Kenyan Culture - The Chuka
Commonly 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 for tourists


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