History, gender and Gikuyu oral narratives

Begin - Einde 
2017 - 2022 (lopend)
Vakgroep Talen en Culturen
Andere instituten 
Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, Kenya



In 1992 I carried out fieldwork in Central Kenya, collecting Gikuyu oral narratives and discussing their historical relations to gender-identity and morality with the performers. Eventually this resulted in my PhD thesis, entitled: Kikuyu Gender Norms and Narratives (Leiden, 1996).

As research afterwards took me elsewhere, this material has not been made available to a larger audience. All these narratives were recorded on cassettes and have recently been transferred to computer. Although rough transcriptions and translations exist, further refinement is required before edition. The aim of editing these narratives for publication is to show how they can be framed historically.


Research question

How can Gikuyu oral literature that was collected in the 1990s be meaningfully related to gender relations in a historical perspective?


Literature review

In the course of time some anthologies of Gikuyu oral literature have been published. Early references include the Routledges’ study of 1910 and Barrett’s stories in Man (1912-1913). While these may help to frame the 1992 fieldwork in historical perspectives, they are wanting as they do not include a Gikuyu-language version, but only an English translation. Also later examples of editions of Gikuyu oral literatures often are limited to the English translations. This concerns not only editions by missionaries (eg Beecher 1938; Cagnolo 1952-1953), but also postcolonial examples such as Rose Mwangi’s Kikuyu folktales (1970) and Njũrũri’s Tales from Mount Kenya (1970). Invaluable as these sources may be, transcriptions in the original language are important for a full appreciation of Gikuyu oral genres.

Fortunately there are a number of sources that relate to Gikuyu oral genres in their original language. Some missionaries have published oral literature in Gikuyu with English translation (e.g. Barra 1939; Merlo-Pick 1973), and there exist some early publications by native speakers, such as Gathĩgĩra’s edition of narrative (1950), and the collection of proverbs by Njũrũri (1968) also contains the original Gikuyu. Especially the academic work by Wanjikũ Mũkabi Kabira and Karega wa Mũtahi (1988), and Prof. Kabira’s other publications (eg 1983 and 2010) have been central to the furthering of publishing Gikuyu oral literature.

Despite the existence of these materials, there is clearly room for a sound edition of Gikuyu narratives, rendering transcription and translation in full detail. The value of the editions published hitherto notwithstanding, it will be a contribution to scholarship if more material would be made available. Furthermore, the aim of the present research direction is to put the narratives in historical perspective and explicitly study them in their gendered past: they will be related to a gendered literary history and interpreted in the light of literary developments through time.



For this research project the source material has been gathered in 1992. Hundreds of narratives were gathered at the time, and a main concern of this research direction is to make this material available to a larger audience, especially in Kenya. Before edition, it will be necessary to revisit several narrators and discuss matters with them or their family members. The edition may also involve looking for one or more native Gikuyu speakers, to ask for advice on linguistic matters.

The bulk of the work for this project will be to create full and correct transcriptions and translations of the narratives, and frame the 1992 stories in the context of gender and Gikuyu oral literary history.


Envisaged output

The aim will be to publish a source edition of Gikuyu narratives from a gendered historical perspective.