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The Mijikenda tribe is a composite tribe. Mijikenda means “the nine cities” as this tribe is actually made up of 9 separate ethnic groups of people: the Kauma, Chonyi, Jibana, Giriama, Kamabe, Ribe, Rabai, Duruma and Digo.
They all speak the same Mijikenda language, but each group has its own dialect. They all live along a ridge near the coast of Kenya and Tanzania. This tribe is also sometimes called the Nyika, though that is not a polite term as it means “bush people”. The Mijikenda describe their origins as north of the Somalis territory.
They were forced to migrate by the hostile Oromo tribe, and they settled in their current territory because the coastal ridge was easier to defend. It’s believed that the Mijikenda tribe migrated to their Kenya lands about 300 years ago.
They have close ties with the coastal Swahili tribe, as trading partners to connect the tribe with the Arab and Persian traders. The languages of Swahili and Mijikenda are very similar as a result.Each group of Mijikenda lived in a village group called a kaya, and within the kaya were various clans and family groups.
Their villages are built in cleared areas atop heavily wooded hills. Their main occupation is farming, with more and more land being devoted to cash crops in modern times. Coconut palms are their most important crop. The Mijikenda tribe follows the common practice of age-sets, with various initiation rituals performed every few years to move each group to the next social level accorded to their set. The first such initiation ritual is circumcision.
The leaders of the kaya were the oldest age-set. The elders were responsible for the management of the kaya, as well as for the bringing of rain. The leaders were sometimes removed from power during long droughts, as they were unable to make it rain with their usual rituals. Without the power to bring rain, they could not lead the kaya.
Though this tribe was not involved in the overall African slave trade, it was common within their own society to own and sell other people for labor. The practice was known as “pawning” and is not generally followed today.
People would even pawn themselves to wealthier families during drought if they could not provide for their own survival. The Mijikenda tribe considers many parts of the forest to be sacred, and these groves are not cleared for farming.
Unfortunately, more and more of the “kaya forests” are being cleared and destroyed for building, tourism and development. Recently, the Kenyan government has realized the conservation value of these old forests, and has officially made them “national monuments” in order to protect their diversity. Because they have been untouched for hundreds of years, they contain many rare or endangered species.