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ETHNONYMS: Chonyi, Digo, Duruma, Giriama, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Nyika, Rabai, Ribe


The group known as the Mijikenda is made up of nine closely related but distinct peoplesthe Kauma, Chonyi, Jibana, Giriama, Kamabe, Ribe, Rabai, Duruma, and Digowho live along the coast of Kenya and share a common linguistic and cultural heritage. Traditionally, each group lived within its own hilltop village (kaya ) on the ridge along the Kenya coast, between the towns of Kilili and Vanga.

The members of each of the nine Mijikenda groups speak a separate dialect of the same language. That language, Mijikenda, is one of the Northeast Coastal Bantu Group of languages and is closely related linguistically and historically to other languages along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts. There were an estimated 730,000 Mijikenda speakers in 1980. The largest groups of Mijikenda are the Giriama, who numbered about 350,000 in 1987, and the Duruma, with a population of approximately 190,000 in 1986. Some of the dialects are mutually intelligible; some are not.

While change has come to the Mijikenda, they have maintained many of the beliefs and practices of their traditional culture. They have resisted the conversion attempts of Muslim and Christian missionaries to a much greater extent than many of their neighbors, and they adhere to many beliefs that were derived from their traditional religion, which was a form of ancestor worship. They have incorporated the myth of their origins, as well as a description of their kaya-based, stratified social structure, into a written record of their culture, which is passed on to their children.

According to a Mijikenda myth, the Mijikenda orginated in Singwaya (or Shungwaya), which was to the north of the Somali coast. They were driven south by the Oromo until they reached their present locations along the ridge, where they built their kayas within a protective setting. The historical accuracy of this myth is a point of controversy between those who believe that the Mijikenda originated from a single point in the north and those who believe that they do not have a single origin, but migrated primarily from the south.


The most fertile area in Mijikenda is the kaya ridge. It receives 89 to 127 centimeters of rain annually, in two rainy seasons (from March through May and from September through October). In the past, this area was densely forested, but now much of the land is planted with fruit trees: mango, cashew, orange, and coconut palms. Along the narrow band next to the coast are planted annual crops, such as sorghum, maize, and rice, as well as groves of fruit trees. The interior plateau is a drier and less fertile area that borders the Taru Desert to the west. At a distance of 40 to 48 kilometers inland, precipitation drops below 64 centimeters annually, and cultivation becomes nearly impossible.

When everyone still lived within the hilltop villages, people cultivated the lower slopes of the hills and the adjacent plateau. Fields were used for a few years and then allowed to lie fallow for a longer period. By the mid-nineteenth century, people began to move away from the hilltop villages to vacant land. They burned away the virgin woodlands of the plateau, settling there for a few years and then moving on. The traditional staple crops of the Mijikenda were sorghum and millet, but these two cultigens were largely replaced during the nineteenth century by maize. Additional food crops were beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, and yams. Coconuts and castor seeds were grown for oil, and coconuts, sesame, sorghum, millet, and maize were traded.

The most important crop of the Mijikenda is the coconut palm. The major products of the coconut palm are the oil that is extracted from the meat, the palm wine tapped from the shoots, and the fronds, which are woven into baskets, mats, and roofing shingles. In the eastern areas, each homestead also keeps a few goats, sheep, chickens, and ducks for domestic consumption. Galla and Kwavi raids restricted cattle keeping until late in the nineteenth century, but today cattle are kept in the marginal areas to the west.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, each Mijikenda group lived together in or near its own kaya. Each kaya was located in a cleared, circular glade on a hilltop, surrounded by dense forest. At the center of the kaya were the meeting houses of the different clans. Surrounding each clan house were the individual residences of its members. The clans were unilinealdescent groups that were primarily patrilineal, and this pattern varied from kaya to kaya. The number of clans remained constant, but each clan was further divided into subclans, which increased in number as new members were born into the group and as alien groups were adopted. Each subclan was further divided into local lineage groups that lived together in homesteads. The homestead averaged three generations, but its membership was not fixed. The ideal homestead included a man, his sons, and his grandsons, but sons could form their own separate homesteads.

The clans played a central role in kaya affairs. Each clan had its own area within the kaya and its own specialized function. The subclans were not important political units, but they played an important role in the social life of the Mijikenda, particularly with regard to the organization of major social evevts, such as weddings and funerals. The local lineage was the local residential group that farmed the land corporately held by the homestead head.

Each kaya was divided by age as well as by descent. The men of the kaya were formed into age sets (sing. rika ), and the members of a given age set progressed together from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. The age sets existed on two levels. Every four years, the uninitiated boys were circumcised and initiated into a sub-rika. When thirteen such sub-rikas had been initiated, all were then corporately initiated as the next rika. The senior three sub-rikas ruled for twelve years and were succeeded by the following two sub-rikas, which ruled for eight years. This pattern continued by pairs until all thirteen sub-rikas had ruled as senior elders, at which time the succeeding thirteen sub-rikas were initiated as the next rika.

Sociopolitical Organization

Traditional Mijikenda society was primarily a gerontocracy: old men had authority over young men, and both old and young men had authority over women. If members objected to their positions in the hierarchy, they could leave and find other sources of power or support. Rabai women, for example, created their own sacred friction drum, which was used to extract fees from any outsiders who inadvertently saw it. Similarly, spirit possession by women, who could become mediums for messages from the ancestors, has been used to extract material goods from men. These female mediums sometimes formed tactical alliances with kaya elders.

The power of the elders was sometimes challenged in disputes over rain magic. Given that insufficient rains often led to famines, control over the rain was a highly valued skill. Such control was a source of ritual power for kaya elders because it was their duty to take corrective actions, usually in the form of organizing rain-making ceremonies, if the rains stopped. Sanctions for not fulfilling their duties included physical attacks and accusations of witchcraft, which could result in murder.

The Mijikenda were not directly involved in the slave trade, but they did buy, sell, and kidnap people for their labor. These people were not classified as slaves, but as resources of a clan. As such, they could be used as a form of exchange between homesteads or between an individual family and a nonkin patron, especially in times of need (e.g., during famines). Dependents could be moved between homesteads of their own accord or transferred to another homestead by the homestead head. The person handed over occupied a generally low position, but his or her transfer still served to strengthen the family that acquired the dependent and was not regarded as slavery. This kind of arrangement also occurred between distantly related or nonkin groups: individuals could sell themselves or their dependents to a patron who could provide them with the immediate needs for their survival. This practice was known as "pawning"; there was always the possibility that the pawns could be sold if the original loan was not repaid.

Because young men and, especially, young women were the least powerful people in the homesteads, it was they who bore the brunt of any shortage of food. Also, the wealthier families could call in their debts in time of famine and rely on the support of those networks that their wealth had created. The dependents of lesser patrons, without such support, often tried to place themselves in new networks by leaving the homesteads of their paternal kin in search of new patrons before their seniors sold them or pawned them for food. Such migration was not always in response to famines; sometimes it was prompted by arguments between the generations.


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