The Kisii (also known as AbaGusii, as they prefer to call themselves) is a community of Bantu speakers who inhabit the two counties (Kisii, formerly Kisii District and Nyamira) in Nyanza Province, Western Kenya. Gusii is the fond reference to their homeland and Mogusii is culturally identified as their founder and patriarch.
Kisii town - known as Bosongo by the locals - is located in Nyanza Province to the southwest of Kenya and is home to the Gusii people. The name Bosongo is believed to have originated from Abasongo (to mean the Whites) who lived in the town during the colonial times. According to the 1979 census, Kisii District had a population of 588,000. The AbaGusii increased to 2.2 million in the latest Kenya Census 2009.
Origins of the Abagusii
The Abagusii, like the Abaluyia (Luhya), claim to have come from areas further north. As these Bantu speakers migrated from the Congo, they split up into different groups with the Kisii ending up in Nyanza Province near Lake Victoria. (The Kikuyu, Kamba, and other groups in Kenya continued the hunt for richer soil for farming and moved on eastwards across the Rift valley to their current locations. They later settled in the now-called Central and Rift Valley Provinces of Kenya.)
The Kisii ended up in a geographical location unique among Bantu speaking groups in that they were surrounded on all sides by initially, and later sporadically hostile Nilotic communities of the Luo, Kipsigis, Nandi, and Maasai. Constant sieges resulted in the development of a war-like culture, unlike most Bantu communities, to defend against cattle-raiding neighboring communities. To this day, they have a reputation of being tough, emotionally labile, resilient, and very industrious.
There's strong evidence, however, that periods of peace with neighbouring communities must have led to intermarriages and consequent consanguinity. This is evident in the greatly varied complexion and physique between AbaGusii from different subregions of Gusii. Some clans of the Suba (AbaSoba in EkeGusii) are said to have been completely absorbed by the AbaGUsii. The Bantu community with a great many similarities with the AbaGusii is the Meru (Ameru) from the windward slopes of Mount Kenya, although the Kuria (AbaKuria) share a great deal in common with the AbaGusii in language and culture as well, and a history of intermarriage has led to prohibition of marriage alliances for specific clans of the AbaGusii with some Kuria clans. The Kipsigis, the highland nilotes bordering the AbaGusii on the northern and northeastern frontier affectionately refer to the AbaGusii as kamama (an appellation connoting extensive marriage alliances between the two very dissimilar neighbours). Indeed many Kipsigis can easily point to someone in their lineage (especially a matriarch) from Gusii.
The Kisii People today
The Kisii are regarded as one of the most economically active communities in Kenya, with rolling tea estates, coffee, and banana groves. However, Kisii district has a very high population density. It is one of the most densely populated areas in Kenya (after the two cities of Nairobi and Mombasa), and the most densely populated rural area. It also has one of the highest fertility and population growth rates in Kenya (as evidenced by successive census and demographic surveys). In fact the fertility rate of Kisii ranks among the highest in the world, (see Kenyan Conundrum: A Regional Analysis of Population Growth and Primary Education (Paperback) by Juha I. Uitto [Author]). These factors have ensured the Kisii to be among the most geographically widespread communities in East Africa. A disproportionately large number of Kisiis have gone abroad in search of education.The Kisii are some of the most heavily represented Kenyans in foreign (usually Indian and American) universities and a few in the United Kingdom. Their lands are currently overpopulated despite their rolling fertile hills, spurring immigration to other cities in Kenya and a substantial representation in the United States, especially in major hub cities like Houston, Atlanta, Jersey City, Dallas, Cleveland and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. The hard cash that flows from the diaspora has spawned significant economic prosperity in a locale lacking in politically motivated 'hand-me downs'.
Names like Areri, Arasa, Bogonko, Bosire, Isaboke, Mairura, Makori, Mogaka, Mogeni, Momanyi, Moseti, Motieri, Nyambane, Nyambati, Nyanumba, Nyabuti, Ocharo, Omwenga, Ondari, Onchiri, Ongeri, Onkoba, Onsomu, Onyoni, Orina, Osebe, Otwori, Nyakoni, Bagwasi, Omanwa, Ongori, among others are common family names just like Smith and Johnson in the Anglo-Saxon cultures. Female names such as Biyaki, Bitutu, Moraa, Nyanchama, Monchari, Nyaboke, Nyatichi, Nyanchera, Kemunto, Kerubo, Kwamboka, Kerebi, Gesare, Buyaki, Bwari, Bosibori, Bochaberi, Kemuma, Onditi, and others are also common names given to girls.
Agriculture and biodiversity in Kisii
In the past, Kisii was a heavily forested area, with old indigenous broadleaf rainforest trees and other flora. It was part of the old Congo Basin forests. The only remnant of this old forest in Kenya is the Kakamega Forest, which is the westernmost tip of the Equatorial rainforest. The two ancient forest areas were linked through Nandi and Kericho, before the Nandi and Kericho areas were cleared for tea farming and settlement. Now most of the tree life in Kisii consists of members of 4 tree families, all of them introduced from outside the continent. The most common trees in Kisii are the Eucalyptus spp. family (blue gum/eucalyptus), Grevillea robusta and Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii). All these three species are native to Australia. Finally, there is the Cupressus spp. family (cypress) native to South America. Other plant life forms are cultivated tea, bananas, maize, coffee and napier grass, with very little remaining of indigenous biodiversity.
It has been theorized that in future Kisii will increasingly be 'colonized' by the above few species of plants, as there is little awareness or even desire to re-plant the slow-growing and less economically valuable indigenous plant forms. This is aggravated by land shortage and reduced need for traditional herbal medicine, that has now been surpassed by modern hospitals and medical care.
They speak the language of Kisii or ekeGusii as it is properly called. However, some older texts refer to this community as Kosova. This language and other Bantu languages are very similar. Most of their phrases are similar or had been derived or acquired in the same manner. The only difference between these languages is that some words have been altered or differently pronounced and given new meanings. The Meru in Eastern province are closely related to the Kisii people or AbaGusii in language and culture. They are markedly similar to the Bakiga of south western Uganda in culture, industry and choice of terrain. The LuTooro language of Western Uganda shares a great many words with EkeGusii. For instance, "omoiseke" is the EkeGusii for 'girl' and the word in LuTooro is just the same save for a slight difference in inflection.
The Gusii play a large bass lyre called obokano. Circumscion of boys at around age of 10 as a rite of passage without anesthesia is common among the Abagusii. This ritual takes place annually in the months of November and December followed by a period of seclusion during which the boys are led in different activities by older boys, and is a great time of celebration indeed for families and communities at large. Family, friends and neighbors are invited days in advance by candidates to join the family. During this period of seclusion only older circumcised boys are allowed to visit the secluded initiates and any other visitor could cause a taboo. Its during this period that initiates were thought their roles as young men in the community and the do's and the don'ts of a circumcised man. Some of the notable musicians from the Kisii people include Arisi O'sababu, Monyoncho, Sungusia, Riakimai '91 Jazz, Embarambamba, Bonyakoni kirwanda junior band, Mr Ong'eng'o, Sabby Okengo, among others. Marriage In Gusii community traditional marriage was arranged by the parents who find an appropriate bride and kidnap her, both customary, civil and Christian marriage was allowed.
During 2008 and 2009 reports surfaced of mass 'witch burnings' in Kisii district, where belief in witchcraft is widespread. Most of those burned to death in the reports were elderly. Witchcraft is however fading out since most people are becoming enlightened.