Mijikenda oral history traces the origin of the tribe to Shungwaya, believed to have been a place in southern Somalia.  It is thought that they fled to escape Oromo attacks and each sub-tribe broke off settled in in a different area on their journey south. The Digo settled on the south coast and on into Tanzania. 

Historically, the Mijikenda had close interaction with the Persian, Arab, Indian and Portuguese traders who came to the Kenyan coast on the monsoon winds. This interaction and intermarriage resulted in the Swahili culture and language. As a result, Kiswahili has close lexical similarity with all dialects of the Mijikenda people and the dishes of the coast are spiced revealing their Middle Eastern and Indian influences.

“Mijikenda” literally means nine towns.  Each sub-tribe speaks its own dialect of Kiswahili. The dominant tribe on the South Coast is the Digo while north of Mombasa island the Giriama are the most populous.  The other seven sub-tribes are the Chonyi, Duruma, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe

The Mijikenda culture revolves around clans and age-sets. The clan consists of several family groups with a common patriarchal ancestor.  A person’s age-set determined their role and social standing within the clan and elaborate rituals were often held for members graduating from one age-set to another.

Traditionally, each clan lived in a village called a kaya (homestead)  which were believed to be protected by the spirits of the ancestors. These kayas were located deep in the forests and it was considered taboo to cut the trees and vegetation around them. The kaya elders, often members of the oldest age-set, were deemed to posses supernatural powers including the ability to make rain.


Fishing is an important economic activity for the Mijikenda people. Mijikendas actively fish in the neighboring Indian Ocean, where their “daily catch” forms part of the seafood supplied to Kenya’s coastal hotels and residents.


Agriculture is also important.   The coconut palm, whose products include oil extracts and palm wine is important. Its fronds are also used for roofing and as material for making baskets, mats, brooms and other woven products.  Vegetables such as Mchicha and fruit, particularly mangoes and pawpaws are also grown.

The Kayas have not been inhabited for some time but they retain their importance as sites of religious significance. These traditions and practices constitute the Digo codes of ethics and governance systems, and include prayers, oath-taking, burial rites and charms, naming of the newly born, initiations, reconciliations, marriages and coronations.


 98% of the plants growing in the Kaya have a traditional use whether for medicine, clothing, fishing etc. Due to pressure on land resources, urbanization and social transformations, the traditions and cultural practices associated with the Kayas are fast diminishing, posing a threat both to the cohesiveness of community and also to the valuable biodiversity which they contain. link to The Tree Safari; Kaya Forests Edition by Harriet