The Pokomo Community of Kenya

Discover this musical community's tunes

By National Museums of Kenya

Pokomo DanceNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Pokomo community.

Pokomo (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Pokomo community

The Pokomo are a coastal Bantu community, closely related to the Waswahili and Mijikenda of the coast. They speak the Pokomo language, which is similar to Swahili. The Pokomo are divided into four sub-groups or vyeti (Upper Pokomo, Lower Pokomo, Welwan and  Munyo Yaya) and into thirteen sub-groups (Korokoro, Malakoye,  Malalulu, Zubaki, Ndura,  Kinakombe, Grano Nduru, Musina  Ngatana, Dzunza, Buu and Kalindi). 

HornNational Museums of Kenya

Migration and settlement

The Pokomo migrated from Shungwaya in southern Somalia (Jubaland) and occupied the Tana River valley stretching from the Tana Delta to north-eastern Kenya. The Tana River therefore is an important source of the Pokomo livelihood.

Pokomo DanceNational Museums of Kenya

Kenya's national anthem

The Kenyan national anthem was borrowed from a Pokomo lullaby, which was composed by Mzee Menza Morowa Galana of Makere village. Mzee Menza died on 12 November 2015 at age 96. The Pokomo people traditionally use music to  celebrate their harvests, fishing, hunting, weddings, circumcision, and births.

Guitar (1974)National Museums of Kenya

Musical instruments

Wood and string are the main materials used to make this musical instrument, 'Gita'. The wood is cut with a panga and shaped using an adze and a knife. The string is made from manila, bought from shops in Hola.

It is played by strumming or plucking the strings with the fingers, thumb or fingernails of the right or left hand.

Drum (1966)National Museums of Kenya

Drums played by bachelors

This is a drum (Maribe), made of wood from the Makuyu tree. It is used for young people dancing, and is only played by bachelors.

Hutch (1968)National Museums of Kenya

Economic activities

The Pokomo were historically an agricultural and fishing community. They grew plantains and sugar on the banks of River Tana, and on the low lands they grew rice. Elsewhere, they grew, maize, beans and other crops. The Pokomo had only two seasons in a year, namely: Sika and Kilimo. They were able to tell by looking at the sky and the moon whether the coming rains wre for Mvula ya Masika (short rains, which meant that the community would plant fast-maturing crops), or Mvula ya Kilimo (long rains, which meant that the community would plant long-maturing crops and those that required a lot of water to mature, such as rice.)

Fishing Trap (1972)National Museums of Kenya

Fish trap

This is a cone shaped Pokomo fish trap made using straight branches of the pongoyo tree. The branches were cut and arranged inwards, leaving an opening for fish to enter. The Pokomo men used such traps for fishing in the River Tana.

Hoe (1960)National Museums of Kenya

Farming

These hoes (gembe) were made from scrap iron. The metal was heated and beaten on an anvil with a hammer. The metal was then fitted with a stick, cut from wood of the mpini tree, attached together using palm fruit (nkongo) pods.

Men and women used such hoes for cultivating shambas and planting crops.

Pokomo Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure of the Pokomo

Like other Kenyan communities, the traditional roles of both genders were clearly defined. Men protected the community as well as providing food for their families. Boys helped their fathers in herding domestic animals. Women took care of their children and all domestic work at home, and also worked in the farms.

Pokomo Elder by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Leadership

Authority was based on territorial allegiance, and lineage elders were given prominence. Village elders (wazee) preside over the council of elders (moro). It was considered a taboo for women, young men and children to enter the council house (moro).

NecklacesNational Museums of Kenya

Justice system

The Kijo, another Council of Elders had power to excommunicate, imprison and execute those who are found guilty of serious offenses in the community.

The Gasa heads the judicial arm of the Kijo. They give political guidance and dispense justice on land and family matters.

Wooden spearNational Museums of Kenya

Men provided protection to the community

This spear fumo was made from scrap iron fitted to a wooden handle by a blacksmith. It was used by men during war and when hunting.

Pot (1950)National Museums of Kenya

Craftsmanship

Women made pots to cook Pokomo's delicious foods. This pot (nyungu) was made by an old woman for cooking and to store food.

The Tana River has long been the source of fish supply to the Pokomo, who traditionally eat catfish (mtonzi), tilapia (ntuku), trout (ningu), eel (mamba) and crocodile (ngwena).

StrainerNational Museums of Kenya

Strainer

Pokomo women made strainers (khapu) using palm leaves, which were used to squeeze out coconut milk. The milk was used to make an assortment of foods such as rice, chapati, fish, chicken and many more delicacies.

Sleeping matNational Museums of Kenya

Mat

This soft mat (msali) was made by women from dyed doum palm leaves. It was woven and used for sleeping on.

Skirt & BeardNational Museums of Kenya

Skirt

This skirt is made of grass from mkomo(down palm) fronds cut using a knife. It is worn by boys after circumcision and during a dance ceremony called mwaribe.

Bracelets (1965)National Museums of Kenya

Marriage the Pokomo way

In some communities, the Pokomo still follow a traditional system of marriage, which involves payment of a bride price (mahari). The man informs his parents about the bride, and his parents therefore examine her family background and grant approval. They then visit the brides's family and present 'perenkera', a small vessel for holding tobacco, as an indication of their son's desire. After which, bride price negotiations begin, the bride price is paid, and the wedding ceremony is conducted. 

Amulet (1970)National Museums of Kenya

Religion and medicine

Historically the Pokomo believed in a supernatural being, Mulungu (God), who was worshiped in sacred forests. He was believed to bring abundance and scarcity upon the community. The spiritual leaders, Kijo, were consulted for guidance on religious matters. Within the Kijo there were two other groups – the 'Gangana' or healers, and the 'Chawi' or witches. Some Pokomo today are Muslims or Christians.

Promotion medicineNational Museums of Kenya

This bottle contains blue powder made by an old 'magician'. Gum from the muvunja hukumu tree was burnt and ground into powder ready for sale on request. This was believed to bring luck, enabling one to acquire a higher position at work.

Pokomo Medicineman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Traditionally, the Pokomo used herbs to treat different kinds of diseases. These herbs were believed to treat any type of ache, pain and sores among other type of illness.

Bleeding HornNational Museums of Kenya

Healing through bleeding

Made by men, a koba was the small tip of a cowhorn, cut and stopped up with beeswax (Naoma). It was used as a bleeding horn, and placed on an aching body part to relieve pain by drawing blood from it.

A cut would be made by a friend or a relative and the horn pressed there, then the wax would be removed and the air sucked out before the wax was replaced. The horn would now be stuck to the body part, and the blood was then drawn out.

It would be left on the ill body part for about ten minutes until it had filled with blood. The horn was then removed and the drawn blood poured on the ground.

NecklacesNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Pokomo are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Pokomo community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. pnyamanga@museums.or.ke

Bibliography and research
1. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.
2. Prins, A. H. J. The Coastal Tribes of the North Eastern Bantu. 1952.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga, Barnabas Ngei and Hazel Sanaipei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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