LOCATION: Western Kenya

POPULATION: 1.3 million

LANGUAGE: Ekegusii

RELIGION: Christianity mixed with traditional beliefs


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 (1914–18). 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.


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).


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.


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 1907–08, 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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 areas—where 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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Embassy of Kenya, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Kenya. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Gusii from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

jasper rori
the overview above is quite educative. it gives an insight of where the kisii have come from and the direction they need to take particularly to meet challenges both locally and nationally.the social problems highlighted are not part of the oral folkores.they are basically a creation by society due to very poor local leadership that is self centred per excellence, insenstive and negligent of nation leadership on the Gusii people over a period of time. The central government has never taken development in kisii seriously and has only had a political agent.NGOs to facilitate development are rare and even the few there, their effect is not felt. the churches have equally taken a political role to the destruction of education as a key to development in kisii. local leadership has continuously perpetuated clansism as means of reward for political entrangement at the expense of wonder wrangles and wrangles by some poorly educated leaders has been the order of the day. all these play negatively to the total local development both in the social political and economic front. thanks.
marshal rolaam
your article is the most well researched i have ever read in my persued of knowledge.keep it up
simeon peter nyaoma
born in kisii, lived in kisii but never had had achance to know the information which I have found here. Its trully educative et encouraging. t has made me to know roots much as the culture et traditions have not been discused into detail, the article is really of imporntace more to this our generation which has forgoten their roots. Am one of them.

blv me that am really encouraged et would like to say that now I can narrate to my folks my roots and can now proudly say that am a KIsii.

Thanx for enlighting us et je vous en prie de continuer à nous donner les informations comme ça. Semia abagusii
fred makana
the kisii culture and traditions are of great interest and am happy to learn more on this.the problem at the moment is most families have deliberately ignored this richness of this culture and instead sought to deny children by emulating western culture and ideologies
Lovely piece of information. The prophetess was not called "Muraa" but MORAA. Thank you.
I would like someone to write on the political organization of the abagusii before the colonial period. Such an article does not exist. Thanks.
This is great work but I would like someone to come up with the architecture of the Gusii if possible with sketches illustrating the structure forms and the location of the forms
This is very interesting nformation about about Abagusii and I appreciate it very much. I do notice much of the information appears to dated before the 1990s and 2000s. For instance many of the Abagusii have children beyond Secondary education with Abagusii constituting large numbers of Kenyan Students studying outside Kenya. I find the figure of 50% of Abagusii men as drunks on the higher side!Look foward to more current information, thanks
This information is wonderful and very interesting. Very very informative to those who did not know how omogusii came into the present day gusii land. Much of the Gusii history is recorded from the time the omogusii was at Kavirondo gulf where a baby girl ( Kemunto ) was born. It is from here that most of the Omogusii movement is followed towards kisumu, Kano plains to Kabianga near Kericho and onwards to their present day land.
Our old generation is rapidly vanishing. And this means our cultural archive is dying. This summary article has been done properly with concise and precise explanation. I appreciate the author. Finally, what can we do to preserve the history? With the devolved system of government, can we consider to build a one-stop-Abagusii heritage Centre? Think about it brothers and sisters.
Good information for me particularly but my main querry is,how were this games and sports done traditionally,where and when were they practiced?THANKS VERY MUCH N KEEP UP.
Very good information, keep it up & continue updating us.
A good article in deed. I think it could have been much better to time-frame some events because they have are greatly changed with time. Example, as from earlier 2000, female genital mutulation has greatly dropped to about 20%. Some informatio is also misleading, i.e. inheritance of wives of the deceased. In fact, they were not inherited by brothers only but any married man from the same clan. By so, the woman was not counted as the wife of whoever inheriting her, even the subsequent kids were named with the deceased as their surname. No any economic benefit was to be gained by the man.
Thanks for the information coz i got to know the information on the people of our culture.
omwando julius
i feel that just like other cultures mine (abagusii) is also protected. scholars please keep it up. thank you all.
love this information.Very good information, keep it up & continue updating us
Very educative piece thumbs up a big help for my research
I must give the writer of this account credit for his research; however,misspelling some kisii words causes very serious distortion of the intended.For instance, among the Kisiis there is no such name as 'Nyakenithi' but there could be 'Nyakeniti'
Kategaya Angeline
Oh what a brilliant research about MWANYAGETINGE.I am grateful for the effort because this article is so enriching. It is my wish that more may be posted such that we learn more!!! Please tell us more about " TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS IN GUSII" before the coming of the Whites. How did Abagusii relate with their god? Which religion were they practising?
Edward Nyamwega
Thank you and this is exemplary well done.I,however need information on indigeneous education system among the Abagusii people:aims,content and methods,philosophical foundations and contributions and criticisms.
Thanks for the insightful information above. I kindly request you to research and provide us with information about Omogusii as the founder and partrach of Kisii people, his marriage and family and how he came to settle in Gusiiland. Like that of Mumbi and Mugikuyu of the Kikuyu people!
George Onkeo
What is the meaning of the mwongoko? Where and when is the word applied?
Fridah Moraa
Someone enlighten me on the clans among the Gusii community.thank you.
Hey am akisii by tribe and am proud to be one and the artical reminds me of way befor when i used to visit my grandmothers home in Igare KEUMBU am so tourched i wish time would go back i so miss the native kisii land of those days
Collins Masea
Beautiful article...some real great work. Am proud 2 b a kisii. GOD BLESS KISII LAND, GOD BLESS KISII PEOPLE...GOD BLESS KENYA.
A well researched article, well done. born and raised in kisii i din't know most of these things. thank you and keep it up.
Kelvin Ombiro
A well educating article i found and it really shows much was embraced n the traditional community and how i really wish that people would encourage the same even now and days to come
i used this for my assesment thak you i wiil include you in my refrences
THIS is good work and actually it is teaching us many of the things about our culture that we may not have known may God give you wisdom to keep informing us about the whole process of our culture thanks i appreciate this a lot.
cosmas Ondari
it is nice to have this information, how i wish all of us especially the elites from Kisii were interested in this kind of research so that we can preserve our heritage. i have learnt much from here. if we dont this our children will not anything about our culture. Kudos!
jairus ogeto
Educative information. Thanks. I have gained a lot from this column. my the tribe flourish and live to uphold the positive cultural believes and shun harmful practices like FGM
very grateful for these article but there is some more information missing e.g how the traditional marriage was conducted and even the christian marriage susan
RAEL mayaka
this is Awonderful resear ch I have
Have come across
Thank you very much for the information,but would you mind telling on our traditional method of preserving meat and meat products?
Fednard M Nyamongo
The information is good enough as it is educating thanks in advance
Quite knowledgeable, would like to know more about the original roots before the community stepped into Kenya
Re-writing history,
Oseko Raiti .J
Well, good research.Have known the kind animism practiced in my own culture.Therefor i call upon all Gisii people call their mother (baba)
Christopher Oboiko
thanks in advance your research is very ok it has really helped me in knowing some of the Abagusii traditions go on with the same spirit.
peter masara
The article is informative especially on the coming of the Colonialists in Kenya there is a small section on the small clans among the Gusii and their
administrative system but it is a step on understanding our past.In corporate oral stories from older men from the region for a detailed script. thanks.
Evans k. nyakundi
As much as we have done our research from writers who have either exaggerated or diminished same of information and facts, better we hear the original tales from our immediate parents, before the coming of the colonial, and their immediate arrivals there were leaders, what was the views of those leaders and their immediate children? is it that nobody has the original information or the source particular leaders. Before the coming of the British, Nyakundi the founder of Kitutu clans and his genealogy of ancestors from Mogusii and his wife Nyakomogendi are linked to other clans in Gusii, we can discover more than a mere distortion of Gusii community. William Ochieng, his book the history of Gusii in western Kenya, Quotes Nyakundi the founder of kitutu hand an institution government that had not been witnessed in any part of Kenyan tribes, young men were soldiers paid in form of cows for their marriage, elders were organized from village level, sub-clans, and clans level. What I want to say both the church and colonial administration ignored the local set-up of society and established their form of leadership, for the existing leadership was opposed to their coming.It is wonderful to learn that Gusii hand good leadership, good religion, good surgeons operate the skull in case of a crack, a good judiciary where "omotembe' played witness in a case where two people had a dispute and there was no witness. The famous Gusii community recognized the importance of marriage any illegitimate child was never acceptable in a home other than the real parents known in other words prostitution is an alien influence.So far I will like to team up with those who have given their comments, plus the Gusii cultural elders in order to refine and share more instead of passing on the periphery pride as a Gusii-man.
I really enjoyed reading this article, it helped me get a better understanding of the Kisii tribe for Human Development- the articles in the book are very short and don't give lots of information. The research done here was really good. Thank you. :)
Rev Kennedy Mweresa Atura
Very informative piece and useful basis for further inquiry into the history of Mwanyagetinge.

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