Who Are the Kikuyu?

Country house in Kikuyu, Kenya.
Country house in Kikuyu, Kenya.

Who Are the Kikuyu

The Kikuyu are the largest single ethnic tribe in Kenya, making up 22% of the country’s population. It is believed that the Kikuyu people migrated from Lake Chad to East Africa in 1000 AD, settling in the fertile central highlands of Kenya and engaging in farming. It is through the Kikuyu culture that Kenya and the country's highest peak acquired its name, since European settlers were unable to pronounce the name Kirinyaga.


Historically, the Kikuyu are believed to have come from West Africa, together with other Bantu groups like the Meru, Kamba, and Embu. Traditionally, the Kikuyu believe that the tribe originated from Gikuyu and Mumbi, who were sent by God (Ngai) from Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga). Gikuyu and Mumbi had nine daughters who intermarried and formed the nine clans of the Agikuyu people. The Kikuyu became friends with neighboring communities, like the Masaai, and engaged in trade. After the Second World War, the British settled in Kenya, confiscating the fertile lands of the Kikuyu and leaving them with little land to cultivate. Frustrated with colonial rule and the loss of their land, the Kikuyu formed a rebellious group, Mau Mau, led by Dedan Kimathi, and entered into war with the British, ultimately leading to Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Kikuyu Culture

The Kikuyu culture is a combination of their traditional culture and newly revived post-colonial cultures. Most of the Kikuyu people are still rooted in their traditional culture, speaking Kikuyu as their native language, in addition to English and Kiswahili as the lingua franca. The majority are Christians and worship Ngai, whom they believe lives atop Mount Kenya and is the provider of everything. According to the Kikuyu, the family is the basic social, economic, and political unit in society. It is through the family system that education and traditions are taught and transferred through the generations. Additionally, it is through the family system that members are inducted into political systems. Traditional Kikuyu cuisine includes githeri, mukimo, irio, roasted chicken, and mutton.

Major Contributions

The Kikuyu are renowned in Kenya as a tribe that wields significant political and economic influence. In fact, the Kikuyu are referred to as the ‘Jews of Kenya’ and are envied in equal measure for their entrepreneurial zeal. They have provided three of the four Kenyan presidents, and other great leaders, such as Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Mathai, academics, prominent business leaders, and international journalists.

Today the majority of the Kikuyu people have migrated to other parts of Kenya, but have maintained their territories along Mt. Kenya and the central highlands. Due to their history of economic success, they have traversed regions such as the western side of Rift Valley and established commercial farms cultivating tea and coffee and rearing livestock. Their ability to adapt to new realities has allowed them to establish business empires across the country, as well as adopt many aspects of modern culture despite living in remote rural areas.


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