The Racist Origins of the Word ‘Kyuk’ for Kikuyu

By Amol Awuor

Long before the word ‘Kyuk’ or ‘Kiuk’ became a cool word to make reference to the Kikuyu community; it was a racist slur popularized by the colonial officers and settlers to demoralize and demonize members of the Kikuyu community.

In vain attempts to criminalize all Kikuyu men, women, and in some cases even children; colonialists disparagingly called Kikuyu as Kuke. In his memoirs “Kenya Cowboy: A Police Officers Account of the Mau Mau Emergency”, Peter Hewitt, while describing some of Kikuyu oath taking ceremonies; ridicules members of the community as ‘kukes.’ And in yet another definitive account by Patricia M.E. Lorcin, Historicizing Colonial Nostalgia: European Women’s Narratives of Algeria and Kenya 1900-Present; there is the phrase: There is no such thing as a loyal kuke.

The colonial era sketches a harrowing picture of a community that suffered heavy casualties in their determined fight to re-possess land grabbed by the colonialists in the white highlands. The atrocities were macabre. From sending Kikuyus (suspected of supporting the Mau Mau) to overpopulated reserves and ruling what was once their land with reckless abandon; something ominous was bound to happen. And it did. In a full-scale retaliation that later morphed into the Mau Mau Uprising. Governor Evelyn Baring, barely a month into his job, declared a State of Emergency that he thought would only last for a few months. It lasted more than five years.

Some incidents are now etched into the Kenyan psyche. Like the subsequent arrest of Jomo Kenyatta and other suspected Mau Mau sympathisers and leaders. And in the following years the capture of Dedan Kimathi and his eventual hanging!

It was not over yet. With a mind itching for bloody vengeance; the colonialists started a pogrom against Kikuyus on the basis that Mau Mau members mostly came from that community. Colonial officers would tell one another: The only good kuke is a dead kuke. To be a Kuke in Kenya in the 1950s was to be a Jew in Germany in the 1930s/40s or a Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. Among themselves, settlers kept scores of how many Kukes they killed, and often got away with doing just about anything imaginable to any member of the tribe they encountered.

The ‘Kyuk’ word as opposed to the currently popular one ‘Kiuk’ (a Kenyan version) is a subject of spelling preference and derivation. In that case, the addition of the infix consonant ‘y’ to form the word ‘Kyuk.’ So the word ‘Kikuyu’ went through two word formation processes that linguists call clipping and derivation. Clipping is simply the process of shortening a word while derivation entails addition of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes. In clipping, we have ‘Kale’ for ‘Kalenjin’ whereby the final part ‘njin’ is chopped off. The same is evident with ‘Lunje’ for ‘Luhya’ with the ‘nje’ being a borrowing from Sheng language. And so is ‘Kao’ for ‘Kamba’ with the vowel ‘o’ also emanating from Sheng.

However, for the word ‘Kikuyu’ to change to ‘Kuke’ as colonialists were wont to use it; first it was clipped resulting to the elimination of the last syllable -yu-. Consequently, the word remained ‘Kiku-.’ Interestingly, the pronunciation of Kikuyu by the British elicits a speech sound that goes something like: ‘Kiukuyu’ with the ‘u’ between ‘i’ and ‘k’ coming off faint. It is opposed to that by its native speakers as Gikuyu?that could loosely be pronounced as Gekoyo.

So from the eliminated syllable ‘-yu’ what we have now is ‘Kiuku-.’ Later, the vowel u was sliced off again resulting to ‘Kiuk’ (A word that now Kenyans use with abandon when talking about their Kikuyu friends, colleagues and so forth). In brief, colonialists, one last time, removed the vowel ‘i’ and added a suffix after the last ‘k’ to give birth to the insulting word ‘Kuke.’ As we noted earlier, it was not some pet name, but a shortened form of a community hated by the wazungus for their insurgency and brutality against fellow Kikuyus deemed traitors.

The history of the modern use is not as clear. A possibility is that it came up as part of harmless stereotypes within a cosmopolitan urban population. This gave birth to Kaos, Lunjes, Kales, and Coasto words in slang to describe heritage for a population more used to communicating in English, Kiswahili, and sheng than their vernaculars. It could be though that the word Kiuk is an exception (because a majority of Kenyans are unaware of its origins). Its resurgence could have come up in the decades post-independence as non-Kikuyu populations fought the Kikuyu hegemony advanced by the Jomo Kenyatta regime. Theres a lesser used version, Kuyos whose history does not seem as controversial.

Amol Awuor is an English and Literature student at Kenyatta University. He has an avid interest in History.

  • Roh p

    In the 70s my parents rode the Karanja from Durban to India.