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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part three. Ritual as means of government

Chapter seven

Sets and powers of women

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  • 1  An exception are the articles written by Mary Holding (1942a, b), who taught in the protestant mis (...)

1A particularly difficult element of Tigania-Igembe society to reconstruct involves the organization of women’s sets and powers. Far from being a secondary, or peripheral, issue, the positions occupied by women according to age grade led to a crisis in the 1930s and 40s, when the colonial powers clashed, and surprisingly in some instances colluded, with various customary and neo-traditional indigenous authorities whose roles had increased after the conquest. The female circumcision controversy prompted by the Churches of Kenya, triggering the first major conflict between “tradition” and “modernity”—a set of oppositions defined by this very controversy—soon led to a debate over kitheega abortions and infanticide in the Meru District. Whereas several archival documents can be found on conflicts between male sets and the changes they led to, by contrast—apart from the rare observation that is easily missed unless one is looking for it—there is surprisingly little to be found in the written sources regarding women’s issues: District Commissioner H.E. Lambert sought the visit of an ethnologist (Schapera 1949: 22) but his requests were not granted and the archives, like the other texts, are undoubtedly androcentric1. In this domain, marked more than any other by the seal of accelerated change and loss of identity, the testimony of older women, starting with the Ithalie spouses, has been all the more key: once they overcame their initial wariness, they felt they could recount their experiences to an interlocutor already familiar with the nthukî divisions. However, their accounts, along with those from women of subsequent sets, became fully intelligible only once the mess they were caught up in following the colonial conquest and the establishing of new male councils had been cleared up.

1. From group of uninitiated girls to set of spouses

2As the uninitiated girl develops, two rituals that take (took) place in the family kraal mark her becoming mature in the eyes of her father and of the ntaliba—the men and women of her father’s generation who are like mothers and fathers to her (see Ch. 1-3). Ntabila, a term derived from gîtiba, designating the generational division, is a particularly respectful term that girls use to address individuals one generation up, the men of which, especially, are emphatically avoided, according to the matrimonial rules of the generation-set system. For the “ear piercing” ceremony, led by the Accomplished, the father’s companions prepare a kind of garment for each daughter of the family. The garment, called a kîmukwa, is made from the hide of a bull sacrificed for the occasion, and is decorated with pearls. It hangs from the shoulders and covers the chest and back. In other places, the kîmukwa is a pendant necklace made especially by the blacksmith that he brings with him on the day of the ritual and exchanges for honey and some meat. From this moment on, the girls, sisters and half-sisters, wear the kîmukwa as a sign of respect and avoidance of those individuals who are like parents to them.

3Another step towards maturation occurs when a man’s eldest daughter sets about “grinding grain for her father”, as a way of denoting the feast to which the father’s and mother’s age-set companions are invited. Before the feast a father is forbidden to consume the gruel or beer made from cereals ground by his daughter, whereas the mother’s parents and maternal uncle can do so without a problem. This stage is called nyungo jwa nthaaria nguo, meaning “the pot [of beer offered] to tear the mantle”. Its literal symbolism remains obscure, even though the relationships that change on this occasion are now easily recognized, since once again the patrilineality is developed to the detriment of links with the maternal side. Here, an extra dose of alliance is brought in the form of this pot whose contents are passed around. The process of fermentation is quite evidently involved here. Grinding means that the manipulator must wash her hands and dampen the grains as she grinds them. The paste obtained is then mixed with water, heated, and left to ferment in various ways depending on whether the product desired is gruel or beer. This transformation of grain draws out and completes the cycle of rain and the harvest. On the day of the ritual, by drinking the beer prepared by the daughter for the first time, the guests are effectively drinking the “filth that [up until now] was ruining the child”, that is the mûgiro (pollution) for which the maternal side is considered responsible. (The symbolism of the mantle can be understood by associating the ntigiri bull-donkey, through which a boy asserts his masculinity, with the ritual of the establishment of the mûgwe to which he is linked, which will be described in the next chapter. During the ritual, the dignitary is given a mantle that expresses and highlights his intrinsic androgyny.) The “destruction of the mantle”, as well as the removal of ties with the maternal side, most probably has to do with the necessity of reducing the daughter’s inborn androgyny so as to strengthen her position with respect to a father who, at the same time, has become a future bride-giver. The “pot to tear the mantle” ritual is carried out for the eldest daughter only, thus echoing the offering of a bull once and for all to a father’s age peers in exchange for their consenting to his son’s initiation.

4Alongside these ceremonies that are specifically related to the position of fathers with respect to their daughters, there comes a moment when a mother will inform a father that their daughter is pubescent by preparing a gruel that mother and father will, exceptionally, eat together, as if it had become less improper for them to share food. The appearance of a girl’s period announces her future capacity as progenitor; from then on, a girl’s parents will not be able to have sexual relations during their daughter’s menses, at the risk of causing her to fall ill from mûgiro, triggered by a transgression of the forbidden. This is evidence once again of the rule by which two successive generations cannot be simultaneously active. Sharing the plate of gruel announces that the parents, having become sexually neutral, can be commensal, and is further developed in the ritual described earlier in which the eldest daughter grinds grain for her fathers for the first time.

5This prohibition may also have a demographic significance since it contributes to orienting fertility rates, and adds to the practices already noted in this respect: couples with only daughters have a lesser chance of conceiving further, contrary to those couples who have only boys. In the long run this could lead to an unbalanced sex ratio tipped towards men. However, it is also the case that during their phase as Bushmen, men have a greater chance of dying. In which case, the under-representation of progeny from couples who give birth to girls may contribute to preemptively correcting the unbalance. As such this argument cannot be taken further, but should be seen in conjunction with the prevalence of monogamy, the denial of women to marry non-Meru, and the positive—and female—net migration following raids. These practices all relate in some way to the issue of sex ratio and the number of women available compared to men.

6Setting aside these different points of view to focus on the experience of the girl, puberty signals the moment when she begins to change her habits as well as the company she keeps. The adolescent spends more and more time with other adolescents in the neighborhood, who now are also “the maturing uninitiated”. The oldest among them form the nkilion, sometimes called the kiamankilion, the “council of non-initiates”—a misused designation, similar to the “council of uninitiated boys”, since true councils can be held strictly by initiated men or women only. Though not strictly-speaking prohibited, the nkilion still operates clandestinely and exists in parallel to the ncibi of the boys (see Ch. 2-1). Nevertheless, the uninitiated girls’ main reference point is the warriors, whose gaaru they look after. Their relationship is governed by the warriors/uninitiated boys/uninitiated girls triumvirate, which becomes greatly litigious when a new set of warriors delays in opening and the uninitiated boys, preparations at hand, threaten to leave with the girls whom they consider as being theirs.

Fig. 31 — Women sets in the generation-set system and the transmission of kaaria

Fig. 31 — Women sets in the generation-set system and the transmission of kaaria

Bamungo terms of address between generations that have transmitted power to each other.
From Michubu onwards, this has become a way of speaking
* 8- Ncencenga or Ncoyai
** 4- Ncencenga or Ncororo

Ill. 30a, b, c & d — Old women, from the Ncencenga set, Kianjai, 1987, Kîgûcwa, 1993

Ill. 30a, b, c & d — Old women, from the Ncencenga set, Kianjai, 1987, Kîgûcwa, 1993

Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.

7During a feast that takes place in the bush, away from the view of others, a girl will offer tobacco and gruel to her elders who, in exchange, will give her her second name. In theory, this name is kept secret from all but her companions; her parents will sometimes use it in a gently mocking tone instead of her birth name, thereby acknowledging their daughter’s metamorphosis. She also receives instruction in the form of proverbs and riddles—a pedagogy also used with the boys— through which she is instructed in the rules of conduct towards the warriors. One of these rules is that every girl must make offerings to the warriors to obtain the right to take on a lover, or to get permission to sing and dance as a group on the public ground, granted in exchange for food, for instance. At this time the father, independently of his eldest daughter’s belonging to the nkilion that in theory he knows nothing about, begins to organize the ritual of the nthaaria nguû.

8An additional step in the state of the nkenye occurs when, sometime before her initiation, the girl undergoes (underwent) the practice of scarification, called nkûûlo, carried out for some by a specialist, for others by a lover or future husband. Whereas in Tigania girls are pinched and then incised with a hook or a blade, in Igembe the girls lie on the ground and are beaten before being incised: the scarification on the thighs is called nthoro; on the back, mîrongo; and on the chest, ntheria. Then the girls are brought home and massaged with castor oil until their wounds are healed. Once they have recuperated, and in order to be admired in particular by the warriors, a dancing session is organized specially for them on the public ground. Although still nkenye, they are now ngutu cia ntheria, from the term ngutu that designates the “initiated”, as if the girl had been circumcised, followed by cia ntheria that carries a restriction: they are not yet true ngutu but are approaching this stage. This way of marking and decorating girls’ bodies is also a way of bleeding them and getting rid of any excess, as always attributed to their matrilateral relations. The term ntheria in the phrase ngutu cia ntheria must be related to nthaaria in nyungo jwa nthaaria nguo (“pot for tearing the mantle”), an expression that designates the ritual undergone solely by the eldest daughter. Yet its significance sheds light on the rite of passage described below, which every girl at some point or other in life is bound to undergo. Through scarification, the girls’ shell of androgyny has in a way been pierced and cut into.

9The girls’ initiation followed the rhythm of the boys’ initiation: sessions were held in the thaano, then would stop for several years, allowing for three promotions to be marked out parallel to the three warrior subsets. As with the boys, the promotions are called etaana (pl. mataana). They also have their own noun, îrika (pl. marika), derived from the verb kwarika, “to close”, used here in the sense of delimiting. These related designations sum up what connects as well as distinguishes the girls from the boys. The difference between them is based on the fact that for a girl there is no rule, like there is for a boy, regarding the minimum gap between her set and that of her mother. A girl could be initiated at the same time as a subset was being recruited from the adjacent set, thus in the other generational division. However, her initiation, which held the same consequences for the parents as a boy’s initiation, was often postponed, in particular when the eldest daughter was involved; the initiation of the other girls had to respect the order of birth of the siblings. Other reasons favored one moment or another: parents could decide to initiate their daughter because, during the negotiation process for her marriage, the bridegroom had donated the necessary provisions; or else they could judge it opportune to protect their daughter from unwanted pregnancies and/or put her up for marriage. The effects of the various principles governing the girls’ initiation are statistical: the pace is set by the boys’ initiation, and the girls are given their turn according to rules that are not set out in the generation-set system strictly speaking but by the family unit. Nevertheless, from a demographic point of view, these principles had a common effect of delaying the age girls could marry, and, as a consequence, the onset of their “fertile career”. Another aspect is that the three promotions of initiated girls parallel to the male subsets do not merge into one single initiated girls’ set, since each girl’s destiny is to join the set of wives connected to their husband’s set, also called nthukî. Some girls marry warriors from the set open at the time of their initiation; others turn elsewhere. This is because of matrimonial rules set out by the generation-set system, rules that delineate for the girls a field of restriction or of possibility dependent on their father’s and mother’s sets. The elder women in fact have another way of explaining the position of female sets that, without contradicting what has just been described, brings up something else: they say that they were initiated into a subset subsequent to their mothers’ nthukî, a statement that can be understood in various ways. They emphasize one rule—redundant perhaps but essential to reiterate since it inhibits polygyny—whereby a girl cannot be a spouse belonging both to her mother’s set and to the set directly above her mother’s. The reference to the mothers’ nthukî also relates to the fact that it was their responsibility to decide upon and organize the initiations. A system—distinct from previous ones but not contradictory—thus emerges whereby the wives’ sets, organized among themselves, reveal an autonomous female hierarchy (fig. 31).

10With her initiation approaching, a girl, along with her mother and her fiancé, and even some friends at the same stage as she, begins her tour of nkenye, during which she visits as many kin as possible, as described in the chapter on kinship (Ch. 4). On the day, the warrior bridegroom (or bridegrooms, since the ceremony may involve several girls at once) brings yams, gourds of gruel, and metal leg bells (ibere) to set a rhythm to the dances to give to the kaaria women of his future bride’s neighborhood. These gifts are not part of the bridewealth; they are added to it. The gifts form the link between the kaaria women, the warriors, and the girls about to be initiated. Once they have accepted to consume the gifts, thus consenting to the request of the warrior (or warriors), the kaaria mothers perform a series of dances called kwangaa, in which they dance around holding their ngaa, or shields, emblems of their status. Each uninitiated girl enters the dance in turn, after being dressed by her own mother: she wears necklaces crossed around her torso and tight rings around her arms and ankles (murungû), as well as leg bells. The kwangaa dances held for the neighborhood and the territorial sub-section signal that the girls’ initiation session has been opened by kaaria mothers. In the days that follow, every girl leaves to pay visit to her kin throughout the Nyambene Hills. The trip (kurîria) can last up to two months.

Song i: The visit to the muntuetû

1. muntuetû nî Kaileba / bari na muka
maternal uncle is an “Undecided” / with his wife
barethia kuilîbîra / mburi ba ûmpa kethira imwari ya ngombe
they spend the day discussing / whether to give a goat or a heifer
nîatia baileba? Muntuetû atiriumwi / ni muka muî ndauga
how can they discuss like this? maternal uncle is not bad / his wife is I think
twaana tweetû kunûa / ciana beetû kunûa
our children, I am tired / our children, I am tired
ndauma kuraya / ndauma mwanka na Athiru na Kabulele
I come from far / I come from Athiru and Kabulele [Thaichû]
twaana tweetû twambona
our children, see here [listen to me]
tweja karumbî jwa runonku rukiria imweere
they came like a flock of birds onto a field of millet
tûkwina rûkûthira
we have finished singing
rwatiwa rwa kwinîra mwana akirira ûtheri / tûria twinîre
one song remains for the child who is crying / bring it here, we’re singing for it
muntuetû atiriûmûî / muntuetû toonga îthuru ria mwonomwarî nani mûrûngu jwa na muntuetû
maternal uncle is not bad / maternal uncle touches his “niece’s” skirt / and I touch maternal uncle’s bracelet

11These are some of the traditional refrains of a song once well known and typical of the circumstances. The niece always begins by insulting her maternal uncle, calling him Kaileba—from the verb kuileba, in this context meaning “to hesitate”, “to waffle”—and accusing the spouse of having too much control over him. While waiting for her uncle to make a decision, she addresses the children of the family kraal, who are somewhat hers: she tells them where she comes from and how when she passed she met some children who ran up to her like a flock of sparrows landing on a field of millet. In verse 9, she offers to console the child who is crying in the house, a way of saying that her uncle’s wife is not capable of caring for it. The song ends with some conciliatory verses (10) that only a niece and her maternal uncle can ever sing: touching a girl’s skirt, just like touching a man’s bracelet, are seductive gestures that recall the nature of their relationship, and preempt the alliance that their descendants might conclude.

12The nkenye journey is sufficiently visible for Chanler to have been inspired to write:

[... T] he young woman is decked in all her finery, and sent in company with another girl [...] from village to village, and in some cases from district to district, where she dances and shows herself to all her friends and acquaintances, in order that she may receive from them gifts appropriate to the occasion of her marriage. This is continued for several days, ceasing only when she or her parents are satisfied that the generosity of the neighbours has been exhausted. Then is she given over into the hands of the old women.
hanler 1896: 252.

The circumcision on the public ground

13During the thaano season when initiations take place, the sessions were organized from one territorial section to the next. On the day, many people crowd around. The warriors, also present, stand apart, and immediate assistance is provided only by the women, mothers and grandmothers. The warriors, in particular the “brothers in circumcision” of a future husband, are charged with fetching the female circumciser (mutaanî wa nkenye, pl. ataanî wa nkenye). Though designated by the same term, this woman is in almost total contrast to the male circumciser, as if the vitality required by the latter in his duties were completely irrelevant for a girl’s circumcision. Here the operation involves excising the clitoris, whereas in certain sections of Mount Kenya the ablation extends to the removal of the inner labia. As with the boys, the parents of a subject must remain in the paternal gaaru and cannot therefore take care of their daughter. A “night mother” must choose the “day mothers” for her girl, for reasons and according to criteria identical to those guiding the “day fathers”, such as the rule by which the “day mother” must belong to a different generational set than the “night mother”.

14After having been blessed, and having bathed in the ice-water torrent, the girls reach the initiation ground, here again called îtîri (pl. matîri, “threshing ground”). They head towards the warriors and borrow their spears that they give back after the operation. Through this action they signal that they are in a manner engaging in battle. The candidates’ bodies are completely shaved save for a tuft of hair at the top of the head, and their heads are smeared with ndao, a white substance obtained from a wild root. As they wait for their turn, in groups of about ten, the girls sit with their legs spread, interlocked in a sort of chevron pattern. Initiated thusly, they become bamungo, “of the same oxhide”. The actual presence of the hide cannot always be confirmed; it signifies that they are isolated from the ground, and, just like with the boys, announces their affiliation to the father and the generation-set system. Once the operation is over, the girls, hidden in their garments, are escorted home; it is the last time they will be seen before they enter their period of seclusion.

Song ii: Lament of the nkenye who was not initiated with her companions

1. mûratha tûkûthira îkamwe na twili
age companion, the first one has finished and [it is the turn of] the second
mbite î nkone mûrimo jwathîria laî jekwa
I will go see the sickness [here the female circumciser’s knife] that has finished [acting] on my companions
rukwina rukuthira / rwatiwa rumwe rwa kwinira mwana akirira
the [initiation] song is sung and it’s over / one still sings for the child when it cries [she who was not initiated and continues caring for the little ones]
Mukuria nakûthûka ngai nkîthunka
my Mother refused when the rain was ready to come
ariuria nditaana mwana kana ndirima
she wonders whether she will initiate the child or if she will cultivate
Mukuria taana mwana akanjwa rûurû
Mother, initiate your child and you will drink gruel [and you will rejoice]
agukia gukuthira amûtui dinga
when day has completely risen, the father applies the
gwatane na kaithambi
she goes with the others to wash in the river
nyoni ja rûkîrî amîkui teeme nthatû
at dawn the birds sing, a rainbow with three [colors] appears
Mukuria mbukia gwatane na kaithambi
Mother wake me so that I may go to the river [with the others]
nyoni rûkîrî / jwatema jûmûjirû / anjirû tîcietû
nyoni rûkîrî / jwatemajûmûjarû / anjarû tîcietû
nyoni rûkîrî / jwatemajûmûntune / ntune nîcietû
the morning birds [will sing] / and the rainbow will make black / black is not our color
the morning birds [will sing] / and the rainbow will make white / white is not our color
the morning birds [will sing] / and the rainbow will make red / red is our color
ndingiria rûûjî nyoni Ncororo ûkû
she who comes to wake me, at dawn may she bless the water, you Ncororo the elder
kethira ruri ndatû twi machûkire
kethira ruti ndatû twibuitie ndiene
if the python is there, they shall leave
if the python is not there, they shall bathe in the lake

15This nkenye’s mother did not judge it propitious to initiate her daughter. To denote the mother’s hesitation and decision, the singer alludes to the coming rain, and to the mother’s preferring to cultivate her gardens, an alternative that reaffirms the conflict between the human cycle that ends with the arrival of the rain, and that of the earth and the harvest whose time has now come. Once the nkenye’s companions have left to be initiated she stays behind and imagines what would have happened to her had she gone, too: the actions of the mother and father before her departure, the bathing in the river that happens under the most auspicious circumstances since the singing of birds at daybreak coincides with the forming of a rainbow announcing the return of the sun after the rain, when night gives way to day—a convergence that could not be any more favorable in celebrating the clan colors and undertaking a rite of passage, an initiation. Finally, the nkenye invokes the blessing of the river by a Ncororo mother—in this context from the name of a set of kaaria Mothers—so that the python not be there: this serpent, often mentioned during rituals involving the initiation of girls, is an ambivalent animal that symbolizes Ngaï-Murungu, the Supreme Being. Sign of a good omen, the python kills by asphyxiation as well, and swallows the prey it catches or is given.

The period of seclusion

16The initiated girl remains secluded for about a year, in a hut called nyumba ya ngutu, “house of the ngutu”, or lûbua. The hut is built inside the family kraal by her parents or her bridegroom; its entrance is decorated on both sides by breasts shaped out of clay. If the hut’s interior is plastered, it is often decorated with red and white strips, and motifs maintained by the secluded: in theory, the white pigment is the iraa from Mount Kenya, and the red, or noondo, is a mixture of castor oil and red earth found in abundance in the hills. Both pigments are kept in gourds. Sisters from the same family must stay there successively, and the youngest will have to destroy the hut when she leaves.

17The seclusion commences with a phase that involves various proscriptions, and which lasts longer than the same phase for the boys. The ngutu must not walk directly on the earth floor; a board is placed on the ground to isolate her from the ground and to allow her to reach her bed. For three or four weeks, she must do absolutely nothing—especially not touch water, fire, or any metal object. Otherwise, they say, instead of remaining red, her body will become grey like ashes, and oil will not be able to be applied to it because it would not stick. Every day, the “day mothers” come take care of her. They wash her and massage her with castor oil, and feed her what her “night mother” has prepared for her. This is also when the “day mothers” dispense advice to the ngutu and talk about issues that she cannot discuss with her mother: the importance of good manners and no longer behaving like an uninitiated; not answering back to people who hail her on her path; having respect for women, parents, and people in the community. There is also advice on the upkeep of her future house, her work in the gardens, her behavior towards her husband or her mother-in-law; this is given in the form of precepts such as: “Do not let your husband sleep without you!” and “Do not hate your mother-in-law!”

18This phase is over when the ritual of the lifting of proscriptions comes to an end, a ritual that recalls that undergone by the boys, though it is not a carbon copy. Inside the hut, the “day mothers” prompt the ngutu to perform a series of gestures through which she gradually begins carrying out her activities again. Her mothers have her touch with her fingers some water poured into a new container; after this she is allowed wash herself once again. The “ngutu’s things” (into bia ngutu) are placed inside a broken pot that is warmed over the fire; these things include a needle, a knife, a yam, and a piece of leather. Her mothers have the girl take the needle and pretend to assemble the pieces of leather; with the knife, they have her peel yams—a male product, hence an action that evokes the marital coitus—that she has previously grilled on the fire. The peels are then placed in the broken pot next to the knife and the needle. These two instruments, specially fabricated by the blacksmith, are two objects she will take with her when she moves in with her husband. The same needle is used to pyrograph the gourds with motifs used to give instruction. On this occasion the “day mothers” also create necklaces and ankle bracelets that the initiate wears for as long as she is in seclusion.

19Once the prohibitions are lifted, the period of seclusion, measured in kiingo, lasts two to three “seasons”, according to various requirements: at least until the cattle bridewealth (rûracio) is given, or if it is deemed that the girl has not gained enough weight. It is curtailed if the ngutu, who can be visited by her bridegroom, becomes pregnant. This conception, far from being a problem, actually implements some of the rules of filiation. The seclusion hut is indeed used by the other sisters as well, and the ties between them (at least those between real sisters) persist. Parallel to the gaaru where the patrilineal ties are woven, the girls’ seclusion hut is where privileged ties between sisters and their coaffin spouses are formed, and whose descendants will be allowed to intermarry. Some women experienced periods of seclusion lasting up to “six seasons” (sic, three years): when the colonial administration imposed lowering the age of initiation, some parents judged it wise to keep their daughters secluded for longer than custom required in order to compensate for what they considered to be an unacceptable imposition.

20During the seclusion period, the ngutu does nothing but sleep, eat, wash, and massage herself with castor oil; she gains weight, gets bored and exasperated, and passes away the time counting the posts in the hut. A few of the elder women, either less critical or more appreciative of this period of latency, refer to it as a vacation. A little sister may keep the secluded girl company and sleep with her. The recluse is also visited by uninitiated girls who come to sing in the lûbua so that the ngutu may bless them with ndao and reassure them of the ordeal they will face when their time comes. In the early 1950s, Joy Adamson, having succeeded in finding the “sacred lake” in the Nyambene forest, went to Tigania hoping to find a ngutu to photograph in her ceremonial robes. Apparently her interlocutors temporized: circumcision, though not forbidden, had been targeted by the colonial administration that sought to lower the age at which it could take place, and to reduce or even eliminate the period of seclusion (see Ch. 10 and 11). It took Adamson a while to find the right girl. Her description, unique in its kind, contains a few ethnographic approximations but makes note of local variations and modifications due to the colonial restrictions.

  • 2  The phrase may be a way of describing regions that are difficult to reach, but more likely has to (...)
  • 3  The girl is thus secluded at a distance from the dwellings, which signifies a rupture in habits an (...)

I heard that high up in the forest such a girl was living in seclusion. We bumped across forbidding country2 as far as even a Land Rover could go and then continued on foot, accompanied by the local headman. He guided us to a tiny hut which seemed deserted, for nobody answered our calls. While we were waiting for someone to turn up, the headman told us that here in Tigania a girl lives in seclusion for two years with an older woman who instructs her in her future duties and all that married life will entail. During this period the girl has to behave in a helpless manner, is only allowed to speak in a whisper, and has to keep her eyes downcast under a fringe of metal chains [gitaita or kithiiti]; she is made as fat as possible and, when she leaves the hut, has to be led by her “mother’s” hand and walk extremely slowly. All this seemed to me to indicate a symbol of rebirth, the fringe across the eyes intimating that she has not yet learned to see, the whisper that she does not know how to speak, not can she walk alone. During these two years she sometimes occupies herself by looking after a small child or making string-bags or ornamenting calabashes. If her bridegroom wants to visit her during her seclusion, he has to bring costly presents, not only to her but also to her family [i.e. the bridewealth]; in consequence he cannot afford to see her often. At the end of the period he marries her within a week.
After a while the old woman in charge of the girl appeared, but was so alarmed at seeing us that she ran to the village to get the girl’s parents
3. When they had arrived, the headman exposed the purpose of our visit, dissipated their worries and persuaded them to let me have a close look at the girl. I hardly could believe what I now saw. When I entered the tiny hut, I almost banged into a partition facing the entrance. After my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness inside, I realized that this was one of the walls of the girl’s sleeping room which was only just large enough for her to crouch in [a wall called ruiro that hides the bed in every woman’s home]. On one side of the cubicle, between it and the outer wall of the round hut, was a small storage place for her belongings. The inside walls of the hut were plastered with mud on which representations of ornaments such as a man’s armlet made of buffalo horn or a design of women’s skirt-embroideries were painted. Most intriguing were little mud receptacles, plastered like swallows’ nests on the wall and painted white. Each contained three different seeds, probably charms. I was told that these were taken away by the bridegroom, when he finally came to get the girl. From the roof hung pieces of wood which, when burned and allowed to smoulder, gave off a pleasant scent. The girl herself was very plump and covered in a long, charcoal-blackened skin, decorated with coweries and blue seeds [meanwhile the ngutu had prepared herself like on the day of her leaving of the seclusion hut and had dressed in her ceremonial robe]. Her head was shaven except for the top where the hair was shaped into a crown. From the back of her neck across her skull and hair ran a broad white mark painted with a strong-smelling substance [iraa], which was also painted on her nose. Her “mother” showed a similar line across her shaven head. In the girl’s hand I noticed a piece of string with many knots and was told these had to be unravelled by her bridegroom or his supporters before the marriage could be consummated. I was fascinated by the girl who stood silent, like a statue, staring at the ground.
damson 1967: 106-108.

The shaving of the ngutu: benjwo ya ngutu

21The payment of the rûracio signals the end of the seclusion period, and that the girl can now leave the hut (see Ch. 4). The women on the husband’s side bring the ndatho, the last part of the bridewealth. It is made up of bananas, yams, all food coming from masculine agriculture; the word ndatho comes from the verb meaning “to strike a blow, pierce”. On that day the mûciî-host receives them as best he can: the giver’s reputation is at stake here, and for the occasion the women prepare an abundance of food made from farm products. As many guests as possible—most importantly the mwariki—attend this feast held in the family kraal. The next day, the shaving of the ngutu and her departure occur in a variety of ways. However, there is always a test, a sort of game, the takers’ side must pass: they must succeed in untying the bunch of knots, or necklaces, noted in Adamson’s account, or else find objects that have been carefully hidden—activities mentioned in the phrase that designates this episode, gûtûmîrwa mîkathi. The second word in the phrase, meaning “beads”, refers to the bridegroom family’s obligation to pay over bead necklaces as compensation in the event of failure, which is inevitable since the tests are impossible to pass. For example, the women of the recluse’s kraal will hide the “ngutu’s things” (the needle and knife), which the mother-in-law and other women on the husband’s side must then look for but will fail to find. So the latter must pay over the bead necklaces, made a few days earlier by the Accomplished, as a small token. The hiding spot is revealed; the mother-in-law can now take the girl out of the hut and shave her, always saving a tuft of hair on the top of her head to be worn in the shape of a crown. Elsewhere, to obtain the right to take her daughter-in-law, the mother-in-law must succeed in taking off the necklaces placed a few trimesters earlier around the neck and ankles of the initiate, without breaking them—another impossible task, since the initiate has gained substantial weight in the meantime. Inevitably, the necklaces—always made by the mwariki—are handed over. Then the girl is shaved, and the ornaments and leather necklaces removed and discarded or cut into pieces and handed out to the children. Quite often, too, the ngutu’s mother undergoes a special treatment: she covers herself in castor oil from head to toe, and her body shines like a newborn when leaving the maternal hut for the first time.

  • 4  The girl’s return to the paternal—or her brother’s—kraal would mean the union has been ruptured, r (...)

22One last series of guidelines is given to the ngutu, who repeats certain conditions of the lifting of interdictions at the beginning of the seclusion period, and completes them. The girl is now dressed as a bride, her head shaven with a crown of hair at the top, wearing the ceremonial dress sent by her bridegroom. Her eyes hidden behind a fringe of small chains or beads—kithiiti, also called ndûmû—the ngutu is taken by two Accomplished to a neighboring field where she pretends to learn how to plant; led to her mother’s grinding stone, she pretends to use it for the first time. She is reminded of the behavior she must adopt towards her parents-in-law and her husband, her duty to obey them, their ability to curse her, and the impossibility for her to return to her father’s home4. Her departure is prepared for: her belongings are gathered in a large clay pot that her mother gives her for this purpose and in which she will make beer; she also brings with her the goat or cow her father has chosen to give her. She is accorded her spousal name, chosen by her father after his own gaaru name; her husband will use it after the birth of their first child. The young spouse undertakes the journey to reach her new home in a peculiar way, not least because of her inability to walk normally after several months in seclusion. The warriors, companions of the groom, always form part of the procession, because it is as much their responsibility as the in-laws to bring back the bride. They are allowed to carry her. Escorted by her mother-in-law and a little girl who holds her hand, she may also leave at night, or else hide her face behind a fringe of beads, or else walk backwards. The young spouse is supposed to not recognize the path that she takes or to go back to a former giver’s mûciî (see Ch. 4-3).

  • 5  It is worth recalling that one verb designates both these processes: kûumba muntu, “to fashion a h (...)

23This description, albeit fragmentary, reveals a certain logic guiding the transformation of a non-initiate into a woman able to give birth. Following a not uncommon procedure, the clitorectomy will have shaped the reproductive capacity of the girl, at which point it is clear that the operator must be a most neutral intermediary whose energy must not in any way impede the mutation she is bringing about. The circumcision offsets the excess heat attributed to the matrilateral part of her person. The excess heat is considered harmful for the gestation of a human being, just like excess heat when making pots5. It is also explained that the husband’s rûtaano, or “double penis”, adds to the pleasure of the wife and to the ability of the couple to give birth to normal children. The symmetrical initiation of boys and girls allows for genders to be shaped with a view to a complementarity that is not there from the outset and that is active for only part of one’s life.

24The themes of re-engendering on the public ground and affirmation of patrilineal lines to the detriment of the maternal ties are also present, at the forefront of which can be found seclusion as a rebirth. The seclusion hut, called lûbua, is explicitly likened to a woman’s body: inside, the ngutu lives closed up, isolated from the ground, as if it were dangerous for human growth; the ngutu’s body is similar to that of a baby still in utero, further emphasized by her lightened skin and plump body. The necklaces, given by the “day mothers” when the prohibitions are lifted, and which the mother-in-law must succeed in taking off or finding, recall the umbilical cord and this new birth, and the reaffirmed filiation to the place of the father’s mûciî. The act is completed when the girl is shaved and given a name, echoing the gestures made for every child, and with the expression of the link with her real mother, whose body is treated as having just given birth. The girl’s re-engendering and gestation are explicit parts of the generation-set system; they follow from the family rituals that align a daughter with her father’s and mother’s sets, and from the visit to maternal kin organized by the kaaria Mothers as the next step in the initiation; the exiting, or extraction, of the girl from her seclusion hut occurs via the tests and bead necklaces fabricated by the mwariki. Lastly, the seclusion hut, shared among sisters whose visiting husbands are coaffins, demonstrates the permanence of a link shared by kinship and the generation-set system, whose importance has already been acknowledged.

25Once again through certain acts the activity of the blacksmith emerges— beginning with an operation carried out with an object that he has fabricated, the effect of which is compared by the women to a burn, and becomes clear when the body of the novice is said could fall to ashes if she touched the water or fire too early. The prohibition-lifting ritual illustrates a way of warning of the dangers of haste and sloppiness within a gradual process: the symbolism of the “ngutu things”, and the methodical resumption of everyday actions through contact with water and fire, the needle and the knife, iron instruments that she can now handle—the hardening, or cooking, of which will be successful if each step of the shaping is respected. The very name of the seclusion hut, lûbua, can be compared to the term mûbua, which designates one of two kinds of bellows used by the blacksmith: while the other bellows, called nkunei, cylindrical in shape and quite heavy, is made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, the mûbua, considerably lighter, is made from sewn goat skin, and the air passes through a slit equipped with wooden sticks that can be operated manually.

26Radically dissimilar to the initiation of boys, there is no metaphor associating the female novice to a herd, as with the boys before departing on their first raid, through an ordeal and divination conducted by a diviner disguised as a cow. The Accomplished lead the young woman to the garden and to the grinding stone; her destiny is to become a wife within a set of wives connected to that of a man’s set, a man whose companions have come to fetch her. The necklaces that the takers’ side has had to donate in order to extract the girl from her hut appear to be an extra link through which the modes of alliance and the rules of the generation-set system are combined. For the moment, suffice it to say that the adjacent sets of wives of different generational divisions seem in a position of mother- and daughter-in-law, regardless of their situation in reality. The reciprocal terms used by the women of subsequent sets— Bamungo, Bantakuû... (see fig. 31)—are the same morphological type as those that end up being invoked between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law: after having ignored each other as a sign of fear and respect, they then exchange a present whose name serves to forge the term of address that they will share from now on. The relationship that the young wife gradually forges with her mother-in-law forms part of the relationships that exist between sets of wives. Even if the mother-in-law is not there in person, quite often the case, and no matter their actual position, the women of the set directly preceding that of the young bride occupy this position; the ordeal imposed on the mother-in-law and the takers’ side is part of the mother-in-law set/daughter-in-law set, the very same one that is expressed in the transmission of the kaaria.

2. Sets of women and the organization of power

27Sets of wives are identified by provisional names until, conjointly with their husbands, they receive permanent names when their sets reach the grade of political power. Synonyms exist here and there and the memory of names of older classes may vary, but equivalences are easily determined. Mûkubu-5 is the last set to have been accorded its name within the rules. Subsequent naming was done so more informally, quite clandestinely; eventually the names ended up spreading and being taken up by everyone. It is still possible however that the women, whose way of living is no longer that of the countryside, do not know them very well. At the time of this research, Miriti was closing and more and more “warriors” from this set were marrying; a provisional name began to circulate for their wives, Ciancherû. The principle of recurrence in the alternating set names, which seems to be the rule for this generational division, would allow them in the end to be called Ncencenga or Ncororo. Within each set the wives are divided into subsets according to the system used in the division of male sets: a woman whose husband is ndinguri is placed in the female subset parallel to the ndinguri and so on. Except for the men who remained bachelors longer, the ndinguri married before the kobia, and even more so before the kaberia; their spouses arrived before the spouses of the next subsets and thus precede them.

28The last set of spouses in formation incorporates the ngutu who have become spouses. At this time the young women become absorbed by domestic chores and their involvement in public life, though not non-existent, becomes secondary. However, the work undertaken together helps bring the spouses from a new set closer. All wives come from the outside and the sets of wives themselves organize the women who arrive at different moments. In this process, the base unit, the “neighborhood”—and the territorial sub-section that it belongs to—proves once again to be determining since it is at this point that the young bride forms new relationships. Working in the garden, double weeding, and threshing the harvest are impossible without everyone’s collaboration. The same applies to raising and caring for children. Their tendency to band together in groups around the neighborhood does not mean that they are left to their own devices; instead it signifies that there exists a collective surveillance system for which all mothers and fathers present are responsible.

29Young wives have a right to attend the women’s councils, but at these assemblies, just as in everyday life, the older nthukî women have precedence over everything, to such a point that the new arrivals often find themselves servants to their elders. With the women as with the men, being served is a sign of dominion, and every subsequent set is destined to serve the set that precedes it. In this slightly hierarchical society, where the young will in turn become old and in time enjoy the privileges attached to age grades, to serve or to be served is the fundamental and discriminatory relationship that on a daily basis creates and recreates differentiation and subordination. This involves the most trivial tasks: maintaining the supplies of water and wood, and preparing the food. To nourish and serve he or she who precedes one is the fundamental gesture learned as a child in kids’ groups, and later repeated within the family unit and society. Nursing an infant also falls within this arrangement since the act is considered to be a service rendered unto the grandparent who transmitted his or her name for rebirth. Some activities are ruled by a division of labor based on other practical and symbolic aspects: for example, the thatching of roofs, which is considered an act of fertility, is done by women whose reproductive capacities have elapsed or are inactive; sealing and covering with mud and clay falls to the non-initiated because they are allowed to manipulate earth with no risk to their fertility, which, by definition, is not active.

  • 6  The metal bracelets worn tightly on the forearm, upper arm, and above the ankles, the mathuruthia, (...)

30In meetings organized to raise funds for a community project such as the building of a primary school (Jomo Kenyatta’s famous Harambee “Pulling Together”), women are again seated according to their sets and contribute accordingly. These divisions do not go unmentioned by the orator responsible for soliciting the public’s generosity, if only to stir up rivalries and thus increase donations. Women’s councils or assemblies, kiama kia aka, were held like those of men, at different levels of the territorial organization, beginning with the neighborhood and going all the way to the gatherings of women from several sections. Here and there toponyms can be found that mark the places where women were in the habit of meeting, such as the “Women’s Hill” (Kongo ka Aka) in Kîgûcwa, though any place away from where men’s councils convened would do fine. Given that grades and sets are combined—except among young brides with polygamous spouses— it is not difficult to find the hierarchy of conditions within an assembly: above the Young Mothers (muka, pl. aka) are the mwekûrû (pl. ekûrû) or kaaria Mothers, and finally the Accomplished, grandmothers who have become mwariki. These are the three grades that divide married women. They also wear the symbols appropriate to their station: jewelry now difficult to get an exact idea of what it was like6; make-up applied on the head that—apart from in exceptional circumstances such as being in mourning—is completely shaved. Mothers of child-bearing age draw a red noondo circle like a crown around the head, intersected by two crossed lines in ndao white, one median starting at the bridge of the nose and the other, transversal, going from one ear to the other. Outside of rituals where they paint themselves according to their age rank, the kaaria Mothers and the Accomplished draw only one median ndao line starting at the bridge of the nose and going all the way to the back of the skull.

31Age precedence did not prevent women, distinguished by their way of speaking or their behavior, to have authority over others or demand more respect, and to lead the assembly of which they were, in a way, the mugambi. Nkirote and Karemi are names and surnames that designate this category of women. The youngest, however, must simply comply, and those who grumble are given fines, usually in the form of gourds of gruel. A woman who arrives late to meetings is also given a fine, less as a way of reprimanding her nonchalance as a way of putting pressure on a husband who takes exception to seeing his wife leave. Business conducted in the women’s assemblies varied greatly, ranging from the simple, trivial pleasure of getting together, exchanging news, drinking beer and singing, to more important business regarding the mundane and the exceptional, the profane as well as the ritualistic. Several areas of activity could be observed: women helping each other through childbirth, in sickness and death; organizing the farming work; the tibûû expeditions, when women accompanied by warriors went to trade with pastoralists; the tending of local markets. This is how Chanler describes one such place, known as irûri (pl. marûri), from the verb kûgûra, meaning “to exchange, to obtain”:

On our march between the frontier of the Embe [Igembe] country and George’s camp we had passed two market places. These consisted of openings in the plantations, beaten hard and bare by many feet. Thither came the women of the neighbouring districts of the Embe country daily, and expended many hours in exchanging their produce one with the other. One old woman would bring a large bag upon her back containing thirty of forty pounds of cassava; another, manioc; another yams; while a fourth would bring bananas. Some few brought beans or millet. These they exchanged, one with the other, but it appeared to me that more time was devoted to conversation than trade. The market place echoed with the shouts of the women, as they talked and gossiped among themselves of bargains or the new of the day; and often after many hours spent in this way a woman would return to her home, bearing just what she took from it in the morning.
hanler 1896: 239.

32Women’s assemblies also oversaw the handling of certain rituals, such as that of the first fruits. Two very old women—ntindiri who were known to have a green thumb—would begin the sowing, with the aid of a small bag at the bottom of which they had placed the seeds along with a piece of leather from a sheep’s foot, and of a special planting stick taken from a plant called a mwilû (Vangueria linearisepalla, a shrub with many small fruits that blacken when ripened): one would seed the first day, the other would take over the next day. Seven days would then have to elapse before the other women could take their turn planting. The same old women would reap the first harvest of mwere (millet) with a special small basket and after would place a millet stalk on the ground in passing to signal to the other women that the harvest could commence. Those who did not obey this schedule and system were fined one sheep. The involvement of these very old women, who are beyond the calculating of age, is yet another illustration of the incompatibility of vital cycles. The cycle of earth and the harvest, associated with black, is activated by women whose intrinsic energy is at its most faded, an act from which the idea of sacrificing these latter is not completely absent, and which facilitates other women taking up their work after them. The presence of the strip of sheep leather signifies the same thing: because it is associated with the cycle of rain and the harvest, the sheep’s death attested by this piece of its carcass, is another way of signaling that the activating of the plant cycle by humans may occur.

33It fell within the authority of the women’s councils to settle disputes between husband and wife, in particular in the case of serious conjugal violence. “Conjugal violence” was not out of the ordinary since it is said that a man who had reached the mwariki grade had to cease beating his wife or face being fined by his peers. Within the family, every woman may fight back by refusing, both literally and figuratively, to prepare food for her husband, which can be a sign of either a transient or more profound deterioration of their union, and a crisis that kin and friends strive to resolve in different ways. Resorting to the women’s council aims to put an end to a situation that appears to be dangerous and hopeless for the wife. In this case, the women’s council declares a shunning of the husband, or gukurîrwa: no one in the community must speak to or exchange tobacco with him under the threat of being cursed by the women’s council. This quarantine lasts as long as the women judge it necessary and ends when they agree to accept the many bags of yams that the outcast will have brought from his garden. Only then will the curse upon any individual who does not respect the prohibitions be lifted.

34More serious affairs were dealt with as well, such as the exclusion of a woman from her set, which could—and still can—be declared in the case of incestuous relationships according to the rules of the generation-set system; cases of family incest are primarily the concern of the diviner-healer. Generational incest was apparently the only instance when such sentences, equivalent to the loss of citizenship, were pronounced. The fate of the kioncho involved the men’s councils just as much, but men exiled the men and women, the women. These exclusions, imposed only in exceptional circumstances, were nevertheless of a suspensive nature, in the sense that the guilty party could, through negotiation and a set procedure, rejoin his or her set, on the condition (strictly for the men) to do so in another territorial division. A woman had to pay the council of women of her division a large fine called Thirty (Mirongo ithato) consisting of a bull carrying yams. These the recipients would share during an extraordinary assembly on the Hill. Lastly, women only had an unusual and particularly dreaded means of putting pressure on recalcitrant ones or showing their discontent through the act of gwûkwamira: to curse by turning one’s back and uncovering one’s buttocks, a gesture that may have led certain colonial administrators to understand that the women did not always agree with the measures they imposed. The obscenity of the gesture does not lay in the exposing of private parts—warriors walked around baring their genitals, and some rituals involved copulation in public—but in the act of showing the most taboo part of the human body, illustrating the forbidden and mortal danger for a person to be seen while defecating.

  • 7  Similar institutions and practices have been observed in other societies with sets or age categori (...)

35The product of an egalitarian set-system and a society with collective authority, the councils of women, parallel to those of men, were an important factor for social cohesion and allowed for limiting or counterbalancing any abuse of power. However, older women, when talking about the past, never fail to mention that in everything, men had precedence. This is true, and is evidence of the dominion of the latter in an otherwise leveled society, but it also stems from verbal discretion and an expression of courtesy, and is mirrored when men, out of a combination of caution, scorn and fear, claim to know nothing about the affairs of women7.

3. The kaaria through singing

36When a warrior nthukî was about to be opened, or when a new set of Fathers reached the grade of Fathers of the country (two ways of marking the same event), the ritual of the kaaria was held over several days and even at night, from territorial section to territorial section, in a place where women were in the habit of gathering. In exchange for copious agricultural products, and following a fight that was enacted in song and dance but nevertheless included much hitting and jostling, the outgoing mothers transmitted the kaaria to the ascending mothers: for example, the Thirindi (Kiramunya spouses) transmitted the kaaria to the Ncencenga (Ithalie spouses) so that the latter could take their sons to the circumcision ground and organize the girls’ initiation (see fig. 31). Transmitting the kaaria—a term to describe the white clay that the women wear, derives from the principle of alternation between generational divisions, and from the transmission of power from one generation to the next. Yet tracing its importance in relation to the men’s sets, though useful to the ethnographer, in fact misrepresents the women’s point of view and masks a singular logic: for the women, the kaaria is a transmission between women’s sets that has nothing at all to do with the men’s sets, regardless of a synchronicity with the progression of male sets or of the various links that the sets maintain between each other, such as the bankiro relationship. Similar to what the men say about their transmission of power, the women see the transmission of the kaaria as strictly a women’s affair, and dangerous for those who are not implicated.

Song iii

1. kaaria / mwenda ûkua ûûi / naikirithie kaaria (refrain)
kaaria / he who wants to die / should come near the kaaria
kaaria nîa muuthûmba jwa maûrû
kaaria it’s a long voyage on foot
gîkwa kiraja nîgwe warire
long yams, you are she who eats them
wentû Mucece nî makingi
where we come from the Mucece are posts
ba Ciabaithili utîkûla
Ciabaithili cannot be forgotten
naa baarani jakie Ciamwongo
and her colleague who works with her Ciamwongo
cientû cia njaru ntûmirungû
where we come from it is the white of the “sign of the
ni njirû cietû kûgonga
it is our black color that I praise
Ciabakirathi ûtîkula
Ciabakirathi cannot be forgotten
na baarani ekie Ciamwithia
and her colleague who works with her Ciamwithia
Ciacû û Nchabani niwe kûûria
and to my Mother Nchabani, what I ask of her
Ciacû wambonîrie kûthi’nja
Ciacû wambonîrie na kwalukakia îrî riko
and to my Mother, to show me how to sacrifice
and to my Mother, to show me how to turn over (the meat) on the fire

37Framed by a narrative well known by all, the singer improvises a verse, followed by the refrain sung by all owners of the kaaria:

  • the 1st verse, the refrain, which is kind of the motto of the kaaria, affirms the mortal and dangerous nature of the kaaria for those who do not own it—in this instance, the supplicants—and for all those who are not involved; that is, the non-initiated girls and the men, who must keep their distance;

  • the 2nd verse recalls that the kaaria is a substance that comes from far away since one must walk a long time to find it, a way of emphasizing its outside origins and its mysterious and secret nature;

  • in the 3rd verse, are praised the long yams given by the pupils to the kaaria owners and already eaten by them;

  • in the 4th verse, Mucece is praised, Mucece being one of the names of the set of Ithalie wives, here owners of the kaaria; makingi (sing. ikingi), literally meaning “post”, the same term used in the warrior gaaru, is a way of designating the owners as “instructors” of the kaaria, who will be transmitting something to the supplicants. These latter are considered students, or mairora, from the verb kwirora meaning “to turn the head to the right and to the left”: they are “those who turn the head” as a sign of humility, since one does not look directly at a person to whom one owes respect;

  • in verse 5, Ciabaithili is praised. She is the famous mistress of the kaaria, whose name cannot be forgotten;

  • in verse 6, her friend Ciamwongo is praised, with whom it is her habit to work;

  • in verse 7 the white color of the kaaria markings is praised; they are called ntûmirungû;

  • in verse 8 black is praised; black is the color of the singer’s clan;

  • in verse 9 another mistress of the kaaria, Ciabakirathi, is praised;

  • in verse 10 her friend Ciamwithia is praised, with whom it is her habit to work;

  • in verse 11, the singer puts herself in the position of the student to whom the appropriate gestures are taught: she praises Nchabani, a mother, and asks something of her;

  • in verse 12, her mother shows her how to sacrifice and cook the meat on the fire by turning it, which could lead one to believe that they sacrifice an animal. In reality, yams are grilled and peeled, which comes as no surprise to the ethnographer since Evans-Pritchard explained that a cucumber could be used in place of an ox.

38Depending on how inspired the singer is, and on the atmosphere during the session, this kind of song can last much longer. It reveals how the women sing praises and contribute to the reputation of people; singing while working in the garden also falls within this system, and is the most common way of accusing someone, raising an issue, or fueling gossip.

Song iv

1. Ncencenga ûûî / boroka Igaarie (refrain)
Ncencenga [Ithalie spouses] / go down to Igaarie
gikwa kiraya nîgwe warîrîe
the longest yams, you have eaten them
gîchua chûgû nîgwe warîrîe
the gourds of beans, you have eaten them
chuuba ya Taasika, nîgwe wanyuîre
the bottles of Tusker, you have drunk them
aya ito / kiira kûgite banguani
please / stop I’m helping my friend
aya ito / nîtwaitana muthumba
please / to share a goblet
aya ito / jûrîa jwa kuli na rîthaa
please / for my friend, some milk

39In this song, exactly the same themes are found, but they are expressed differently. The students ask the Ncencenga (the Ithalie spouses) to fetch the kaaria at Igarie, a place situated at the bottom of the Nyambene Hills, known for its pottery clay. As usual, the kaaria is located in a place far away that is reached by going downhill. The mistresses have eaten an abundance of long yams and beans; they have drunk Tusker, an industrially fabricated beer known for its expensive price: it is now time for the mistresses to fetch the kaaria and transmit it. In verses 5, 6 and 7, one singer diverges and offers to replace her: kuli is a term designating a companion in song. Those taking turns share the milk that is poured into a “goblet”, the empty tops that are used to cover the gourds.

Song v

1. rai kaîlû ndînge îî Ncencenga
give the horn so I can blow eh! Ncencenga
ureke kûringa na kîngarua
stop blowing with your teeth full of holes
ûûcîî bûu nî bû
eh! people what’s happening?
îî cia nthaka
eh! warriors’ mothers
ureke kûringa na kîngarua
stop blowing with your teeth full of holes

40Here another emblem of the kaaria is mentioned: the women in power have an elongated horn measuring about a meter, called a ncoro, from which the name of the Ncororo set (synonym of Ncencenga) derives; in the song it is called kailû, the name of the lesser kudu antelope whose horn is used to make the instrument. The singer, a Michubu spouse, makes fun of the Ncencenga, Ithalie spouses, who have lost their teeth and are no longer able to blow into the horn; these Mothers, whose sons have become warriors, have had their time and must pass on the kaaria to those who will now lead their sons to initiation, and who still have all their teeth.

Song vi

1. ndegwa igûkwa kwa Mugweka
a bull is killed at Mugweka’s [a man’s name]
arete Karînti ithi’nje ndegwa
call Karînti [Ithalie spouse] for her to kill the bull
kweri kweri nankwa na mariû yagachengwa
true, true, yams and bananas are cut
kweri ni ntiruma ciacû wa Ncencenga
true, I cannot curse [insult] our Ncencenga Mothers [Ithalie spouses]
aintîruma ciacû wa Nkoyai
I cannot curse our Nkoyai Mothers [other name of Ithalie spouses]
ciacû wambonerie kûthin’ja na kwalukakia iri riko
our Mothers who showed how to sacrifice and turn the meat on the fire
kijarû munga î mutine î / kweri îraringwa nthî kwa Kirikwa
praise the monkey in the tree / true, it fell to the ground at Kirikwa’s
Ciabaibere aramba ndwara na baarani jîkie Ciamwithia
Ciabaibere stretches the skin and she who helps her is Ciamwithia
irauma baini mithathene / î nibwo î muko Mûkubu nûenka wabwene
we had to pay sugar cane leaves / true, the troubles came with the Mûkubu [Michubu spouses]
ntîruma ciaciû wa Ncoyai /o ciaciû wandaririe kamwelene
I cannot insult the Ncoyai Mothers / the Mothers who spent the night with me in the valley
jîngîuka gûku’njwa lûkaaria
when I awoke I was covered with the

41Chanted by a Mûkubu woman (Michubu spouse), this song recalls the practices of the kaaria that became obsolete when the transmission was forbidden at a time when her set should have carried them out. Their mothers carried out their duties, but she will not do it:

  • in verses 1 and 2, the sacrifice of the bull is celebrated, so to speak, since actually it is an offering of yams;

  • in verse 3, the yam and banana offerings are praised. These agriculturally masculine food products were given by a husband to his wife in order that she may receive the kaaria, which he will refuse to do after the prohibition;

  • in verses 4, 5 and 6, the singer praises the women from the preceding set (Ncoyai or Ncencenga) who carried out their work, instructed the pupils, and transmitted the kaaria;

  • in 10 and 11, the same is evoked through a night spent in a valley, followed, upon waking, by the appearance of the kaaria. Again, the kaaria is obtained downhill, in a valley; its procurement is also associated with the transition of night to day, of black to white, according to a temporal scheme already come across during the initiations;

  • in verses 7 and 8, another emblem of power is evoked: the muunge (pl. mîunge),
    a headdress made from the skin of the
    nkoroi monkey. This Colobus that lives in the trees and hardly touches the ground has the peculiarity of possessing a stomach divided into several compartments, like a cow. It is not surprising, with its long-haired coat, black with large white spots, that this animal lends itself to this color symbolism. The muunge is not only worn by women; men wear it as well. For instance, the circumciser wears it when he arrives onto the initiation ground. During the dances, if a nkoroi appears in the trees—a favorable sign—it is shot by a man with an arrow, and the women dress in the fur of the monkey fallen to the ground, thus evoking happy times, now over, when rituals were carried out according to the rules... and when women enjoyed their autonomy.

  • verse 9 involves the fines, and the troubles brought about from the set of Mûkubu spouses.

Song vii

1. Mugaru / ito njalu rîthia
Mugaru / please, take the goats to pasture
ukerwa rîthia nîatia urîthia
if you are asked to take the goats to pasture, how will you do it
njalu rithia ito / ndomba rûcio ga ciûlûka
please, take the goats to pasture / you ask to receive the sword
rîthia ito ukareka iruma mangulo
please, do not let them graze on grass eaten by others
ito njalu rîthia Matiru na Buringi
please, take the goats to pasture at Matiru and Buringi
ito njalu rîthia nyanki iri Mwilî nika îkweba
please, take the goats to pasture on Mwilî’s grass which is long
ito njalu rîthia weetû Mucece ni makingi
please, take the goats to pasture, here the Mucece are the posts [the Mucece have the
uratukwanira mwenderetho nîkûnyua chai iri mwanki
they sit on the bench and drink tea that is hot

42Mugaru is the name of a pupil, and this song is intoned by a mistress of the kaaria who is addressing whoever is requesting the sword (rûcio, in verse 3), another emblem of the kaaria with which the women dance—sword in the right hand and small wooden ngaa shield in the left hand. In this context, taking the goats to pasture in a suitable spot signifies to be capable of looking for and finding something hidden, and the verses are all incitement to head towards one place instead of another. The pupil who succeeds is worthy to sit and take the place of the Mucece (Ithalie spouses) and drink tea—in other words, to receive the kaaria. This song refers to the substitute forms of the kaaria which appeared when its transmission was prohibited. Whereas in principle the ascending set of women had obtained the right to dance with the kaaria on the public ground, individual clandestine transmissions were organized within kraals and family homes, between women supposed to represent their respective sets. Just like in some of the initiation episodes, like when a mother-in-law takes a ngutu from her seclusion hut, things were hidden that the novice supplicants of the kaaria had to find. We can see here a merging of two rituals long ago quite distinct, and the birth of an esoteric ritual from recognized procedures and familiar practices: finding a hidden object or a secret, an activity common to both play and ritual, is transformed into a language of proverbs (njuno) based on metaphors—in this instance the goats taken out to pasture—used by those who do not wish to be understood by everyone.

4. The transmission of the kaaria

  • 8  It is said that in Imenti, the first subset of warriors recruited right after the war of 1914-1918 (...)

43During thaano, the time of year when the granaries are full and when rituals marking the advancement of people take place, the women organize (organized) the transmission of the kaaria. The old women, of mwariki grade, would go gather the white substance for the kaaria, in a place, it is said, only they knew of, during a very dark, moonless night. Only an Accomplished who fears nothing, not even death, can act and travel in this way to gather a substance considered dangerous and lethal. In fact the substance is not rare since it is white clay that is extracted from stream banks, but the deposit—thought to be down the hill, outside the section—is a secret place whose access is controlled by the mwariki of the territorial section in which it is located. Burying a deposit in the ground is considered an act of aggression towards the populations of the section; it is no longer possible to use the clay that was thusly covered, and the reserve is closed off forever. Muthima designates the deposit; kiûgî is the white mineral pigment; kwîn’jwa kiûgî is to “dig” or “extract the white pigment”, the act of collecting; ntûmirungû designates the various white marks drawn on the body, jewelry and garments of the owners of the kaaria. This last term designates the matter when it is invested with an authority: gwaaka kaaria, literally meaning “to apply the kaaria”, is one of the expressions referring to the ritual of transmission8. Apart from the right to wear the kaaria, other items and privileges were included in the transmission: the small ngaa wooden shield made by a woodworker (who is merely a man more skilled than others), whose term formed part of the name designating the Tigania before the conquest. Tigania is the name of one of the Nyambene mountain peaks; its usage became customary because, apparently, it is easier to pronounce than the original name: Kîîrîndî kia Ngaa or Mwiko jwa Ngaa, which literally means “Crowd from Ngaa”. Kîîrîndî and Mwiko are synonymous terms meaning “large group, crowd”. The women explain that long ago they used to spend their time dancing with these shields that the men made for them: there were so many shields and they were all so white that they resembled clouds in the sky, a metaphor not dissimilar to that of the aegis, the shield that Zeus lent his daughter Athena. The Tigania are the numerous People who are under the aegis of Ngaa and originate from it. Mukunga, the name of one of the sisters encountered by Mbugi, probably derives from the contraction of Mwiko jwa Ngaa. Along with the protective shield held in the left hand, there is the sword (rûcio) held in the right hand or slipped into a sheath tied to the waist, and the war-club (chuuma); the horn (ncoro) and the ankle bells (ibere or ibece); the headdress (muunge).

44The public ground (kieni) is also subject to a transmission, in the sense that the owners of the kaaria are allowed to declare it open or closed, to dance on it with their shield (kwangaa) and, if willing, to hold initiations there and give encouragement to warriors readying for a raid and trying to reach the waangi state; gûkaaria, “to lead, drive”, is a verb used for all sets, both female and male, that lead the following set to their initiation. The possession of the kaaria, and the link that exists between those who have it and those who do not, is designated in various ways: Ene kaaria (sing. Mwene kaaria), the “Owners” or “Holders” of the kaaria, echoes Ene nthîî, the “Owners of the country”, in other words the set of their spouses, Fathers of the country who are in power. The holders are also the “posts” (makingi), this time related to the posts of the warrior gaaru whose importance both architectural and symbolic has already been discussed, and which the non-initiated girls cannot touch; here the pupils are “those who turn the head”, who look away because it would be improper for them to look at their “posts”. Possessing the kaaria is sometimes associated with a kiama gia kaaria, or “kaaria council”, to which the pupils, considered non-initiates, accede to once they have fed their instructors. Drawn from the verb kurîra, “to feed”, the expression mathiro ekûrû or mathagira ekûrû, “women’s food”, is used for the food given to the women to obtain the kaaria. Ekûrû (sing. mwekûrû), a term often used for all married women, really designates only women who have the kaaria, or who have transmitted it. The pupils also make payments to obtain the right to “open the kaaria(kûrugûra kaaria), that is, to open or close the public ground.

45The Accomplished who have collected the clay hand it to the owners of the kaaria to give to the ascending set of spouses. On the chosen day, the field where the women usually gather is consecrated with black millet (ûembî) that the Pupils bring and spread abundantly, an offering that is meant to flaunt one’s wealth and prosperity, and which at the same time calls on and expresses the blessing of Ngaï-Murungu, the Supreme Being, under whose protection the ritual takes place. The bags of food pile up as the Pupils arrive: large bags (kithaati) full of corn, beans, millet; baskets filled with yams and bananas; gourds of gruel, and tobacco in compact leaves or reduced to powder. For hours, over several consecutive days and nights, the women from the two sets, now antagonistic due to the transmission, confront each other with singing and dancing in a manner that echoes the ntuiko of the men. The mistresses of the kaaria hold their shield in the left hand and in the right they brandish a sword or a war-club; on their heads they wear the muunge, on their legs the kibache and ithiolo, arm and ankle bracelets (murungu, pl. mîrungu); kaaria markings on their body and chest, and a white circle traced around the right eye. The rows of Owners are reinforced by Mistresses come from other territorial sections, reputed for their ability to lead the sessions and for their influence over their companions. Facing them, the Pupils—having rid themselves of the load of victuals they arrived with—carry only a wooden stick and wear a white circle drawn around the left eye. Through song and dance, a combat begins in which the Mistresses, like warriors in tight formation, challenge the Pupils, demand more payments from them, jostle them, and badger them. In the fray of the two sets, blows are bound to be dealt. The transmission occurs progressively, interrupted as it is by breaks during which the Mistresses again demand additional payments. At first the Pupils are allowed to dance the kwangaa with their shields—an inaugural handover of a right signaling that the preceding set has agreed to retire. After much jostling and several payments later, they obtain the right to wear the kaaria, which is applied over their entire head and chest down to the waist, which explains the literal meaning of gwaaka kaaria, “to apply the kaaria”. Later still, they don a short skirt called a kînyuî and tie a belt with a sheath around their waist to carry the sword. Acquiring the ncoro horn marks the end of the transmission and establishes the dominance of the new set owning the kaaria.

  • 9  One reason the ritual was abandoned in the 1950s has to do with the increasing refusal of young gi (...)

46The women who now own the kaaria taunt the old women and insult them by reminding them that they no longer have teeth, that they will never wear the kaaria again, and that they will never dance on the public ground again. Then an expedition in the form of a raid is organized, an expedition recorded in Tigania at least. The new owners of the kaaria head outside the territory, to another territorial section, to look for a family kraal inhabited by a non-initiated girl. They grab her and forcibly apply the dangerous substance of the kaaria on her, a deliberate transgression of a prohibition that verges on sacrifice. Although she is just a nkenye, the girl is granted the kaaria without having been initiated or wed: forced to skip a grade, and as if menopausal before she is able to bear children, she can no longer marry a man of her generation. Effectively grown older before her time, she goes up one generation by becoming a young spouse of the generation of kaaria women; she will marry a man from the division of those who initiated her by force, but who must not be the husband of the one who applied the kaaria on her. The victim is then initiated, and the husband brings the rûracio to this spouse chosen by the kaaria women. The raid led by these brand new warriors at the expense of this kidnapped young woman from a foreign section is carried out in each section, and contains elements encountered in other rituals: the excessive zeal exhibited by the kaaria women is not unlike that of the circumciser on the public ground, where any girl he has touched with his stick or sword is destined to become his spouse. The girl’s ascension to the generation above, associated with her departure from her section of origin, can be likened to the situation of girls who become “gaaru mothers”, and it can be supposed that a girl who was known to have come from an outside section was thus “chosen” by the kaaria Mothers with sons living in the gaaru. Her situation can also be compared to the fate reserved for a young boy, at least in the Tigania divisions: when the Fathers had decided to open a new set of warriors, the lamalle would go off to find a young boy whom they would circumcise by force. Too young to be initiated, this latter was thought to die from his wounds. By contrast, the adolescent girl does not die; she becomes a spouse within a preceding set—yet she has indeed received a reputedly mortal substance when applied at the wrong time9. In both cases, this transgression as well as the acceleration of the course of time resulting from a sacrifice carried out by freshly ordained authority figures are in a way a manifestation of the efficacy of their powers and emphasize one’s obligation to respect these new masters within a succession of generations.

47Though in principle it occurred only once per generation, in reality the kaaria ritual happened every time an additional subset of warriors was recruited. The mothers transmitted the kaaria from subset to subset: the first subset of spouses, of the rank of ndinguri, transmitted the kaaria to the ndinguri of the new set of Mothers, and so on. The effect of the kaaria on the woman who wears it carries this first explanation: while it is unlikely that a fertile woman would wear the kaaria, she must still carry it when she initiates her children, up until the time she has to give it up herself, that is, when she is about to become a grandmother and an Accomplished one. The kaaria is associated with a woman at a specific stage of her existence, and since the substance is also the emblem of the set of spouses of the Fathers of the country, again the problem arises of how to adjust the development of an individual to the position of this individual’s set. Repeating the transmission from subset to subset allows for the politico-ritual imperatives to be reconciled with the demographic situation of each set of spouses. In this arrangement one can find the influence that the subsets’ ternary rhythm has on unions and on the general progression of the system.

48The repetition of the transmission also offers the means to deal with certain economic realities. The kaaria is granted in exchange for agricultural products that by nature do not keep for long, and it is expensive in that the payments made by each candidate represent a significant drain on the family’s resources: first of all on the kirûrû (the domestic reserves) and on the chuku (exterior granary), but also on her husband’s garden from where this latter has agreed to pick yams and banana bunches for his wife’s kaaria. Only a spouse who is well established in her position as mother and housewife can cope with such obligations. Moreover, a payment carried out once and for all to the set that is transmitting the kaaria would have the disadvantage of being difficult to share among the recipients: it would go against the obligatory egalitarian ideal held among members of a set, and would engender a dangerous drain on resources since it would be too difficult to ensure food balance. A payment occurring every five years on average is a safe and equitable bet, because the redistribution of food would even out any food production irregularities caused by the relative unpredictability of rain in these regions. The redistribution of agricultural goods via the institution of the kaaria, which confirms the central position occupied by the ritual within the economy of the old Tigania-Igembe, mirrors the sacrifice of cattle by the men, which is always followed by a dividing up of the carcass and viscera. Other rules influence the amounts of food that the Pupils consent to pay to the Mistresses: at time t the demands of the kaaria owners are accepted because it is known that, one nthukî later, this division in turn will do the same (see fig. 31): Thirindi-3 upon initiating the 5 pays a large amount to Cholubî-2 since these women expect to receive just as much when Ncencenga-4 requests the kaaria upon initiating the 6. Formulated as simply as possible by the women, in the order of the kaaria and the exchanges between wives’ sets can be seen a system of deferred exchange linking the two generational divisions, quite different from the potlatch the payments would appear to be. The gathering of the kaaria itself made apparent the relationships between generational divisions and sets: thus the Thirindi-3 gather the clay, give it to the Ncencenga-4 who will transmit the kaaria to Mukubu-5 so that these latter may initiate the future 7. To sum up, referring to generational division 3 acts on behalf of 5 for the benefit of 7, who are the grandchildren of 3, following a system already encountered within the family context, where the grandparents who are becoming mwariki have taught their son to kill the gûtûra matû bull for the “ear piercing” of their grandchildren. In the present case, however, the positions of all of them indicate that the generational division in question is in power.

49The warrior appearance of the kaaria women is interesting to note. During official events—a visit from the president of the Republic of Kenya to Maua on December 1, 1986, for example—some women still wear these ornaments and form a somewhat tattered army upon the passing of the dignitary, who has no idea what is going on. Or does he? Dressed in this way, the women, as if metamorphosed, are truly impressive: the weapons they brandish as well as the way they hold their bodies, their feet firmly planted on the ground, their angry demeanor and aggressive reactions, their yelling and clamoring that give cadence to their songs—everything in their attitude colludes to make them appear menacing. There is no doubt they embody a military principle that is a feminine version of the state of the warrior. Due to the initiation of their daughter or their son, these women have stopped having children, regardless of whether or not they are actually menopausal: given the late age at which many of them married, the two factors probably more or less coincide, and the repetition of the transmission of the kaaria also permitted to adapt to each one’s own rhythm. In this regard, the warrior aspect of the kaaria women could merely be an interpretation of the aggressive quality attributed to menopausal women, hormonal changes and all; yet this dimension, albeit interesting, does not go to the heart of the issue, just as the traits attributed to youth are not sufficient to explain the status of the warrior-Bushman.

50The organization of powers is another factor to keep in mind: the leveling tendencies within age and generation criteria are thoroughly exploited here by the political system. The wearing of the kaaria allows for an internal classing of women thanks to which their respective positions are not dictated only by their condition as spouse associated with a set of men. After all, the status of spouse is the common denominator among all initiated women and, if nothing were to differentiate them, what could they be other than one vast category? Forming a hierarchy among themselves and granted autonomous via the kaaria factor, they can act as a counterweight to the male authorities, just as one generational division counterweights another, and as every set is counteracted by the set that precedes it and that follows it. The strictly political role of the kaaria Mothers is thus no mystery, especially as it also corresponds to the moment when a woman distances herself from the family kraal, to the point that—yet another striking feature—the kaaria Mothers have a reputation for spending most of their leisure time dancing with their shields and pacing the preserved territory with the warriors. The connection and complementarity between kaaria Mothers and warriors, beyond the military equipment that distinguishes both, can be found in the rivalry existing between men’s sets: the warriors protected the girls whom they considered to be theirs, and strove to keep distant the non-initiated boys as well as the men, already married, whose polygynic intentions were thereby thwarted. One last aspect that dictated how the women’s sets worked: the cohesion and organization of their councils would never have resisted a rise in polygyny and its propagation of the demographic drift, and more generally serve the entire generation-set system.

51Finally, we should examine the symbolism of the kaaria. It is said that any husband who continued to refuse allowing his wife to obtain the kaaria would trigger a shunning (gûcimbwa) of his wife by the other women, effectively driving her mad. Those who do not own the kaaria are considered by those who do to be non-initiates, which may be just a figure of speech, but which is in fact in line with the logic inherent to age grades: the development of the individual is completed only at the end of a journey; those who precede may quite rightly judge that those who follow are not initiated. As vital as may be the phases of excision and seclusion, they are merely one step at the end of which a girl, having become a woman, may give birth. Another stage—not the last—must be completed in order to reach the status of mwekûrû, or kaaria Mother, in other words a “mature woman”. It is said also that a wife who refuses to transmit the kaaria would cause her daughter-in-law to be infertile, and that a woman who never received the kaaria cannot herself transmit it. Given that the moment at which a mother-in-law transmits the kaaria, her daughter-in-law has already had children who have had plenty of time to grow up since these latter’s initiation is at hand, what is the active principle and continuity in question here?

52Boys’ and girls’ initiation rituals, during which novices experience a new birth, hold an important element in answering this question. The obligations carried by their parents, “night” mothers and fathers, explain the contribution of the “day” mothers and fathers who, along with the work of the male and female circumcisers, bring about this new gestation. Everything happens as if the “night” parents were giving birth a second time to their offspring, through a new kind of paternity and maternity in which the physical accomplishment gives way to a symbolic and political creation. True fatherhood, like true motherhood, happens only the moment the body, which up until now has been dependent upon the mother’s brother, ceases to be its sole agent. The fathers and mothers whose children are in a phase of initiation-gestation belong to the set of those who, respectively, “own the country” and “own the kaaria”, Ene nthîî and Ene kaaria. No matter the intrinsic identity of their division, when it is in power, it leans towards war and the sun. The kaaria, a humid white substance that hardens as it dries, and which is collected on a moonless night from a deposit thought to be beneath the hills on the outside, brings together several forms of efficiency. Advancement within a process is embodied by a whiteness that emerges from the darkness and that covers it, and by an element that errs on the earthly and the damp but that is intended to dry out and shine in the sun. The kaaria is the active ingredient in a second motherhood: kaaria women have a white circle drawn, no longer around the left eye but around the right eye, a sign that the maternal side and the mûgiro that it carries has been de-activated, and that the patrilinearity and the power of generations continues to develop. The kaaria, a substance taken from the ground that establishes a parallel with the country of which the Fathers are the owners, comes from outside the territory, similar to the trophies that the warriors bring back, and from which they are given their nthukî name as well as the ability to reproduce. The link between kaaria Mothers and killer warriors becomes explicit when, after having spurred them on to reach the waangi state before departing on a raid, these Mothers, metamorphosed through being owners of the kaaria, shave the heads of the warriors who ask them, and allow their reinsertion. Only women who have mastered this dangerous substance may approach individuals whom the death of an enemy has placed in a particularly marginal position. Through the warriors, their sons whom they help to be reborn, it is as if the death of an enemy—in addition to the simulated death of a young woman that marks their rise to power—were also a condition for the accomplishment of kaaria Mothers. To put it another way, by pushing her son to go off to war and expose himself to death, a mother in effect consents to his disappearance while awaiting his return and rebirth, and her own promotion.

53For the women, the kaaria is the active principle in a second gestation that happens in broad daylight and allows everyone’s destiny to play out within the system. Transmitted from sets of mother-in-laws to sets of daughter-in-law, it is also proof of the permanence of alliance vows. In both cases it stems from a centrifugal movement that it controls, and evinces a necessity to turn outwards in order to better reinforce what is inside.

Ill. 20 — Women demonstrating following a drought that was set off, according to them, by a hunter who neglected to make the usual offerings after having killed a python terrorizing the area, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Ill. 20 — Women demonstrating following a drought that was set off, according to them, by a hunter who neglected to make the usual offerings after having killed a python terrorizing the area, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Photo by Andrew Botta.

Ill. 21 — Threshing of sorghum, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Ill. 21 — Threshing of sorghum, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Photo by Andrew Botta.


1  An exception are the articles written by Mary Holding (1942a, b), who taught in the protestant mission schools. The author reports on female institutions that were proof of structures still considerably active then, but her descriptions are brief and concern the southern Meru. Of course there are traits in common with the Tigania-Igembe, but noticeable differences arise, namely in the councils’ and grade names, and in the rules of advancement. Also, the author seems not to have been aware that the women possessed not only their own grades but their own sets as well.

2  The phrase may be a way of describing regions that are difficult to reach, but more likely has to do with the colonial administration’s strict control over the movements of visitors. J. Adamson herself was on an official mission.

3  The girl is thus secluded at a distance from the dwellings, which signifies a rupture in habits and, apparently, is a way of circumventing colonial interdictions.

4  The girl’s return to the paternal—or her brother’s—kraal would mean the union has been ruptured, referred to by the injunction; it is said that a “divorced” woman has “returned to her father”. However, in the case mûgiro is detected by a diviner, a woman returns to her father’s or brother’s abode to ask him to pay over a sheep, or a piece of mutton, in order to repair the mûgiro for which he is considered responsible.

5  It is worth recalling that one verb designates both these processes: kûumba muntu, “to fashion a human being”, and kûumba nyungû, “to fabricate a pot”.

6  The metal bracelets worn tightly on the forearm, upper arm, and above the ankles, the mathuruthia, are removed by women who no longer bear children; this is also the case for the maurû, the metal rings that hang from the ear given by a mother to her daughters when they get married. These are two examples of the codification of women’s ornaments whose effects are also to deform and shape the body, and the reasons why they are associated with fertility should be explored.

7  Similar institutions and practices have been observed in other societies with sets or age categories: the Barabaig (Klima 1964), the Gogo (Rigby 1969), and the Matapato Maasai (Spencer 1988: 198-209), to name a few. However, it is difficult to compare these similarities because the ethnographies tend to describe only the male version of society.

8  It is said that in Imenti, the first subset of warriors recruited right after the war of 1914-1918 was called Kaaria because the men had to enlist in the Carrier Corp: Kaaria would presumably be a deformation of “Carrier”. This deformation may have been helped along by the fact that the warriors, required to shave their hair to place the loads on their head, were in a way relegated to the rank of women to whom the task of carrying traditionally fell. This detail is not trivial: some local scholars, believing to know the custom, see in the women’s kaaria an imitation of the Imenti warrior Kaaria (sic). This is a glaring denial that women could have possessed any sort of organization, and, as such, any kind of authority.

9  One reason the ritual was abandoned in the 1950s has to do with the increasing refusal of young girls to be treated in this way.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 31 — Women sets in the generation-set system and the transmission of kaaria
Légende Bamungo terms of address between generations that have transmitted power to each other.From Michubu onwards, this has become a way of speaking* 8- Ncencenga or Ncoyai** 4- Ncencenga or Ncororo
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Titre Ill. 30a, b, c & d — Old women, from the Ncencenga set, Kianjai, 1987, Kîgûcwa, 1993
Crédits Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.
Fichier image/jpeg, 539k
Titre Ill. 20 — Women demonstrating following a drought that was set off, according to them, by a hunter who neglected to make the usual offerings after having killed a python terrorizing the area, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969
Crédits Photo by Andrew Botta.
Fichier image/jpeg, 187k
Titre Ill. 21 — Threshing of sorghum, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969
Crédits Photo by Andrew Botta.
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k

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