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|Regions with significant populations|
|African Traditional Religion, Christianity , Islam|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Kuria, Luhya, other Bantu peoples|
The Kisii (also known as Abagusii or Gusii) is a community of Bantu people who inhabit two counties: Kisii (formerly Kisii District) and Nyamira in Nyanza Province, Western Kenya. Mogusii is culturally identified as their founder and patriarch.
Kisii town - known as Bosongo or Getembe 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 or the place where white people settle(d)) 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 (Misri) in Egypt. As these Bantu speakers migrated from the west Central Africa, they split up into different groups with the Kisii ending up in Nyanza Province near Lake Victoria. (The Kikuyu, Kamba, and other related Bantu 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 formerly-called Eastern, 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 Luos(Abagere in ekegusii). The Bantu community with a great many similarities with the Abagusii is the Meru (Abameru in ekegusii) from the windward slopes of Mount Kenya, although the Kuria (Abakuria in ekegusii) 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. Additionally, intermarriages between members of the same clans are prohibited.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 (Abagusii)
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'.
The Kisii people have as a result moved out of their two counties and can be found virtually in any part of Kenya and beyond. In Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu and many other towns in Kenya, they run most businesses. For example, the "matatu" business in Nairobi estates like Utawala, kawangware, Dandora, Embakasi, Kitengela, Matasia, etc. They have bought land and are residents in most of these Nairobi estates like Utawala, Ruai, Joska, Kamulu, Kitengela, Rongai, Ngong, etc. They are generally, by nature, independent and thorough in their pursuits whether in education, professional practices, or even religious belief; making them more visible that their absolute numbers.
Agriculture and biodiversity in Kisii (Gusii)
In the past, Kisii (Gusii) 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 (Gusii) 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 (Gusii) 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 (also called omonwa bwÉkegusii). 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.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. They are also known by their world-famous soapstone sculptures "chigware" mostly concentrated in the southern parts of Kisii County around Tabaka town. Circumcision 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 taught 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 community include Nyashinski, Rajiv Okemwa Raj, Ringtone, Mwalimu Arisi O'sababu, Christopher Monyoncho, Sungusia, Riakimai '91 Jazz, Embarambamba, Bonyakoni Kirwanda junior band, Mr Ong'eng'o, Grandmaster Masese, Deepac Braxx (The Heavyweight Mc), Jiggy, Mr. Bloom, Virusi, Babu Gee, Brax Rnb, Sabby Okengo, Machoge One Jazz,among others.
Among the AbaGusii community, traditional marriage was arranged by the parents, using intermediaries called "chisigani", who also acted as referees for the bride and groom to be. The parents negotiated the dowry and organised a traditional wedding. The traditional wedding ceremony involved a mentor called "omoimari" who could provide continuing support to the newly married couple. Currently, civil and Christian marriages are recognized among the Abagusii. It is essential to note that traditions within the Kisii community prohibit marriages between members of the same clan.
Food and Nutrition
Their staple meal is ugali [Obokima] (dish of maize flour, millet flour, or Sorghum flour cooked with water to a hardened dough-like consistency). It is often served with rinogu, chinsaga, rikuneni, enderema, risosa, egesare among other locally available green leaves consumed as vegetables. It can also be served with any other stew. The word for "having a meal" [ragera] usually connotes a meal involving [obokima] at the centre.
Since maize only came into Africa after the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 1490s, and even then this was restricted to the Coastal areas for a while, more research needs to be done to explore the pre-Portuguese food habits of the Abagusii.
Although frequently associated with "ritoke" (plural "amatoke", cooked and flavoured bananas), this is usually supplemental and not considered to be a proper meal, but a popular snack.
Notable Kisii People
- David Kenani Maraga, President of the Supreme Court of Kenya.
- Zachary Onyonka, Former Education and Foreign Affairs Minister
- Sam Ongeri, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Senator of Kisii County
- Fred Matiang'i, Cabinet Secretary for Education
- Simeon Nyachae, Former Cabinet Minister
- James Ongwae, First Governor of Kisii County