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The Mijikenda peoples

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The principal people of the coastal hinterland region are the Mijikenda (“Nine Tribes”), a loose grouping whose Bantu languages are to a large extent mutually intelligible, and closely related to Swahili. They are believed to have arrived in their present homelands in the sixteenth or seventeenth century from a quasi-historical state called Shungwaya, which had undergone a period of intense civil chaos. This centre was probably located somewhere in the Lamu hinterland or in the southwest corner of present-day Somalia. According to oral tradition, the people who left it were the Giriama, the Digo, the Rabai, the Ribe, the Duruma, the Chonyi, the Jibana, the Kauma and the Kambe (not to be confused with the Kamba of the highlands around Machakos).

All these tribes now live in the coastal hinterland, the Giriama and the Digo being the largest and best-known. Like so many other Kenyan peoples, the Mijikenda had age-set systems that helped cut across the divisive groupings of clan and subclan to bind communities together. And these involved some fierce traditions: the installation of a new ruling elders’ age-set, for example, required the killing and castration of a stranger. This, like most of the milder practices of tribal tradition, was abandoned in the early twentieth century.

The Mijikenda have always had a diverse economy. They were cultivators, long-distance traders, makers of palm wine (a Digo speciality now diffused all over Mijikenda-land), hunters, fishermen and herders – the Duruma especially and, at one time, the Giriama, were almost as fond of cows as the Maasai. They still maintain local market cycles. These are four-day weeks in the case of the Giriama: days one and two for labour, day three for preparation, and day four, called Chipalata, for the market.

Despite acquiring all the trappings of modern life along with most Kenyan peoples, the Mijikenda have been unusually successful at maintaining their cultural identity. They warred with the British in 1914 over the imposition of taxes and the demand for porters for World War I. And they have preserved a vigorous conservative tradition of adherence to their old beliefs in spirits and the power of their ancestors. While this is very apparent from the resurgence of interest in preserving their traditional sacred groves, or kayas, and getting graveposts (vigango) returned from foreign collections, it’s also notable in the relative ease with which you can pick up CDs of traditional music, especially in Mombasa: wonderful rhythms and some very delicate chivoti flute melodies.

If you’re a little off the beaten track, are really interested and have time to spare, even casual enquiries will elicit invitations to weddings or funerals, where the old traditions – and music – are still very much the centrepieces, despite a veneer of Christianity or Islam. Many Mijikenda have found conversion to Islam helpful in their dealings with coastal traders and businessmen. The conversion seems to be the latest development in the growth of Swahili society, and that change is probably the biggest threat to Mijikenda cultural integrity.

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