Origins of a name: Mogusii or Gwassi?

The name Gusii or Kisii has two possible origins. The more prosaic is that is comes from 'Gwassi', which was a place on the shores of Lake Victoria at which the Gusii are believed to have lived as fishermen before fleeing the Nilotes.

The more poetic explanation holds that a man called Mogusii was their founder, from whom the Gusii took their name (Abagusii means 'the people of Mogusii'). Mogusii lived in the late sixteenth-century, and was the great-great-great-grandson of a famous leader called Kintu. Also known as Muntu, Mundu and Wantu, Kintu is credited with having led the first Bantu migration from the semi-mythical place called Misri...

Misri - myth or reality?
Some oral histories tell the intriguing tale of a place called Misri, which was where the Gusii say they lived a long time ago. They don't know exactly where this place was, but they do know that life there was very hard, full of disease, famine and drought.

Kintu, the great-great-great-grandfather of Mogusii, crops up in this story as a very powerful leader. The name Kintu, incidentally, is also common in West Africa, and was the name of a number of kings and leaders.

The Gusii say that Kintu ruled over the ancestors of not only the Gusii, but the Maragoli, the Ganda, Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and the Kuria. The story of Misri is intriguing as it exists among other people, too: not just among the Kuria (who are historically very close to the Gusii - click here for their version of the myth), but also among the much more distant Meru - for their version of the Misri myth, see the section on Meru history.

At one time, continues the story, a prolonged drought decimated their livestock, so they decided to leave Misri. The migration was led by Kintu, who made a new home for all his people around Mount Elgon, probably some time before the fifteenth century. There they lived as hunters and gatherers, but they also cultivated millet and rice, and kept herds of cattle, goats and sheep. The population rose, and with it came quarrelling over grazing and hunting rights. This led to the dispersal of the population, although an alternative version of the history says that it was the arrival of the Kipsigis that pushed them out.

The first people to move away from Mount Elgon were the Ganda (now in Uganda), followed by the Soga. Another tradition relates that the ancestors of the Kikuyu, Embu and Mbeere were also at Mount Elgon, and moved east into the Rift Valley and across into central Kenya. This is odd, because as far as I know Mount Elgon does not feature in any of those peoples' oral histories.

Whatever, the Gusii stayed on at Mount Elgon for a few more decades until a very bad drought killed much of their livestock. The fruit trees withered and died, and the wild animals either perished or moved away.

When they left, they headed south under the leadership of a man named Osogo, until they reached the north-eastern shores of Lake Victoria. There, they wandered eastwards along the shore, until they arrived in the Kano Plains at the foot of Ramogi Hill (the mythical place of origin of the Nilotic-speaking Luo). Here they met a number of settled Bantu-speaking people, who were fishermen and cultivators of millet, bananas and root-crops. They also kept cattle, sheep and goats, and knew the art of working iron. The ancestors of the Gusii settled with these people, with whom one presumes they eventually merged.

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