About 70% of Kenya’s population are Bantu peoples (including Kamba, Kikuju, Luhja, Meru), who live in the southern highlands and coast. In the east and north-east live the Kushite peoples (Borana, Somalis). There are also Niloci (Masai, Turkana) living in the country, and groups of Arabs, Asians and Europeans (mainly British) in the cities. In 1996, 224,000 refugees arrived in Kenya (mainly from Rwanda and Somalia). Most of the population lives in south-western and western Kenya (about 75% of the population is concentrated in 10% of the area).
Kenya is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in all of Africa.
With over thirty tribal groups living, each speaking a different language (plus dialects), there are approximately 44 spoken languages. Each tribe also has its own original culture and belief system. Tensions between different ethnic groups are one of Kenya’s major problems.
The Mijikenda (Wamijikenda) are a group of nine related Bantu ethnic groups who migrated to what is now Kenya from about the 1st century BC, mainly from the steppe areas of central and southern Africa. Currently, the Mijikenda live on the coast of Kenya, between the Sabaki and Umba rivers, in an area stretching from the border with Tanzania in the south to the border near Somalia in the north.
According to the 2019 compilation of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, it is the eighth most populous ethnic group, with 2,488,691 representatives (5.2% of the population).
The tribes that make up the Mijikenda people are: Chonyi, Kambe, Duruma, Kauma, Ribe, Rabai, Jibana and Giriama (so-called northern tribes) and Digo (southern tribe). The Digo are also found in Tanzania due to their proximity to the common border.
The different tribes are culturally similar to each other and speak languages from the Bantu group which are similar to each other and to Swahili.
The name Mijikenda means ‘nine towns’ in Swahili and has been used since the 1940s. The earlier name Nyika or Wanyika (‘people from the provinces’ or ‘people from the bush’) is considered outdated, offensive and politically incorrect.
Each Mijikenda group has a sacred forest, (kaye) which is a place of prayer. Eleven of the approximately 30 kaya forests have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as Mijikenda Kaya Sacred Forests.
For more on this, see the KAYA IN UNESCO.
The Mijikenda people are also known for creating wooden kigango tomb statues, which are displayed in museums around the world and sold on the international art market. These artifacts were once legally sold by reputable art galleries and curio shops from the early 1970s to the 1990s. Unfortunately, many were stolen from cultural sites and ended up on the black market.
Each Mijikenda ethnic group has its own unique customs and dialects of the Mijikenda language. However, they are similar to each other and do not pose a problem in communicating between the different tribes. Despite a few differences, the languages are similar to Swahili. For centuries, tribes across the country have used songs, stories and poems to communicate their beliefs, history and customs. Music and storytelling are important elements of Kenyan culture.
History and ethnography of the Mijikenda people
The people’s own myths (oral transmissions) speak of an origin in the country of Shungwaya (Singwaya) in what is now Somalia, the existence of which has never been historically confirmed. According to this view, which was put forward by Thomas Spear in his book “The Kaya Complex”, the Mijikenda originated from the Shungwaya country and various other parts of the northern coast of Somalia, from where they were exiled southwards by the Galla (Oromo) peoples – currently the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and arrived in Kenya around the 16th century. According to legend, the reason for the Mijikenda’s exile from Singway was the murder of a member of the Galla tribe by a young Mijikenda and their subsequent refusal to pay compensation to the Galla. Oral accounts also say that the Mijikenda peoples, after being expelled from Singwaya, split into six separate peoples during their migration southwards. These six groups settled in the original six kaya (see kaya tab for more). Indeed, at the turn of the 17th century, the Mijikenda settled in six fortified villages in the forests on the hills – kaya. Later, three more kaye were established, bringing the total number to nine. They are now considered to be the ancestral home.
The legend tells of a Mijikenda migration that took place many years ago, but it also has a cultural dimension, as it points to the common origin and unity of all nine ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda peoples. Singwaya is considered by the Mijikenda to be their common starting point and the birthplace of their language and traditions. According to oral accounts, the Digo tribe was the first to leave Singwaya and is therefore recognised by other groups as the oldest (senior) tribe. Then Ribe left Singwaya, followed by Giriama, Chonyi and Jibana. Of course, there has also been a theory that the Mijikenda peoples may have come from more or less the same places where they now live. One possible explanation for this is that the Mijikenda peoples emulated the Singwaya in order to create an ethnic identity that allowed them to form a link with the Swahili peoples, who also claimed Singwaya ancestry. The Swahili, or Waswahili, are not a tribe. They are a people who inhabit areas of East Africa (mainly the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique). Swahili are classified as Bantu people. They were created mainly as a result of intermarriage between Bantu and newcomers from the Arabian Peninsula. In the pre-colonial times they formed a loose political and trade organisation. The name “Swahili” comes from the plural of the Arabic word sāhil meaning coast. In the plural sawāhil, used as an adjective to describe the coastal inhabitants. Through trade contacts, their culture developed over the centuries under Arabic, Persian and Indian influences. In the 10th century, the Swahili adopted Islam. Their traditional occupations include farming, fishing and trading in East Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Archaeologist Chapuruka Kusimba says the Mijikenda previously inhabited coastal towns, but later settled inland in Kenya to avoid succumbing to the dominant Portuguese forces then in control. Due to drought and famine in the late 19th century (1898-1900), the Mijikenda moved to their current settlements from sparsely populated areas around Mombasa and Malindi.
In the pre-colonial period, the Mijikenda people were mainly engaged in farming and pastoralism and trading with the coastal Swahili peoples. Trade relations were based on economic, military and political alliances. Mijikenda crops were the main source of food for the coastal peoples.
The Mijikenda peoples even participated in Mombasa politics. However, during the colonial period, under British rule, all power was transferred to the Swahili and Arab peoples of the area.
The coastal area was considered to belong to the Sultan of Oman and it was considered illegal for Mijikenda people to stay there. They were threatened with expulsion at any time. Soon colonial rule also extended to the regions where the Mijikenda lived.
In the 19th century, one group of Mijikenda peoples, the Giriama, who were distrustful of the British oppressors even before the colonisation of the coastal areas, were captured by traders (Arab and Swahili) and enslaved. Some sources claim that the Giriama were involved on a large scale in the establishment of plantations on the East African coast.