updated on 8th July 2011
Scarification among the Kikuyu
Scarification as a form of ornamentation was very important to the Kikuyu. Leakey has covered that aspect in great detail in a chapter on beauty. A few kinds of scarification will be mentioned.
Three lines below the eyes. This method of beautification by self-inflicted scars can be seen today on some females from the Nyeri/ Karatina area. A shopkeeper in Karatina was seen to be thus ornamented on 2nd September 2006. While she was not wearing the hangi earrings, the marks below the eyes were as illustrated.
Three lines from the eyes across the cheek to the mouth on either side. Leakey describes this style of scarification. This writer has not seen this kind of scar.
Nine raised dots have been seen by this writer on the upper arm of a male in a photograph. The symbolism is not clear, but the assumption is that they are related to the clans of the Kikuyu.
Leakey has described other scars that were caused to form in the pubic area of a girl. These were apparently for her lover to touch since he was not allowed to proceed further before marriage. Informants described other raised dots that girls preferred on their breast area. These had no regular design. Each girl gave directions as to what her preferred design would be. This writer’s informant suggested that the girl would most likely have seen a similar design on another girl, thereby facilitating the description.
Middleton has recorded raised scarifications on the abdomen of women. “Among the Northern tribes, especially the Mwimbi, women cicatrized their necks and bodies".
Every warrior worked to have his hair long enough to reach the middle of his back (Leakey 1972). Then he would shake it with pride. It was a serous offence for an initiated boy to have long hair which could be shaken.
The hair was separated into two; The front part was further separated into three sections, each bound into a bunch (a kiguta). The rear bunch was bound into a pigtail with a leather strap. During dances, this pigtail was undone but it was not undone when dancing the mugoiyo (Leakey).
Young married women shaved their hair except on the crown of the head just like young boys and girls. However, older women were shaved completely bald. Once a man had children who were old enough to be initiated, he did spend time on his hair anymore. Instead he shaved, allowed it to grow and then shaved again and would continue this pattern forever. Beards and all other body hairs were not shaved at all. Instead, they were pulled out with a twizer (nguri). Old men often pulled out their beards while attending meetings.
After initiation the women wore what Middleton refer to as a “brow-band of beads and discs.” Upon betrothal a woman’s husband presented her with a necklace while her father in-law gave her “an iron collaret.” Copper-ear-rings are reported by Middleton to be a sign that the woman had “an uninitiated child.”
One beaded ornament was placed over the “mũthuru” skirt as a sort of ornamental belt. It was formed by stringing beads and connecting the strands at the edges to form a belt. The joints of the strands converged in the hip area. Routledge referred to this item as “mũnioro wa itina.”
This researcher identified samples at the Heritage department, NMK. Middleton calls it a “beaded girdle” which they report, was worn by all women.
Armlets, anklets and ear ornamentation worn by men and women were similar. Embu women are said to have only worn a small earring. The earrings worn by Kikuyu women were called hangi. Leakey reports them as “… circles of thin iron wire on to which were threaded small pink, red, dark, black and white beads ...Young women and initiated girls wore a big bunch of hangi on each ear usually 30 or more to a bunch.”
This writer identified samples at the Heritage Department of the NMK, which had only pink beads. Leakey estimates the number of hangi on an initiated girl to have numbered “30 or more to a bunch” on each ear.
1. Leakey, L.S.B., 1977, The Southern Kikuyu before 1903, Vol I,II & III, Academic Press, London.
2. Middleton, J. & Kershaw G., 1965, The Central Tribes of the North-Eastern Bantu, (including the Embu, Meru, Mbere, Chuka. Mwimbi, Tharaka, and the Kamba of Kenya), International Africa Institute, London.
3. Consolata Fathers, 2001, Il Popolo Kikuyu, a commemorative centenary edition with archive photos of the Kikuyu taken by Rev Perlo in the 1930’s at the Consolata mission, Nyeri. Edizioni Missioni Consolata, Turin.
. Routledge, W. S., and Routledge K., 1910, With a Prehistoric People, the Akikuyu of British East Africa,
Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on January 19, 2012:
Thanks for paying a visit techygran. Today the Kikuyu have stopped the scarification bit. But we have communities who have stack to these practices to this day eg. the Turkana (try Google). The Kikuyu used a thorn from a specific tree to do the scarification.
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on January 18, 2012:
fascinating... a lot I had no idea about! Who does the scarification and what do they use? Thanks for all your social and cultural essays on here... I will make my way through them! Voted up!