodies seemed propelled to the ground as if pulled by an invisible force. It is not unfathomable that an etymological link exists between the term designating the kaaria women’s dance, called kwangaa (from the name of their small wooden shield, ngaa), and the waangi state entered into by their sons. Upon their departure, seven times the warriors would cross over a row of ntongu fruit to which protective charms had been attached.

49The return of the fighters was greeted with a dancing session called njûûri (“raid, combat”). This session was reserved only for the warriors who had killed enemies, whose exploits were celebrated and who then were submitted to a reinsertion ritual. Just like when returning from the circumcision ground, the Fathers would bless these sons not just because they had survived combat, but because they had killed maitha (enemies) and brought back spoils—cows or other bounty. “Mother Thirindi, mother Thirindi, shave me, I killed a person who was eaten by the leopard”, would sing the warriors who had earned their nthukî name, asking the kaaria women of the set—in this instance Kiramunya spouses—to shave their hair.

50The killer-warrior’s own mother, or any other woman owning the kaaria, would set about shaving his head, then paint his body with a mixture of ochre and fat taken from a sheep sacrificed for this occasion. From the black that he was during the raid, the warrior would return to his usual red and shiny once again—though now no longer wearing the sophisticated headdress that distinguished him. (His hair would grow back and once again would be dressed, unless the warrior married in the meantime.) In this sequence, called ûbacûgia, accompanying the transition from the color black to the color red as one of the rituals marking the progression of time, the mother, herself covered in the white of the kaaria, performs gestures borrowed from the rituals of the newborn (whose body is coated with fat), and from that of the initiate upon his exit from the seclusion hut (whose abundant hair is shaved by his mother). The ordeal undergone by the warrior who killed a relative or a gichiario during combat by contrast illustrates the symbolic advantage brought by the death of a maitha. In this case, the diviner-healer, not the mother, would intervene, inflicting cuts over the entire body of the warrior whose blood is collected in mûumo leaves. This was in order to cleanse the individual of the mûgiro caused by the death of the relative; another method consisted in cutting the skin at the joints and placing leaches on the cuts. In the first case, the killer-warrior is reinserted through performing the gestures of entry into the world following initiation; in the second, he is rid of an excess caused by the death of a close relation. In both cases there occurs an alteration, either positive or negative, of his self. Yet the difference between the gesture carried out by the mugaa and that performed by the kaaria mother singles out the re-engendering of the son who killed an enemy: just as he was re-engendered by his circumcision on the communal ground, at the end of which he was given his gaaru name, he is also re-engendered through the death of the enemy, after which he is awarded his generation name. Whereas in the first case the re-engendering took place on the clearing of the communal ground, this one takes place in the hot and dry bush where the body of his enemy was eaten—not by hyenas, which would signal the presence of mûgiro, but by the leopard.

51The obligation to kill an enemy was such that it motivated the organizing of a specific raid every time a set or subset was closed. Exact modes differed from one place to the next, but in general two contrasting and complementary phases followed each other. The first phase was marked by the ritual of the ntigiri that gathered together the warriors of several territorial sections. The term, meaning “donkey”, is in fact a name-masker allowing one to mention (without having to name) the bull—black in color, and around which the ritual was organized. On the given day, a procession of warriors led by the Father who offered the bull sets off at the sound of a horn and singing; the animal the Father holds is attached to one end of a rope and is hidden from view, covered completely in dried banana tree leaves. Thus, to the term “donkey” (which already provided concealment), a cover of leaves is now added, since no one should know that it is in fact a bull. After walking around the territory for a while, the procession heads to the forest, and into a clearing. The bull is then held to the ground and smothered as is the custom. What happens next differs from the usual carving up of the carcass: a Father addresses the warriors and asks those who have not yet had sexual intercourse with a nkenye to step forward to eat the meat. The warriors who are not virgins in this sense do not dare lie because the meat they would then ingest may subsequently kill them. Those who have stepped forward are handed a chunk of raw meat: without the aid of hands nor a knife, like wild animals (hyenas, specifically) they must tear off a piece with their teeth, which they will chew for a long time before being able to swallow it. Few warriors meet the criteria, and consequently much meat remains. It is burned entirely along with the bones and the hide; nothing must remain of this black bull who is disguised as a donkey in name and concealed by a wrapping of dried leaves exactly like those covering the initiate when he leaves the circumcision ground, and exactly like the leaves covering those condemned to death for witchcraft, which are also burned entirely. After thus disposing of the bull, the warriors leave the forest to prepare for a raid at the foot of the hills, where they will have to kill as many enemies as possible. At the end of the raid, the warriors are celebrated, and undergo a reinsertion ritual (described previously). They are then collectively granted the authorization to marry. The same ritual is held for the three subsets, except that for the last one— the kaberia who close the set—the raid is called “the lake of the mantle” (îria rîa nguû), a phrase that refers to the mantle of the mûgwe, the emblem of the dignitary renewed each generation. In this case, the black hide of the bull-donkey is kept, and used to make the mantle of the dignitary.

52The sequence of the “bull disguised as a donkey” echoes that of the “novices’ diviner” (disguised as a cow), by which the freshly-circumcised, after undergoing the ordeal of the cattle-branding iron, are incorporated into the group before it sets out on a first raid called guta nkûû. This time, following a confession of a new sort, those who have never known a woman are invited to express their singularity and step forward to devour a piece of raw meat—an act that reduces them to the level of anthropophagous animals, the meaning of which is entirely evident in the raid that follows, through which all the members of a set become killer-warriors. It is the enactment of the necessity to turn towards the other, failing which one remains undifferentiated, only to regress to the state of wild animal— a sequence also connoting the maternal uncle and recalling the confusion and anthropophagy preceding the establishment of the two gaaru. The necessity of turning outwards goes as far as to require the warrior to strip from the enemy something he may use to shape himself, maitha whose death results in a beneficial transfer onto the killer. As long as he has not killed an enemy, the warrior cannot be recognized as a progenitor because he is lacking this element that he never stripped from the other, which also suggests that the active masculine ingredient is limited in quantity. The act that the Bushman has not accomplished individually is carried out during a raid, through which his set adopts a collective genesic principle of outside origin that—along with the various uses which will prevail within the bankiro relationship—underscores the local gloss according to which the proliferation of humans and of the herd is linked to war and the cycle of the sun. By taking on a nthukî name, an individual, like his set, acquires a principle which, at the subsequent stage of young fathers, allows him to be an accomplished progenitor. Once past this stage, however, they will cease procreating, as the successive generation takes over, yet again confirming the notion that genesic energy exists in limited quantities, and that what was gained from the death of an enemy at some point runs out.

53The particularity of the construction of the warrior self cannot be conceived of independently of the other traits that characterize him. At the crossroads of the temporal principle governing the formation of sets, and the territorial principle outlining the Tigania-Igembe polity, the warrior turns out to be quite an odd figure. Having awaited his initiation a long time, the young man, who has just been promoted with his companions, enters a new phase of social minority and isolation. He does of course take precedence over the non-initiate whom he is now responsible for overseeing. He is of course celebrated for his bravery and admired for his talent for dancing the authi; women and young girls in particular are proud of the beauty and health of their warriors. Not without annoyance however, the Fathers emphasize that the warrior is also a Bushman who owns nothing - neither mûciî, family, nor herd, who must obey the Fathers and the elders. At every level, the position and person of the warrior seem to fit into a set of contradictory injunctions.

54It all starts as soon as the initiate, having gone through the ordeal of the cattle branding iron, receives advice and a lesson in morality that combines a duty to obey the elders with learning about trickery and subterfuge (hence the story, updated accordingly, of the young man who goes from shop to shop claiming to have only a big bill, and thus manages to receive food free of charge from the conned shopkeepers who have no change). The contradiction takes further shape in the relationship the warriors have with girls, with whom sexual relations are both reproved and encouraged, and should not result in a pregnancy that would have catastrophic consequences. A similar ambiguity crops up in the rules of marriage, since some of the girls who are intended for them, but whom they cannot marry immediately, end up being wed by their predecessors. The raid itself—the emblematic activity of any warrior—represents a function whose outcome eludes him; the Fathers, aided by the diviners, are there to give their consent and to divide up the spoils among themselves.

55The aspects of his person that make him a figure to be admired elevate the warrior as well as contribute to his isolation. In the first place, his beauty. Surrounded by companions who help him for hours (and for whom he will exchange the favor later on), the warrior perfects his headdress (thaara ya nthaka) with fine plaits woven with fibers from the bark of the mûgumo tree, fashions headdresses with feathers or fur to wear, and covers his head and body with ochre and fat—all this, I am told, so that one can no longer tell who he is. Thus beautiful and unrecognizable, he is to speak to no one except his companions and his nkenye; he waits for a Father to speak to him, and deems himself far superior to condescend to speaking with non-initiates. Food also contributes to setting him apart. Certain food falls first to the warriors: nchaabî black beans, yams, meat, freshly-drawn milk and blood—food that is considered heavy nourishment (intobeinja) that gives strength. Beer, honey-wine and mirra, however—stimulating drinks and plants that could affect his ability to react and that are reserved for adults—are forbidden to the warrior. Yet the interdiction covers other food as well: the green vegetables called nyoni which include both wild species (terere, thûrûma) and cultivated ones (kilenge, the leaves of a sort of pumpkin); thûrûkû, chûgû, varieties of peas and beans; and lastly, any game bird. Although by nature greatly different, it is said these foods have one thing in common: they destroy the energy of the warrior who consumes them. A warrior invites the scorn of any woman who discovers him doing so, along with the punishment from companions who cannot allow for such misconduct. The warriors (whose appetite is proverbial) always eat hidden from others, in their gaaru or in the bush; women especially must not see them during these moments, and even less so when defecating—general rules that are heightened when applied to warriors. Lastly, he is singled out during the waangi state, in which, seized by opposing forces—the passivity that allows him to lose control of himself, and the overactivity that drives him to kill an enemy—he constructs his self by obtaining, through the death of the Other, that part in him that will allow him to engender his progeny.

56The warrior is further set apart through the symbolic awkwardness he faces as soon as he leaves his seclusion hut and up until he enters marriage. In him the two great competing principles governing the world and society live side by side, which usually everything strives to keep separate. For life to occur, the cycle of the rain and the cycle of the sun must be both disjointed and endowed with the same valency: an excess of one of them could put the other in danger, and their intermingling renders them ineffective. From the first stems the richness of the soil, the abundance of pastures and the harvest, and from the second comes the proliferation of people, livestock, and bees. One holds all that is cool, humid, calm, sober, peaceful—all qualities represented by dark-colored sheep; the other holds heat, aridity, movement, light and war—the characteristics displayed by the goat. The rain and the sun behave like the day follows the night, which itself marks the beginning, and renewal. Any imbalance requires the sacrificing of a sheep or goat, and each activation of one must be followed by the activation of the other; the “mûciî of the sheep” and the “mûciî of the goat” provide whatever animals are required to answer this need.

57By the very name of Bushman, further defining his interdiction to go to the gardens and cultivate the earth, the warrior falls on the side of the uncultivated, the bush, the hot, the dry, of the light and of below; his obligation to bring back a trophy-name taken from the death of a maitha draws him towards the outside, according to the centrifugal movement drawn by the sons of Mbugi. By the gaaru housing his set—built on an elevation within a clearing establishing the territorial division, and consecrated by charms taken from the summit forest affixed by girls promoted to the rank of Mothers—and by the fibers holding his hair, the warrior falls on the side of the high, the cool, the humid, the somber, and the interior. Everything in this unnatural conjunction within the realm of the symbolic seems to contribute to the permanent double-bind inherent in the condition of the warrior. By requiring of him everything and its opposite, by placing him both in the bush and in the forest, the warrior is at once devalued and integrated, set aside and controlled. This could relate to the interpretation by the Tigania-Igembe of the traits attributed to youth: set on everything but doing nothing, rebellious and accepting of submission. It is possible. Here however there exists a principle of subordination of the individual and of the construction of the self that is implemented within a deliberately maintained mismatch, and that sheds light retrospectively on the “uprooting of the gaaru”. While the contradictory injunctions that characterize warriorhood cease when the man, like others of his kind, assumes the role of young father and devotes himself to family affairs within his own mûciî, the festival of the “uprooting of the gaaru” puts an end to the symbolic incongruity of the previous state, where the conjunction of incompatible forces bind the warrior to a sexuality that was active yet unfit for fatherhood. When, thereafter, a man who has become a father must spray the mother and the newborn with blood from the cut-off ear of a sheep so as to protect the child from the blood of enemies who could make him cry to death, he shows through this act that he has been endowed with a genesic principle in which excess itself brings death: the blood of the sheep serves to calm the extra energy brought about by the blood of enemies, and allows the child to grow.


annex. The sacred lake of the Nyambene Hills

In 1949, Joy Adamson signed a contract with the colonial government under which she had to paint over one hundred portraits that captured before their disappearance the traditional body ornaments of the various populations of Kenya. In the trimesters that followed, she set off on a journey across the country during which she gathered sketches and photographs; from those she drew paintings, some of which are reproduced in the French edition11. Although not a professional anthropologist, J. Adamson is nevertheless a keen observer, and the book she published in 1967, postfaced by G. W. Huntingford, is a wealth of sources in ethnography and iconography, and, moreover, an interesting account of what was considered then “traditions” regarding “custom” and “costume”. During her stay in the Nyambene Hills—which, incidentally, was not planned initially because the region and its populations seemed so removed from everything (1967: 92)—she hears talk of a “sacred lake” at the top of the mountain and decides to visit it:

I knew that there existed a sacred lake near the summit of the Jombeni Hills which was frequently visited by witch doctors in order to recover their powers [the commentary is erroneous, but these are the mugaa, agaa or diviner-healers]. Several District Commissioners had tried with the help of a guide to locate this place, but had never succeeded in finding it. My curiosity was aroused and I tried my best during the three weeks I camped in Maua to get a guide to lead me to the lake. Although several men promised to come, each at the last moment was detained by some urgent job. This strengthened my determination and, knowing that one of George’s game scouts12 belonged to the Igembe, I asked [my husband] to bring him when next he came for a week end. I hoped that thanks to his influence we might get a guide to show us the sacred lake. Isiolo was not far away and the Jombeni Hills were within George’s control. My plan was successful and soon after George arrived with the Scout we were all climbing the steep foothills which lead to the summit. The higher we went, the more impenetrable the forest became, and when we reached the bamboo belt, we had often to crawl on our hands and knees along narrow tunnels, while buffaloes crashed through the woods, far too close to my liking. [...] Later it began to drizzle and the dripping bamboo soaked us to the skin. We were by then at an altitude of eight thousand feet [about 2500 meters] and I was bitterly cold. We had been walking since dawn and everyone was tired. But when the guide suggested turning back since soon it would be dark, I insisted we continue. Determined not to be defeated, I told the guide that, if he did not find the lake today, I would stay overnight and continue the search tomorrow; he, of course, would have to remain with me and there would be no reward if he failed to find the place. I do not know which of these alternatives impressed him more, but within a few minutes we reached the spot. We must have circled around it for hours, and it was plain that the guide had intended to mislead us. Although there was no lake, it was strategically a well-chosen spot for ritual ceremonies, for it was easy to protect against unwanted visitors. At the far end of a semicircular, sheltered gorge a small spring dripped and formed a little pool out of which the water trickled over two rocky ledges and ran into the forest. Near the pool were a few chicken bones, no doubt the remains of sacrificed animals13, as well as several small bundles of sticks, each marked with different cuttings at their ends. As we were frozen, I told the men to light a fire with the sticks and make tea. My suggestion horrified them; they explained that a curse would fall on them if they burned them. Since they felt like this, there was nothing to do but to return home as cold as we were. The following morning a noticeably hushed atmosphere greeted us. Even the sophisticated clerk was subdued and came to tell me that George and I would die within the next six months, as we were the first Europeans to see the sacred lake and by doing so had broken its spell.
damson 1967: 100-101.

Collecting the “protective charms of the gaaru” took place in a clearing of this kind but other rituals were held there also: diviner-healers performed sacrifices on behalf of individuals, and the Accomplished on behalf of the community. In case of prolonged draught, for instance, each Tigania-Igembe territorial section came in turn to sacrifice a sheep and to make offerings of honey and black millet. It is also possible that there was not just one “lake” at the top of the Nyambene; this one was reached by climbing up from Maua. There exist other sites spread about the forest cover that recreate the same pattern in which a body of water forms at the foot of a waterfall, a grove or a tree, often of the mûkûi (mîkûi) species. People who live close by go there to perform their rituals. The Mbututia marshes, beneath the hills in the Kianjai division, are another place of sacrifice used only by the Tigania-Igembe, where representative delegations come whenever the need arises. Ngombe, to the north-east of the Nyambene, is a third site for collective rituals; this time, the saltwater “lake” is at the bottom of the crater of a volcano rising out of the desert.


1  Kenya African National Union, the ruling party since independence; during these years the authorities had organised a kind of communal police, armed with bows and arrows, ensuring employment for some.

2  D. M. Rimita, a native of Tigania and a lawyer, has written a brief account of customs and traditions, from where this extract was taken; it is the only work of its kind that is usable, except that the author did not take into account, or, more likely, considered negligible, the fact that the sets and rituals he describes have modified considerably in the last eighty years.

3  We must not forget that four is the symbol of masculinity. The leaves of the mûumo tree (pl. eumo), like the subsequent use of the razor, recall the episode in the myth of Mbugi in which Mbugi uses the branches of the mûumo tree to divide his sons into distinct sets, then when inventing circumcision (episode g). This species of Ficus, which can be replaced with variants or species considered similar, appears in several rituals and indicates the ponds where sacrifices are held. A symbol of strength and vitality due to the ability of its branches to take root (to layer), the mûumo is often used by the populations in this region, but it is difficult to delve further into this issue given the loss of knowledge surrounding botany and rituals.

4  This is not an isolated procedure: during the adoption rituals of newcomers, strangers, refugees, or raid captives, the adoptive parents mime the birthing of these individuals, who through this act become their children, whatever their age.

5  Since the 1950s, the forest at the summit of the Nyambene Hills has become a military zone blocked off to the public. A description of the site is given in an annex at the end of this chapter.

6  For various reasons, a few delayed in getting married and remained in the gaaru. However, their coexistence with the initiates from the subsequent set became more and more difficult to manage, and soon even the most hardened bachelors would settle down.

7  There exists, in Tigania at least, a simplified version of the cycle of the warrior gaaru: the gaaru of the non-initiates, which was erected close to the kraal of a man who kept protective charms (mûciî jwa mîthega). This latter would have to give his consent to its destruction, which was carried out by the fathers and mothers of the candidates who had left to be initiated. The central post, however, was left untouched because ideally the grandchildren were meant to uproot it. Once again, the gaaru is the agent of patrifiliation.

8  The account of the first travellers is presented in Appendix A.

9  In 1982 the work of the historian J. Fadiman was published. It was presented as a contribution to the study of so-called primitive tribes, taken from the example of the Meru on whom he had based his study; in it the author offers a kind of response to Chanler’s snap judgement. He shows that, far from hords behaving mindlessly, the warriors used tactics and possessed codes of honour similar to those of knights in the Middle Ages. The book contains information on raids carried out by warriors of the Mount Kenya section, who climbed above the forest into the alpine prairie, where one could advance unseen, allowing for surprise attacks from above. This obviously does not apply to the Nyambene Hills, but the issue lies elsewhere. Indeed, the author does not investigate the socio-political dimensions of the raid, and even less its symbolic aspects. Nor (pp. 78-80) does he deem it important to include a study of the gaaru; he is content with using the data gathered by Lambert. A critique of this researcher’s methods will be taken up in Chapter 9, when we visit the myth of Mbwaa, in which the researcher believed to have found the story of an authentic migration.

10  A version of this raid can be found that is recounted slightly differently yet just as unfavourable to the Kianjai (a division of the Tigania), in a collection of Embu and Mbeere oral traditions gathered by H. Mwaniki (1973: 29-30).

11  All these archives and paintings are the property of the National Museum of Kenya. Ironically, the best of these paintings of Kenyan people portrayed in the early 1950s are displayed at State House, far from the common folk.

12  Her husband, a senior game warden of the Northern Frontier Province, was posted at Isiolo, which marked the entrance to the desert zone.

13  Chickens were introduced during the colonial period, and do not feature among the traditional sacrificial elements; there was even a kind of ban on the consumption of fowl and game birds. They are probably sheep bones. Yet it is true that the increased cost of sheep led to their being replaced with chickens.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 30 — Layout of the warrior gaaru, Imenti model (Lambert 1945, tapus.: 449)
Fichier image/jpeg, 15k
Titre Ill. 5a & b — “A charge of Wamsara [Muthaara]”
Crédits Above: 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives, below: the etching by Otto (in Chanler 1896: 136).
Fichier image/jpeg, 298k
Titre Map 5. — The maitha, or declared enemies of the Tigania-Igembe (pre-colonial period)
Légende CHUKA: maitha ordeclared enemies*MWIMBI: gichiario, neither war nor marriage
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k
Titre Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)
Crédits 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.
Fichier image/jpeg, 478k

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