THE PAIN MACHINE: The Collapse of the Gikuyu Social Contract

This is the beginning of an essay that I am writing for publication and that I felt driven to post before its completion in the hope that it would elicit stories that confirm or contradict it. I will post the complete version in the coming months – probably in late September – for now please forgive its roughness.

I do not remember exactly how old I was when my parents separated and later divorced, but I vividly recall the panicky sense of impending change and guilt, suspecting that it was all somehow my fault. While in primary school, the years between six and twelve, I felt like I was the set of the popular American TV show, ‘Little House on the Prairie’: like the Waltons, my schoolmates all seemed to belong to happy-huggy families whose only dilemmas were how to deal with dad’s cute and inconvenient eccentricities. My parents’ decision to part ways seemed logical; after all, their own parents were estranged as were a large number of their siblings. My family seemed to be in a giant Jerry Springer moment that would never end; my father did a disappearing act and my mother took center stage. The men around me became increasingly alienated from their families, their absences became longer, their drinking grimmer and somehow they all seemed to get poorer. Let me risk the leap from the personal to the political: at its most fundamental, my family’s experience arose from a collapsing Gikuyu social contract. The aim of this essay is to connect the private and public spheres in Gikuyu society. Though it focuses on a single ethnic group, I hope that this will allow for greater analytical depth and provoke a discussion of family in our many communities, ethnic or otherwise.

I grew up watching American television shows that were family based. Whether it was JJ in the ghetto, JR in a Texas ranch or black dwarfs playing orphans adopted by affluent white families, the theme was constant: difference didn’t matter since family could bear and thrive despite all challenges. These shows deified the individual, so any rapture to family boundaries created by the pursuit of self-interest – the source of the drama – rarely lasted more than a show before they were emphatically redrawn. These families not only reflected American piety, they were visions of a powerful social contract that has been a cornerstone of homo sapien life for thousands of generations.

Growing up, the immediate physical space around us is the site of both love and antagonism – hugs and spankings. We have an innate sense of its limits – observe how we react to someone who squeezes into a near-empty elevator, we either consider it threatening or alluring. When two people marry, each reorders their personal space to accommodate the other – a contractual agreement is forged. Consequently, boundaries to outsiders are established even as responsibilities within the family are assigned. Though environmental factors have dominated human evolution, in the last ten thousand years, as communities have grown and technology developed, social forces have taken a front seat. In this regard, my family’s present shape has been most influenced by British colonialism and Christianity, a combination that has brought little harmony or stability.

It was not always that way – I have grown up on stories of noble sacrifice, wise patriarchs, and gutsy women. But even if these were myths, I think that my family’s disintegration is indicative of a crisis that has gotten progressively worse during the last twenty years of the twentieth century. The roots of this crisis stretch as far back as the 1920s. Many Gikuyus are often the first to laugh at the stereotypes other Kenyans foster on them. They regard with rueful pride a reputation for being individualistic, grasping, conniving, driven, entrepreneurial and migratory. To them, the actions that give rise to such a reputation are appropriate responses to the challenge of living and thriving in Kenya. But such conclusions are self-deluding. This family crisis has actually led to a fatal undermining of the community’s vaunted business acumen and sabotaged political aspirations by limiting its ability to treat coalitions as win-win arrangements.

With each passing year since primary school (I am now in my early 30s), it has dawned on me that the wholesome image of family harmony and progress that I thought was common outside our home was in fact a hoax. I was on the receiving end of a massive Gikuyu public relations effort – it was OK to be estranged, abused, beaten, stolen from and exploited by your relatives provided you never let on. Though fathers were steadily coming home at a later hour and given entirely to conversations relating to the latest epic beer fest, they were still the ‘man of the house’. They were invested with the family’s dignitas and were its public torchbearer. Mothers, I suspect, did not mind this arrangement provided the men stayed out of their way. These women were engaged in an extraordinary effort to keep up with the Kamaus when it came to educating the children, ensuring a move into the right neighborhoods and acquiring a shamba. Only rarely have I encountered a middle class Gikuyu woman with a single source of income.

The decline of the economy in the 1980s that started as a trickle and accelerated to a full-fledged recession in the 1990s, was applying the squeeze to ‘man of the house’ ideas. It was tough to pose as the provider and protector when faced with the sack, as corporations downsized and government largesse was no longer directed to Central Province. The resident Gikuyu in State House during the 1960s and 1970s was no more. To make matters worse, the 1982 coup attempt had prompted President Moi to regard Gikuyu money as a threat he was now committed to neutralizing. For all the heroic bar tales and secret mistresses, the middle class Gikuyu man was caught between the rock of a failing economy and the hard place of declining political backing. It had not always been thus, as I shall explore shortly, but the main rub in the situation was the reaction of women who took it on themselves to maintain the façade of harmony and family progress. It was in this period that most families splintered and the PR gloss slipped enough for me to hear lurid tales of secret families, alcoholism, depression and disunity.

What has happened to cause so many marriages to end in disarray? Why is it that so many fathers no longer feel it incumbent upon them to financially and emotionally support their offspring? The stories of violence in the home, alcoholism, child abuse and absenteeism seem to be increasing, even as NGOs established to educate and empower proliferate. Perhaps the culprit is patriarchy as some have suggested. They argue that the solution is the empowerment of women in the home and in society. There is much truth in such a view, but it can sometimes be so ideologically blinkered as to miss a darker reality. Patriarchy is a strict contract that clearly proscribes the roles of men and women. Its representations of ‘man the hunter’ and ‘woman the homemaker’ are based on expectations of the former protecting and providing, while the latter nurtures.

In today’s Gikuyu family, women increasingly fill these roles. The man, when he is present, is divorced from the challenges facing the household not only because of economic hardship, but because patriarchal norms no longer hold. When the wife assumes the role of protector and nurturer, driven by necessity and ability, the man’s sole purchase is his physical strength and a hazy memory of the ‘good old days’. Thus ‘man of the house’ status is often established through violence and bluster (often in bars). Concubines provide a shot of potent maleness as men who haven’t been home for a week court them assiduously. With them, he feels powerful and necessary: buying the drinks, paying for the apartment… Unlike the family contract, this one is secretive, limited and reassuring as long as the mistress does not develop expectations of commitment. What we are dealing with is not patriarchy, but the collapse of it. These are its death throes, but its ultimate demise will be long in the coming and may not be replaced by equality. As long as Gikuyu society maintains a patina of patriarchy while the reality shifts drastically, the result will only be increased family dysfunction projected onto the economic and political stage.

Why are there such few manufacturing businesses founded and expanded by Gikuyus who are reputed to be amongst the country’s savviest entrepreneurs? The rich guy of the 1970s remains much the same: he maintains sole proprietorship, has shrinking assets and few ideas on how to forge ahead. It is arguable whether even in the golden age of the 1970s he was ever really a genuine businessman considering how dependent he was on political patronage to loot assets and establish monopolies. The main problem today is this: It is foolhardy to enter a business or political bond with a person who is unable to maintain family obligations. If a father resists his duty to his offspring, what are the chances that he will respect it in business or politics? Theoretically, the legal system is supposed to uphold contracts in the public sphere. But when the courts and the legislative are in disarray, as is the case in Kenya, the need for extralegal norms becomes crucial to maintaining binding agreements. The Kenyan Indian community, for instance, is famous for leveraging family ties in business. Yet it is rare to hear of a court action between Indian partners due to the contravening of a contract. In the majority of societies, whose formal legal systems are weak, family is the glue that holds together enterprise.

In contrast, the middle class urban Gikuyu suffer from a shortage of trust and an excess of cynical self-interest. The pooling of money for a common goal is often rued, as tales of successive treasurers making off with the cash abound. Even churches are in on the racket if the proliferation of wabenzi preachers demanding cash donations is any indication. One result is that businesses remain small since to expand them would force the owner to invest some level of autonomy to partners or employees. Investments are often capital intensive and short-term: today it is seatbelts for matatus, tomorrow tires from Bangkok and next week, mercury from Tanzania. Patient effort to master a trade and develop skills is rare since it would demand commitment, a word that has become anathema to many.

What relationship does enterprise, which is by definition the acquisition and expansion of property, have with the family? To mark personal, family or tribal territory involves a demand for ownership. Territorial claims have historically involved land since continued access to it determines our survival. From these claims has emerged the concept of private property. Even if the individual cannot by tradition own property, it is probable that either his family or tribe does. Social contracts police the members’ relationship to property. They also enable risk and initiative since individuals can – within reason – predict the conduct of those around them. The explosion of Asian wealth in the last three decades has largely been due to family businesses operating in societies whose legal and political structures are not wildly dissimilar to Kenya’s. When dictatorship, corruption and poverty are about, as they have been in all the Asian Tigers, it is family that becomes the vehicle for people’s aspirations.

The Gikuyu family has strayed from this model and now has the opposite tendency to undermine cooperation and trust. Its male members are increasingly likely to assert the primacy of their personal space in opposition to that of the collective. Of course being in a family does not mean completely abandoning privacy and self interest. But surely the tales of abuse, separation, divorce and abandonment so common among the Gikuyu indicate more than an average level of individualism. Rather they reflect a wholesale abdication of social responsibility that will become clearer when I later explore pre-colonial institutions such as riika (age groups) and ahoi (the landless) to demonstrate how bonds of kinship have changed for the worse. The reason I have focused on business enterprise to such an extent is because of the central place it occupies in Gikuyu self-identity. But the impact of the crisis in the Gikuyu family is not limited to entrepreneurial effort, it extends to politics. Winning electoral contests in Kenya demands a willingness to build multi-ethnic coalitions given the loyalty ethnic considerations command at the polls.

A social contract beset by selfish individualism and untrustworthiness is a weak foundation on which to build a winning political movement. Moi’s attempt to woo Gikuyus by promoting Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2002 elections almost succeeded, as many turned to KANU despite years of its authoritarian rule and the bitter lessons of the 1992 and 1997 polls. Nowadays, many Gikuyus favor a retreat from the multi-ethnic coalition that ensured Moi’s defeat in 2002. The reason? That other member of the coalition, in particular the Luo political elites, insist that the terms of the agreement to unite be upheld. They expect the Gikuyu elite – now visibly in power – to keep its word and honor the Memorandum of Understanding – good luck, I say. The leadership is merely the tip of the iceberg: most middle class Gikuyus support backing away from the agreement. They need to ensure that their patronage systems make up for the lost time of the Moi era and something as flimsy as a principle is unlikely to sway them. It may sound stodgy and old fashioned, but honor really does begin at home. It is not a good portent for the rest of the country that so many Gikuyus have abandoned family commitment; the odds are low that they consider promises to faceless, distant groups to be binding.

Like the family public relations effort that I experienced in primary school, Gikuyu politics are mostly the politics of empty symbolism. A dozen promises are issued and a relentless busyness is evident in every corner of government, but none of this should be confused with actual effort which demands too much unselfish commitment. Even as they cynically gut the MOU, the Gikuyu middle classes that once again reign supreme politically, are paranoid about the motivations of other tribes – particularly the Luo. Often in their conversations, I have heard Luo politicians such as Raila being assailed as ‘too ambitious’. Never mind that a Luo politician has never held power in Kenya and that Luos since independence have twice united with Gikuyus, to only receive the short end of the stick in the final reckoning. Often, some of my relatives express fear of Luo violence against Gikuyus should Raila or one of his ilk become president. Digging from their inexhaustible store of experience, which they always do with a heavy sigh of regret, they reveal to me that the Luo have a penchant for tribalism in the workplace; that Kisiis are primitive; Luhyas are confused; coastal people lazy; and Kalenjins stupid. Hidden from this litany is a Gikuyu sense of personal entitlement to privilege at the expense of everyone. For the sake of psychologically coping with the alienation from family and community, a sense of victim-hood and moral rectitude is vigorously developed. Like every paranoid, Gikuyu fears are often a reflection of their own conduct. Being cynical demands you suspect others of similar qualities since it is difficult in that state to perceive cooperation and good will as anything more than a cover for sinister designs.

I have made harsh claims, but merely reciting the litany of problems afflicting Gikuyu society fails to uncover their roots and is not of much use in developing solutions. As I mentioned previously, my suspicion is that the present situation has its genesis in the early twentieth century when the ‘White Highlands’ were born. The adverse effects of this period on the sociopolitical and religious life of the Gikuyu, coupled with the travails of the Emergency period in the 1950s, and increased urbanization thereafter, laid the foundation for the present situation.

(c) MMK

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

11 Responses to THE PAIN MACHINE: The Collapse of the Gikuyu Social Contract

  1. Chris Stiles says:

    The explosion of Asian wealth in the last three decades – ironically correlated to Kenyan impoverisation

    Are you saying that Asian wealth (presumably in the Tiger economies) is a result of Kenyan impoverisation ? Because I can’t see the linkage personally.

  2. MMK says:

    Chris Stiles – Thanks for the observation, it was actually a sentence that needed correction. No, I do not think that the growth of Asian wealth is linked to poverty in Kenya.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think this is very good. Something I was discussing with a friend a few days ago. I call it the ‘kikuyu superiority complex’ whcih as far as I am concerned is an inferiority complex. Now before all the kiuks out there tell me to go and jump of a cliff…..I can say that I have seen this same ‘patriarchal collapse’ with other tribes and most of the abuses and dysfunctionalities mentioned in your article in many non kikuyu societies including the luo, kalenjin, kisii and mijikenda. One difference is the lack of a strong PR machine for these tribes, however these issues exist here too. What makes it interesting is how all those uncovered ‘down low’ stories amongst the different tribes meld together to create a group of people from different ethnic groups with a whole host of issues going on. This kind of review could be the beginning of understanding what is really pissing us off as a nation and what we can do to improve and create proper functioning families and societies. Hence as we look outward (i.e aid, worldbank, G8 etc) we could also look inward to what is causing the malice, brutality, selfishness and corruption in Kenyan society.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have come to the conclusion that African culture and psyche is incompatible with the latter 20th and 21st century. It is plugging a square peg in a round hole. We have to destroy the savage to save him, the savage in this case being our cultural perspectives of who we are in relationship to the world.

    I am always amazed at how my mother identifies people; she will say there was a Kyuk guy that got lost in the Ngong hills. She swears though, that she is not a tribalist. I have the privilege of growing up in Nairobi and therefore my biases are class based. Class in a better but not perfect cultural identification because it better gets to the root of economic disparity.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I believe that the kiuks were adversely affected by colonization to a grater degree that other ethic groups. Specifically I am thinking of the emergency period when the entire kiuk population was interred and the majority of men carted of to detention. Both my grand fathers were detained by the British one for 8 years the other for 3.

    I believe this was the being of the end for the kiuk family; women basically took the reigns and tipped the scales. The return of the men, unleashed a battle that had my fathers generation taught by their fathers never to trust women. After all many had children with other men when their men were locked up. The women on the other hand learned to be independent and self-reliant. With their traditional role usurped there many turned to false bravado and machismo.

    Traditionally the man got something back for bringing home the bacon, lordship, obedience e.t.c. When your not bringing home the bacon what do you have to barter with for lordship?

    Christianity and close proximity to urban areas too seemed to erode the traditional culture to greater degree among them than other groups. Kiuks culture because of its size and influence is the forerunner of what the rest of Kenya will be like.

  6. MMK says:

    Thanks Anon. Please email me ( and tell me more about your two grandfathers. What did they find their homes like when they returned from detention? What kind of men were they to their families thereafter? So much of African history has been dominated by a macro view, which is OK but there is such an urgent need for small histories to add depth and texture to our macro views of ourselves. Thanks again.

  7. Wambui says:

    MMK it’s me.
    Recently, I was in a police station on a certain island, on the occasion of someone having decided that they really really liked my bag and wanted to own it. So they took it. Off I went to make a police report. The policeman, who was somehow intrisically thuggish in the way African cops tend to be (do you remember the last time you asked a cop for help, directions, anything?) After I had described the bag and its contents, cynically leaving out any mention of a wallet, credit cards or cell phone, for which I had already composed obituaries, I then had to answer questions. What was my name? How old was I? Where did I live? What was my nationality? In what country did I reside? What was my purpose for being on the island? I was just framing a polite query as to what on earth these answers could possibly have to do with the hypothesised recovery of my handbag when I was literally thunderstruck. I heard “What is your tribe?” Now, that is some seriously fucked up shit. It has what to do with what, exactly? Do they want to know what LANGUAGE my handbag speaks?
    I refused to answer. I said I didn’t have one of those tribe things–which is true, since my family is from all over the place and I can claim many many ethnicities, as well as probably being part Asian, I have no time for this nonsense. He argued with me for forty minutes, and was so pissed off when I stubbornly remained “tribe-less’ that he forgot to ask me my “occupation”, which, being the skilled upside down reader I am, was actually what he was supposed to be asking me.

    So this is my point, to which I have taken the scenic route. Your writing is marvellous, your analysis like crystal, your thinking forceful and provocative, always. But MMK, WHAT is UP WITH THE “Gikuyu” social contract, whether falling apart or not? I cannot possibly see how the inclusion of that specificity added anything at all to your otherwise eloquent and articulate piece. NONE. The point is that we keep reproducing these identities, and then being shocked when people actually suffer as a result. As a political analysis, of course you are correct. I don’t have any problems with that part, except to note –again–what a mess these dubious identities create. But to talk about a social contract amongst the Gikuyu disturbs me in ways I cannot even describe–but some of which have to do with the fact that everybody else is falling apart too, everybody else had these sorts of family fantasies, everybody else etc. Apart from the fact that all this talk of ‘Gikuyu-ness” reinforces a mythical identity which I find not only bogus but somewhat repulsive, we aren’t going to get anywhere at all if we continue even THINKING along these lines. Really. If I had the power, I WOULD DELETE these ridiculous concepts, along with all terminology associated with them. Kenya is in bad enough shape without this crap reproducing itself. Sorry to blog on your blog. I hope your paper goes excellently. But, and what irony in me saying this to you–remember Rwanda.

  8. MMK says:

    Wambui – I am hearing you loud and clear and perhaps some kind of better phrasing is needed. I am trying to describe something very real that has happened in my family and that I have seen replicated all around me. And at its heart were these ideas of ugikuyu and in a very particular, and perhaps twisted, understanding of ‘tradition’. It is not that these are not problems that apply to all kinds of people everywhere, but I am trying to describe a scenario that has its peculiarities. This is a short draft of a longer piece that I am hoping to publish in the popular press and so my goal is for it to read in a very personal way. Of course this mambo of ethnicities is mostly grey though it is represented in blacks and whites. However, within our family, and others, family was influenced by the ideas of how to be a mugikuyu, an identity that has had a massive train wreck with the equally constructed one of nationalism. You dig where I am trying to go?

  9. MMK says:

    Wambui – The Rwanda comparison: I do not really think there are similarities here. That by invoking tribe we are automatically headed down to the road to mass violence. If anything, the present government’s attempt in Rwanda to argue that there is no such thing as ethnicity – so as to forestall future genocides I guess – only reinforces the divide. It reminds me of Nietzsche who said that it is not enough to reach for atheism by simply concluding there is no God, he is present and must be murdered.

  10. WM says:

    I had started to respond to you when my internet time finished, and my brilliant thoughts were expunged. I will write a longer email, after your viva voce or mini voce, or whatever it is. May I say though (re: June’s non-profit piece) that I once worked in one of those, and some of them are necessary, like those that provide funds for academics to do their work when they are otherwise trapped in the wastelands of african universities, bila phones, bila electricity, bila books, etc. This is not a thing you can make profit out of, but it is a vital vital vital thing. If we dont have it, we then disallow the people responsible for thinking and writing and commenting on our moment in history. In fact, we disallow YOU, if you were in Africa.
    Ma laters.

  11. MMK says:

    WM – Indeed it is tough to make a profit from teaching and writing about ‘our moment in history’. Nor can I for even a tiny moment deny the importance of academics doing their thing – to do so might actually mean that I shall never earn a penny for this torture called school. But June’s point remains valid: the support for academia, in a healthy, wealth generating society would be significantly funded locally as opposed to the piecemeal support that the African academy – whether locally based or in the west – now receives from its western counterpart. It is not that the monies from abroad cannot and should not be used well, it is just that for more of us to write about more moments in more ways, we need to be in a place making cash and not on our knees hoping for that grant cash from London, Boston…

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