Skip to main content
Select Source:

Gusii

Gusii

ETHNONYMS: Abagusii, Kisii, Kossowa, Wakisii


Orientation

Identification. "Gusii" or "Abagusii" is the people's name for themselves. A Gusii individual is an Omogusii." "Kisii" is the Swahili name that the British colonial administration used, and it is still the common name used by other inhabitants of Kenya. The Gusii are divided into seven clan clusters: Kitutu (Getutu), North Mugirango, South Mugirango, Majoge, Wanjare (Nchari), Bassi, and Nyaribari.

Location. Gusiiland is located in western Kenya, 50 kilometers east of Lake Victoria. Since precolonial times, abundant rainfall and very fertile soils have made Gusiiland one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kenya. The proportion of cultivable land ranges between 70 and 80 percent. The region is demarcated by the coordinates 0°30 and l°00 S and 34°30 and 35°00 E. In 1989 Kisii District was divided in two; one segment retained the old name, and the other was called Nyamira. The Gusii are still the sole ethnic group inhabiting these districts. The area is a rolling hilly landscape on a deeply dissected peneplain at elevations of 1,190 meters in the far northwestern corner of the territory and up to 2,130 meters in the central highlands. The mean maximum temperatures range from 28.4° C at the lowest elevations to 22.8° C at the highest. The mean minimum temperatures are 16.4° C and 9.8° C, respectively. Rain falls throughout the year; the annual average is between 150 and 200 centimeters. There are two peak seasons of rainfall: the major rainy season (March to May) and the minor rainy season (September to November). In the nineteenth century much of present-day Gusiiland was covered by moist montane forest. Today all forest has been cleared; scant indigenous vegetation remains, and no large mammals are found.

Demography. In 1989 the number of Gusii was 1.3 million, and population densities ranged from 200 to over 600 persons per square kilometer. This population, increasing by 3 to 4 percent per year, is among those exhibiting the most rapid growth in the world. The average woman bears close to nine children. Infant mortality is low by sub-Saharan African standards about 80 per 1,000 live births.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ekegusii is a Lacustrine Bantu language.


History and Cultural Relations

At the end of the 1700s, Bantu-speaking populations were dispersed in small pockets at the northern, southern, and eastern margins of the Kisii highlands and in the Lake Victoria Basin. Around 1800, the highlands above 1,515 meters were probably uninhabited from the northern part of the Manga escarpment southward to the Kuja River. At that time, the lowland savanna was being settled by large numbers of agro-pastoralist peoples ancestral to the present-day Luo and Kipsigis, dislodging the smaller Bantu groups from their territories on the savanna. The Gusii settled in the Kisii highlands, whereas other culturally and linguistically related groups remained along the Lake Victoria Basin or settled in the lower savanna region at the Kenya-Tanzania border (as did the Kuria, for example). The establishment of the British colonial administration in 1907 was initially met by armed resistance, but it ceased after World War I. Unlike other highland peoples in Kenya, the Gusii were not subjected to land alienation. The seven subdivisions of Gusiiland were converted into administrative units under government-appointed chiefs. The first missions were established by the Catholics in 1911 and the Seventh Day Adventists in 1913. Mission activity was initially not very successful; several stations were looted. Since Kenyan independence in 1963, schools have been built throughout the area; roads have been improved, and electricity, piped water, and telephones have been extended into many areas. By the 1970s, a shortage of land had begun to make farming unprofitable, and the education of children for off-farm employment became more important.


Settlements

Before the colonial period, the extended polygynous family was spatially divided into two components: the homestead (omochie), where the married men and women and their unmarried daughters and uncircumcised sons lived, and the cattle camps (ebisarate), located in the grazing areas, where most of the cattle were protected by resident male warriors. The British abolished the cattle camps in 1913. In the late nineteenth century most Gusii were settled in dispersed farmsteads, although the North Mugirango built fortified villages for protection against Kipsigis raids. A homestead consisted of the wives' houses. The compound had several elevated granaries for finger millet. The traditional Gusii house (enyomba ) was a round, windowless structure with a framework of thin branches, walls of dried mull, and a conical, thatched roof. Today the Gusii continue to live in dispersed homesteads sited in the middle of the farm holdings. Modern houses are rectangular, with thatched or corrugated-iron roofs, and cooking has been moved from the house to a separate kitchen structure.

Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The precolonial staple crop was finger millet, which was grown together with sorghum, beans, and sweet potatoes. Cultivated-plant food was complemented by meat and milk from livestock and by wild vegetables. At the end of the nineteenth century, the cultivation period was two years, with a fallow of three to six years. By the 1920s, maize had overtaken finger millet as both a staple-food crop and a cash crop. Other important contemporary crops include cassava, pigeon peas, green grams, onions, bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes. Coffee was already being grown on a limited basis in the 1930s, and, by the 1950s, Gusiiland had become established as a producer of coffee and tea. Iron hoes and ox-drawn plows are still used in cultivation. Livestock were formerly more numerous, but farmers still raise cattle (both of local zebu and of European stock), goats, sheep, and chickens. The high population density has forced the Gusii to utilize every available space for agriculture, and most families today are unable to produce enough food for their subsistence needs. In addition to farming, many Gusii engage in employment or business, either locally or in the large urban centers.

Industrial Arts. In precolonial Gusiiland, iron tools, weapons, decorations, wooden implements, small baskets for porridge, and poisons were all produced locally. Pottery making was limited; most pottery and basketry was obtained through trade with Luoland. The most notablein terms of technical complexity and product valueof the Gusii industries were the smelting of locally obtained ore and the manufacture of iron implements. Blacksmiths did not form a special caste, as is often the case in African societies. Smithing was a remunerative industry, reserved for men, and blacksmiths became wealthy and influential.

Trade. Precolonial Gusii exchange took place within the homesteads. Tools, weapons, crafts, livestock, and agricultural products were exchanged, and goats and cows were often used as the media of exchange. During the nineteenth century, regular barter between the Luo and the Gusii, conducted by women, took place at periodic border markets. In addition, there was a regular and voluminous trade of Gusii grain for Luo livestock that took place at Gusii farms. Luo traders still arrive in Gusiiland on donkeys loaded with salt and pots. The network of markets, shops, and cash-crop purchasing centers that connects Gusiiland with the rest of Kenya has continued to grow. In 1985 the major urban center was Kisii Town, which features numerous marketing facilities, shops, and wholesalers.

Division of Labor. In the late nineteenth century women were primarily responsible for food cultivation and processing, cooking, brewing, fetching water and fuel, and cleaning house, whereas men were concerned with waging war, building houses and fences, clearing new fields, and herding. Although women performed most of the cultivation, men participated to a much higher degree than is the case today. Herding was undertaken by boys and young unmarried men in the cattle villages; initiated unmarried daughters assisted in cultivation. Since the early colonial period, the division of labor has gradually changed, to the disadvantage of women: men have withdrawn from cultivation, but women are obliged to perform most of the same tasks that they undertook during the precolonial era, in addition to cultivating the men's cash crops.

Land Tenure. Until the 1940s, land was held corporately by lineages and clans. Grazing was communal, and arable land was divided into plots with strict use rights that pertained to each household of the polygynous family. Local populations also included families belonging to other clans"dwellers" (abamenyi), who had limited tenure. Land was not inherited or alienated through transactions. Today all land is registered in individual men's names, but the land market is still limited, and sales are uncommon. Through inheritance, men have ultimate rights to the management and use of land. Women still have no birthright to their parents' land. The vast majority of women can obtain access to land only through marriage; however, a few employed women are able to buy land in other districts. Since the initial registration, land has not been surveyed, and much of it is still registered in the name of a dead father or grandfather. A man usually transfers land to his wife and sons when the eldest son marries. Ideally, land is divided equally between wives, under the supervision of and witnessed by local male elders. After division, the husband often retains a small plot (emonga ) for personal use.


Kinship

Kin Groups and Descent. During the precolonial period, the exogamous, patrilineal clan (eamaate ) was the largest cooperative unit. Clans were part of clan clusters, which had birds or animals as totems but lacked any common organization. At the lineage (riiga ) level, patrilineal descent and marriage defined commonly recognized access to land and provided the rationale for corporate action. During the colonial period, indigenous political and social organization became conceptualized as a segmentary lineage system in which units from the clan cluster, clans, and clan segments became defined according to a genealogical grid with an eponymous ancestor at the top.

Kinship Terminology. Gusii kinship terminology is classificatory, merging lineals with collaterals. Specific lineal terms are used to denote the immediate family: tata (own father), baba (own mother), momma one (own son), and mosubati ominto (young woman of our house). All other women and men of Ego's generation, however, including "real" brothers, are called mamura ominto. In the mother's family, the reciprocal term mame is applied to mother's brothers, their wives, and to sister's children. In any clan in which Ego has kinship connections, individuals of Ego's parents' generation are called tatamoke (small father) or makomoke (small mother). All members of the descending generation are omwana one (my child), those of the grandchildren's generation are omochokoro, and those of the grandparents' generation are sokoro (grandfather) and magokoro (grandmother). Gusii terminology also distinguishes links that have been established by a transfer of marriage cattle.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage can be established only through the payment of bride-wealth, in the form of livestock and money, by the husband to the wife's family. This act establishes a socially sanctioned marriage, through which a woman and a man become socially defined mothers and fathers. Residence is at the husband's home. Divorce was and still is rare; it entails the return of the bride-wealth. At the death of a husband, the widow chooses a leviratic husband among the deceased's brothers. Until the 1960s, everyone got married as soon as possible after puberty; by the end of the 1960s, elopements had started to increase in number because of a decline in the demand for wives. The period between the inception of a cohabiting union and the payment of bride-wealth has become progressively more and more extended. In 1985 at least 75 percent of all new unions between women and men were established without the payment of bride-wealth. Without this payment, the union is without social and legal sanction; consequently, there now exists a socially and economically marginalized stratum of single mothers who have no access to land. A related development has been the decline in the value of bride-wealth payments for peasant women, from about thirteen adult zebu cows in the first half of the 1950s to about three by 1985. Employed womensuch as nurses and lawyersfetch higher bride-wealth payments, around the value of fifteen to forty-five zebu cows (although their bride-wealth is frequently paid in cash and European cows).

Domestic Unit. Traditional Gusii households are based on nuclear or polygynous families. Each wife maintains her own household, and, in polygynous families, there is little cooperation between co-wives. With the decline in polygyny, a domestic unit typically has come to consist of a wife, a husband, and their unmarried children. It may also include the husband's mother and, for shorter periods, younger siblings of the wife. Until the birth of the first or second child, a wife and her mother-in-law may cook together and cooperate in farming. Married sons and their wives and children usually maintain their own households and resources.

Inheritance. According to customary law, which is still the effective rule for the majority, only men can inherit. Sons inherit only the cattle, land, and other assets that belong to their own house (enyomba). All the resources that are owned by the father, such as personal cattle or business establishments, should be divided equally between houses, irrespective of the number of sons in each. Although national law recognizes the equal inheritance rights of daughters, customary law has seldom been challenged (see "Land Tenure").

Socialization. Mothers have the ultimate responsibility for the care and socialization of their children, but they delegate a great deal of caretaking and training to other children in the homestead. Mothers seldom show physical or verbal affection for children, and fathers take very little part in child rearing. Gusii infants are raised to understand how to behave according to the codes of shame and respect that apply to their relationships to persons in adjacent generations. The grandparents play a supportive role and are supposed to inform grandchildren about proper behavior and sexual matters.

Children cease sleeping in their mother's house when they are still very young. After the age of 8, boys gradually start to sleep in a special house for unmarried sons. After initiation, at the age of 10 or 11, a son cannot sleep in his mother's house at all. At the age of 6, a girl starts to sleep either in the house of one of her mother's co-wives or that of her grandmother. Initiated girls must sleep in the house of a postmenopausal woman, usually the paternal grandmother.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Except as a unit of exogamy, the clan today seldom appears as a social group for coordinated action. In elections to parliament, county councils, and cooperative boards, clans provide voting blocks for their own candidates. The lineage is also losing its importance as a field for social action. Regular social and economic interaction is limited to the sibling group. Socioeconomic stratification is rapidly emerging, but there is no formal hierarchy. There is a marked trend toward intermarriage between persons of similar economic and social status.

Political Organization. Precolonial political power and authority were vested in local male elders' councils and in the big-men who dominated their neighborhoods. In the absence of crosscutting forms of social organization, political life was factionalized into descent-based groups of varying ramifications. Only the Kitutu clan cluster developed a rudimentary political office of chief, omogambi (lit., "giver of verdicts"). Women were alienated, and geographically separated, from their natal clans and were thus in a position of little influence and power during the first years of marriage; however, older women, who had gained power by dint of the number of their sons and daughters-in-law, were often in charge of negotiations between fighting parties. Men continue to dominate political life, and leadership is nowadays based on elected office in local government bodies and in administration as chiefs and assistant chiefs.

Social Control. During the precolonial period, disputes over cattle and land, crimes, and other misdeeds were handled by local male elders' councils and by big-men. Today local disputes are handled by a meeting of local male elders and the assistant chief (baraza). Crimes and disputes can also be taken to the court system.

Conflict. During the nineteenth century, interclan relationships were often hostile and resulted in raids for cattle and pastureland. Gusii relationships with neighboring groups varied over time but were generally peaceful and cooperative with the Luo groups and perpetually hostile with the Kipsigis. After 1918, the British administration suppressed armed conflicts in the area. There was, however, a resurgence of armed conflict, over land, between the Gusii and the Maasai during the 1960s.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Before the advent of Christianity in the region, the Gusii believed in the existence of one God, who was the originator of the world but did not directly interfere in human affairs. It was the concept of an ancestor cult that, together with their ideas about witchcraft, sorcery, and impersonal forces, provided a complex of beliefs in suprahuman agencies. The ancestor spirits (ebirecha ) existed both as a collective and as individual ancestors and ancestresses of the living members of a lineage. They were not propitiated until there was tangible evidence of their displeasure, such as disease or death of people and livestock or the destruction of crops. Most Gusii today claim to be adherents of some Christian church. There are four major denominations in Gusiiland: the Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Swedish Lutheran, and Pentecostal Assemblies of God. Active Seventh Day Adventists are oriented toward European family ideals, and they practice a form of Protestant ethic. Although the churches are very active, certain aspects of non-Christian beliefs still permeate the lives of most Gusii. Afflicted by misfortune, many Gusii visit a diviner (omorgori; pl. abaragori), who may point to displeased spirits of the dead and prescribe sacrifice to placate them.

Religious Practitioners. Abaragori, who are usually women, determine the cause of various misfortunes. Diverse healers also exist, such as the abanyamoriogi (herbalists), who use various mixtures of plants for medicines. Ababan (indigenous surgeons), set fractures and treat backaches and headaches through trephination. Abanyamosira (professional sorcerers) are normally hired to protect against witchcraft and to retaliate against witches. An omoriori (witch smeller) ferrets out witchcraft articles (e.g., hair or feces of the victim, dead birds, bones of exhumed corpses) that may be buried in a house. A witch (omorogi ) can be a man or a woman but is usually the latter. Witches are believed to operate in groups; they dig up recently buried corpses in order to use the body parts as magical paraphernalia and to eat the inner organs. Witches usually kill their victims through the use of poisons, parts of corpses, and people's exuviae. Witchcraft among the Gusii is believed to be an acquired art that is handed down from parent to child.

Ceremonies. The most elaborate and socially important ceremonies are associated with initiation and marriage. Initiation involves clitoridectomy for girls and circumcision for boys. The ceremony prepares the children as social beings who know rules of shame (chinsoni ) and respect (ogosika). The girls are initiated at the age of 7 or 8 and the boys a few years later. Initiations are gender segregated, and the operations are performed by female and male specialists. Afterward there is a period of seclusion for both genders. The traditional wedding is no longer performed. It was an extremely elaborate ritual that lasted several days. The rituals emphasized the incorporation of the bride into the groom's lineage and the primacy of male fertility. Among wealthier people, it has been replaced by a wedding in church or before an administrative official.

Arts. The Gusii soapstone carvings have received international distribution and fame. The stone is mined and carved in Tabaka, South Mugirango, where several families specialize in this art. The craft is bringing in a sizable income to the area through the tourist trade.

Medicine. Kisii Town has a government hospital and several private clinics, as well as private practitioners. There are also a number of clinics and health-care stations throughout Gusiiland. (For traditional medicine and health care, see "Religious Practitioners.")

Death and Afterlife. Funerals take place at the deceased's homestead; a large gathering is a sign of prestige. Women are buried beyond the yard, on the left side of the house, whereas men are buried beyond the cattle pen, on the right side of the house. Christian elements, such as catechism, reading out loud from the Bible, and singing hymns, are combined with the traditional practices of wailing, head shaving, and animal sacrifices to the dead. The preferred person to dig the grave is the deceased's son's son. Before burial, the corpse is dissected in order to ascertain whether death was caused by witchcraft. After burial, the widow/widower is in a liminal state and cannot move far from the homestead until after a period of a few weeks to two months, when ritual activities, including a sacrifice, are performed. One basic theme of the funeral is the fear of the dead person's spirit. The deceased, enraged at having died, may blame the survivors and must therefore be placated with sacrifices.


Bibliography

Hakansson, N. Thomas (1988). Bridewealth, Women, and Land: Social Change among the Gusii of Kenya. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, no. 9. Stockholm: Almkvist & Wiksell International.


Hakansson, N. Thomas (1994a). "Detachable Women: Gender and Kinship in Process of Socioeconomic Change among the Gusii of Kenya." American Ethnologist 21:516-538.


Hakansson, N. Thomas (1994b). "Grain, Cattle, and Power: The Social Processes of Intensive Cultivation and Exchange in Precolonial Western Kenya." Journal of Anthropological Research 50:249-276.


Hakansson, N. Thomas, and Robert A. LeVine (1995). "Contradiction and Change: Gender and Divergent Life-Course Strategies among the Gusii." In African Families and the Crisis of Social Change, edited by Thomas Weisner, Candice Bradley, and Philip Kilbride. New York: Greenwood Press. In press.

LeVine, Robert A. (1959). "Gusii Sex Offenses: A Study in Social Control." American Anthropologist 61:965-990.


LeVine, Robert A. (1982). "Gusii Funerals: Meanings of Life and Death in an African Community." Ethos 10:26-65.


LeVine, Robert A., and Barbara B. LeVine (1966). Nyansongo: A Gusii Community in Kenya. Six Cultures Series, vol. 2. New York: John Wiley & Sons.


LeVine, Robert A., Sarah LeVine, P. Herbert Leiberman, T. Betty Brazelton, Suzanne Dixon, Amy Richman, and Constance H. Keefer (1994). Child Care and Culture: Lessons from Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


LeVine, Sarah (1979). Mothers and Wives: Gusii Women of East Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


LeVine, Sarah, and Robert A. LeVine (forthcoming). Stability and Stress: The Psychosocial History of an African Community.


Mayer, Philip (1949). The Lineage Principle in Gusii Society. International African Institute Memorandum no. 24. London: Oxford University Press.


Mayer, Philip (1950). Gusii Bridewealth Law and Custom. The Rhodes-Livingstone Papers, no. 18. London: Oxford University Press.

N. THOMAS HAKANSSON

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gusii." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gusii." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gusii

"Gusii." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gusii

Gusii

Gusii

PRONUNCIATION: goo-SEE

LOCATION: Western Kenya

POPULATION: 1.3 million

LANGUAGE: Ekegusii

RELIGION: Christianity mixed with traditional beliefs

1 INTRODUCTION

At the end of the 1700s, Bantu-speaking peoples were scattered in small pockets at the northern, southern, and eastern margins of the Kisii highlands and in the Lake Victoria basin. Around 1800, the highlands above 4,970 feet (1,515 meters) were probably uninhabited from the northern part of the Manga escarpment south to the river Kuja. At that time, the lowland savannas (grasslands) were settled by large numbers of farmer-herders who were ancestors to present-day Luo and Kipsigis. These farmer-herders displaced the smaller Bantu groups from their territories on the savanna. The Gusii settled in the Kisii highlands; other related groups remained along the Lake Victoria Basin or, as the Kuria, settled in the lower savanna region at the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The British invaded these lands and established a colonial government in 1907, declaring themselves rulers. Native peoples initially responded with armed resistance, which ceased after World War I (191418). Unlike the situation in other highland areas of Kenya, the Gusii were not moved from their lands. The seven subdivisions of Gusiiland were converted into administrative units under government-appointed chiefs. Missions were established to attempt to convert Gusii from their indigenous (native) beliefs to Christianity. This mission activity was not initially very successful, and several missions were looted.

After Kenyan independence in 1963, schools were built throughout Gusii lands, roads were improved, and electricity, piped water, and telephones were extended to many areas. By the 1970s, a land shortage had begun to make farming unprofitable. Since that time, education of children to prepare them for off-farm employment has become a priority.

2 LOCATION

Gusiiland is located in western Kenya, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Lake Victoria. Abundant rainfall and very fertile soils have made Gusiiland one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kenya. Between 70 and 80 percent of the land can be cultivated. Since 1989, the Gusii as a single ethnic group have occupied the Kisii and Nyamira districts of southwestern Kenya. The area is a rolling, hilly landscape on a plain reaching altitudes of 3,900 feet (1,190 meters) in the far northwestern corner of the territory, and 6,990 feet (2,130 meters) in the central highlands. Average maximum temperatures range from 83° F (28.4° C) at the lowest altitudes to73° F (22.8° C) at the highest elevations. The average minimum temperatures are 61.5° F (16.4° C) and 50° F (9.8° C) respectively. Rain falls throughout the year with an annual average of 60 to 80 inches (150 to 200 centimeters). In the nineteenth century, much of present-day Gusiiland was covered by moist upland forest. Today, all forest has been cleared, very little indigenous (native) plants remain, and no large mammals are found.

In 1989, the number of Gusii was 1.3 million. The Gusii are one of the most rapidly growing populations in the world, increasing by 3 to 4 percent each year. The average woman bears close to nine children, and infant mortality (the proportion of infants who die) is low for sub-Saharan Africa (about 80 deaths per 1,000 live births).

3 LANGUAGE

The Gusii language, Ekegusii, is a Western Bantu language. It is common to name a child after a deceased person from the father's clan for the first name, and one from the mother's clan for the second name. Children may also be named for a recent event, such as the weather at the time of the child's birth. Some common names refer to the time of migrations. For example, the woman's name Kwamboka means "crossing a river."

Talking about personal feelings is prohibited. Hence, questions about a person's mental state are answered with statements about physical health or economic situation.

4 FOLKLORE

Gusii oral tradition contains a number of prominent figures linked with historical events, especially migrations into the current homeland and the arrival of the British. These prominent folk figures are usually men, but a few are women. Nyakanethi and her stepson Nyakundi are two historical figures linked to the establishment of a densely populated area, the Kitutu. Nyakanethi and Nyakundi fortified themselves in the highlands to the north and gave shelter to families who fled attacks by neighboring peoples. These families were given a home in Kitutu with Nyakundi as their chief.

Other heroes are related to the establishment of the colonial administration. The prophet Sakawa, who was born in the 1840s and died around 1902, is reported to have predicted the arrival of the British in 1907 and the building of the district capital, Kisii Town.

In 190708, a prophetess called Muraa tried to start a rebellion against the British. In 1908 she gave her stepson, Otenyo, medicines that she believed could protect him from bullets, and she sent him to kill British Officer G.A.S. Northcote. Although Otenyo wounded Northcote with his spear, he survived and later became the governor of Hong Kong.

5 RELIGION

Before Christianity was introduced to the Gusii, they believed in one supreme god who created the world but did not interfere directly in human affairs. Instead, interference was caused by ancestor spirits (ebirecha), witches, and impersonal forces. The Gusii believed that displeased ancestor spirits were responsible for disease, the death of people and livestock, and the destruction of crops.

Today, most Gusii claim to be followers of some form of Christianity. A Roman Catholic mission was first established in 1911 and a Seventh Day Adventist mission in 1913. There are four major denominations in Gusiiland: Roman Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventist, Swedish Lutheran, and the Pentecostal Assemblies of God.

Although churches are very active, some non-Christian beliefs continue to influence the lives of most Gusii. If afflicted by misfortune, many Gusii visit a diviner (abaragori) who may point to displeased spirits of the dead and prescribe sacrifice. In addition to abaragori, who are usually women, various healers also exist. Abanyamoriogi (herbalists) use a variety of plant mixtures for medicines. Indigenous surgeons (ababari) set fractures and treat backaches and headaches through trepanation (needles). Professional sorcerers (abanyamosira) protect against witchcraft and retaliate against witches. Omoriori, the witch smeller, finds witchcraft articles hidden in a house. Witches (omorogi) can be men or women, but are usually women. They are believed to dig up recently buried corpses to eat the inner organs and use body parts for magic. Among the Gusii, witchcraft is believed to be a learned art handed down from parent to child.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Only the national holidays of Kenya are celebrated (see article on "Kenyans" in this chapter).

7 RITES OF PASSAGE

The most important Gusii ceremonies are associated with initiation and marriage. Initiation involves genital surgery for both sexes: clitoridectomy for girls and circumcision for boys. The ceremony is supposed to train children as social beings who know rules of shame (chinsoni) and respect (ogosika). Girls are initiated at the age of seven or eight, and boys a few years later. Initiations are gender-segregated, and the operations are performed by female and male specialists. Afterward, there is a period of seclusion for both genders.

Funerals take place at the dead person's homestead, and a large gathering is a sign of prestige. Christian elements, such as catechism-reading and hymn-singing, are combined with the traditional practices of wailing, head-shaving, and animal sacrifices. Before burial, the corpse is dissected in order to determine whether death was caused by witchcraft. The Gusii tend to fear the spirit of a dead person. They believe the dead person may be angry for having died and may punish survivors. Therefore, sacrifices must be made to the spirit of the dead person to appease it.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

Daily interactions follow strict rules of politeness. There are rules for avoiding sexual shame (chinsoni) and rules governing respect (ogosika). These rules are many and complicated. They regulate proper behavior between women and men, between generations, and between different kinds of relatives. For example, although anyone within the same generation may joke with each other and talk about sexual matters, this is prohibited between different generations. A father may not set foot in his son's house; a son-in-law has to avoid his mother-in-law; a daughter-in-law must not come too close to her father-in-law (she cannot even cook a meal for him). In everyday interaction, the expected behavior is one of respect and deference by young people toward older people as well as by women toward men. The Gusii are very careful about personal appearance and avoid showing themselves even partially naked. Similarly, bodily functions must not be mentioned or implied between different generations or between women and men. It is important to avoid being seen on the way to the lavatory.

A Gusii person distinguishes her or his own father and mother by specific terms: tata (own father) and baba (own mother). Likewise, parents distinguish their children as momura one (own son) and mosubati one (own daughter). However, all women and men of the same generation are considered "brothers" and "sisters." All women and men in one's parents' generation are called tatamoke (small father) and makomoke (small mother). All members of the next generation are omwana one (my child), grandchildrens' generation are omochokoro (my grandchild), and grandparents' generation are sokoro (grandfather) and magokoro (grandmother).

Hospitality and respect toward strangers is common. At the same time, the Gusii are very reserved, polite, and in many ways suspicious about others' intentions. Although interpersonal conflicts are common, people are not supposed to show outwards signs of anger. The strong emphasis on peaceful conduct and emotional control can result in explosions of violent behavior under the influence of alcohol.

One always greets strangers as well as acquaintances of one's own generation with a simple phrase similar to our "Hi, how are you?" (Naki ogendererete). However, when visiting a homestead or meeting a relative, a more complete greeting ritual is necessary. This includes asking about each other's homes, children, and spouses. Unannounced visiting is not considered polite; a message should be delivered before a visit.

Body language is reserved and gesturing is kept to a minimum. Between people of unequal status, such as young and old or woman and man, the person of lower status is not supposed to look directly into the other's eyes.

Interactions between unmarried young people were once strictly regulated. Today, young men and women meet and socialize in many places outside the home. Premarital sex is common, and many girls end up as single mothers. Young people write love letters to each other, and in general subscribe to Western ideas of love.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

Before British colonization, the Gusii lived in two separate groups: the homestead (omochie) where a married man, his wives, and their unmarried daughters and uncircumcised sons lived, and the cattle camps (ebisarate) in the grazing areaswhere most of the cattle were watched by resident male warriors. A homestead consisted of wives' houses, houses for circumcised boys, and possibly a small day hut for the husband. Married men did not have their own house for sleeping, but alternated between their wives' houses. A compound had several elevated granaries for millet. The traditional Gusii house (enyomba) was a round, windowless structure made of a framework of thin branches with dried mud walls and a conical thatched roof. Today, the Gusii continue to live in dispersed homesteads in the middle of farm holdings. Modern houses are rectangular, with thatched or corrugated iron roofs. Cooking is done in a separate building.

10 FAMILY LIFE

Mothers are ultimately responsible for the care and raising of children. However, they delegate many childrearing tasks to other children in the family. Fathers take very little part in child rearing. Grandparents play a supportive role and are supposed to teach grandchildren about proper behavior and about sexual matters. Mothers seldom show physical or verbal affection to children. Children stop sleeping in their mother's house when they are still very young.

Marriage is established through the payment of bride wealth (in the form of livestock and money), paid by the husband to the wife's family. This act establishes a socially approved marriage. Residence is at the husband's family's home. Divorce is rare and requires the return of the bride wealth. Upon the death of a husband, a widow chooses a husband from among the dead man's brothers.

Until the 1960s, everyone got married as soon as possible after puberty. However, at the end of the 1960s, elopements started to increase. Since then, the period between the beginning of cohabitation (living together) and payment of bride wealth has become increasingly long. In 1985, at least 75 percent of all new unions between women and men were established without the payment of bride wealth. The lack of bride wealth payment means that a union has no social or legal foundation; this has resulted in a large class of poor single mothers with no access to land.

Households are based on nuclear (husband, wife, and children) or polygynous (multiple-wife) families. In polygynous families, each wife has her own household and there is little cooperation between cowives. With the decline in polygyny, a domestic unit typically consists of a wife and husband and their unmarried children. It may also include the husband's mother, and for brief periods of time, younger siblings of the wife. Until the birth of the first or second child, a wife and her mother-in-law may cook together and cooperate in farming. Married sons and their wives and children usually maintain their own households and resources.

11 CLOTHING

Western-style clothing is always worn.

12 FOOD

Before British colonization, the main crop grown in Gusiiland was finger millet, which the Gusii considered very nourishing (they also believed it strengthened a person's physical and mental power and increased a man's sexual prowess). Sorghum, beans, and sweet potatoes were also cultivated. These foods were complemented by meat and milk from livestock as well as wild vegetables.

The staple is now corn, which is ground into flour. Corn flour is mixed into boiling water to form a thick doughlike paste (obokima) that is eaten at all meals. A meal usually includes fried cabbage, tomatoes, and some potatoes. Depending on how well-off the family is, chicken or goat may be served. The obokima is formed into a spoon with one's fingers, and then used to scoop up the meat. Other popular foods are sour milk, goat intestines, and millet porridge. Finger millet was the traditional staple before the introduction of corn; it is

13 EDUCATION

Education is in high demand. There are about 200 high schools, the majority of which are community-supported. There are also a number of private schools. Unfortunately, high school is too expensive for many families. Although primary schools are free, there are other costs, such as books, building fees, and so forth. By the 1980s, fewer than 50 percent of all Gusii children attended secondary school, but all Gusii children attended primary school.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

Older people know many traditional songs. The favorite instrument is the obokhano (lyre).

15 EMPLOYMENT

A high population density has forced the Gusii to utilize all available space for agriculture, and families today are unable to produce enough to feed themselves. In part because of this, many Gusii are engaged in non-agricultural employment, either locally or in the large urban centers. Farmers use iron hoes and ox-drawn plows. Farmers still keep cattle (both local zebu and European types), goats, sheep, and chickens. Maize (corn), cassava, pigeon peas, onions, bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes are important commercial crops. By the 1950s Gusiiland had become established as a producer of coffee and tea.

In the late nineteenth century, women were primarily responsible for cultivation, food preparation, and housecleaning. Men were concerned with warfare, house-and fence-building, clearing new fields, and herding. Although women performed most of the cultivation, men participated much more than they do today. As men have withdrawn from cultivation, women must perform most of their traditional tasks in addition to many of the men's former tasks. Women do most of the work to feed their families, and many husbands drink and visit friends while their wives work in the fields and take care of the households.

16 SPORTS

Wrestling used to be a popular sport for men, but it has declined in recent years. Various Western athletic activities have been introduced. The most popular sport among boys is soccer, and most schools have a soccer field. Other sports include table tennis, netball (similar to basketball), and cycling.

17 RECREATION

Traditional dancing and music were once popular, but today few outlets exist in the countryside for such entertainment. Among men, a main form of recreation consists of drinking beer.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

In pre-colonial Gusiiland, a variety of goods were manufactured: iron tools, weapons, decorations, wooden implements, small baskets for porridge, and poisons. Pottery-making was limited, and most pottery was made by the Luo people and imported. The most technically complex and valuable items manufactured were iron implements, made from smelting locally obtained ore. Smithing was reserved for men, and blacksmiths became wealthy and influential.

Gusii soapstone carvings have become internationally recognized. The stone is mined and carved in Tabaka, South Mugirango, where several families specialize in this art. The craft is bringing a sizable income to the area through the tourist trade.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

Alcoholism and violence toward women are the most severe social problems. Traditionally, only older people were allowed to drink large amounts of locally brewed beer (amarua). Today, social control over drinking has broken down, and traditional beer and home-distilled spirits are served in huts all over the district. Probably close to 50 percent of young and middle-aged Gusii are regular drinkers, with a larger proportion of men than women. This heavy drinking leads to violence, neglect of children, and poverty. The Gusii also have high murder rates compared to the rest of Kenya. Although violence toward women (such as rape and beatings) has been part of Gusii culture since earlier in this century, alcohol is probably a factor in its increase.

The exploitation of women in Gusii society is a serious human rights problem. According to customary law, which is usually followed in the countryside, women cannot inherit or own land, cattle, or other resources. This makes them completely dependent on men for survival and attainment of any future security. Until a woman has adult sons, she is under the authority of her husband and has to ask permission from him to leave the homestead. In addition, the Gusii practice female genital mutilation, which is practiced regularly even though it is prohibited by law. Sometimes called female circumcision, this surgery robs girls of the possibility for sexual satisfaction. The practice is intended to keep girls and women "in line," and it has attracted the attention of human rights advocates around the world.

20 BIBLIOGRPAHY

Arnold, Gay. Modern Kenya. New York: Longman, 1981.

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. New York: Random House, 1972.

Kenya in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.

LeVine, Sarah. Mothers and Wives: Gusii Women of East Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Liyong, Taban lo. Popular Culture of East Africa. Nairobi: Longman Kenya, 1972.

Stein, R. Kenya. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.

Themes in Kenyan History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.

WEBSITES

Embassy of Kenya, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.embassyofkenya.com/, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Kenya. [Online] Available http://www.geographia.com/kenya/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ke/gen.html, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gusii." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gusii." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gusii

"Gusii." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gusii