A lot has been said about Kikuyu women. In fact, of the women from the 42 ethnic communities, no other tribe gets as much flak as them.
They have been accused of all manner of things; they not only ‘sit’ on their husbands, but also beat them up; they kill their men when bored with them to enjoy their property; they walk out of marriages old enough to produce grandchildren, and wags never tire of poking fun at their culinary skills. The accusations go on and on and on.
But why exactly are Kikuyu women so heavily stereotyped? Well, it is believed that more than females from any other community in Kenya, this lot conforms to the Western notion of ‘liberated‘ women. Sociologists argue that unlike other Kenyan women, most Kikuyus were emancipated from social shackles and domestic bondage long ago, and have perpetuated this ‘liberation‘ from generation to generation.
Could this be the reason why most Kenyan men date but fear marrying them? Is this why they have high expectations from men? So much that most men can’t cope with them — or vice versa — that they run away (or get kicked out!), making them now produce the highest number of single mother households in the country (if an extrapolation of the 2010 population census is anything to go by)?
Well, historical and anthropological facts reveal the Kikuyu community was, and partly still is, fundamentally matriarchal (led by women) and matrilineal (descended through mothers) and is suffering from the imposition of patriarchy upon it.
Highest number of single mothers
The dominance of these iron ‘ladies’ can be traced back to chief Wangu wa Makeri. Folklore has it that she was the first and only female leader, appointed by the British, in the entire colonial period.
Wangu was a no nonsense leader who terrorised men. The fate of many depended on her whims. Tax evaders peed and crapped on themselves at the mere mention of her name. Men feared meeting her, and always took cover when she was in vicinity. Reason? She rode on their backs, especially able bodied ones, as a means of transport! Would you believe that?Is It O.K. for a man to audibly comment on how a woman looks on the street?
Kiriro wa Njogu, a 76-year-old elder from Kiambu, humorously says Kikuyu women were liberated long ago and, pardon the pun, are used to ‘being on top of their men’, hardly ‘taking things lying down’.
“Kikuyu women were emancipated from shackles of oppression before Kenya’s independence. Many draw inspiration from Wangu wa Makeri. Things were so bad during her reign of terror that men even tried in vain to stage a ‘coup’ by impregnating all women so as to overthrow Wangu and the female leadership when all were expectant and vulnerable,” chuckles Njogu, adding, “Oppressive cultural practices biased against women are unheard of among Kikuyus. Have you ever heard about wife inheritance or rampant polygamy in Central Kenya?”
They hate lazy men
According to the elder, Kikuyu women have been ‘free‘ from way back. He says most are no nonsense, demanding and have very high expectations from men. This pressure, he says is what sends some of their men away or to alcohol.
Hear him: “These women hate lazy men. You must step up to the plate or else reap wrath and get kicked out. To counter cases of polygamy for instance, they had a practice called kuiyithia (loosely translated ‘to help steal‘, what is nowadays called swinging). They were so daring that they slept with other men as a recreational or social activity. This was also meant to break jinxes from cursed husbands and to limit the inheritance of negative genes such as stupidity.”
He says kuiyithia was also not just meant to give bachelors a taste of what they were missing, and lure them into getting married, but also offered an outlet for their sexual urges, considering unmarried women were strictly forbidden to have premarital sex.
“Unmarried women who lost their virginity and got pregnant could only be married off as second wives, and derogatorily referred to as gochokio,”says Njogu.
Some naughty women, he says, were so bold that they even ‘warmed beds’ for their husbands’ visiting friends by sleeping with them!
Kikuyu clans named after women
“Most helpless, drunk men knew their daring wives fooled around, and even brought home boyfriends. But all they did was announce their arrival by loudly breaking into song, once they got near the home to alert these men to safely leave through the backdoor,” adds a giggly Njogu.
It’s believed that against this backdrop of matriarchy that Kikuyu women still stand out as ‘tough’, ‘difficult’ and ‘headstrong’ yet hardworking. Strange as it may sound, unlike other Kenyan communities, Kikuyu clans are named after women.
Speculation has it that most homes in Central Kenya are headed by women, even where husbands exist. Chances are that in most Kenyan homes where mothers as breadwinners, the woman is Kikuyu.
“Most Kikuyu women take charge of their homes because husbands take too much alcohol and are lazy or absent. Ever wondered why Kikuyu women hardly haul men to court over child support? We are hardworking and always move on and fend for our children,” says Mercy Nyambura, a single mother of two in Nairobi.
She tells this writer how she separated from her husband over alcoholism and laziness. She says, “Kikuyu women don’t entertain nonsense from men. They fear us because we dislike laziness, which happens to be the nature of most Kenyan men. They want to be babied and pampered even when they are bringing home nothing”.
Nyambura says, Kikuyu women can’t stand abusive marriages. “You will never hear us complain of battery or mistreatment and still stay put. We always pack and leave. Or beat you up and kick you out”.
She says Kikuyu women are raised to be masculine, hard workers, and to take care of their families. As for why they seem to be the only ones who get a lot of criticism, she simply says, rather dismisively: “It‘s chauvinism from men and jealousy from other women.”
Nyambura’s sentiments are echoed by Kate Wairimu, a city resident. She says Kikuyu women work so hard and do anything to feed and educate their children. “In Nairobi, when you go to a construction site, the women you find doing jobs traditionally assumed to be for men are Kikuyu. All those female makangas and watchwomen you know are Kikuyu. We’re not choosy with work,” she says defensively