Culture - The Chuka
considered to be a subgroup of the Meru, the Chuka
actually have much more in common with the Embu to the south than
with their northern neighbours. Their oral history places their
origins in the Nyambene Hills northeast of Mount
Kenya - sharing their ancestry with the Kikuyu and Embu among
others - and makes no mention of the convoluted migrations the Meru
made to arrive at their present location from the coast. Oral history
says that the Chuka were children of Ciangoi, who was a sister of
the Embu 'founding mother' Cianthiga. They migrated south from the
Nyambene Hills some time in the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century.
The Chuka language, too, is linguistically closer
to Kiembu than Kimeru, and the drummers for which the Chuka became
famous are almost identical in appearance and had the same playing
style as their Embu and Kamba counterparts.
Some elders say that the Chuka and
Embu/Mbeere were once one people,
who split over a quarrel concerning livestock and women. Another
version says the split was due to a dance in which no girls went
to 'pair up' with the Chuka, who as a result took out their frustrations
with axes and killed many people. A big fight ensued, and the
Chuka ran away.
Chuka history has long been marked
by their numerical weakness against much stronger enemies, as
testified by the number of times they were forced to flee from
other tribes and settle elsewhere. In fact, all neighbours except
the Tharaka subgroup of the Meru were considered hostile, especially
the much more powerful Embu, relations with which were summed
up in the saying: Kuthurana kaa kuthurana? ("to hate each
other or to hate?"). They also said, "people who face
one another fear each other".
It is said that the Chuka originally
kept many cattle, but realized that if they continued with them,
they would be annihilated by hostile tribes plundering livestock.
So most Chuka abandoned their cattle and concentrated
on defending their land instead. Farmlands were fenced-in until
the Kaburia circumcision age group destroyed the fences saying that
they would "fence with clubs". Unfortunately, a combined
Embu-Kikuyu force came to invade the Chuka shortly after, and although
they were defeated, the Chuka were soon forced deeper into the forest
surrounding Mount Kenya, until they were chased out again by the
Embu, and settled in their present location.
With one or two exceptions, though, the Embu were generally too
wily to attack the Chuka face on. Instead, the favoured tactic was
to invite Kikuyu warriors into Chuka territory by saying that there
were plenty of cattle there. They would show the Kikuyu the fords
by which to cross the rivers, but would then lie in wait for the
returning Kikuyu, who would be robbed of their spoils.
The Chuka are agriculturalists, and use the favourable soil and
climate of the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya to full advantage with
their painstakingly terraced crop plantations. The market centre
of Chuka Town is their main focus, which sprawls out either side
of the Embu-Meru road. Famine is nonetheless a recurrent feature
of life, albeit less frequently experienced than by the neighbouring
Embu and Chuka.
In Kenya, the Chuka
were known primarily for their skill at drumming, and the acrobatic
prowess by which they are played; the long thin drums are 'ridden'
hobby-horse style whilst the drummers dance, but this tradition
almost completely disappeared several decades ago. The only exception
is a group of "Chuka Drummers" who
play at the touristic Mount Kenya Safari Club over on the northwest
of the mountain, which is actually in Kikuyu terrain.
Chuka musical tradition is now also completely
extinct. Nonetheless, one can still hear 'genuine' Chuka drumming
at the Mount Kenya Safari Club near Nanyuki on the northwest slopes
of Mount Kenya, although the group that plays there (with various
personnel changes since the 1970s) performs almost exclusively