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Chapter 6 -- cont.

The Gikuyu name for this custom of rite de passage from childhood to adulthood is irua, i.e. circumcision, or trimming the genital organs of both sexes. The dances and songs connected with the initiation ceremony are called mambura, i.e. rituals or divine services. It is important to note that the moral code of the tribe is bound up with this custom and that it symbolises the unification of the whole tribal organisation. This is the principal reason why irua plays such an important part in the life of the Gikuyu people.

The irua marks the commencement of participation in various governing groups in the tribal administration, because the real age-groups begin from the day of the physical operation. The history and legends of the people are explained and remembered according to the names given to various age-groups at the time of the initiation ceremony. For example, if a devastating "famine" occurred at the time of the initiation, that particular irua group would be known as (ng'aragu). In the same way, the Gikuyu have been able to record the time when the European introduced a number of maladies such as syphilis into Gikuyu country, for those initiated at the time when this disease first showed itself are called gatego, i.e. syphilis. Historical events are recorded and remembered in the same manner. Without this custom a tribe which had no written records would not have been able to keep a record of important events and happenings in the life of the Gikuyu nation. Any Gikuyu child who is not corrupted by detribalisation is able to record in his mind the whole history and origin of the Gikuyu people through the medium of such names as Agu, Ndemi and Mathathi, etc., who were initiated hundreds of years ago.

For years there has been much criticism and agitation against irua girls by certain misinformed missionary societies in East Africa, who see only the surgical side of the irua, and, without investigating the psychological importance attached to this custom by the Gikuyu, these missionaries draw their conclusion that the irua of girls is nothing but a barbarous practice and, as such, should be abolished by law.

On the other hand, the Gikuyu look upon these religious fanatics with great suspicion. The overwhelming majority of them believe that it is the secret aim of those who attack this centuries-old custom to disintegrate their social order and thereby hasten their Europeanisation. The abolition of irua will destroy the tribal symbol which identifies the age-groups and prevent the Gikuyu from perpetuating that spirit of collectivism and national solidarity which they have been able to maintain from time immemorial.


About a fortnight before the day of initiation the girl is put on a special diet, namely, njahi and ngima ya ogembe composed of a particular kind of Gikuyu bean (njahe), and together with a stiff porridge made of a small kind of grain (ogembe) ground into flour and mixed with water and oil. This diet is used in order to prevent the loss of blood at the time of initiation (physical operation) and also to ensure immediate healing of the wound, as well as a precaution against blood poisoning. The girl is properly taken care of by her sponsor, motiiri, who examines her and gives her all necessary instructions about the initiation ceremony. In this examination attention is directed to ascertaining that the girl is not near maturity and that menstruation is not likely to begin for at least a month after irua and the healing of the wound. She is also closely questioned to verify that she never bad sexual intercourse or indulged in masturbation. If she has broken any of the prohibitions of the Gikuyu social codes, the girl makes a confession to the motiiri, who reports the confession to the girl's parents. The service of a motahekania, or a "family purifier," is then engaged to purify (koruta mogiro) the girl and prepare her for the irua.

Three or four days prior to the actual physical operation the girl is taken to the homestead where the ceremony is to take place. There she meets the rest of the initiates. The initiates are all introduced to the elder of the homestead and his wife, who adopt them as their children for the purpose of the irua. On this special day the boys and girls of the irua group, together with their relatives and friends, join in singing and dancing the whole night, and at the same time beating sugar-canes in mortars to prepare a special kind of beer for a ceremony called koraria morungu, which is supposed to keep the gods awake. This ceremony is considered an act of communion with the ancestral god (morungu), whose protection is invoked to guide and protect the initiates through the irua ceremony and at the same time to give them the wisdom of their forefathers. During the dancing and singing no girl or boy is allowed to go to bed, as this is regarded as missing the opportunity of direct contact with morungu, which would result in misfortune at the time of the irua.

On the morning after koraria morungu the fathers and mothers of the initiates are gathered together and partake of a feast at which the specially prepared beer is freely indulged in. This is done in the yard of the homestead. They sit in a circle. Then the children are called, one by one, according to their order of adoption. Now the ceremony called korathima ciana, or blessing the children, is performed. It includes marking certain symbols upon the forehead, the cheeks, round the eyes, the nose, the throat and the navel of the initiates with a sort of white chalk called ira (snow) obtained from Mount Kenya (Kere-Nyaga), the abode of the gods. One elder, who holds the senior office in the ceremonial council or athuri a kerera, is entrusted with this duty of marking. He places the ira in the palm of his left hand and, dipping his right thumb in it, marks his candidates as they pass, one by one, before him. An old woman who is also a member of the ceremonial council follows and, with oil carried in a bottle-shaped calabash (kinando), anoints each girl on the head, round the neck and on the feet. The rest of the elders join in chorus, uttering blessings as each child passes by. On this occasion they use ceremonial language such as this: "Ciana irogea thaai, Thatthayait Ngai thaaa-ai-ciana irogea thai, thaaai-thai-thai-thaaa-i," which means- "Peace be with the children. Beseech Ngai (God) peace-peace, peace. Let peace be with the children-peace."

When this part of the ceremony is completed, the boys and girls leave the homestead, escorted by their relatives and friends, for their respective homes, singing festive songs as they go along.

On their arrival home, the girl is met at the entrance of the homestead by young married and unmarried women (ahiki na airetu) of the clan, who are singing, dancing and jumping joyously, and at the same time tossing small calabashes (thego) containing a special kind of gruel known as kenage. The girl then takes sips from each calabash held to her lips by the women. When this is finished be girl is left to rest until the day of the great ceremonial dance (matuumo).

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