Most Kikuyu are Christians, and it is difficult to come across one who professes to be anything else.Yet there are other signs, too, that the old ways have not been completely forgotten. The institution of elder hood may at first sight appear to be defunct, but here too, the Kikuyu have adapted and adopted to the new ways rather than simply discarding the old: it has been estimated that 90% of the Catholic priests in the Nairobi diocese have also been elected as ‘elders’.
Traditionally, as now, the Kikuyu were monotheists, believing in a unique and omnipotent God whom they called Ngai (also spelled Mogai or Mungai). The word, if not the notion, came from the Maasai word Enkai, and was borrowed by both the Kikuyu and Kamba. God is also known as Mungu, Murungu, or Mulungu (a variant of a word meaning God which is found as far south as the Zambezi of Zambia), and is sometimes given the title Mwathani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler), which comes from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority.
Ngai is the creator and giver of all things, ‘the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature’. He gave birth to the human community, created the first Kikuyu communities, and provided them with all the resources necessary for life: land, rain, plants and animals.
He – for Ngai is male – cannot be seen, but is manifest in the sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors, thunder and lighting, rain, in rainbows and in the great fig trees (mugumo) that served as places of worship and sacrifice, and which marked the spot at Mukurue wa Gathanga where Gikuyu and Mumbi – the ancestors of the Kikuyu in the oral legend – first settled.
Yet Ngai is not the distant God that we know in the West. He had human characteristics, and although some say that he lives in the sky or in the clouds, they also say that he comes to earth from time to time to inspect it, bestow blessings and mete out punishment. When he comes he rests on Mount Kenya and four other sacred mountains. Thunder is interpreted to be the movement of God, and lightning is God’s weapon by means of which he clears the way when moving from one sacred place to another.
Other people believed that Ngai’s abode was on Mount Kenya, or else ‘beyond’ its peaks. Ngai, says one legend, made the mountain his resting place while on an inspection tour of earth. He then took the first man, Gikuyu, to the top to point out the beauty of the land he was giving him.