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This glossary contains the most frequently used Kikuyu and Swahili words used in this report. Definitions are from a number of sources, primarily Benson's Kikuyu-English Dictionary, but also from Leakey's The Southern Kikuyu before 1903. Botanical descriptions are from Leakey's botanical appendix to The Southern Kikuyu... and from Norman Gachathi's excellent Kikuyu Botanical Dictionary of Plant Names and Uses as well as from information collected from key informants. Words in this Glossary are in Kikuyu, unless otherwise noted.


Plural of muguri.


Plural of muhoi


Plural of muthami.


Name of the mythical male forbearer of the Kikuyu, to whom God gave all the land south and east of the Nyandarua mountains. Married to Mumbi, who bore nine daughters who were the mothers of the nine Kikuyu clans. Also sometimes used in place of Kikuyu which is the orthographically incorrect, but commonly used, form of Gikuyu.


sub-clan (mbari) land holding. Originally meaning uncultivated bush, the holding was based on rights of first-use, and were derived from hunting, rather than from agricultural traditions.


The Pajama Lily (Crinum kirkii) which was used to demarcate the boundaries of the githaka. The dark flowering variety which was preferred for demarcation was called gitoka kiru.


A general term for various plant species which vine and twine. Often these were vines of the genus Ipomea and were used as goat and sheep fodder.


Plural of githumbi.


Plural of gitoka.


Dovyalis caffra. Also called kei apple and often used for hedging. Usually impenetrable because it is very thorny.


Euphorbia tirucalli. Also called Finger Euphorbia, which is often used for hedging in arid and semi-arid lands. Easily propagated from cuttings. Has a thick latex which is highly toxic, and particularly noxious to livestock.


Orthographically incorrect name for Gikuyu, referring variously to the language or people or to the mythical tribal forbearer.


Early Kikuyu name for Nairobi, referring to "the place where there are many miinu (Cassia didymobotrya) trees.


Sub-clan of one of the nine Kikuyu clans.


Swahili place name for the town where the baobab (Adansonia digitata) was growing.


Caesalpinia decapetala. Also called Mauritius Thorn. A native of Asia, but naturalized in East Africa. Used for hedging around homesteads.


Grevillea robusta. Also called Silky Oak and in Kikuyu, mukima. Native of Australia, but widely planted in fields. Prolific producer of mulch. Is often sidepruned to limit light competition and for fuelwood or small construction timber.

mubiru muiru

Vangueria linearisepala. A small tree, the wood of which was often used for constructing cattle enclosures. The berries are edible.

mugumo muguri

Ficus thonningii. Sacred tree, widely distributed. Easily regenerated from cuttings but seldom found naturally growing. Naturally regenerating trees were often uprooted and replanted with other trees or bushes. Trees would be planted to mark sacred groves.


Purchaser of land in a redeemable land sale. Usually, land would be sold for livestock for bridewealth or to pay off debts. The land could be redeemed by returning the original number of livestock to the muguri.


Grewia similis. Tree used for constructing granaries. Also produced very good fodder.


Trema orientalis Saplings of this tree were used for building rafters. Leaves were used as fodder.


Trimeria tropica. Often planted between huts of a homestead as a living fence.


Tenant with cultivation rights on mbari holdings. Not allowed to construct a homestead and had to live elsewhere. Land was temporarily lent to a muhoi. The arrangement could be inherited and could be cancelled by the original rightholder. Ahoi arrangements were most common when land was abundant and labour to cultivate it, and so to establish permanent tenure, was scarce.


Erythrina abyssinica. Cuttings of this tree were commonly planted to reinforce the cattle enclosures and to make living fences.


Plectranthus barbatus. Often grown as a hedge, the leaves were used for ripening bananas.


Prunus africanum. Tall timber tree.


Lantana or Lippia sp. Grown as hedges. Lantana was introduced with colonization, while Lippia is indigenous. Branches of both were commonly used for the construction of small buildings and for fencing.


Carissa edulis. Bush used for fencing around fortified villages. Is very thorny but with edible berries.


Lantana sp. See mukandu. A "good" tree planted in the place of naturally generating mugumo trees.


Dombeya sp. Saplings of this tree were favoured for timber cross beams. Good timber for beehives. A "good" tree, planted in place of naturally generating mugumo trees.


Croton megalocarpus. Very common tree planted on field boundaries. Produces good fuelwood and has a high canopy that allows light to pass through, limiting crop competition. Often managed as a tightly pruned hedge.


Macaranga kilimandscharica. Timber tree used for building poles.


Commiphora zimmermannii. Cuttings of this tree were used to mark boundaries within a githaka. Also commonly planted in the centre of a courtyard to support fodder for goats and sheep.

Mukurwewa Gathanga

"The sandy place where the Albizia grows" also variously translated as "the building place." Traditionally held to be the place in Murang'a District where God gave Gikuyu all the land south and East of the Nyandarua mountains.


Ficus sycomorus. Sacred tree from which the name Gikuyu is derived. Munyua maai Kikuyu name for Eucalyptus. Literally translated, in means "the drinker of water."


Lineage authority with rights of control over sub-clan lands. The eldest son of the eldest son...


Trees which were left after an area had been cleared for cultivation


to become the dwelling place of the spirits of the trees which had been felled. Literally, "the trees which resisted" the felling of the forests.


Clerodendrum johnstonii. Branches of this shrub were used for constructing cattle enclosures. Also used as stakes for training yam vines.


Cordia africana. Large timber tree covered with white flowers. Cuttings of this tree were used for marking githaka boundaries.


Pterolobium stellatum. Bush used for living fences


around fortified villages.


Vernonia auriculifera. Bush with many ritual uses. A "good" tree used for replacing naturally generating mugumo trees.

muthakwa wa

Crassocephalum mannii. Shrub commonly planted around


homesteads and field boundaries. Propagated by cuttings, the leaves are used for treating gall sickness in cattle.


Tenant with cultivation rights on mbari land. Similar to a muhoi except that a muthami was allowed to construct a homestead. A muhoi had to live elsewhere. Tenancy rights could be inherited, but could also be cancelled by the original rightholder.


Croton macrostachyus. Common boundary tree and sometimes managed as a hedge. Naturally regeneration was reportedly prolific on burnt-over sites.


Solanum aculeastrum. Bush planted as a living fence.


Aspilia spp. Noxious shrub planted around fortified villages.


Markhamia hildebrandtii. Freely coppicing timber tree used to mark subdivisions of the githaka.


Chaetacme aristata. Shrub planted around fortified villages.


Synadenium compactum. Tree used for boundary demarcation. Has bright red leaves and white latex.


Name for a sub-clans holdings, similar to githaka but in less common usage.


Form of labour organization involving reciprocal labour use during times of peak labour demand.


Proper name for the Aberdare Mountains, which form the western boundaries of what were traditionally Kikuyu lands.


A ridge lying between two rivers in Kikuyu country. Ridges were often formally recognized territorial units sharing similar social obligations.


Swahili for a smallholding.


Used to describe large work parties which would be convened on particular holdings to complete big tasks such as digging. The person whose land was being attended to would be required to provide beer, at least, and sometimes food as well.

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