THE MIJIKENDA COMMUNITY - HISTORY AND CULTURE
Mijikenda (“the Nine Tribes”) are a group of nine Bantu ethnic tribes who live along Kenya’s coast, between the Sabaki and the Umba rivers, in a region that stretches from Tanzania’s border in the south to Somalia’s border in the north. According to archaeologist Chapuruka Kusimba, the Mijikenda originally lived in coastal cities but later relocated to Kenya’s hinterlands to avoid submitting to the dominant Portuguese forces in power at the time. Outsiders have referred to these Mijikenda ethnic groupings as the Nyika or Nika in the past.
It’s a pejorative word that means “bush people.” Chonyi, Kambe, Duruma, Kauma, Ribe, Rabai, Jibana, Giriama, and Digo are the nine ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda peoples.
Southern Mijikenda as well as Nothern Mijikenda is home to the Digo. The Digo are also found in Tanzania due to their proximity to the common border.
Each Mijikenda tribe has its own holy grove, or kaya, which serves as a place of worship. The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, made up of eleven of the approximately 30 kaya forests, has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mijikenda are also recognized for their wooden kigango burial figures, which have been displayed in museums worldwide and sold on the international art market. During the early 1970s to the 1990s, these relics were lawfully sold by respected art galleries and curio stores; nevertheless, additional kigango statues were discovered to have been stolen from cultural sites and illegally sold. Each ethnic group of Mijikenda has its own customs and dialects of the Mijikenda language. although the dialects are similar to each other and to Swahili.
The Mijikenda people are thought to have originated in Shungwaya (Singwaya) and other sections of the northern Somali coast, before being pushed south by the Galla (Oromo) and arriving in Kenya around the 16th century. Thomas Spear advocated for this interpretation of the Mijikenda people’s origins in his book The Kaya Complex, which was backed up by several Mijikenda oral traditions. Furthermore, oral history claims that the murder of a Galla Tribesman by a Mijikenda adolescent, followed by the Mijikenda tribes’ reluctance to compensate the Galla, was the exact reason for the Galla pushing the Mijikenda out of Singwaya. However, it has been suggested that the Mijikenda peoples may have originated in the same area they currently reside in. One hypothesis is that the Mijikenda people embraced the Singwaya tale in order to establish an ethnic identity that would allow them to form ties with Swahili who claimed Singwaya ancestors. Oral tradition also claims that after being forced out of Singwaya, the Mijikenda peoples separated into six distinct groups during their southern exodus. The original six kaya would be settled by these six tribes. The Mijikenda settled six fortified hilltop castles at the turn of the 17th century, where they built their dwellings. These six kaya were eventually enlarged to nine kaya.
The origin tale tells the story of a true migration that took place at a certain point in time to a specific location, as well as a fictitious migration that took place over a long period of time from a common beginning. It encourages greater togetherness among the Mijikenda peoples, which are made up of nine different ethnic groups. The Mijikenda see Singwaya as their common ancestor and the cradle of their language and culture. This origin narrative also specifies some of the ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda peoples’ ties; for example, one version of the oral tradition claims that the Digo were the first to depart Singwaya and are thus accepted as the other groups as senior, then the Ribe left, followed by the Giriama, the Chonyi, and the Jibana
The Mijikenda peoples’ first homesteads after their flight from Singwaya were the kayas. The Digo, according to oral legend, were the first to go southward to create the first kaya.
The period following the foundation of the kaya was portrayed as a time of stability by these oral traditions, but it ended with the emergence of colonialism in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. For the Mijikenda peoples, the kaya was also a significant political and cultural symbol. The kaya’s political connotation was also important in the Mijikenda peoples’ resistance to colonization. The Mijikenda peoples began to appear in the late nineteenth century.The kaya villages often had centrally located places dedicated to leadership and worship, with initiation rites, areas for developing magic and medicine, and areas devoted to burials and amusement arranged around them. The kaya forests that surrounded the town served as a barrier between the settlement and the rest of the world. As these kaya’s populations rose, so did their security, resulting in a period of peace that permitted the Mijikenda people to migrate outwards along the beaches and southwards along Tanzania’s border. All nine of the original kaya were eventually abandoned as the Mijikenda moved on, but their significance remained undiminished, and they were continuously revered as sacred sanctuaries.
The Mijikenda people were horticulturists and pastoralists in the precolonial period, and they had a well-established trade with the Swahili peoples on the coast.
The Hinterland people (Mijikenda, Pokomo, and Segeju) farmed the food that the coastal Swahili relied on. Economic, military, and political relationships underpinned this trade partnership. The Mijikenda people were even involved in politics in Mombasa The Coastal Swahili peoples and the Arab peoples of the area were given land during the colonial period under British control. The Sultan of Oman claimed the coastal strip of land in the Hinterlands, thus the Mijikenda people could only move there as squatters and were at risk of being expelled at any time. The colonial hegemony over the coasts also extended to the Hinterland regions where the Mijikenda people resided. The Giriama peoples, a group of Mijikenda peoples, were suspicious of the British colonial administration since, prior to Britain’s colonization of the coastline and hinterland territories, their people had been taken by Arab and Swahili slave traffickers in the 19th century. There are conflicting descriptions of this time period, with some sources claiming that the enslaved Giriama peoples were involved in a complicated patron-client relationship that was crucial to the creation of large-scale plantations on the East African coast. The enslaved Giriama people were absorbed into Swahili and Arab land-owning households, and were sometimes described to as dependents rather than slaves, according to this story.They were treated with a lot of ease due to the Islam prohibition of harsh treatment of slaves. Slaves in nearby islands such as Pemba and Zanzibar, on the other hand, were treated more brutally.
As slave ownership fell along the East African coast, many ex-slaves went on to work as manual laborers on their former master’s estates, where they were compensated with a share of the crop in a patron-client relationship. However, some stories claim that the Giriama people’s servitude was more severe than previously thought. It was known that enslaved Giriama people escaped by the hundreds to any safe haven they could find, some seeking refuge in Christian Missionary stations and others going to runaway slave colonies. Furthermore, the notion that the transition from ex-slaves to manual laborers was made difficult due to fear among members of the colonial government that the fugitive and freed slaves would start a rebellion.