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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part three. Ritual as means of government

Chapter eight

The Fathers of the country, the mûgwe, and the blacksmith

Texte intégral

1We have examined the gaaru cycle and the recruitment of warriors, the transmission of the kaaria and the organizing structures for women. There remains a final component of the generational polity, as system of power and authority, to be considered. The Fathers of the country constitute a set of rulers in charge of public affairs and act primarily at the territorial-section level; in all matters the section remains the main point of reference, but at the level of the Fathers of the country more than with the warrior or women sets, there are also transverse links with other territorial sections. The Fathers, or their representatives, meet to resolve various cases that range from mediation between their fellow citizens, by means of the appropriate offerings, to the organization of mass gatherings that may be peaceful or aggressive, profane or ritual. The ability of the Fathers of the country to constitute a representative body takes on full meaning in the context of the rituals marking the advent of a new set of Fathers, where we see the appearance of a singular figure, the mûgwe, whose existence is revealed only by these events and whose life is not so different from that of other heads of families. This dignitary has acquired a certain renown following B. Bernardi’s monograph on the subject (1959). The work is invaluable in several ways. It is one of the few studies on these populations conducted by a professional ethnologist, with the aim of accounting for the differences between the Meru groups. There are in fact various mûgwe figures and each is linked to a group without necessarily fully identifying with it: two different groups may have a single mûgwe, but equally two or even three such figures may coexist within the same group. Through this research, conducted mainly in 1955 in the difficult context of the Mau Mau uprising, the author succeeded in rescuing from oblivion a figure and institution that were swiftly disappearing, and whose paradoxical role—simultaneously vital and negligible—cannot fail to arouse interest. Bernardi (1959: 141-168) shows in his hypotheses a clear recognition of this dignitary’s role as organizing force for the generation sets and, with much hesitancy and for want of a truly satisfactory term, describes him as a “prophet”. He then makes a comparison likening the mûgwe to the Maasai laibon, the Borana abba boku and the Nandi orkoyot, all dignitaries whose presence can be observed, precisely, in societies operating on the basis of generation sets.

2To an extent this chapter continues Bernardi’s analysis using his own data, combined with a few other valuable sources, collected in the Nyambene Hills and from the archives, in particular the short but dense chapter that Lambert (1945, ms.: 412-423) devotes to this figure, and the information obtained in the interviews conducted by Kangoi (1972). Not only can the role of the mûgwe only be understood in relation to the ensemble of principles governing social structure, but, more than other institutions, its origins lie in the symbolic systems unique to the Meru, a fact realized by R. Needham (1960), in an early example of structuralist analysis.

Fig. 32 – Territorial layout of the old Tigania-Igembe polity

Fig. 32 – Territorial layout of the old Tigania-Igembe polity

Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893

Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893

In Chanler (1896: inside back cover).

1. The Igembe mûgwe and the handover of power

3During the ntuiko, a time of transgression and “dis-order” where power changes from one division to another and falls to the next generation of Fathers, the new Igembe mûgwe is appointed; he is selected from within a family charged with this role, the Ancenge clan or line of descent who are Blacks and live in the Antûbûchio territorial division. This dignitary’s power lasts the duration of a set’s mandate, as summarized by the once widely-known adage: Nthukî imwî, mûgwe imwî, “one generation, one mûgwe.” The mûgwe is from the same generation as the Fathers of the Country and hence takes on a Father-son role relative to the warrior set. “M’Mugambi, the Mugwe for Ratanya, is himself a member of the Ithalie age-class. Muruku, the Mugwe for Micubu, is himself of Kiramunya age-class. The structural distance between them should be noted as it is not without significance. It should also be noted how the election of the mugwe follows the two alternating divisions”, notes Bernardi (1959: 32-33) who, perceiving the structure of the organization without actually identifying it as such, describes the principles of the generational system and the synchronous position occupied by the dignitary. The author also provides a list of the names of fifteen successive mûgwe, all from the Ancenge clan. Ideally the new mûgwe will be the eldest son of the first wife, but the person of the mûgwe must also meet other criteria, and it is not always easy to find a candidate ad hoc; any other agnate may be appointed, and failing that the same individual will remain mûgwe for two generations. The dignitary and his role are evident on two occasions: the future Fathers of the Country make a large mantle from black ram’s skin which the new mûgwe wears, once the ntuiko has ended, in order to visit and bless the newly-promoted sets of Fathers and warriors in each of the Igembe territorial sections. The representatives of the incoming and outgoing sets live together for a year in the “house of ûgwe”, which is located in the territorial section from which the mûgwe originated. This cohabitation represents another phase of reclusion, also known as ntuiko; ûgwe no longer indicates the dignitary but rather, as indicated by the û- prefix, the source of his power.

4Known as ndurumbo, a word used for large items of clothing, or more commonly as nguo, a generic term for any item of clothing, the mûgwe’s mantle is of the same type as the covers made from cow or goat hides that married men drape (draped) themselves with, and which anyone will wrap themselves in when the temperature drops. The similarity ends there, as the mûgwe’s mantle is always made from the hide of a ram, a material which is strongly linked to a certain kind of ritual. The whole of the set of future Fathers is supposed to make the mantle but, in practice, only the delegates from the four main Igembe territorial sections take part, adhering to the rules of representation which apply on this occasion: Njea and Kithima constitute Upper Igembe and supply four rams, four nanny goats (mparika) and four measures of honey; Akachio and Maua, which constitute Lower Igembe, offer the same (see fig. 32).

5On the agreed day, the delegates go with their gifts to the mûgwe’s residence, located in Thukuma, in the Antûbûchio territorial section, itself located within Akachio, one of the two major territorial sections within Lower Igembe. Along the way, they are intercepted for the ‘path opening’ ceremony by people from the Njirû cia Antûbûchio subsection —the Antûbûchio Blacks, a group which includes the mûgwe’s clan—who block the passage and tell the delegates: “There is no path here, it has long been closed”, meaning that the path has not been used since the previous ntuiko. The delegates answer: “We will obtain its opening”, to which the mûgwe’s people retort: “Who are you to seek to open the path?”

Igembe Munene, Igembe Umwiru, Igembe wa Ithina na Ruguru
The Great Igembe, the Igembe who is Black, Lower and Upper Igembe

respond the delegates. These local people then accommodate their request: “Pay one or two nanny goats and you will be allowed to pass.” When they arrive at the home of the mûgwe, the delegates are again stopped, this time by the mûgwe’s parents—the actual Ancenge—who demand an additional nanny goat before allowing them to pass.

6The four delegates from the generation of future Fathers then offer the mûgwe the honey intended for his personal consumption and for use in the blessings he is required to perform—so much so, in fact, that this substance is regarded as a major emblem of his role. Kirago is a term that may indicate any object bestowed with a certain power, but it is more specifically used to describe the sacred objects which the mûgwe keeps in his possession. The mantle-making ceremony begins, and is accompanied by the prayers and blessings uttered by the mûgwe in which he expresses to the future Fathers of the country the wish that their set’s mandate be an era of prosperity: Borochiara ta / kairu kaaria kacheke / ta karimba kaaria kacheke, “May you reproduce like a vigorous mwiru” or “like grass spreading over a marsh.” Mwiru is the aforementioned shrub used to obtain the cultivating stick with which the old women symbolically begin the harvest. A bull is sacrificed and its skin, having been blessed by the mûgwe, is laid on the ground as a kind of work surface: the rams’ fleeces must under no circumstances touch the ground. The mûgwe and the delegates divide up the meat from the eight rams, which have been asphyxiated in the customary manner. The skins are cut up, and the central strip of each fleece is carefully removed. The wool is pulled off in tufts rather than shaven, and then the pieces, which are made supple using fat from the rams according to custom, are assembled using straps obtained from the central strips and a special needle in the mûgwe’s possession. This is one of the sacred objects kept secretly by the mûgwe in the small bag which is another emblem of his role. Spread out on the bull’s skin, the mantle dries in the sun. At each stage of its production, the skins are blessed by the mûgwe with the customary spraying of a mixture of honey and saliva. The fleeces’ black color is not in itself remarkable since rams with light-colored or mottled fleeces are never sacrificed, but to enhance the dark hue the mantle is dyed with black pigment, before being decorated with brass ornaments (nthana). The delegates, who have already produced the mûgwe’s mantle, are also required to build or rebuild the house of the mûgwe, either the same day or another.

7Then comes the day of the “bringing out of the mantle” conducted by the set of future Fathers of the Country, which occurs in the locality named Kieni kia Nguo, “the Public ground of the Mantle”, located once again in Antûbûchio and therefore within Akachio. Everyone attends—men, women and children. The mûgwe, dressed in the mantle, arrives on the public ground and walks slowly, surrounded by an escort who form a square around him. A man from his Njiru cha Antûbûchio territorial section and his “day father” walk at his sides and each receive a nanny goat. Four representatives of the incoming set also accompany him, naked, their bodies gleaming with castor oil. In addition to the striking contrast between the naked bodies of the representatives and the wrapped-up body of the mûgwe, this display repeats and inverts elements of the initiation ceremony on the public ground. On this occasion a tree is also planted for the new mûgwe. While waiting for the handover of power to be completed, the mantle is kept in a specially guarded kiempe—an everyday term indicating a cylinder made from pieces of wood held together with leather which, according to the context, may be either a honeypot or a drum.

  • 1  Let us recall that, in certain sections, this ntuiko did not go unopposed; certain Kiramunya, judg (...)

8The other part of the ntuiko ritual was also held in Thukuma, in the building known as the “house of ûgwe”, which is the venue for any ceremony marking the transfer of power and is not to be confused with the actual residence of the mûgwe. The house is a circular hut the walls of which are characteristically made using roughly assembled stone, a rather atypical technique which reveals a concern for permanence, in clear contrast with the house of the warriors which is destined to be “uprooted”. This comparison becomes even more relevant when one discovers that the interior of the house of ûgwe reproduces the layout of the warriors’ gaaru with certain elements reversed. According to Lambert, who obtained this information through his research among the elders, a circular bench runs along the interior wall of the ûgwe house. It was divided into three parts which, at the time of the last ntuiko, some time before 19451, were occupied as follows: on the right as one entered sat the Ithalie, the future Fathers of the country who had already produced their mûgwe’s mantle; on the left were the Kiramunya, the current Fathers of the country required to step down, and at the back, on a small bench known as kathunguthe ka matana kiama (“the small place where the neophytes of the kiama jump up”) sat the representatives of previous sets of Fathers, mainly Gichungî, in the position of neophytes. Whereas in the warriors’ gaaru the kathunguthe is the least comfortable area, where fresh recruits sit, here it is reserved for individuals who have risen through every grade and completed their trajectory. Certainly, those beginning their trajectory and those completing it have in common a lack of power, either having already passed it on or having not yet been granted it, and they are linked in the same way as the alternating generations of grandchildren and grandparents. The distribution between the right- and left-hand side must be interpreted in relation to the position of the platform at the rear and the exit opposite: the current Fathers then appear to be seated on the right and the future Fathers on the left, a lateral configuration which is consistent with what has already been observed in the family kraal, and which reenacts the division of the human body—the left-hand side symbolizes beginnings and one’s maternal side, whereas the right represents continuation and the paternal side. The incoming set begins by occupying the left-hand side, then moves from left to right in a clockwise movement which here ends on the small platform where the “neophyte Accomplished” sit. For the ntuiko ritual, eight representatives per set, known by the customary term mûgambi (pl. agambi), are appointed by their peers: eight Ithalie, eight Kiramunya and eight Gichungî. Each set’s delegation is made up of two representatives from Upper Igembe, two from Lower Igembe and four substitutes, according to the rules previously observed during the making of the mantle. The ritual lasts a year in the ûgwe house, and substitutes are organized to replace any delegate who for some reason becomes ill, dies, or grows weak. In general, the substitutes are from a younger subset than the appointed delegate: two are kobia and the other two kaberia, while the delegates who sit on the platform at the back are of varying number because any representative from the preceding sets may take part. It is the task of these delegates to ensure that men from the incoming and outgoing sets, in this case Ithalie and Kiramunya, do not forget any of the various rituals marking the transfer of power. This phase of reclusion, which is also accompanied by much festivity, is kept secret and to date no significant information is available.

9An unspecified time after the completion of the ntuiko in the ûgwe house, the new mûgwe, accompanied by representatives from the new set of Fathers and escorted by a guard who carry his mantle packed into its drum, visits the four main Igembe territorial sections and each of the sub-sections from which they are formed. At every stop, the mûgwe receives a ram and shares the meat with the representatives and any important local mugambi, and is also given a nanny goat and a pot of honey. He wears his mantle when entering the home of the representatives of the Fathers of the country and then blesses, using his left hand, the various new gaaru of the warriors. He functions as a mîthega or “protective charm” for the warriors, and officially gives their generation names to the new Fathers of the country and to the set of their wives who are gathered close to the gaaru.

10The previous mûgwe resumes a normal life and, like other fathers, continues to progress through the grades, later becoming a mwariki. On the other hand, the emblems of his role are dealt with in a particular way: the specially-made mantle is destroyed and buried in the kiara of his kraal. When the old mûgwe dies, his body is treated like any other, but the tree which was planted when he first came out onto the public ground with his mantle is uprooted and burned in the fire of the mûgwe’s house.

11In this important ritual featuring the mûgwe, ûgwe and ntuiko, and in spite of gaps which will probably never be filled, certain key principles come to light, foremost among them the dual organization of territory: the territorial sections, of which there are four here, are separated into Upper Igembe made up of Njea and Kithima, and Lower Igembe made up of Akachio and Maua, which together form Great Igembe, of Black color. In reality each of these territorial sections is situated along a slope: Akachio is found below Maua, a section located at altitude, and Njea is the first section one comes to when arriving from Tigania and passing north of the Nyambene Hills. One should not see this partitioning as a reflection of topographic realities, but as a mode of differentiation and binary distribution according to elevation (“Those Above” and “Those Below”) that is evident on other occasions—in the gaaru of the Athiru Gaitî warriors, for example, where Those Below are Whites and Those Above are Reds and Blacks—and which here becomes a structuring device. Also of note is the repeated use of the number four: four territorial divisions, four delegates, four substitutes, and the four Mothers of the warriors’ gaaru. This number symbolizes the masculine, and its use in the context of a generational division dominated by patrifiliation is no accident. The same applies to the periphery-center relationship: the system of sectional delegates, who are selected and then meet in a predetermined place, reproduces on a smaller scale that of the territorial section, which centers on the warriors’ gaaru. Here it is applied to a larger whole that includes the entire Igembe entity, and also defines it, since this territorial system works together with a temporal element that occurs every fifteen years on average—the making of the mantle by the representatives of the future set of Fathers. Dressed in his mantle, and only at the appropriate time, the dignitary conducts a walking ritual which takes him to every section, once again illustrating the way the sets and the territory function together. There are a number of other features which recall the initiation rituals, though in somewhat altered form: we know nothing of the rites which take place in the ûgwe house, but we can at least comment on the importance and long duration of the cohabitation, which is identical to the reclusion or “gestation” period for novices except that the recluses here represent their entire set. Reclusion takes place in a stone house imbued with the ûgwe principle, the permanence of which contrasts with the transitory nature of not only the novices’ huts but also the warriors’ gaaru and the succession of sets. In the same way, the role of mûgwe, which stays within one line of descent, contrasts with the temporary nature of the person embodying it: his mantle is destroyed and buried in the kiara like the body of an Accomplished; the tree which was planted when he walked out onto the public ground is uprooted and burned like the post in the warriors’ gaaru. In both cases, the sets and their mûgwe become “accomplished” and pass on, while the ûgwe remains. In short, the ritual encapsulates the contrasting effects of time: its flow, enabling fulfilment and repetition, and its static quality, signifying prolongation and permanence.

12However, the transfer of power takes place independently in each territorial section. The old gaaru is torn down and replaced by a new gaaru which is built and protected with mîthega—protective charms that the Accomplished and the new Mothers of the gaaru collect from the forest, after receiving favorable signs from Ngaï-Murungu on the Small Lake at Nyambene. Meanwhile, the women transfer their kaaria at the appropriate time, and a festival is held where the previous Fathers cede to their successors: the amount of gifts given varies according to the generosity of the incoming set or the hardships of the time, but the women bring plenty of gruel to the public ground, and the set to which their husbands belong, the future Fathers of the country, brings goats and at least one bull. The spokesman for the outgoing nthukî harangues those of the ascendant generation and reminds them of their new duties: “They hold the country (kûgwatîla nthîî), and decide on war and the rites of rain”, a formula for the transfer of authority which summarizes the universal responsibility taken on by the Fathers of the country, who from now on must be obeyed (gwîtîkîria waatho), and must also encourage respect for their elders. “Do not forget the other generations; work together, take care of new-born babies and the elderly; send the children to school; there must be schools after the Ithalie hand over power”, exhorted an Ithalie (in Athiru Gaitî) ceding to the Michubu in around 1960. The bull is killed, and the spokesman for each set receives a rear haunch that he shares with his companions: the ascendant set receives the left rear haunch, and the outgoing set, the right rear haunch. The other parts are divided up as usual. Both nthukî call each other baite from now on: the transfer of power has abolished the hierarchy between the former Fathers of the country and those of the subsequent set, and constitutes an act of equalization that will lead to further exchanges. The official set names of the new Fathers and those of their wives, as well as the appropriate terms of address, are proclaimed. Of course, this festive and joyful day also features dances and songs in which each set may express itself in the musical and choreographic register appropriate to its position. In the hut where the men’s meetings take place (nyumba ya kiama, “house of the council”)—a building whose construction is not celebrated or marked in any particular way—the young fathers will have already attended the councils and learned the art of public speaking and deliberation from the Fathers of the country. When they become “knowing”, another way of indicating ntuiko, their predecessors “exit” and cede their responsibility; other young fathers then enter in turn. In reality, men who want to attend the councils will continue to come, and the shrewdest mugambi will always be consulted and heeded. Unless they are members themselves, no one may address a member of the kiama, and any request must be accompanied by a gift; the penalties that may follow come in the form of payments of goats or bulls, or occasionally sheep, which are intended to protect people from contamination or bring conflicts to an end. The division of the meat and its consumption soon afterwards is the principal activity, and brings the men together in the kiama house; a fire is built and anyone may sleep on the banana leaves and bull hides laid on the ground if the need arises.

13Data obtained from the elders and the elderly on the handover of power and the organization of the sets yields a picture of a system that is of primary importance to the territorial section, and in the highly varied transverse relationships that the section maintains with other sections near and far. The personage of the mûgwe is certainly well-known but in his actual person he is rather remote; there is no (or no more) aura of devotion surrounding him, and the reverence he is said to inspire is more muted than suggested by Bernardi. Admittedly, the author based his study particularly on the Tharaka and Chuka mûgwe, whose role and position are rather different. Here the impression remains one of a society that is only weakly hierarchical, where the network of territorial sections is self-sufficient, as if the re-establishment of order achieved by the ûgwe rituals were redundant. This is of course not the case, but the low importance the Igembe accord their mûgwe is a fact that is not merely the result of acculturation, and encourages a slightly different analysis of the situation.

2. The situation in Tigania and neighboring groups

14Whereas in Igembe the division between Lower and Upper is a way of distributing the population around the central mûgwe, a distinction exists among the Tigania— traditionally named the Multitude of Ngaa (Kirindi or Mwiko jwa Ngaa)—between Those of the Right, the Igoki, and Those of the Left, the Athwana, which correspond to entities with different dignitaires. Those of the Right (Urio), the Igoki, neighbor the Igembe and include the Karama and Muthaara sections whose territory formerly extended up into the forest, and incorporated Mûciî Mûkûrû and Kîgûcwa. The Igoki are said to be rich in livestock and to always want to be first in grazing and watering their cattle. The Igoki have a mûgwe. Those of the Left (Umwotho), the Athwana, include the sections north-west of Muthaara, home to the Akethe, Kianjai and Uringû—equally rich in cattle, their herdsmen frequently quarrel with the Igoki—as well as the southern divisions of Tigania up to Mikinduri, according to a distribution that again covers various ecosystems. The Athwana have a mûkiama (fig. 32).

  • 2  Christianization progressed during these years and numerous candidates declared themselves to be m (...)

15The mûgwe of Igoki-Right resides at Kîgûcwa in the forest layer. At the time of Bernardi’s research, Kîgûcwa, which is not far from Mikinduri, was also attached administratively to it; but Mikinduri is part of Athwana-Left, and this mistake in the allotment of territory must be noted before we can understand the distribution here. The mûgwe of the Igoki-Right is from a Red clan, Ntune cia Amûrujû, also known as Antuambugi and identified with the Abombugi, which is the clan of the Imenti mûgwe, another name for which is Omo; this mass of synonyms is not of particular note but should be kept in mind. As in Igembe, the election of the Igoki mûgwe keeps pace with the opening of the sets: M’Emungo, from the Gîchungî set, was the mûgwe for the Ithalie; M’Ikwenga, from the Murungî set (one of the synonyms of the Kiramunya), was that of the Michubu; M’Kirimi, from the Ithalie set, is the mûgwe for the Ratanya. Bernardi (1959: 35-38) notes a certain delay in the announcement of the Igoki mûgwe and the performance of the ntuiko rituals, with the election of the mûgwe for the Ratanya in 1956-1957 occurring almost ten years after the opening of the set in 1945-1947. In the course of these years, the initiation age for boys had dropped markedly and there had been a number of other changes; meanwhile the old system of power that had centered on the Fathers, still represented by the mûgwe, had trouble keeping up, as demonstrated by the way his election occurred long after the opening of the set for whom he was supposedly the “protective charm”. This delay explains the erroneous conclusions of Mahner (1975: 401-402) who conducted research ten years later in 1969-1970 and did not realize that the system of sets and social positions that he was describing was crumbling and becoming distorted, and makes incorrect claims regarding the coincidence of set and mûgwe: “The last mugwe, elected for Ratanya, when the generation-set of Micubu took power...” We learn that the Ratanya mûgwe elected in 1956-1957 died in 1962, and that no agreement has since been reached to find a successor2. Having mistakenly associated the mûgwe with the young fathers who are not in power and who, he claims, sit on the left in the house of the kiama (though he does not mention in relation to what), Mahner then launches into an analysis that is a perfect example of structuralist logic, suggesting that the religious function of the mûgwe counterbalances the political function of the Fathers of the country: “During a period of fifteen years, political powers and religious authority are allocated to different groups in the society who, because of this, are dependent on one another” (ibid.: 403). In fact, the role of the mûgwe is the precise opposite—allied with the Fathers of the country, he is thus far more imbued with symbolic and political potential—and there is no ethnographic basis for this dissociation of “religious” and “political” functions.

16The announcement of the new mûgwe for the Igoki-Right, decided jointly by the representatives of the outgoing and incoming sets (Bernardi 1959: 90-93), is associated with the sacrifice of the ntigiri (the “bull-donkey” covered with leaves referred to in Ch. 6) and the identification of the virgin men, a ritual that marks the closing of the subsets; the final ritual in the series is followed by the “raid of the lake of the mantle”. The procession has become considerably developed and, in this case, the “bull-donkey” was provided by the Ntuune cia Butamabû, a subsection neighboring that of the mûgwe that is also home to one of the girls destined to become “mothers of the gaaru”. The procession of the bull, composed of warriors from the set being closed and accompanied by the sound of their horns, travelled from high ground to low before returning into the forest; it went first to Kitheo kia Ûkiama, a place of worship located on a lower eminence belonging to the Athwana-Left, and then climbed back up Kîlima kia Ntigiri, the Ntigiri Mountain, one of the Nyambene mountains which rises not far from the residence of the mûgwe. The sacrifice of the ntigiri marks the establishment of a new mûgwe and, for this purpose, the skin of the black bull is preserved. According to rules comparable to those applied in Igembe, his mantle is crafted by the new Fathers who are organized for the occasion into representatives of the Upper Igoki and representatives of the Lower Igoki—areas that each contain four sections, although I was unable to determine exactly which ones. Each section offers a ram, a nanny goat and some honey. In the house of the mûgwe’s first wife, the kîîrî, or sealed wicker box in which the mantle and other secret items of her husband are arranged, is erected on the left-hand side as one leaves. On other occasions, girls come to look after his gardens and to reapply coating to the huts of his kraal. On the day of his public appearance, the mûgwe puts on the mantle and wears a head covering made from sheepskin and topped with ostrich feathers; in his right hand he holds a black stick, a branch of green leaves and a gourd of honey. Except when conducting blessings, the dignitary keeps his left hand concealed under his mantle. It is said of the Igoki mûgwe that “he has opened up the path so that children may grow”.

17The mûkiama of the Athwana-Left forms part of a markedly different system: mûkiama literally means “he who sits in the kiama”, “adviser”. According to Lambert (1945, ms.: 422), the mûkiama is an officiant who must be selected from within the Antûbaita clan (the People of War); he performs rituals commemorating the sacrifice of the warrior Ita (also known as Aita or Gaita) thanks to which the proto-Meru were able to cross the “great water” (rukanka) and escape from Mbwaa. The Antûbaita also provide a bull, a sheep and a large pot of honey for a sacrifice carried out in the aforementioned Kitheo kia Ûkiama (Woods of Ûkiama), which supposedly replicates the place where Aita offered himself in sacrifice like a billy goat, the entrails of which may be interpreted in order to tell the future. The officiant, a Father from the Antubaita clan, is known as Mûkiama. The election of a new mûkiama signals the arrival of a new set, but the role is neither hereditary nor exclusively held by a particular line, unless one counts the very broad category of the Antubaita clan. This is why Bernardi (1959: 37-38) was unable to find a series of names from the same line as in the case of a mûgwe. In any event, the warriors are regarded as his children, and the mûkiama acts as their “protective charm” until marriage. The Fathers also provide him with a large mantle made from the skin of a black ram; the mantle is known as a mûgwe because, we are told, it is flawless, without a single break in the skin. It is said to be made from a single piece and every month the mantle is maintained and made supple with sheep fat. Here mûgwe refers not to the dignitary, but to the mantle, which functions as a protective charm for the warriors. The man who wears the mantle, the mûkiama, is regarded as the possessor of ûkiama, a nominal form that mirrors the earlier ûgwe and refers to the principle of his power.

18Kangoi (1972: 1, 4, 11) adds some interesting details. The ritual conducted by the mûkiama takes the form of a “procession of ûkiama”. This procession follows a loop that begins in the south at Ruera, goes along the Uringû road to the north-west, and then continues to Kianjai; in Amûkui, the procession stops short of Muthaara (in Igoki-Right) and returns towards Mikinduri, passing through Kirorerone (contracted to Kireone or Kiolone), a place synonymous with Kithune gia Ûkiama or Kitheo kia Ûkiama, or located nearby: kithûû or kitheo is the diminutive of mwitho, “forest”, and Kithune gia Ûkiama means the “Woods of Ûkiama” cited earlier. The members of the procession spend one or two nights praying to Ngaï-Murungu and blessing the new set to be initiated. Bernardi (ibid: 91, 199) describes the Woods of Ûkiama as a grove through which a stream runs and becomes a pond, covered with flowers and aquatic plants; these must move aside and allow a view of clear water, a sign that Ngaï-Murungu has heard the prayers of the mûkiama. This scene, seen earlier and similarly occurring in many places of worship, is here explicitly linked to a commemoration of Gaita’s sacrifice, one of the central elements of the myth of Mbwaa studied in the following chapter.

19The division within the Tigania between the Right, with their mûgwe, and the Left, who celebrate Ûkiama, contrasts with the way the Igembe unite around their own mûgwe. However, this is less an indication of discord or scission and more an age-old method of association and coexistence set up between two territorial entities, which furthermore enables the expression of rivalry. Indeed, there was coordination between Left and Right pertaining, precisely, to the recruitment of sets. The Igoki-Right elders came to meet the Athwana-Left after the latter had completed their journey and returned from the Woods of Ûkiama: at Kiolone in Athwana, close to those woods, negotiations between the representatives and elders of the Left and Right would take place over a year. At the end of this lengthy secret meeting, reminiscent of the reclusion of the Igembe elders in the ûgwe house, the Igoki-Right elders received tumwikwa, necklaces made from pearls and pieces of sheepskin, a gesture signifying that a new set could be initiated on both the Right and the Left (Kangoi 1972: 1). At this point, the Igoki-Right warriors would forcefully circumcise a boy who was too young to be initiated and was expected to die from his wounds, as described in the preceding chapter. The election of the new mûgwe followed, and the Igoki “bull-donkey” procession would later stop off in the Woods of Ûkiama, where the routes of the two processions intersected. This coordination between Right and Left is not much different from what can be observed in Igembe. We must also analyze the situation with reference to all the inhabitants of the Nyambene Hills who, one should remember, use the same system of sets, whether one is in Igembe or among the Mwiko jwa Ngaa of the Right and of the Left, and share the same sacred sites: principally, the Ngombe crater, the Nyambene forest and, close to Kianjai, the Mbututia marsh beyond which, further to the west, lies the Imenti forest that marks the border with that people. There is a general contrast between the Mwiko jwa Ngaa and the Igembe that both separates and links their people; the Igembe are Blacks as a whole while the Mwiko jwa Ngaa, as demonstrated by their emblem, the women’s shield, are linked with war and the color white—a contrast that also extends to the more agricultural focus of the Igembe, and the emphasis on cattle-raising among the Tigania. The fact that the distinction works according to this ternary system—one for the Igembe, and two for the Tigania—guarantees sustainable coexistence, and it is from this angle that we must analyze the division of Tigania into Right and Left and the unity of Upper and Lower among the Igembe. This is illustrated by the conflict mentioned earlier, when Kianjai warriors (Of the Left), urged on by a diviner of Maasai origin, attacked a group of Igembe but were unable to persuade the Muthaara (Of the Right) to join them in their misdeeds. The warriors were defeated and, once reparations had been paid, the matter ended there; this story is sometimes evoked as a reminder of the rules of the coexistence. The coordination of rituals that results from this regional system also ensures that, within the entity thus defined, no one can take advantage of another people’s vulnerable state while initiating children.

20The configurations of the groups neighboring the Tigania-Igembe show that their system relies on a recurring principle that, along with other elements, enables a better appreciation of the mechanisms at work in Nyambene. Among the Imenti there is an opposition between a “Right”, again called Igoki, situated in the North, focused more on herding and considered to be made up of White clans, and a Left known as Nkuene, located further to the south. This partition, which is not very defined compared to that of the Tigania, no longer plays much of a structuring role: it is said that one day the Reds had had enough of the boasting of the Whites, who always claimed to be first when feeding and watering their cattle; they attacked and pushed them back to the site of the present town of Meru—a name that, we may recall, is a contraction of Miiriga Mieru (the White Clans or Sections). The Imenti have a single mûgwe who belongs to the Omo clan or section, also known as Abombugi, a name within which we can recognize that of the hunter Mbugi: the mûgwe is supposedly one of his descendants. He is based in Kiruirwa, on the Tharaka road, not far from Nkubu. Misfortune seems to have fallen on this family, and at the time of Bernardi’s research, no mûgwe had been announced for some time (among the Imenti a new dignitary appears to have been appointed each generation). According to Lambert, the Miutini, Igoji, Muthambi, and Mwimbî—small sections of Mount Kenya to the south of the Imenti—obtain their “protective charms” from the Imenti mûgwe in Kiruirwa. Formerly the Mwimbî seem to have had their own mûgwe, but the role has disappeared. The Chuka, the group neighboring the Embu, have a dual territorial division between the Thagana and the Tumbiri, and only one mûgwe whose clan is named Nkui (“Those of the needle”). Lastly, a Left/Right division based more on clan than territory exists among the Tharaka. The Tharaka ya Umotho (“Tharaka of the Left”) have a mûgwe from the Githuri clan, identified with the Imenti clan Abombugi. The Tharaka ya Urio (“Tharaka of the Right”), who are also said to be the “children of the mûgwe’s sister”, obtain their “protective charms” at Kiriene in Athwana (“Tigania of the Left”), a place associated with the Athwana ûkiama but also of importance to the Igoki (Tigania of the Right). For the ceremony marking the transfer of power, the Tharaka of the Left follow rukunyî. This is another method of transferring power which differs from the ntuiko in that the new Fathers are installed alongside their predecessors and not dislodged by them. This smooth progression is indicative of a generational dynamic that is noticeably different, confirmed by the fact that the mûgwe does not change with each new generation: the individual given this role performs it until his death. The Tharaka of the Right do still prepare a nguo mantle, and both Left and Right are present at the important moment of the mûgwe’s appearance on the public ground located in Mutuampea south of Mutaranga, where the mûgwe presents the njuguma (a kind of club prepared especially for this occasion, similar to a chuuma) to representatives of the incoming set (Lambert 1945, ms.: 418).

Map 6 — Groups with mûgwe

Map 6 — Groups with mûgwe

21In summary there exists, among the Meru people, a Left-Right opposition that combines with other oppositions and with the varying roles of the mûgwe: some are recognized by various groups, while others are only of importance to a part of their own group. The distinction between the various mûgwe, whose role is always associated with the generation sets, includes other differences that relate to the generation set systems and the transfer of power: rukunyî or quasi-peaceful generational transmission unique to the Tharaka and the small Meru divisions to the south, including the Chuka, involves mûgwe who remain in their role until death; on the other hand, ntuiko, which corresponds to a more antagonistic generational system, is used by the Igembe, Tigania and also, it seems, the northern Imenti, and involves mûgwe who are replaced with each generation. As an administrator responsible for the maintenance of law and order, Lambert (ibid.: 421-422) had been aware of these differences in the generational systems and ascribed them to the divisions’ varying levels of assertion, and to the importance of belonging to one or the other. The presence of the mûgwe was not in fact his problem, but he had certainly sensed a key component of the issue.

Ill. 15 — “M’Mugambi (left), the Mugwe of the Igembe, and Muruku, the retired Mugwe”, 1955

Ill. 15 — “M’Mugambi (left), the Mugwe of the Igembe, and Muruku, the retired Mugwe”, 1955

Photo by Bernardo Bernardi, 1959: II; 1989: 1.

3. The person and position of the mûgwe

22Igûrû, the name of the first Igembe mûgwe, is a term that sometimes refers to altitude (ûgûrû means “above”), and sometimes to “starting” and “coming before” (îgûrû indicates the evening and marks the beginning of the circadian cycle). This second meaning reinforces the association of the mûgwe’s house with the west, the setting sun, and the color black. It is said that Igûrû was the first to arrive in Igembe but that the region was at that time covered with water. Igûrû put an end to the suffering of his clan, the Ancenge, by cutting through the tree that had been causing a blockage; the water flowed away and the country was freed (Bernardi 1959: 68, 73). The tree in question was a mûkûû, the same species that stands over the bodies of water where propitiatory sacrifices are made. The mûgwe comes from outside the region to protect his people from the calamity of an excess of water, an occurrence that ecologically speaking is not unlikely in these elevated hills, but again nothing is said of the instrument used by this savior to cut the tree. There are two other accounts of the origin of the Igembe mûgwe. The Chuka, a small section of Mount Kenya, claim that a very old man named Mûkunga had two children, a boy and a girl: from their incestuous union was born a son named Karieni. Stricken by drought, the Igembe had come seeking help from the Chuka; Mûkunga dispatched his grandson Karieni who became the first Igembe mûgwe, while Mûkunga’s son became the first mûgwe of the Chuka. Mûkunga is also found in the name of one of Mbugi’s sister-wives, which is also that of the woman from whom the Tigania are descended. The story recalls the theme of a brother-sister couple found in the final episodes of the Mbugi tradition, as well as the variations on the origin of the gichiario relation between Tigania and Mwimbî (see Ch. 5). According to Bernardi, the Igembe seem for their part entirely unaware of this story but, at the time of Lambert’s research, they still remembered Mûkunga as a man from whom they might be descended; there was perhaps also an intermediary in the figure of the mûgwe of the Igoki (Tigania of the Right), one of whose clan names is the same as that of the Chuka mûgwe: Antûannkui and Nkui, “the Needle”. Another tradition, this time also well-known among the Igembe (Bernardi, ibid: 79-80), establishes a relation between themselves and the Tharaka: a Tharaka mûgwe came and established himself among the Igembe at a time when they were beset by great famine; he went back to his own country but left behind his son who became the first Igembe mûgwe. To summarize, the mûgwe is a predecessor and yet has external origins; he brings aid to people affected by an overabundance or lack of water, and appears to be the regulator of excess and deficit in the cycle of the rain. He is also a Black and thus associated with altitude, which is synonymous with humidity and the forest.

23Identical elements emerge from the story surrounding the figure of Antubeita, whose sacrifice is celebrated by the Athwana mûkiama. That story constitutes a section of the myth of Mbwaa, which is composed of many other episodes and will require a separate chapter to examine as it raises a number of issues (see Ch. 9). For now we can note that Aita’s sacrifice meant that the water, which constituted an insurmountable obstacle, would cease flowing while people passed through, and then close up again after they had escaped—in other words, an opposite and complementary action to that of the first Igembe mûgwe. In the story of Mbwaa, Aita is occasionally replaced or accompanied by a mûgwe, though the latter is not the only one to act as substitute since other heroes perform the same function. On the other hand, oral traditions (Kangoi 1972: 1, 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 14), which tell of the arrival of Aita and his people after their flight, describe certain exchanges that then took place. One account explains that the people of Mûciî Mûkûrû—a locality located in the forest not far from the Mountain of the Bull-Donkey and Kîgûcwa where the mûgwe of the Igoki-Right resides—, who were said to marry so late that they were unable to have children, were those who supplied the “protective charms for the gaaru”, the hallmark of the mûgwe. The story goes that after their escape from Mbwaa, the proto-Meru arrived in the high hills where they organized themselves into gaaru; this was not without incident, resulting as it did in the conflict and secession mentioned earlier.

24It is also said that on their arrival the proto-Meru came across the Mwoko, a people rich in livestock but armed with only bows and arrows, upon whom they inflicted severe defeat and who then scattered, except for a few who remained and integrated among the newcomers. Their descendants constitute the Mûciî Mûkurû jwa Muthiû division, which literally means “Elder Family”, or “Father Family, which is the first”, the same group that supplied the “protective charms for the gaaru” as well as, apparently, the “protective charms for the destruction of the gaaru”—in other words, they provided a time scale. At this point the story varies as to how bonds were formed. A young Mwoko named Gachuru who had hidden in a beehive survived, was initiated and named M’Ribui; Gachuru had a sister who married an Antubaita. Or: when the Mwoko fled, one of their young girls hid in the Nyambene forest; she had a bull and a heifer with her and went on to live in the forest for a long time. One day, she came across a man who was emerging from a lake; named “Man of God”, he summed up his courage and spoke to the girl, who said she belonged to Mûkûrû—literally “Father”—; they became the ancestors of Mûciî Mûkûrû. In this second version, the terms of the first version are reversed, but remain identical: the Mwoko and the newcomers; the brother-sister or husband-wife relationship; fantastic elements that are also symbols associated with the mûgwe (the beehive and presence of a lake); the founding of an establishment that is the source of the protective charms of the gaaru. Further, the ritual of the “bull-donkey” and the final “raid of the lake of the mantle”, which signals the closing of any warrior set, also echo certain elements of these stories.

25The story of the founding of Mûciî Mûkûrû, as well as the story that establishes them as the origin of the protective charms for the gaaru, reflects a peaceful exchange between victors and vanquished: Aita the victor took a woman from one of the defeated men who thus became a “giver”; this was a way of arriving at a modus vivendi by counterbalancing the primacy of war with that of marriage. However, the meaning of this transaction is deepened by another tradition that claims that the Antû Ba Gachuru, or “People of Gachuru”, were assimilated into the section known as Antûbankui or “People of the Needle”, the same name as the lineage of the Chuka mûgwe. The needle is a metal object made by the blacksmith, which even Mbugi the hunter possessed and which is also one of the emblems of the mûgwe. However, one custom, this time from Kîgûcwa, claims that at least one of the young mothers of the gaaru became the young wife of the blacksmith-goldsmith: referred to using the same term as a blacksmith-smelter, mûturi, he moreover belonged to a clan named Ntune Cia Amugwe Cia Amûturi, whose role was to go to the blacksmith and obtain objects necessary for rituals. This girl’s rather unusual path in life reveals a triangular relationship between the generational system, the mûgwe and the ambiguous figure of the blacksmith: two individuals who are in theory completely dissociated but who are both external to the set and its gaaru. In exchange for the protective charms offered by the mûgwe, the warriors yield one of their own women who is given not to the dignitary but to a blacksmith-goldsmith; admittedly, he is a less significant blacksmith figure since he does not smelt, but this nonetheless marks his first explicit appearance.

26Mûciî jwa mûgwe iûkûraga: “The mûciî of the mûgwe always grows” (Bernardi 1959: 71). The consigning of the role of the mûgwe to a family or lineage is another distinctive characteristic of the institution. This is not exactly unique, since there “mûciî of the sheep”, “mûciî of the goat”, and “mûciî of the protective charms”, where the family’s father must offer the necessary animal for the sacrifice or welcome the circumciser into his home during the period of initiations. In the case of the mûgwe, however, the idea appears to be taken further, to the point of creating a kind of descent group with its own foundation stories: a system that is original and exceptional, to say the least, among a people who consider that every mûciî disappears upon its founder’s death, with its very name eventually being forgotten.

  • 3  Among the Baraguyu, a group of Maa speakers spread through the north-east of Tanzania, there is a (...)

27The choice of the mûgwe is made according to the rule of primogeniture, and in theory the eldest son of the first wife should succeed his father, but Bernardi has clearly established that in reality the previous mûgwe has been replaced on occasion by a younger brother, the son of another wife or a cousin. Such a gap between the rule and its application is the result of other criteria that often make this rule inapplicable. The candidate must possess certain physical and psychological qualities: his body may not bear scars or traces of blows, and he must have a calm temperament. The choice is made by the elders of the mûciî, in the sense of lineage, in agreement with the Fathers of the sub-section containing the mûgwe’s clan—an association that reflects the continuum between these groups, and the way in which the authority granted by the generation-set system is utilized. The future mûgwe is selected during childhood or adolescence, as he is to be educated in a particular way: he is initiated as early as possible, and therefore sooner than peers of the same age or generational position, lives in neither the gaaru of the uninitiated nor that of the warriors, and does not participate in raids alongside the warriors; this is apparently so that he will not be wounded or required to kill. After initiation, he is considered a young father and takes part in the meetings and deliberations of the council in order to learn from them (Bernardi, ibid: 82-87). The mûgwe’s singularity is clear: his inborn qualities are complemented by his early initiation, considering his father’s position, and his subsequent skipping of the grade of warrior and the role of muthaka-Bushman. It is possible to view this shortening, or acceleration, of the future dignitary’s trajectory as a way of making the rule of primogeniture coincide with that of the election of a mûgwe by nthukî later on, but it is equally a means of creating a unique individual. Unlike his companions, the completion of a raid and death of an enemy does not grant him a nthukî name to hand down to his offspring—a deficit, or shortfall, which will shape his character in a distinctive way. A tradition regarding the sexuality of the mûgwe, which men evoke with a smile because it reverses the codes of love, is telling: a mûgwe is not supposed to let his wife know that he desires her, and must instead wait for her to put herself forward. The reserve and passivity that he is supposed to demonstrate in relation to his wife complement his skipping of the warrior grade: the number of age grades through which he passes is the same as for a woman and, by avoiding the grade of warrior, he does not experience the “masculinization” and “agnatization” of his character that would result from life in the bush, raiding or the death of an enemy. Essentially, his left half, or matrilateral and female components, are preserved or relatively emphasized. The association of his person with the “bull-donkey” ritual is thus explained and, conversely, the virgin men who are obliged to eat raw meat are being invited not to behave like a mûgwe. Perhaps the “bull-donkey” ritual was, in the past, a means of deciding who would become the warrior-protecting mûgwe3.

28The matrimonial rules and customs governing the marriage of a mûgwe’s children follow a similar pattern. Information found in Lambert concerning the Imenti mûgwe provides some insight here. With her dark reputation, it can be difficult for the daughter of a mûgwe to find a husband: it is said that any man who is not of the mûgwe’s clan who takes a mûgwe’s daughter as his first wife will suffer a rapid death. Those who seek to take her as a second wife are reminded that a mûgwe’s daughter is selfish and disobedient and will be anything but a well-bred and submissive wife. She is said to have special powers that are not fit for the seduction of men, since anything she predicts will supposedly come about—for example, when she announces to somebody that they will suffer misfortune, or curses a tree that inevitably dies and topples. These supposed traits of the mûgwe’s daughter cause her to enter into endogamous union, or even not to marry at all, and accord with the fact that she also took part in certain rituals: when there was a prolonged shortage of rain, for example, it was the dignitary’s task to marshal a procession led by a ram that was supposed to locate, deep in the forest, the sacred pond covered with leaves. The animal was then sacrificed and, during the blessings performed by the mûgwe, the leaves would separate, allowing a clear patch of water to be seen—a sign that Ngaï had received the prayers. If the drought persisted in spite of this, they would repeat the ritual but this time bring an innocent young girl or the mûgwe’s own daughter, dressed in a cape made from a hide known as nguo ya miguta or “mantle of fat”; this role of substitute for the ram once again illustrates her extraordinary nature (Bernardi, ibid: 113-114).

29The choice of a wife for a mûgwe’s son was also made according to particular criteria. The girl must be from the Njiru cha Antuambuini clan—of Black color like the mûgwe’s own clan—and entirely without flaws. Her mother cannot have lost a child, and no bad omens may be linked to the conception and birth of her daughter: there can be no doubt regarding her descent line, for example if she is a girane i.e. was conceived during ritual coitus at the end of a period of mourning. She should be neither a twin nor a triplet, nor should she have been born with a caul or with feet presented first, and nor should she have made any sound before having completely left the womb or touched the ground. Her first teeth must appear on the lower rather than upper jaw. These omens relating to birth and growth combine features that are always considered unlucky with another that is not. Among the Tigania-Igembe, being a twin or triplet is not considered a real issue; by inversion, it becomes one for the mûgwe, because multiple births confuse the principle of descent and also suggest a kind of abundance or proliferation that runs counter to his supposed reserve. On the other hand, the other features, which indicate birth and growth not consistent with the flow of time, are considered anomalies for anybody, and may be cured by ritual coitus performed within the framework of a bankiro relationship. This is probably the reason for the restrictions placed on the mûgwe’s future wife, whose mother must not get too close to other members of her generational group—another means of neutralizing this dimension and thus producing, by elimination, a principle of descent. Moreover, the marriage of the mûgwe’s son with this daughter is arranged in advance, and both must remain sexually inexperienced until the conclusion of their union: two additional features that contrast both with the premarital relationships that exist within sets and with marriages which, as a general rule, arise through a choice made by the two individuals when they are young adults.

30Together, these rules and customs which run counter to usual practice help to isolate the mûgwe’s lineage and create a concentration of certain characteristics within it. Essentially forced into an endogamous union, the mûgwe’s daughter does not oblige her father and brother to become “givers” of their daughter and sister, or to assume the permanent role of maternal uncle. The marriage of the mûgwe’s son reinforces this since he, too, marries within the close community, which amounts to not becoming a “taker” in thrall to a “giver” and to transgressing the code of colors: by marrying a girl of indisputably Black descent from within a Black clan, the mûgwe’s son works within a closed regime and strengthens the family’s Blackness while protecting it from external influence. The flaws that the mûgwe’s daughter are said to possess are like a negative of the qualities necessary in a mûgwe.

31The mûgwe may be the regulator of the harvest-providing cycle of rain and an exemplary Black fostering his own femininity and left-hand, matrilateral side, but he is nevertheless a part of the generational division and the set of Fathers in power who, for their part, cultivate their agnatism and the right-hand, patrilateral side of their body, and fulfil their patrilinearity. As Fathers of the country, they have the warrior-Bushmen under their command and decide on war, and are associated with heat, dryness and the sun cycle; their wives, Mothers of the warriors, possess the feminine emblems of war and mantle themselves with white kaaria. It is with reference to this general framework of positions and roles that we may interpret the function of the mûgwe and understand his personal attributes. The mûgwe performs blessings using his left hand, the preserved and “extra-ordinary” side of his person and supreme kirago that must always remain hidden, since the Fathers perform blessings with their right hand, the importance of which has increased over the ages. The mûgwe is the manifestation of everything the Fathers gave up and no longer possess and thus completes them; he is himself the “whole”, uniting what is separated and allowing the generational division, during the mandate of the set of Fathers, to function on behalf of all. The Fathers of the country may then legitimately “decide on war and the rites of rain”.

32By his very name, the mûgwe combines within his person the masculine, designated by the number four, and the feminine, or the number three. Mûgwe can be linked to mûgwanja, the term meaning “seven” and corresponding also to the number of sacred objects hidden in the mûgwe’s bag, or in the chest kept in his wife’s house: in addition to the needle mentioned earlier, these appear to consist of a sample of different grains, with the number of items totaling seven. The mantle worn by the androgynous mûgwe when he visits and blesses the newly-instituted sets and gaaru turns him into an unrivalled unifying force, to the extent that the Athwana-Left consider mûgwe to mean a mantle with neither holes nor seams, made from a single animal. Among domestic animals, all of whom are allied to the cycle of the sun, the ram is closest to the cycle of the rain because of its temperament; this makes the use, in a ritualistic context, of a ram of a dark and homogeneous color—brown or black—all the more significant. The way in which the various parts of the mantle are prepared and assembled is a further indication of this: in Igembe, the mantle is made before the ntuiko by representatives from the future Fathers, at a time when they are not yet in power and thus allied to the cycle of the rain. Each of the eight fleeces is divided into three parts: two symmetrical halves are cut so as to leave the strip running down the middle of the back; this is then used as a kind of thread to assemble the pieces with the metal kirago needle, as if the juxtaposition of symmetrical pieces were useless without the presence of a third element to link them. Honey is also closely— though not exclusively—associated with the person of the mugwe: the mantle is kept in a honeypot-drum, and this delicious substance, which he receives as an offering, helps promote the effect of his blessings and the prayers he addresses to Ngai-Murungu. Bees, which the Tigania-Igembe keep, live in the air, neither fully domesticated nor exactly hunted, and play a role in the sun cycle but also in that of the rain, since the honey harvest depends on it. Dressed in his great mantle made from the skin of a black ram, holding in his right hand a specially-fashioned stick and a gourd of honey, conducting blessings with his left hand which is not to be used for anything else and which no one may see under other circumstances, the mûgwe travels around the territory and “protects the country”, kûmenyera nthîgûrû (Bernardi, ibid: 105, 141). Kûmenyera is a common verb meaning “to protect” while nthîgûrû, a term formed from nthîî, “ground”, and -gûrû, “sky”, is more specifically linked to the dignitary. If the Fathers of the country are Ene nthîî, the “Holders”, in the sense of Sovereigns of the nthîî territory, the mûgwe’s territoriality is of a greater sort since he protects both ground and sky, connects both lower and upper, the earth and the sun: like an aegis held in the left hand, only he can unite that which normally remains separate. He constitutes a “whole”, carrying within himself that which the Fathers have lost, and allows the set in power to transcend its status of division and become universal sovereign. Following the ntuiko, which is the greatest manifestation of division and discord, the person of this dignitary, who is replaced each time and carries within himself forces that are normally separate, allows life to resume its course. In this the mûgwe is a worldly manifestation of Ngaï-Murungu, the supreme ordering force, and of ûgwe, the continuity principle.

33The mûgwe’s lack of power outside of this role, and the episodical nature of his activity, limited as it is to a particular territory and the mandate of one generation and one division, are the very mark of his effectiveness. It is enough that there is a representative of his person, that his species is conserved within a particular descent line, for him to be of value. Hence the use of the metaphor of the beehive and queen bee, which expresses this achievement and purpose: within the hive (îûgû) that she never leaves, unlike the workers (ruyai) who collect water (rûî) and pollen (mûûra) to be transformed into nourishing honey (nainchû), the queen (referred to using the term nthamari, meaning a principle that is both paternal and maternal) gives birth to the twana (young) in the comb (îbwa, pl. mabwa). The mûgwe-queen bee plays a similar role for his warrior sons, who are born a second time within the generation set system. He nourishes and protects them, enables their development, but after a certain time, like the ageing queen, the mûgwe-queen bee takes half of the bees away with him and leaves room for a colony which produces a young queen, new mother of the hive: another model of procreation that runs counter to the system observed in family relationships. The warriors leave their gaaru and settle in various small gaaru that they create in family kraals, and the hearth belonging to each wife receives the embers from the central pole of their old home. The mûgwe’s power lasts as long as his mantle, which is eventually destroyed and buried in the kiara, and also as long as the warriors’ gaaru, of which he was the guardian and which is destined to be “uprooted”, like the tree planted at the time of his inaugural appearance on the public ground. The ex-dignitary resumes a normal life, since a mûgwe, while left-handed and passive, is also a man like any other, or else he could not fulfil his role. He has a purely symbolic function, one that resolves a logical issue concerning the dual division and organization of the incompatible but indispensable vital cycles that govern Tigania-Igembe life, and the very structure of that system makes it impossible for such a figure to accrue or manipulate anything.

34Other characteristics are explained by the singular position this figure occupies. The mûgwe may look after his herd, but must never work in his gardens, since if he cultivates or touches the soil, he will endanger his children, the warriors. For this reason, people give presents to and carry out work for this individual, whose responsibility is to protect the warriors and the community. People come to tend to his gardens, or to rebuild his kraal and huts—this assistance explains the poor reputation of the mûgwe’s wife and close relations, who are reproached for being lazy parasites. The gifts received by the dignitary and the services undertaken on his behalf do not indicate some kind of monarchical role: they are due to his vital and precious passivity, which must be preserved from the strain of any unnecessary activity. The same can be said of the way in which he is permitted to accommodate and protect enemy warriors. This feature is not indicative of some savior-role—which, again, would suggest a monarchical function—but rather is one of the extreme effects of the rule forbidding the dignitary from killing or bringing back a trophy name, actions that are an important element in the men’s development as seen earlier. Because his congeners were required to kill enemies, he, conversely, has the power to protect them. The only death that a mugwe may cause—seen among the Imenti, though it may well apply in other groups—is that of an old woman whom the dignitary takes by the hand after being instated. He then forces her to run until death ensues (Bernardi ibid.: 93-94): in other words, a genuine act of killing, but one with the weakest possible effects, since the victim is almost the polar opposite of an enemy warrior: she is a woman, originating from the area, whose vitality has almost faded after reaching a very old age, and who dies from shortness of breath without her blood being spilled. Unique, and yet identical to the other men—a combination that lies at the core of his effectiveness—the mûgwe kills without reinforcing his patrilinearity, effecting a “transfer of breath” that improves his ability to perform blessings. The occasionally suggested idea that the mûgwe has the power to supervise warrior raids and thus to take part in the plunder is highly improbable since, again, it runs counter to his political reserve. Moreover, both mûgwe of the Nyambene Hills live at altitude, in residences located a good distance from the lower zones where raids are organized: the distance of the dignitaries would render impossible the speedy execution upon which a successful raid relies. On the other hand, the dignitary was indeed directly involved in the great raid organized once a generation, according to methods that are difficult to reconstitute in detail but which featured the sacrifice of the “bull-donkey” and the raid of the “lake of the mantle” as key sequences.

35The mûgwe’s descent line also functions in an unusual way in that it is governed by rules of marital alliance that, rather than encouraging openness or growth, instead cause the group to remain Black-only, to such an extent that there is a looming possibility of it becoming extinct—a contradiction of the very idea that “the mûciî of the mûgwe always grows”. In short, their position as a family line that is closed in on itself illustrates for their fellow citizens the danger of endogamy and of being excessively closed off. Hence the lack of genealogical credit that can be given to the lists of mûgwe, even if the idea is still maintained within their families that the various descent lines throughout the region all derive from each other, and form a dynastic model where the mûgwe, while multiple, are all equally connected to ûgwe, a unique force that only they share. Agwe ni babainge na ugwe ni bumwe, indi o muntu na nthiguru yawe, “The mûgwe are numerous and the ûgwe is solitary, but each has its own sky-ground” (Bernardi, ibid: 141). While it is difficult to make historiographic use of this assertion, the distribution of the dignitaries does undoubtedly attest to an age-old structure and an important component of these populations in the past.

36Now that we have established the mûgwe relates to the two generational divisions and a widespread binary system, it is appropriate to examine the situation in comparison with other such structures. An extension of R. Hertz’s formative work ([1909] 1970) on religious polarity, R. Needham’s 1960 article on the structure of Meru symbolism has as its starting point the unusual preeminence of the mûgwe’s left hand, a theme that two authors have gone on to develop in different directions: J. Mahner (1975), in addition to noting the importance of the generational sets, also used his fieldwork to examine the binary division, which he considers a way of integrating new arrivals by means of the opposition between “insider” and “outsider”; S. Tcherkézoff (1983), on the other hand, uses the existing literature to challenge Needham’s certainty concerning the symmetry and complementarity of left and right-hand side, instead focusing on hierarchical opposition and inversion by widening his analysis of the mûgwe of the Meru (whom he unfortunately confuses with the Tanzania Meru) to an examination of the king of the Nyamwesi.

37Ethnography of the Tigania-Igembe Meru reveals systems that are manifestly less static than these authors assert. The mûgwe represents one method of resolving the dual partition, which for the Tigania-Igembe never takes the form of a dualistic structure of the type where A would be equivalent or complementary to B. The logic here originates from a process where the absence and excess of distinction are opposite and recurring evils for which it is necessary to find a cure. A and B are distinct but, at the same time, tend to merge and compete with one another—an identical dilemma to that which occurs with the rhythm of the seasons. In theory, there are two rainy seasons that are followed by two dry seasons, but there are two areas of uncertainty that tend to complicate the situation: sometimes the seasonal transition is lengthy, mixing rain and sun to such an extent that one may lose track of the actual season, and sometimes a season may last so long that it can seem permanent. Transposed to a human context, the issue is that of the division of society into ages and generations that constantly threaten to overlap and merge, or, conversely, an excess of distinction that may lead to secession. The whole problem comes down to separating A from B and managing the conditions of their coexistence—essentially, to maintaining the proper distance.

38The fundamental difference between ûni and ûwe (“ego”/” alter”), which is how the relationship between the two divisions is rationalized on an individual level, is not the sole constituent of the system, in the sense that a maitha (enemy)— the ultimate “outsider” or “alien”—is also required, as a source from which the warrior draws in order to construct his own person and renew his stock of existing qualities, and as a source of women. Internal differentiation is achieved via the presence of an exterior third party, as already demonstrated by the founding stories of the two gaaru which were established as a way of settling confusion and preventing self-destruction. While the enemy may be an important element, however, he is also kept at a distance because he is potentially dangerous and may cause the structure to unravel: there exists, therefore, a range of different kinds of “Exterior” with which relations are gradually less aggressive, and also less constituent of the system. Another way of dealing with binary division consists of mapping the opposition between left and right onto a circle that revolves over time, with the direction establishing its meaning: the opposition between left- and right-hand side in the family kraal, which is established with reference to the exit and the position of the kiara between the hedges on the left, can be compared to the position of the warriors within the gaaru and that of the representatives of the sets in the ûgwe house, both based on the axis formed by the elevated platform at the back with the door used as an exit. In the human body, which is almost entirely androgynous at birth, the division into left and right half involves a process of differentiation where the right-hand side becomes gradually stronger as one progresses through the ages without necessarily being dominant over the left—a process during which any potential disjuncture is prevented by repeated applications of iraa smeared up the nasal bridge and on the middle of the forehead and cranium, according to the belief that the head is the first part of the body to be delivered, and the last to be formed. The result of all these solutions to the inherent tensions of a fundamental partition is to engage the principles of precedence and alternating power: generational division A will precede B as long as A represents the whole; A achieves this by having at its heart the mugwe, who is himself a concentration of B. But the dignitary is more than just the opposite of A: through his androgynous nature and the unifying principle he represents, he also incarnates the entire society and enables the part to become a whole, and for the set of Fathers of the country to form a collective sovereign. And yet the formula is only temporary, since the system eventually deteriorates: then comes a time of inversion, and also rupture, when the other division with its own mûgwe begins seeking to represent the whole society.

  • 4  This remark counters the comparative analysis of the “attraction of opposites” outlined in D. Mayb (...)

39In summary, we may follow Tcherkézoff’s claims that a binary, symmetrical and complementary opposition is not the key structure at work. The problem however is that the concept of hierarchical opposition and “changing of level” that he suggests represents only one facet of the system used by the Tigania-Igembe. Moreover, this system corresponds to a configuration that is intrinsically unstable and inseparable from the issue of authority and power, where the whole is not more important than the parts. The author, straining or oversimplifying the facts, ends up falling prey to the same criticism he addressed to Needham regarding the “impossibility of constructing a binary table without seriously distorting the system” (1983: 6). In groups where membership of the generational division is highly valued, and where the transfer of power revives antagonism between divisions, the mûgwe changes with each generation; at the same time, he remains a driving force behind the recruitment of the sets and the constitution of the generation set system. The system is in fact governed by the passage of time, and this is perhaps the unusual, or as yet unnoticed, element that the Tigania-Igembe bring to the question of dualist classifications and dualistic modes4.

40The idea of incompatible parts suggested by P. Smith in his article on the effectiveness of prohibitions (1979a) is another possible approach. In Rwanda, umuziro, a state that results from the breaching of a prohibition, does not relate to pollution or contagion, but rather to the harmful consequences of making incompatible invocations or associating mutually exclusive categories. In Tigania-Igembe, the comparable term mûgiro—a substantive derived from the verb kûgiria, “to prohibit”—indicates the effect of an involuntary or deliberate breaching of a prohibition and can explain individual misfortune as well as any atmospheric disturbances or evils that beset the community. In such cases, the prophylactic and curative rites undertaken at the individual or collective level always involve the sacrifice of a black ram. The mûgiro is a state of pollution or contagion that must be ended by getting rid of the harmful substance: it is thus said that it is necessary to “vomit out the mûgiro(gûtaika mûgiro). However, there is also the idea, which is the basis of various ritual procedures, that the conjunction of opposed elements is both essential and dangerous. This helps to explain and reinforce the image of the mûgwe as “protective charm” for the warriors: as long as he is active, his figure, draped in the mantle made from a black ram’s hide, provides a safeguard against the danger that arises from melding the incompatible forces of bush and forest within his “children”—an incongruence in the symbolic order that is part of their supervised integration into the ranks of society. What is provided for the warriors also explains, on a broader level, the nature of the Fathers’ authority. If the exercise of power means the combination of irreconcilable elements—as conveyed by the proverb that says they “decide on war and the rites of rain”—then the Fathers of the country achieve this, while the mûgwe, as antidote, neutralizes the state of mûgiro inherent in their role.

41One question remains unanswered: it is still unclear why this figure, who is altogether important and in whom some would see, and with good reason, the distinctive features of or an unprecedented formula for a sacred king (De Heusch, 1990: 7-33), is treated with a level of indifference that cannot be explained by mere acculturation. The mûgwe is a figure who is both central and negligible, a “failing prophet” according to Bernardi’s clumsy expression yet relevant intuition—a significant point that we must seek to explain.

4. The unclassifiable blacksmith and his double

  • 5  Unlike other groups in Africa where blacksmiths have become wealthy craftsmen through their trade, (...)

42Our meeting with the blacksmith was fortuitous. Until the late 1980s, down a dead end road in the small town of Maua, in a rudimentary shelter equipped with hearth, bellows, grips and hammers, and a piece of rail used as an anvil, a blacksmith plied his trade. Locals would bring him utensils to be repaired, and the occasional Somali would place an order of spearheads. The craftsman, an old man from the Michubu set, was happy to answer questions, but eventually conceded that his father, from whom he had learned his trade, had himself learned it from a blacksmith in return for a payment of one goat, and that his knowledge of the tradition was limited. The elders and elderly of Athiru Gaitî supplied details on the former role of this craftsman, and invited me to visit Kianjai in Tigania, a territorial section known for having once been the home of genuine blacksmiths. Located in the middle of the herding zone, this was clearly a favorable site since herders were supposedly a blacksmith’s best customers—to the extent, we are told, that some of the blacksmiths had very large herds; the name of M’Marara, a blacksmith from the (old) Gwantai set known for his wealth of livestock, is still commonly remembered. In addition, there was a formerly abundant supply of wood and iron-rich sand layers, the exact locations of which are kept secret, but lying a few days walk north or south. The consequences of the Kianjai belonging to the large Athwana-Left division only became clear long afterwards. It was not easy to make contact with the descendants of real blacksmiths—not to be confused with the tinsmiths found at the market, rather sorry figures who repair metal plates and bowls “made in China”. Few survive, and those who do have given up their trade and the practice of handing it down, with the exception of a craftsman based near Isiolo5. The initial reaction of this elderly man, who later became a remarkably generous informant, was to refuse all collaboration vigorously. He appeared uncomfortable, and it was established that he feared a white man would return with the intention of “cutting his hands off”, a reaction that was disconcerting to say the least. The eventual explanation was that the old man had, in his day, joined the Mau Mau cause and forged rifles from spare bicycle parts, which clearly were not particularly accurate but had boosted the fighters’ confidence; the severing of hands was a punishment meted out in certain circumstances by the auxiliary troops dispatched by the colonial administration, and one obviously untraceable in the archives.

  • 6  Pit reduction has been the subject of studies of neighboring groups, for example the Tharaka (Cham (...)

43The metal objects (into bia mûturi, “things of the blacksmith”) that the blacksmith manufactured for the Tigania-Igembe were numerous. Mûturi (aturi), the substantive used to indicate the blacksmith, is derived from the verb gûtura which refers to the process leading from ore reduction to the forge itself. During thaano, the dry and fresh season when travel is easy and the risk of raids lower, the blacksmiths would go and set up on the iron sites for a few weeks; this probably took place every year. The reduction of the iron-rich sand, known as muthanga, a generic term indicating soil or the ground, took place in situ, with pits dug down into the earth6. Three or four bellows, each fitted with a clay pipe, were set up around the pit and pointed towards the bottom. This was lined with charcoal, which was then covered with discarded sorghum or millet, or sometimes dried cow dung; finally, a layer of ore was set down. With the air pushed through the bellows, the combination of carbon, from the charcoal, and ferric elements, contained in the sand in the form of oolites, produced blooms that were then worked under heat with a hammer in order to eliminate impurities. The chuuma or reduction blooms that were thus obtained, the size of a large pebble or sometimes smaller, were brought back by donkey and by the blacksmiths’ wives, who formed a convoy under the protection of warriors. The forge, kiaanda gia mûturi or “blacksmith’s workshop”, was situated close to his family kraal; the craftsman worked there for the remainder of the year. Neither he nor his wife were allowed a garden or to engage in agriculture, except vegetables grew around the family kraal. The land on which his workshop and kraal were built was untouchable, and only the son of a blacksmith could settle there. While he was not permitted to cultivate land, the mûturi could, on the other hand, own a herd, which would be tended to in the same way as that of other Tigania-Igembe.

44Several kinds of objects were manufactured, prominent among which were two types of axe: kathoka, used to hack away undergrowth and cut down trees, and the larger mutharangwe, used for hollowing out trunks and crafting beehives; also, the gichiû cultivating stick, which was armed with a metal point welded onto the handle. Various knives: kirunya, a small razor-sharp knife; laba, a larger knife; and the mûkui needle. Raaû arrowheads, sharpened for the clean extraction of blood from cattle, kîooro tools for branding livestock, of a similar shape to the augers that the blacksmith also produces, and ntwala bells—all objects intended for use by cattle keepers. A bell could be obtained for a bag of millet; a bell and a branding iron in exchange for a goat. Another category, into bia ndwa, “things of war”, i.e. arrows, rûcio swords, îtumo (pl. matumo) lances crafted to the desired length according to the two types identified by Chanler: the long mûkû’gi lance and the short muthiiri lance, the latter of which also indicates any kind of spearhead; kibuthu gia nkome, a kind of ring with which warriors would wipe the sweat off their foreheads; kibere, or ankle bells. Jewelry also: murungu, metal rings worn tightly around the arms and ankles by women; kimukwa, a pendant worn around the neck by women, which the blacksmith would craft specially and bring on the day of gûtura matû. Other jewelry, too, but this was the job of the blacksmith-goldsmith, who was here a kind of sub-blacksmith who worked with soft metals not requiring reduction; he combined these with other materials, pearls or cowries brought by the Akamba.

45In theory, the blacksmith would teach the trade to his eldest son, the only person who could succeed him. The rule was explicitly formulated but, in reality, the blacksmith would teach his trade to the son whom he considered most capable of such work, for it required a calm temperament; an elder son who did not have the necessary qualities to become a blacksmith was, however, required to give his consent before a younger brother could begin working in his father’s workshop. From childhood, the boy would practice pumping the bellows (kûruuta nkunei) and when older began to accompany his father to the metal sites, where he learned how to create reduction blooms. His work at the forge itself began with objects that were easy to produce, such as needles; once able to craft the central ridge (saanga) and edges of a knife successfully, he was considered by his father to have learned the trade. Before marrying and establishing himself as a blacksmith, he had to be initiated, a phase of his existence that was identical to that of other boys. Like his peers in the generation set in which he was included, he became a warrior and lived in the gaaru, during which time there was no question of him returning to his father’s kraal and workshop. On the other hand, it was not always easy for him to find a wife. The blacksmith is not an advisable partner; a Tigania-Igembe will never give away his daughter or sister in marriage to one, nor marry a blacksmith’s daughter. This dual rebuff means the blacksmith has no choice but to marry a girl from another blacksmith’s family, cultivate bonds with his matrilateral parallel cousins and his cross cousins, and make the appropriate ndûgû payment of cows and goats. The mûturi is an expert on the rules of alliance because such knowledge is prerequisite to any possibility of marriage, but he will still sometimes fail to find an available candidate. In that case he must travel to a neighboring division, the Imenti for example, conceal his blacksmith identity, and marry a girl while passing for an ordinary person. While this was not particularly frequent, it was a definite possibility. The endogamy to which the blacksmith is constrained is merely the extreme application of the general rules, but poses such a danger to the continuance of the blacksmiths’ descent lines that they must no longer be very numerous. In the past century, there was eventually a shortage of blacksmiths in Kianjai, and the warriors began to run short of lances. To procure some, the Tigania warriors could have gone to the Mbeere where blacksmiths are numerous but this group, like the Embu, is maitha (enemy). They therefore went to the Kikuyu with whom relations were cordial. After travelling through the area north of Mount Kenya, the warriors arrived in the northern divisions of the Kikuyu region (present-day Nyeri) and, as appropriate, met their Kikuyu counterparts to whom they announced their problem. They were taken to see the families of the blacksmiths. One of them agreed to come with his son and practiced his trade among the Tigania for a time before returning home. The son decided to stay and settle in the Tigania region; in Kianjai, a family adopted him, meaning he gained a father, a mother, and a place within the generation set system. The clan identity of the blacksmiths is difficult to determine, especially as they are not allowed to cultivate land, although their adherence to a territorial section is clear. On the other hand, they are part of the “mûciî of the sheep” versusmûciî of the goat” opposition, and unsurprisingly are found in the latter category, as the goat is the supreme emblem of the cycle of the sun.

46The inauguration of a blacksmith’s son is marked by a festive gathering, held over several days around the ceremonial production of his first bellows, which is completed by local blacksmiths, along with others from Imenti and Kikuyu. This object is a mediating device of particular power, based as it is on the concentration of air—an element rich in connotations in this society and culture, and directly associated with Ngaï-Murungu, the supreme principle. Two kinds of bellows exist, one light, the other heavier. The softened skin of a goat is stretched over a hollow trunk that forms a cylindrical base known as the muciîni, and in the center of the skin a hole is made, called the “mouth of the nkunei(muromû jwa nkunei), through which the air is drawn with one’s hand, which goes up while pulling on the edge then goes down again while blocking the opening. Placed on a tripod, the long conical clay nozzle (ngerue) by which the air arrives at the embers is subject to particular attention: the blacksmith’s wives who have passed childbearing age are required to create them using clay collected from a secret location. The stone anvil is carefully chosen and sometimes brought from afar: it determines the quality of the objects forged, in particular knives, which are the gauge of the good blacksmith. The new bellows and the workshop are blessed by the blacksmiths, who combine prayers with sprayings of honey, and walk around the workshop clockwise several times; this ceremony is fairly routine and identical to that performed by a father seeking to secure the protection of Ngai-Murungu over his family kraal.

Ill. 23 — Blacksmith and his apprentice, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Ill. 23 — Blacksmith and his apprentice, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Photo by Andrew Botta.

47Nobody may approach the kiaanda and watch a blacksmith while he works. In fact, both place and person are feared and generally avoided, except when placing orders. The objects created by the blacksmith are traded for heads of cattle and farm produce. When custom is thin, the blacksmith will sometimes force sales, fuelling his reputation as a thief. The blacksmith’s wife, who is not allowed to cultivate land, goes to market with the utensils produced by her husband in order to exchange them for produce from other women’s gardens. However, if she is unable to make a deal by the close of the market, she will leave one of her objects on a sack of seeds belonging to a woman who is then unable to refuse the proposed deal: the risk represented by the curse of the blacksmith’s wife is too great. In the same way, a blacksmith may force a herder to give him a goat by offering him, for example, a branding iron and some arrows bound together with a kind of liana known as kileenchû, a symbol of longevity, and leaving this package at the head of the man’s bed in the gaaru. Faced with such a request, the herder can only comply. The most feared curse occurs when the blacksmith breaks his bellows and its clay nozzle close to the entrance of a family kraal. It is not difficult to decode the failing of the object’s “breath” or its phallic aspect and thus to understand the threat to the future of a kraal targeted in this way. The nozzle, which no woman other than the blacksmith’s wife is allowed to see, is crafted by women who are past childbearing age, and a blacksmith who feels that his life is coming to an end will say that his ngerue is old because it has been baked in the fire too long. The metaphor of reduction and the forge as symbol of sexuality, production and perpetuation has been developed in various ways and in different places; the Tigania-Igembe are no exception to the rule and appear even to add their own elements. The metaphor is evident at the heart of the initiation ceremony, in the phase that follows the “burning” involved in circumcision and excision. The lifting of the rigorous restrictions that accompany this phase bears an explicit references the blacksmith’s equipment: the boy’s house of reclusion is called the “workshop of the novice”, and the girl’s house, decorated with two breasts like the reduction chimneys found among, for instance, the Tschokwe, is referred to using a word similar to that for one of the two kinds of bellows (lûbua, pl. mûbua). It is as though the excision of the girl were linked to reduction, and the “circumcision” of the boy to the forge. It is also possible to draw a parallel between the domestic waste pit (kiara), which must be layered with cow dung before depositing the corpse of an Accomplished and around which fires are kept, and the pit used by the blacksmith to reduce his ore. Both are the site of successful metamorphoses.

48The importance of the blacksmith’s activity does not escape him: he knows that he provides (provided) his fellow citizens with the instruments of their subsistence, their defense and their fulfilment, a reason that he stresses when explaining the power of his curse, and the fear that he once inspired. He is a consummate “measurer” who evaluates objects according to the time taken to make them, or the value of a lance by its length; he seems to have an inherent awareness of and ability to measure the passage of time. The position reserved for the blacksmith among the Tigania-Igembe is certainly unique. Contrary to other populations in the region, for example the Maasai among whom blacksmiths are an excluded group, here they are included in society. All blacksmiths are initiated and given their place in a set; this conforms to the inclusive and egalitarian logic of the generation set system, in the sense that the identity conferred through initiation creates a clear boundary determining who is and isn’t a citizen. It is also a way of ensuring the services of a craftsman whose products have strategic benefits, as illustrated by the action taken by the Tigania warriors in the past century, and by oral traditions that recount conflicts between warriors of rival tribes over access to layers of iron-rich sand. However, at the same time as being integrated, the blacksmith is also shunned in a rather peculiar way. At the meetings where men gather in their sets, the blacksmith takes his share of meat and sits away from the others to eat it. This exclusion of the blacksmith from the prandial companionship of others has a counterpart in the matrimonial register: the rules concerning him are identical to those that apply to the unions of ordinary people, except that where they are preferential for the latter, for the blacksmith they are imperative and confine him to an endogamy that it is sometimes impossible to respect.

49The adjustment of the general rules is supplemented by specific restrictions that limit his access to certain resources and his participation in rituals. Because he is forbidden from practicing agriculture, the blacksmith is obliged to join forge and herding associations, and sometimes must resort to forced bartering; his wife finds herself in an unusual position for a woman, as illustrated by her predatory behavior at the market which legitimizes and maintains her exclusion from the others. One could argue that the prohibition on cultivating land is a measure in line with the egalitarianism of the political system, and aims at offsetting the resources he gains from his trade and expanding herd. This aspect cannot be ignored, but the herd is also an unstable form of wealth threatened by changes in weather, which is why the exchanges according to altitude noted among the Nyambene populations are such an important form of security. The prohibition on cultivating land is thus a serious restriction and helps confine the activity and person of the blacksmith to the hot, dry lowlands situated below the high hills. To this restriction is added the impossibility of taking part in certain ritual activities, as already indicated by his membership of the “mûciî of the goat”. In particular, the blacksmith may not attend the rain rituals, where a ram is sacrificed near the sacred ponds; nor may he take part in the collection of the mîthega–protective charms of the gaaru, welcome the circumciser into his home or be the mûciî–host of an initiation session. He is not permitted to attend any ritual involving the mugwe. The “accomplished” blacksmith’s remains are subject to a similar treatment. The dark-colored ram that is killed as appropriate in such circumstances is in a sense underused: the fat extracted from the tail is used only to coat the blacksmith’s head, and not his entire body, and the animal’s fleece is not used as a shroud. On the day of the disposal, the kiara in the family kraal must contain cow dung, but the deceased’s body is not taken there. It is carried by his sons and deposited in the bush at the mercy of hyenas, like the corpses of the “unaccomplished” who are considered to be still warm; at his side is placed the ram’s stomach filled with small pieces of meat, and everything is then is covered with leaves from species associated with longevity (maroo, kileenchû, mithungiru, kamama). The singularity of this treatment lies in the two elements of “accomplishment” that are here subverted: the refusal to use the kiara, which is nevertheless required to be in the appropriate state, as if it were not possible for the blacksmith to decompose in the waste pit, reminiscent as it is of a reduction pit; secondly, the depositing of the corpse in the bush and the minimal use of the ram— measures that leave his “over-baked” body exposed to dryness and light.

50The link with the mugwe becomes clearer: the dignitary and the blacksmith share numerous but often reversed traits. Both have an external origin, one mythical, the other actual, and maintain putative or proven connections with other people of their kind. The roles of both are reserved for particular descent lines, distinguished by endogamous matrimonial rules and practices that place the female component of the family in an incongruous position; consequently, they are threatened by potential extinction, obliging them to consider external options. The rule for succession is the same for both, requiring primogeniture, which is accompanied in both cases by the same restriction: both future mûgwe and future blacksmith must be of calm temperament. The successors, once initiated and integrated into a generation set, undergo training that differentiates them from their peers. When reaching the grade of warrior, however, one withdraws from the system while the other becomes relatively more involved. From that point on, one cultivates his left side and his association with coolness, humidity and darkness; the other forges with his right hand and reinforces his connection to dryness, heat and light. One resides at altitude, in the forest layer, and is visited by people who maintain the household and bring gifts; the other is confined to the hot and dry lower areas of the slopes, in a residence that people avoid and whose inhabitants, occasionally obliged to make forced exchanges of goods, are reputed to be thieves. One might then conclude that the two are in a complementary opposition, underscored by their emblems, the sheep and the goat—that one belongs to the cycle of the rain, the other to that of the sun, and that both are the guarantors of the vitality of their respective cycle.

51However, other facts encourage us to refine and complete this schema. The silence surrounding the blacksmith constitutes the most effective barrier a population can erect against a person or problem. When this silence is revealed to be a long-forgotten act of omission, it leads to a persuasive theory, as demonstrated by the two Meru origin stories. Starting with the myth of Mbugi, which recounts the appearance of agriculture and herding, nothing is said of the origin of the axe and needles, as if it were natural for Mbugi the hunter already to possess these metal tools. Everything takes place as if the technique of forging is an obvious fact, or a sensitive topic upon which it is useless to dwell. Moreover, the only explicit appearance of the blacksmiths in the story of Mbwaa is in a moment of failure, when their inability to forge a lance long enough to reach the sky forces the proto-Meru to organize their escape. Uniting “the ground and the sky” is precisely the ultimate task of the mûgwe: a supplementary, parallel and inverse trait that here deepens the analogy between the two figures. Recounted in this way, the unexplained power of Mbugi and the conspicuous powerlessness of the blacksmiths on Mbwaa are an affirmation, in reverse, of this craftsman’s great power, the origins of which lie in the very techniques he uses. The blacksmith is allied to the cycle of the sun, to the herd and to humans, but through the soil from which he extracts his raw material, he also belongs to the cycle of the earth, the rain and the harvest. From dark-colored minerals, he extracts the means to make tools using fire and air, activating their power: these constitute an extreme kind of solar emblem, here burning so hot that the transformation of iron-rich sand becomes possible. The blacksmith thus participates in the two antagonistic cycles of earth and sky by means of the air, which he channels; he is an unclassifiable figure who may exist everywhere and act on the forces that govern the life of the people and the “accomplishment” of individuals. Alone, he constitutes a “whole”, able to fulfil the role of an ordering force and to constitute a source of authority and power—that is to say, a function that is incompatible on every level with the very principles of the generation-set system.

52The enigmatic figure of the mûgwe is revealed to be the double of the blacksmith whom he masks, avoids and, in doing so, neutralizes. By adopting and reversing the craftsman’s attributes, the mûgwe enacts a kind of differentiation that forces the blacksmith to abandon his central position and specialize instead: the mûgwe is the craftsman specializing in the cycle of the rain, and the blacksmith is obliged to limit himself to that of the sun. However, the disjuncture is not complete; each continues to borrow slightly from the other, or else the division of roles would cease to function and lead to social unrest. The needle that is secretly used to make the mûgwe’s mantle is forged by the blacksmith, and this mantle, made with his help, is eventually buried in the kiara. The deceased blacksmith is not wrapped in the fleece of the ram, which is nonetheless sacrificed just as his kiara is made ready; his body, carried into the bush, is laid down with the ram’s stomach and covered with leaves. The notion of power and counter-power certainly forms the basis of the system, but the silence surrounding the blacksmith, and the temporary nature of the mûgwe who is replaced every time there is a transfer of power, are a more subtle and effective guarantee that the move against the blacksmith is beneficial to the generation set system.

53This approach has a direct equivalent in the territorial organization of the Nyambene Hills, which can be reinterpreted in the light of this division of roles between the mûgwe and the blacksmiths (see fig. 32). The Igembe and the Igoki-Right, each equipped with a mûgwe, are distinguished from the Athwana-Left, who have a mûkiama and constitute the divisions where the blacksmiths are grouped. The territorial divisions in the drier low-lying areas used for herding, which contain blacksmiths, are balanced by the two large mûgwe divisions located in the more elevated forest layer, which form another three-way combination of a mixture of ecological, symbolic and political features, and establish the sovereignty of the Tigania-Igembe from within. In the Karama division, at the edges of Igembe and Tigania, there exists, below Kîlima Chuuma or “Mountain of Reduction Blooms”, an eminence known as Kaongo ka Aturi or “Hill of the Blacksmiths” where the blacksmiths habitually gathered with their tools when threatening to put a curse on the country. We can thus further comprehend the role played by the mûgwe and his mantle when he gathers the population at the time of each ritual marking the transfer of power. By causing the territorial areas to focus on an empty center, the mûgwe prevents the organization of other territorial arrangements that might jeopardize the balance of the whole, and thus guarantees the equality and autonomy of the territorial divisions. Just as, in the warriors’ gaaru or the house of the ugwe, the uncomfortable small platform at the back is not the place of the leaders, occupied as it is by neophytes and those past the age of power, indifference towards the mugwe is the surest sign of the system’s success.

  • 7  J. Brown (1995), in her research-based summary of metallurgy in Kenya consulted after completing t (...)

54Only a short while ago, this meta-structure would doubtless have been described as an “anti-State society” whereas, in reality, it is underpinned by a collective notion of sovereignty that informs a kind of rudimentary State, one that is inherently incompatible with the centralization of power and authority. All in all, it is a paradoxical and unique combination, and a form of polity that has not yet been documented among the various systems studied by political anthropology. A brief overview will help to establish that the Tigania-Igembe system is not exceptional, and even provides a starting point for a regional comparison. Moving beyond the group of Meru societies, each one of which is characterized by a unique combination of generations, mûgwe and blacksmiths7, more distant groups, where the mûgwe does not exist as such, instead have certain lineages that are responsible for the rituals carried out in connection with the set system, in particular those providing the initiates with protective charms. Among the Embu, the lineage is from the Igamuturi clan, and among the Mbeere, from the Gekara clan: Igamuturi means “the descendants of the blacksmiths”; Gekara contains the root -kara meaning charcoal. The two specialized clans belong to the same Tumbiri phratry, which is identified with the Nkui, the name of the clan of the Chuka mûgwe. Among the Kikuyu, the rituals for transmission between generations, as well as other rites connected with rain, were entrusted particularly to various families of the Anjiru clan (the “Blacks”), a clan name that, it is said, was formerly that of the blacksmiths in the Meru divisions (Lambert 1945, ms.: 419- 421). Further away in the north-west of Tanzania, in the direction of the interlacustrine monarchies, the Zanaki (Bischofberger 1969, 1972) have a generation set system composed of two largely similar divisions that progress in parallel, associated with a dignitary representing rain and a blacksmith: these figures come from specific clans and work together publicly during rites marking the rise of a new set and those related to rain. Among the Pare people, this time in the north-east of Tanzania, I. Kimambo (1969) has traced the history of the chiefdoms which were founded after the overthrow of the tyrannical dynasties of blacksmiths. Finally, far to the North, among the Borana of Kenya and Ethiopia, the two kaallu who oversee generational transmission are said to have been sent by God and found in the bush by blacksmiths. These recurrent couplings at the sub-continental level are evidently not the result of chance and point to a history within which various layers mingle, each reaching back to a different point in time: the history of agricultural, pastoral and metallurgical techniques, the history of settlement, peoples and languages, the history of institutions, and so on. These are vast questions, for which a number of chronological indicators are missing, but the greatest obstacle is likely that posed by prejudice and intellectual habit. The last part of the puzzle of Tigania-Igembe sovereignty and social organization, the myth of Mbwaa that has been subject to so many fanciful interpretations, is a prime illustration of this.


1  Let us recall that, in certain sections, this ntuiko did not go unopposed; certain Kiramunya, judging that too many of their Michubu sons had died in the war, wanted their division to continue recruiting (see Ch. 2).

2  Christianization progressed during these years and numerous candidates declared themselves to be mûgwe. It is true that there are parallels to be drawn between certain aspects of the dignitary and the priests, right down to his clothing which they were rumored to have imitated. The candidates hoping to succeed the mûgwe for their part encouraged “inculturation”, standard practice in missionary areas at that time.

3  Among the Baraguyu, a group of Maa speakers spread through the north-east of Tanzania, there is a figure known as ol-laononi, reminiscent of the Meru mûgwe in that he is selected from among the warriors and represents their set; he leads them in rituals, protects them, precedes his companions in all matters but, restricted to a rather restrained sexuality, carries female connotations. He may only have one wife, and she is regarded as the mother of the warriors. Her bridewealth is paid by the warriors as a whole. While he is a much respected character, it is also considered bad luck to have been selected to perform this role (Beidelman 1960: 264). At a glance, and as a hypothesis, the recourse to a specific lineage for the mûgwe appears a means of circumventing the difficulty of finding a “volunteer” ready to “sacrifice himself” for his set.

4  This remark counters the comparative analysis of the “attraction of opposites” outlined in D. Maybury-Lewis and U. Almagor (ed.) 1989.

5  Unlike other groups in Africa where blacksmiths have become wealthy craftsmen through their trade, here blacksmiths have grown poorer and moreover find it difficult to exercise their right to a plot of land.

6  Pit reduction has been the subject of studies of neighboring groups, for example the Tharaka (Champion 1912: 79-80) or Mbeere (J. Brown 1995: 45-47).

7  J. Brown (1995), in her research-based summary of metallurgy in Kenya consulted after completing this manuscript, refers briefly on several occasions (pp. 134, 139 N. 3, 147 N. 230 and 232, 156) to a marked contrast said to exist between the northern and southern divisions of the Meru. In Igembe, the Athimba clan, as well as being reputed to have arrived first, is also said to have introduced metallurgy and taught it to the other groups in central Kenya. According to the author, the position of the blacksmiths is nevertheless not an enviable one, unlike that enjoyed by the Tharaka blacksmiths who hold a similar rank to that of the mûgwe, a connection which the Tharaka themselves make; let us recall that their mûgwe stands out more clearly than his counterparts in the Nyambene Hills, but their generation set system, which has a less antagonistic transmission process, is also less inclusive.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 32 – Territorial layout of the old Tigania-Igembe polity
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Titre Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893
Crédits In Chanler (1896: inside back cover).
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
Titre Map 6 — Groups with mûgwe
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k
Titre Ill. 15 — “M’Mugambi (left), the Mugwe of the Igembe, and Muruku, the retired Mugwe”, 1955
Crédits Photo by Bernardo Bernardi, 1959: II; 1989: 1.
Fichier image/jpeg, 326k
Titre Ill. 23 — Blacksmith and his apprentice, North Tigania, between 1965 and 1969
Crédits Photo by Andrew Botta.
Fichier image/jpeg, 193k

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