Simiyu Wandibba


Kenya is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial country. As a nation we may talk of a national culture, one that unites us as one nation. In reality, however, the multi-ethnic nature of the country means that we have literally as many cultures as we have ethnic groups. On the other hand, we can say that on account of western education, urbanization and developments in communication, there is much less distinction nowadays in the different ethnic cultures than there was at the time of colonization.

In this article, I set out to discuss indigenous Kenyan cultures and what they say about our values. In anthropology, culture refers to the total way of life of any society. We all know that life is a complex phenomenon and that any way of life is made up of innumerable facets. To most anthropologists, culture encompasses the learned behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, values and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population1 Thus, all human beings are born in a complex culture which strongly influences how they live and behave throughout their lives.

From the above definition of culture, we see that values constitute one aspect of culture. In everyday usage, the word “value” refers to the intrinsic worth, the fair equivalent or goodness of something. In philosophy, on the other hand, “value” deals with the notion of the good in the widest sense, embracing not only the morally good but also the beautiful and the true.2

In traditional Kenyan cultures, people valued the institution of marriage, human life, morality, respect for people's property, and good leadership. This list is not exhaustive. There were many things that different cultures valued but which may not have been looked at in the same way by other cultures. Our interest here is with those things that had “universal” value across the different cultures. Let us now examine each of these universal values.


The institution of marriage was highly valued by all the traditional cultures in Kenya. To a large extent, especially in the rural areas, it is highly valued even today. The reason for this is that marriage is the foundation on which families are built. On its part, the family constitutes the basic social group that operates most widely and most intensely in the activities of everyday life. All kinship relationships ultimately derive their legitimacy from the family. The rights and duties of the individual-economic, religious and political life either exclusively or predominantly work through channels of kinship.3 Wagner goes on to observe that:

The individual who wishes to obtain a maximum degree of protection by the community in which he lives and to attain influence and prestige in it must aim at securing for himself a prominent place in the elaborate network of kinship relations. This he can do only through marriage and protection, for matrimony and parenthood are necessary steps in the process of acquiring social status.

Marriage, therefore, had the specific purpose of perpetuating one's lineage and–in the process– bestowing social status on man. Thus, in general pre-marital sex was discouraged since it did not serve the purpose of matrimony and parenthood. Stiff fines were meted out to people who committed adultery, as we shall see later on.

Human Life

Human life is highly valued in the modern world. This was no different among the traditional Kenyan communities. However, it was permissible to kill an enemy, just as is the case today. In all other cases, no one was allowed to take away another person's life. In fact, no distinction was made between murder and manslaughter; both were considered murder. Murder was punished according to the principle of compensation. According to Huntingford4 the essence of this principle was that if one man injures another, he should compensate for the injury rather than being merely punished for doing it. This meant that although nothing could be done for a murdered man, his group could be indemnified.

Among the southern Agikuyu, Leakey observes that the fine was the same for any death, regardless of whether the death was caused accidentally or intentionally. Thus, if a male was killed by a member of another family, whatever the age, the standard fine was 100 goats and sheep.5 This fine was paid to the family of the deceased by the family of the killer. Among the Akamba, the murder of a man was compensated for by the payment of 12 cattle (11 cows and one bull) or 14 cattle (13 cows and one bull), depending on location. On the other hand, the murder of a woman was compensated by payment of 4-5 cows and one bull or by the payment of 8 cattle (7 cows and one bull), depending on location.6 Among the southern Agikuyu, the family of the deceased was paid 30 goats and sheep. If the deceased happened to be a married woman, 25 of these animals were paid to the family into which she was married and the remaining five were paid to her brother.7

The two examples cited above show that the fines for taking away a person's life were very heavy. This was done deliberately to make the fines so deterrent as to discourage the crime. It is important to point out that once a life has been taken away, it cannot be replaced. The best alternative was, therefore, to prevent it from happening.


Morality is a quality that was highly valued by all traditional cultures in Kenya. Indeed, moral values formed the bedrock of the education that was given to children as they grew up. Moral values were also impressed on people who were about to wed or who were going through one rite of passage to another. Leaders were also expected to be people of upright character.

In general, people were warned against promiscuity. Pre-marital sex was also generally discouraged. In some communities, young men and girls could engage in intimacy but were not permitted to have actual intercourse. Thus, among the Agikuyu, young men and girls could engage in platonic love and fondling but were forbidden from making love.8 Among the Akamba, young boys and girls were free to experiment with sex but men of the warrior class and marriageable girls were not allowed to do so.9

In many cases, adultery was a punishable offence. Among the Akamba, it was punished by a fine of a bull and a goat. The goat was killed and used in cleansing the husband of the offending wife before he got back to his house. 10 The fine was much higher if an adulterous wife died in childbirth. In this case, the paramour had to pay 5 cows and one bull. The community insisted on this deterrent fine because the responsibility of the woman's death was considered to lie with the offending man.11 On the other hand, among the southern Agikuyu, the adulterer was fined three stall-fed rams which he paid to the council of elders. The offender was also made to produce a small ram or he-goat, and he took a muuma (oath) that he would never again visit that woman, and that he would never again commit adultery with any other woman.12

Among the Pokot of Baringo, an adulterous man was punished physically and materially. The man was first tied to a tree in which stinging ants resided. The ants were then disturbed and as they stung him, he was beaten as his lover watched. After this, he was fined 6 cows, 6 goats, a pregnant sheep and six ostrich feathers. In addition, he prepared a tin of honey with which to appease the offended husband.13

Respect for Other People's Property

Children were traditionally socialized to respect other people's property. Through rewards and punishments, the children grew up distinguishing between legitimately acquired goods and stolen ones. Each family endeavoured to ensure that their children respected their neighbours’ properties. The idea was to inculcate in the minds of the young the virtue of honesty.

It is therefore not surprising that in adulthood people were heavily punished if found stealing. Among the Tugen, for example, a thief had both hands tied, and a fire lit to burn dry grass that had been tied around his waist. The man's own brother was forced to push the man over a cliff as he burned to death.14

The Agikuyu also went to great lengths to protect people's property. Habitual thieves were, therefore, not welcome in the community. They were dealt with in a number of ways. One method involved crucifying such thieves on an anthill, with their hands fastened to the ground by wooden slats across his ankles and wrists. The victim was then tied to a tree and the crowd invited to hurl rocks and stones at him. The second way was to throw the victim into a river to drown. In this case, the man was bound hand and foot and then flung into a deep river.15 In extreme cases, habitual thieves were burnt alive. Cagnolo describes this punishment.

The thief is bound inside a big bundle of dried banana leaves. A solid ring of spears makes the death circle more secure. A member of his clan is called upon to set fire to the bundle and for a few minutes there is an inferno of flames and screams.16

Good Leadership

In any culture leadership is considered a very important institution. This is because leadership tends to influence, if not to dictate, all the activities and affairs of that culture. Thus, traditional cultures in Kenya attached great importance to the qualities of good leadership. This is in spite of the fact that almost all these cultures did not have centralized systems of government. At whatever level of leadership, whether as individuals or members of councils of elders, the leaders had to possess certain qualities that were acceptable to the people as characteristics of good leadership. These qualities included seniority in age, wealth, reputation as a warrior and other characteristics of leadership.

Seniority in age was considered to be important because old age was associated with wisdom. Wisdom was considered important because one of the main responsibilities of any leader was the settlement of disputes. A leader who did not have this quality, therefore, would have been at a disadvantage.

Wealth bestowed prestige and influence on an individual. But, more importantly, it enabled the individual to offer hospitality to his people, give loans to his relatives and organize feasts for the community. It was recognized that once in a while, there would be people in the community who would need assistance from the leaders, especially in the form of food. Wealth was, therefore, measured in terms of livestock for the pastoralists, grain for the agriculturalists, and both livestock and grain for mixed farmers.

Success in warfare served as a means of gaining wealth, and also bestowed prestige on the individual.17 In general, the person who led a successful raid for cattle ended up getting the lion's share of the war booty. In addition, the more successful the warrior, the more prestige he acquired among his people. It is therefore not surprising that reputation as a warrior was considered a good quality of leadership.

Finally, for one to become a leader, one had to possess certain qualities. Among the Bukusu community, people capable of becoming leaders were “men who talk gently and wisely and who can make the people listen and return to reason when they want to quarrel.”18 Among the Gabra and Borana, leaders were people who were wise, kind, merciful and having full knowledge of all affairs within the community.19


This brief presentation demonstrates that the traditional cultures of Kenya valued marriage, respect for human life, morality, respect for people's property, and good leadership. These values provided the moral code for the people to follow. Marriage was valued because it provided people with the institution for procreation and the perpetuation of one's lineage. It also had the social value of bestowing respect and honour on a person. Marriage was, therefore, serious business unlike now where many people just marry for convenience.

Traditionally, people were socialized never to take someone's life in vain. The only killing that was permitted was that of an enemy. Today, the media is full of stories of people killing others for very minor reasons. For example, people kill others over a ten-shilling debt! What has gone wrong?

Morality and respect for other people's property both have to do with honesty and righteousness. That is why traditional cultures in Kenya socialized their children to embrace moral values. People were taught that stealing was a sign of dishonesty, and right from childhood, thieves were severely punished. Today, white-collar thieves go scot-free to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.

Finally, traditional cultures recognized the value of wealth as one of the basic ingredients of good leadership. Thus, unless one was wealthy, one did not stand the chance of becoming a leader. In Kenya today, many people vie for positions of leadership in order to acquire wealth. This is obviously the reason why many of our leaders get involved in corrupt deals left and right.

Notes: 1. C.R. and M. Ember. Anthropology. Instructor's edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. 6th ed, p. 171.

2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, London: William Banton, 1971, p. 866.

3. G. Wagner. The Bantu of Western Kenya. Vol. I. London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 379.

4. G.W.B. Huntingford. The Nandi of Kenya. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

5. L.S.B. Leakey. The Southern Kikuyu before 1903, Vol. III. London: Academic Press, 1977, p. 1014.

6. C.B. Hobley. Ethnology of Akamba and other East African tribes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. p. 78.

7. Leakey. op. cit., p. 1015.

8. Ibid., p. 1025.

9. C. Dundas. The organization and laws of some Bantu tribes of East Africa. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 45 (1915) p. 234 –306; J. Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 1965.

10. Hobley, op. cit.

11. Ibid., p. 79.

12. Dundas, op. cit.

13. J. Akong'a, ed. District socio-cultural profiles report: Baringo District draft report. Nairobi: Ministry of Finance and Planning and Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi, 1984. p. 182. (Unpublished document).

14. Akongo. op. cit. p. 179.

15. C. Cagnolo. The Akikuyu. Nyeri: The Catholic Missionary of the Consolata Fathers, 1933. p. 156.

16. Ibid., p. 157.

17. G. Wagner. “The political organization of the Bantu of Kavirondo.” In African political systems, p. 197-236. M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.

18. Ibid. p. 232.

19. G.S. Were, ed. Marsabit District socio-cultural profiles. Nairobi: Ministry of Planning and National Development and Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi, 1986. p 148.

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