The Mijikenda Tribes are a Kenya coastal Bantu tribe that consists of nine closely related sub-tribes. In the past, the Mijikenda people was also referred to as the Nyika tribe, a near-derogatory term implying bush people. “Mijikenda” literally means nine homes or nine homesteads (in Swahili), referring to the common ancestry of the Mijikenda people. The nine Mijikenda sub-tribes are believed to be nine different homes of the same tribe. Each sub-tribe speaks its own dialect of the Mijikenda language.
Among the nine Mijikenda sub-tribes, the Giriama and the Digo are the most well known, most populous, and therefore, most dominant along the Kenyan coast. The other seven sub-tribes are the Chonyi, Duruma, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe. It’s very common for other Kenyan tribes to refer to all Mijikenda people simply as Giriama.
Mijikenda People – Origin and History
Mijikenda people oral history traces the origin inhabiting the coast of Kenya, between the Sabaki and the Umba rivers, in an area stretching from the border with Tanzania in the south to the border near Somalia in the north. Archaeologist Chapuruka Kusimba contends that the Mijikenda formerly resided in coastal cities, but later settled in Kenya’s hinterlands to avoid submission to dominant Portuguese forces that were then in control. It is also believed that the Mijikenda people escaped constant attacks from the Oromo and other Cushitic tribes, and settled in the coastal ridges that were easier to defend.
Historically, the Mijikenda people have had close interactions with the Persian, Arab, and Portuguese traders who frequented their home territory along the Kenyan coast. This interaction and subsequent intermarriage with the Arabs gave birth to the Swahili culture and language. As a result, the Swahili language – Kiswahili – bears a close lexical similarity with all dialects of the Mijikenda people.
The 9 Mijikenda Sub-Tribes
Mijikenda Tribes – Chonyi Tribe
The Chonyi, also referred to as Achonyi (A person from this tribe may also be referred to as an Mchonyi), are one of the smaller tribes of the Mijikenda on the coast of Kenya. Their populations can be found in the villages of Lutsangani, Chidutani, Kolongoni, Dzitsoni, Bundacho, Ziani, Karimboni, Chasimba, Galanema, Mwele, Chigojoni, Dindiri, Junju, Katikirieni, Podzoni, Mwarakaya, Pingilikani, Vwevwesi, Mafisini, Ng’ombeni, Chizingo, Chikambala, Chengoni, Chije, Banda-ra-Salama and Mbuyuni. They are also found in recent settlements areas of Kilifi District like Chumani, Roka, Maweni, Vipingo, Takaungu and Mtwapa.
Mijikenda Tribes – Digo Tribe
The Digo are an ethnic and linguistic group based near the Indian Ocean coast between Mombasa in southern Kenya and Tanga in northern Tanzania. In 1994 the Digo population was estimated to total 305,000, with 217,000 ethnic Digo living in Kenya and 88,000 (1987 estimate) in Tanzania. Digo people speak the Digo language, called Chidigo by speakers, a Bantu language. They are part of the greater Mijikenda ethnic group of people which contains nine smaller groups or tribes, including the Duruma, Giriama, and others.
Digo women do a tremendous amount of labor, but excluded from participating in politics, religion, kinship issues, and major economic transactions.
Mijikenda Tribes – Duruma Tribe
The Duruma are a people of about 183,000 just inland from the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway south to the Tanzania border. Their area is marked roughly by the triangle of Taru, Mazeras and Lunga Lunga on the border. The main administrative center is Kinango, about two hours drive from Mombasa.
The modern Duruma may be traced back to about the 17th century, along with other Mijikenda groups, to the southern movement of Bantu-speaking peoples from Somalia. having settled from around A.D. 500 as far north as Mogadishu, the expansions of the Somali then the Oromo from the north pushed these less warlike peoples back south. Many coastal peoples have a tradition of living together as family groups in a place called Kirao and a later place called Shungwaya in the 16th century.
Mijikenda Tribes – Giriama Tribe
The Giriama (also called Giryama) are one of the nine ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda (which literally translates to “nine towns”). It is is one of the largest groups of the Mijikenda people in the back-up area of the Northeast coast of Kenya.
Until today, the Giriama extended their living space down to the coast. They are now a big part of service employees in the growing tourism centres. Education programmes initiated by the state included building of central primary schools alongside the coast street. School attendance became compulsory even for girls up to an age of 12 years. The continuous migration of Giriama to places such as Takaungu and Mtwapa allowed them to get access to paid labour.
Giriama – Mekatilili wa Menza
She was a prophetess near the coast, had prophesied the coming of the white men to Africa. She said that some big “white butterflies would come from the ocean and would bring many changes, both good and bad”. Me Po Ho also prophesied that a girl would be born in Giriama, Kenya, who would become a great leader and would bring victory to the Giriama against a powerful enemy. This girl, named Mekatilili wa Menza, was born around 1870. Mekatilili led her people to rebel against the British by urging them to stop paying taxes and working on British farms.
Giriama – Mekatilili wa Menza
She was arrested on 17 October 1913 by a force of British soldiers for being the Giriama leader,and transported to a jail in Kisii where she was sentenced to serve five years with hard labour. She escaped from prison five months later on 20 April 1914. She and her male counterpart Wanje walked back to Giriama over a period of three months. Upon her return she found that her people still continued to suffer under the yoke of British colonialism by being forced to pay taxes, while men were forced to work on their farms. The British focused on the fertile land of the Giriama people and organized to destroy a kaya, a sacred beach area that was the source of the people’s spiritual strength and identity.
Mekatilili and Wanje were recaptured and sent back to jail in Kisii. This ignited a war between the Giriama and the British. In 1919 Mekatilili and Wanje were released from prison. Mekatilili continued with her fighting spirit and spoke forcefully and eloquently. She urged her people to rebuild the kaya. The British allowed the people to live in peace and freedom. A new council of elders was installed, with Wanje as the leader. Mekatilili was the head of the women elders, a wise ruler of her people.
Mijikenda Tribes – Jibana Tribe
The Jibana or Dzihana people are an ethnic group from Kenya and a subgroup of the Mijikenda. There are approximately 28,000 of them, all kijibana speakers.
Mijikenda Tribes – Kauma Tribe
They have been well-preserved owing to the strict, traditional governance system practised by the community – until now. Sacrilegious land-grabbers are even kicking out of the forests the feared Kaya.
Mijikenda Tribes – Ribe Tribe
Factors of land tenure and family size as contributing to economic differentiation are made apparent by means of an in-depth study of 1 village, supported by the analysis of 1 polygamous family within that village of the Ribe tribe of Kenya. While socioeconomic fluidity marks the present transitional stage, there are noticeable signs of the emergence of class differences. At present, the wealth of an individual family is directly dependent on the number of children. Sons are important not only to continue and expand the family, but as farm labour
Mijikenda Tribes – Kambe Tribe
Mijikenda Names – Child Naming
Child Naming is not a big ceremony however a small ceremony witnessed by a few relatives and children from the neighbourhood. The naming of the baby is done during the third day the new born baby sweets/biscuits is distributed to the children as “Sadaka” The Baby “ana zunguliwa” to wish him/her well being and to be protected from the evil eye and Hasaadi.
Mijikenda Names – Naming of the child in Mijikenda is done in two, three ways;
1. A child is given a name while still in the womb by a relative; for example the auntie would want the baby to be named her if it would be a female, and if it turns out to be a male he should be called after his husband. (Kutunikiwa) if no objection from other members of the family then the naming would be through.
2. If it turns out that some of the family members objected and proposed other names; then pieces of papers would be written all the names proposed by the relatives present during the naming ceremony, and then children would be called up on to pick each a piece of paper, the exercise is repeated three times, and the name that would be picked three times would be the name given to the new born child. The exercise is practiced to avoid gossip, favours’, etc. That can harm the baby.
3. Another way of naming is if a relative happens to pop up in the house before the 3rd day and name the new born baby it’s accepted.
Mijikenda Religion & Culture
Mijikenda culture revolves around clans and age-sets. A Mijikenda clan consists of several family groups which have a common patriarchal ancestor. Traditionally, each such clan lived in one fortified village built in a cleared area in the forested ridges. Within the clan, a persons age-set determined their role and standing in society. There were often very elaborate rituals for graduating from one age-set to another.
Each Mijikenda clan had their own sacred place known as kaya, a shrine for prayer, sacrifices and other religious rituals. These kayas were located deep in the forests and it was considered a taboo to cut the trees and vegetation around them. The kaya elders, often members of the oldest age-set, were deemed to posses supernatural powers including ability to make rain.
Like other Kenya tribes, Mijikenda people have today assimilated modern cultural practices, causing the fading of many of their traditional customs. Most Mijikenda people are now either Christians or Muslims. Some however still practice their traditional culture, or a mixture of Christianity or Islam with their traditional religion. Islam is more widespread among the Digo than in the other Mijikenda sub tribes.
Mijikenda Culture – Circumcision
The Mijikenda tribe follow the common practice of age-sets, with various initiation rituals performed every few years to move each group to the next social level accorded to their set. The first such initiation ritual is circumcision.
Circumcision was a big celebration just like weddings or Edd celebrations in or communities. Children boys from seven or more families within the family or the neighbourhood are identified, the family then puts the heads together to organize for the celebration and the date. Each family will then contribute animals to be slaughtered or grains e.g. rice for the big day.
Place and Time
Mijikenda circumcision takes place in a forest like place very early in the morning, 4am and it is done by a traditional professional doctor well known to the community. The traditional doctor is always identified by his way of dressing, and would be carrying a small bag containing his charms and traditional medicine. Once he has Circumcised, he would then apply the medicine to the wound to stop blood from oozing out and for the wound to heal soon.
During planning and organizing the family agreed upon themselves on where the boys will stay during the healing period, preferably a big house distance from the daily activities and crowded places. The boys are taken care by the big boys in the family, they are also allowed to play but inside the house with their age mates.
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During the healing period the families would contribute and share all the expenses ranging from basic needs, food etc. the boys would be taught many things; one of the teaching is to respect and obey their elders, to hunt for birds, small animal , preparing the tools e.g. Bladder. Their duties and responsibility at home is to take care of the security.
The celebration is even much bigger, the boys are bought new out fits , kanzus, on the big day, in the morning a maalim/sheikh would be called up on to (zunguwa) pray for the boys well being by reciting the sura’s in the Holy Quraan eg Alfatiha, Falak, Nas, Ahad and Yassin dua’s will also be recited. All these is to prevent the boys from any harm, bad eyes, evil eye , hassad, etc. It would then followed by Matwari and qaswida praising Allah S.W. (PBUH) and his Prophet S.A.W (PBUH).
During this occasion animals would be slaughtered and food will be in plenty because all the family members are invited the neighbours and friends to the celebration.
The Mijikenda Kaya Forests
Kaya (plural makaya) is a sacred forest of the Mijikenda people in the former Coast Province of Kenya. The kaya forest is considered to be an intrinsic source of ritual power and the origin of cultural identity. It is also a place of prayer for members of the particular ethnic group. The settlement, ritual centre, and fortified enclosure associated with the forest are also part of the kaya. In the present day, the kaya is also referred to as a traditional organizational unit of the Mijikenda.
The Mijikenda Kaya Forests consist of 11 separate forest sites spread over some 200 km along the coast containing the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as kayas, of the Mijikenda people. The kayas, created as of the 16th century but abandoned by the 1940s, are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained as by councils of elders.
The most sacred part of these forests is the Kaya itself, the central clearing known as the home of the community. This was preserved as a sacred place and burial ground where the villagers were buried after death. The graves of great leaders were buried separately and treated as shrines. The Mijikenda people believed that the spirits of the dead still reside there and their presence can be felt to this date. A powerful protective talisman referred to as a “Fingo”, which the Mijikenda brought with them following their displacement is buried at a secret spot near the central clearing. A few old trees and unusual land forms such as caves also have spiritual significance.
The Kaya, was approached using specific paths leading to it. It was considered bad luck to use any other undesignated paths and anyone using any such route received hostility from the villagers. Cutting of trees and destruction of vegetation was prohibited and this included removing dead logs and twigs which was forbidden in the Kaya forest. The locals strictly walked on paths, avoided grazing their animals and uncommon animals such as big snakes were left alone as they were considered sacred.
Fingo (protective talismans) are buried in the kaya and are cared for by kaya elders who protect the traditions of the Mijikenda. Mijikenda believe that they brought the fingo charms from their ancestral home of Shungwaya, a myth of origin.
There are many myths and beliefs narrated by the local women of the area which relate to the sacredness of these forests. It is the general belief that the forests are inhabited by spirits. Some of them believe that cutting a tree with a machete could result in the machete rebounding and causing injury to the leg which could be healed only by offering cloth to village elders in a ceremony. It is also believed that food cooked using wood from these sacred forest could cause sickness, and also that a dwelling built with timber drawn from the forest would collapse. The conservation of the sacredness of the forest was aimed at preserving its darkness.
Mijikenda Economic Activities
The Mijikenda most important cash crop is the coconut palms, whose products include oil extracts and palm wine. Its fronds are also used for roofing and as material for making baskets, mats, brooms and other weaved products. Other important cash crops include cashew nuts, oranges and Mangoes. Where favorable weather conditions allow, some Mijikenda people also grow annual crops such as maize, sorghum, millet, and beans.
Fishing is another important economic activity for the Mijikenda people. Mijikenda’s actively fish in the neighboring Indian Ocean, where their “daily catch" forms part of the seafood supplied to Kenya’s coastal hotels and residents.
Mijikenda Food and Housing
The Mijikenda people, and more particularly the Digo, are considered some of the best cooks among the Kenyan tribes. Wali, a popular Kenyan food, is also a staple of the Mijikenda tribe. Wali is rice prepared with coconut milk, giving it a sweet taste. Fish and other seafood are also common in Mijikenda cuisine.
The Giriama extended families reside in homesteads, or compounds. There are usually three generations – a father, his wife or wives, all of his sons, the sons’ wives, any unmarried children, and grandchildren. They live in Makuti thatched houses mostly mud-walled, but recently iron sheets and brick structures are common
Traditional Mijikenda Wedding
The parents of the bride groom look for the bride.They go to the bride’s home and the father of the bridegroom introduces himself and then says”Fudzire mala Mudzungu wa utsunguni”. We have come to look for the cucumber that is painful. The father of the bride answers”nanmambale”let the painful cucumber spread. The bride is then called by the father and asked any question that will take time to answer, for the intention of the parents of the bridegroom is to look and observe her body language. If the bridegroom’s parents are impressed by the bride’s character and presentation, they say that they are contented and then fix a date for the bride groom to come and see the bride for the first time.
The bridegroom is accompanied by friends and cousins to come and meets the bride. When they get there, the bride says that he has been sent by his father to come and pay a visit to the village. The father-in-law understands and calls for his daughter to bring some water to the visitors. The bridegroom is not necessarily thirsty but takes the opportunity to make the bride stay there for sometimes so that he can observe her physical features. When contented the bridegroom tells the grandma of the bride that”mautin ni toto”-meaning he is pleased.
The bride and the bridegroom are put in one room so that they can introduce to one another and this is how it goes-: They tell their names first then:”Nidzire haha henu Kwa sababu nidza fahirwa ni nne, je unnambadze?”-I have come to your home because I have a passion for you, what do you say about that? The bride may decide to conceal her feelings-“sidzihisi ma mtu yoyosi mino” I do not feel for anybody. The bridegroom goes on persuading her”Mwanzangu umudzo zhomu ma mahedzu niknhale fukale hammenga siku zosi”My friend you are so cute and I wish I marry you we be together for the rest of our lives. The bride shrugs her shoulders meaning that she has agreed but cant say it verbally. The bridegroom stands and hugs the bride then he goes out the house. He tells the grandma that things are okay and they leave. The bride groom tells his parents he is pleased and procedures follow.
Mijikenda Culture – Dowry Process
The parents of the bridegroom go to the bride to discus dowry. The parents of the bride asks for”ndama”bull and”kadzama mirongomiri na nane”eight liters of liquor (mnazi) that will be sent twenty eight times. A day for giving the bull and the liquor is planned, the visitors go to the bride and a ceremony is held. This time they take the bride with them.
They sing and dance. The main song is”Nangoza mwanangu, dama mwanaanenda, zho kwaatu, anenda kwamulumewee…dede, mudzungu wa utsunguni nau hambale”meaning — I am nursing my daughter dama,the daughter is going to peoples home, to her husband, my dear the cucumber of pain let it spread.
“The father in law asks for a blanket as a gift to bless the couple. The mother in-laws for an”mkamba wa kurekeketa mwana” The kanga for carrying the baby. The bride is blessed and asked to agree with all that her husband tells her .The father in law takes water and swirls in his mouth then blows it on the chest of the bride and the bride groom. The mother in law does the same.
The bride groom is told that the bride is not a ball for him to beat all the time, he is advised to protect the bride in happiness and in problems.
Mijikenda Culture and Traditions – Giriama Magic
Mijikenda Traditions Origin
It’s a haunting tale, one that plucks at the harp strings of an ancient race-memory. Many moons ago, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, the nine tribes of the Mijikenda were forced to leave their mythical homeland of Shungwaya (now believed to be in northern Somalia).
Nobody knows why they left; only that they set out in search of sanctuary. It was a perilous journey. They were harried down the coast by the cannibalistic Galla tribe to arrive in Kenya exhausted and traumatized. And there, casting up their eyes, they saw the green-cloaked hills rising above the sapphire blue sea.
And they decided to put their faith in the shelter of the forest. The forest, however, was the ancient realm of the Watta, the last of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers. And so, no sooner had the Mijikenda crept into the cool green glades, than they were encircled by small men with watchful eyes. And, as the shafts of sunlight glanced off the poisontipped spears, it seemed that the odyssey of the Nine Tribes must end in death. But magic intervened.
Smiling in welcome, the bushmen led the Nine Tribes to a hilltop sanctuary where they indicated that homesteads might be built. Then they melted back into the forests as silently as they had come. Decidingto build nine separate homesteads, the Mijikenda split up and the largest group, the Giriama, built their homestead, or Kaya, overlooking the rocky coastline now known as Watamu. Surrounding it with sharp staves and great boulders, the Giriama ringed their Kaya with a magical cobweb of spells designed to entrap those bent on entering with ill intent.
The Giriama Tribe
In the forest glades, they erected wooden totems, carved in the rough shape of a man, called Vigango, which they placated (because ancestors can be capricious) with palm wine. In their homesteads they put up wooden Koma, statues in commemoration of venerated family members. And to these they looked for guidance in all things.
Based on a foundation of age-sets, the oldest of which, the Kambi, was a council of elders, Giriama society hinged on the belief in two stark opposites: good and evil. Evil was fanned by the flames of envy, greed, anger and jealousy: good resulted from sharing and strong community. To keep evil at bay, secret societies were founded to detect the presence of evil-doers.
The Giriama Traditions
And the most powerful of these was The Cult of the Fisi (hyena), whose oath was so potent that, when buried in the ground, it could poison the water drunk by one carrying evil in his heart. Rules were evolved to protect every aspect of society, and those who transgressed against them were easily identified by the nature of the misfortunes that befell them.
The death of a child betokened the breaking of the incest taboo; the arrival of malaria meant an entire family had strayed from the path of communal good. Those identified in evil either confessed or were cast out from the tribe. And this, to a people whose faith lay in working for the common good and eating from the communal pot, meant death.
Only one more layer of protection was required for the Kaya: the all-powerful drumming dance. Drummers and dancers were born to their role in the dance and each dance had a purpose: one brought rain, another expelled evil spirits. But the mightiest of all was the female-led funeral dance, the Kurunga, a sexually-fuelled celebration that struck awe into
all who witnessed it.
Sadly, the Giriama’s second Eden was not to last. In the early 1900s, the British colonial administration viewed the Giriama dances as witchcraft, and when they tried to force the Giriama to serve in World War I, the Giriama rebelled by dancing the Kurunga up and down their land. The British responded by banning all dance and dynamiting many of the sacred Kayas.
Thereafter, though the elders tried to dispense justice from the deserted Kayas, such was the pace of change, that they lacked an age-set to whom they might bequeath their sacred wisdom. So the totems rotted in the sacred glades, the Koma were discarded, and the once all-powerful drumming dances were performed only for tourists.
The age-old Giriama magic was dead.