Kisii, Kossowa, Wakisii
Identification and Location. “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.
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 1°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 Culture
Ath 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 agropastoralist 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.
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.
Subsistence. 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. 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 notable—in terms of technical complexity and product value—of 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.
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), momura 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 women—such as nurses and lawyers—fetch 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.
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 l>
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
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. Ababari (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.
N. THOMAS HAKANSSON
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