What typical KAYAS villages used to look like


The number of kayas is estimated at over thirty. Both kayas as forests and kayas – villages despite being different from each other, contain numerous common cultural elements closely related to the traditions and history of Mijikenda communities. They outline the cultural landscape of the Kenyan coast.

To protect themselves from enemies, the Mijikenda built their settlements on hills in dense forest.

The village patterns shown below were for the Ribe, Kambe, Jibana, Chonyi, Kauma and Giriama tribes. The organisation of kayas in Digo, Duruma and Rabai tribes, was slightly different.

The whole community resided in a central clearing, accessed only by a few narrow forest paths guarded by warriors – equipped with bows with poisoned arrows. Each path had one, two or three heavy wooden gates, which were used for defence and were a symbol of prosperity. The clearing was enclosed by a palisade or a thorn fence. It was surrounded by densely wooded slopes.

More or less in the middle of the clearing there was a fingo buried by the shaman, a collection of protective talismans brought, according to legend, from the place of origin of the Mijikenda people – Shungwaya. This was usually a pot believed to contain magic spells and medicines to protect the kaya from enemies. To this day, many fingoes have been lost or stolen. They are considered valuable works of art (objet d’art.).

Next to the fingo was the moro, a religious and secular centre. It was there that the council of kaya elders (kambi), met to discuss religious, political, social and economic issues affecting the local community. It was also where justice was administered.

It also stored various items including official insignia and musical instruments that played an important role in various cultural and religious rituals such as the mwanza drum.

Each clan had its own huts, which were built around a courtyard called Iwanda. It was a meeting place for the elders of the clans.

The houses were usually 6m x 3m in area. Their shape, resembling a beehive or a loaf of bread, was given by an oval basket-like structure made of thin stakes, supported in some places by thick poles. The roof was thatched with tall grasses such as muchuchi (Hyparrhenia rufa).

The house had one door and consisted of one room with a lutsaga (elevated grain – grain basket) and a hearth area.

Inside there were one or more beds and various utensils, such as clay pots and a mortar for beating grain. The smoke from the fire repelled mosquitoes and other insects and dried the grain and protected it from insects.

Usually near the moro, there was a place called kinyakani – an arena where various rituals took place. It was there that sacrifices were made of chickens, lambs and bulls.

Important ceremonies such as initiations usually took place outside the village, in clearings in the kaya forest.

Traditional dances were one of the most common forms of entertainment and the main instrument played was the drum. Alcohol was also consumed – wine made from coconut. Pear-shaped “tankards” or bowling pins were used for this.

The Mijikenda people believed that evil spirits were responsible for illness. “Body spirit” manifested itself in various physical ailments such as malaria, whooping cough, arthritis or smallpox, for example. All illnesses affecting the body were treated mainly with herbal medicine, but also with magic ornaments or various therapies, often described as magical. The “head spirit” was responsible for mental disorders. Here, one way of treatment was an exorcism ceremony called ngoma za pepo, or “spirit dance”.

Unfortunately, due to magical practices (witchcraft), the local community in recent years began to see shamans as evil. In 2015, 104 people suspected of being sorcerers and witches were killed in Kilifi. This is a great pity for the local community, as the knowledge they have about, for example, the healing properties of plants and herbs, is irretrievably lost along with them.

Pictured is Mzee Katana Kalulu, the last of the Gohu, the great sages of the Mijikenda ethnic group, who was shot dead in 2014.

Kaya members who died within the kaya were buried within the kaya (in designated places near the fence surrounding the village). These locations were indicated by carved wooden plaques placed on their graves.  However, those who were considered unclean for one reason or another, for example: death from a strange disease or as a result of violence were buried outside the village gates but within the forest. Similarly, those who died outside the kaya – outside the area but close to the village. These outdoor cemeteries were called makaburini.

Even today, burial sites can be found in the kayas areas, as evidenced by the presence of wooden tombstones or Koma (wooden memorial poles placed on grave sites and reposing ancestral spirits). Important leaders, healers and prophets may have had their own individual burial sites, which are often, to this day, considered sacred.

Particularly important are the kigango or chigango (Chonyi and Digo) – or carved memorial poles (statues) made in honour of elders as a show of respect for their importance and significance to the community.

Diagram of KAYA GIRIAMA village