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 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.