The Giriama Community of Kenya

Traditional craftsmen producing beautiful ornaments

By National Museums of Kenya

NecklaceNational 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 Giriama community. 

Mepoho: The Magic Woman (Giriama community) (2019) by Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya

The history and culture of the Mijikenda

The Mijikenda are a Coastal Bantu community. They inhabit the region from the Tanzanian border to the Sabaki and the Umba rivers. ‘Mijikenda’ means nine villages, namely: Giriama, Digo, Duruma, Rabai, Kambe, Chonyi, Jibana, Kauma and Ribe. Each community speaks its own dialect. The Mijikenda originated from Shungwaya, a region in southern Somalia around the 17th century and settled along the coastal hinterlands in fortified villages called ‘kaya’. Today, 11 'makaya' are inscribed into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

CharmNational Museums of Kenya

A closer look into the history and culture of the Giriama community

The Giriama are the largest of the Mijikenda community. They inhabit the area of Mariakani and Kaloleni in Kilifi county. The Giriama clans include: Thoya, Mweni, Nyundo, Nyale and many more. They speak 'Kigiriama'.

The Mijikenda Kaya ForestsNational Museums of Kenya

Migration and settlement

The Giriama migrated from Shungwaya. Due to conflicts with Cushitic communities they migrated southwards into the present Kenya coastal region and settled in Kilifi County. Upon settlement they experienced conflict from other groups, especially nomadic pastoralists.

It was necessary for the Kaya villages to have a defensive function, which was crucial to their survival. This was achieved by building makaya within thick forest, so it could only be approached on narrow forest paths, surrounding the villages with a strong stockade to bury the sacred objects, or 'fingo', within the Kaya as they were essential to the material and spiritual well-being of the community.

The Kaya forests with their clearings and sacred sites are believed to be what remains of the extensive forests and hidden villages, preserved now as ritual and spiritual sites, the surrounding land having given way to agriculture during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Giriama (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Economic pursuits 

The Giriama practiced subsistence farming and reared cows, sheep and goats. They grew millet, maize, cassava, peas and cotton, with coconut and cassava as their main cash crops. They also fished in the Indian Ocean and along the creeks. They participated in mangrove trade with the Swahili and Arabs. The Giriama took coastal trade goods with them, like iron for making weapons and tool, and exchanged them for beads and cloths from overseas.

AxeNational Museums of Kenya

Working in the forest

This axe is made of a metal iron head and a wooden haft cut from the mulundi tree. It was mostly used for cutting down trees.

Arm letNational Museums of Kenya

Skilled craftsmen

Amongst the Giriama people were skilled craftsmen, who produced useful iron implements that were used by the community. They produced beautiful aluminium ornaments like chains, necklaces, earrings and bangles that were sometimes worn as charms. In the past, some ornaments were made of ivory. Today, ivory possession is a crime in Kenya.

BraceletsNational Museums of Kenya

Aluminium bracelets

These are heavy aluminium bracelets made in two pieces, which are joined by putting a stick through the holes in them. On the inside they are rounded but on the outside they have three deep grooves running around them.

They were made by a blacksmith from melted down aluminium cooking pots. The melted aluminium was poured into a long groove in the ground, and then hammered and scraped into shape with a knife.

They were worn by women, particularly older women on the wrist, and the larger ones worn above the elbow.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure

Traditionally the men were responsible for providing food and protection to the family, while the mothers were left to domestic responsibilities. The community emphasized on the young the importance of obedience to the elders. Giriama elders controlled community resources, including land, bride-wealth and trade. Sons only inherited land after the death of their father.

Bed MatNational Museums of Kenya

Weaved sleeping mat

This finely woven mat (kitseka), was made by a male craftsman. A long strip of doum palm (miaa/mlala) was sewn together with sisal fibre (makonge) to make such a mat. The mats serve as beds and seats.

Food bowlNational Museums of Kenya

Making wooden bowls

This wooden, flat-bottomed food bowl (muvure) was made by a young man using mwaamba wood. The wood was cut using an axe and made hollow with an adze. It was used as a communal eating bowl by as many as seven people.

BasketNational Museums of Kenya

Making flour baskets

A wide, circular shallow basket made by male craftsman from miaa (doum palm). It was woven in a long strip and joined together with sisal fibre.

It was used by women, who would have placed the rotary quern (grinding stone) in it; the resulting flour was contained in this basket.

Head ornamentNational Museums of Kenya

Marriage the Giriama way

This eight string beaded necklace of heavy brass cylinders was made by a craftsman at Pongwe. The beads were strung on makonge (sisal) thread by a woman. This would have been a special bridal necklace.

Giriama marriages were traditionally arranged by parents through giving bride-wealth to their sons. The parents of the bride and groom met to discuss the bride price – usually a bull and traditional liquor mnazi – which is brought twenty eight times.

On the day, the bull was taken to the bride's family, and the groom went back home with the bride, accompanied by song and dance. Gifts were then given to the couple, and the father-in-law would take water, swirl it in his mouth, and then blow it onto the chest of the bride and bridegroom. The mother would then do the same as a way of blessing the new couple.

Tree of KomaNational Museums of Kenya

Political structure

The Giriama were divided into clans headed by councils of elders ('Kambi'), which were responsible for all communal decisions as well as settling disputes among clan members. Below the council of elders were spiritual leaders, who performed rituals and conducted religious ceremonies. All decisions made by the Kambi were unanimous and binding to all members.

Mekatilili Wa Menza: Wonder Woman (Giriama community) (2019) by Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya

The bravery and leadership of the great Mekatilili

Mnyazi wa Menza was born in the 1840s and became Mekatilili after her first son Katilili. She was an active member of the local traditional women’s group, 'makushekushe', where she was later made the leader. After the death of her husband, Dyeka wa Duka, she had more freedom as a leader and organized protest meetings (barazas) against the British recruitment of Africans to the First World War. She was arrested and imprisoned in Kisii, from where she mysteriously escaped and returned home to continue with her liberation struggle. She mobilized the Mijikenda community, who were moved by her bravery and charisma, to resist the British rule. On 25th October 1914, many of her followers were killed by the British army, forcing her to collaborate. She later died and is still remembered for her great works.

CharmNational Museums of Kenya

Religion, beliefs, and medicine

Historically the Giriama believed in a supernatural being, Mulungu (God). They also revered their ancestors by making Vigango (singular kigango) – a specially carved piece of hardwood of abstract human shape, with a head and a long straight body. They consulted and offered sacrifices to appease the ancestral spirits whenever calamities struck (sicknesses, drought, famine, conflicts, etc. which were communicated through dreams).  Whenever a family shifted, they carried the vigango with them. Today, a majority of the Giriama are Christians or Muslims. 

Board of spiritualNational Museums of Kenya

Koma

This koma (shorter than a kigango) was made by a male fundi (craftsman) from a hard, durable and termite repellent wood. The tree was cut using an axe and finished with a chisel.

It is shaped like a human being with a head and a long straight body, and was erected on top of a grave or at a kigojo – a structure where male elders hold their meetings. It would have been carved only on request, and never sold in the market.

VigangoNational Museums of Kenya

These are vigango and koma erected after someone's death, to honour them.

Vigango are erected for the Gohu society, while koma are erected for common members of the community.

CharmNational Museums of Kenya

Kiveli

A charm (kiveli) with red, white and blue beads and cowries, sewn on cowskin and hung on a locally made chain. The charm was made by a male craftsman. He would sell them to the medicine man, who distributed them to his patients.

If a person fell ill he/she would go to the medicine man, who provided the charm, and the illness would go away if it was caused by an evil spirit. It is worn by both sexes over one side of the shoulder and under the arm.

Medicine-Bead DecoratedNational Museums of Kenya

This is a coconut shell completely covered with beads. It was made by a Giriama man and given to a Kamba medicineman who used it to cure illnesses. It would be waved round and round a patient's head, and after some time the patient would be asked to rest his head on a pillow.

RattleNational Museums of Kenya

Music and recreation

A rattle is a percussion instrument, which produces sound when shaken. This one was made from reeds called 'musutchi', and small green grams ('pojo') enclosed inside the reeds stalk, to produce sound when the parts strike each other. It was played by men in the community during dances.

RattlesNational Museums of Kenya

Rattle

This is a small gourd rattles which. It was used by both men and women when they drank palm beer.

FluteNational Museums of Kenya

Flute

It is a small flute with four holes made by the male sex. Usually young men used it. It is made from wood of the Mwanzi tree and the holes are burned into wood with a red hot iron awl. It is played mainly for dances but also for personal amusement.

DhowNational Museums of Kenya

Children's toys

This is a dummy of a dhow, made by children for playing. It is made of wood and has two masts attached to the sticks.

By Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Giriama are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Giriama 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. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. 2009. Kenya: 2009 Population and Housing Census Highlights Nairobi: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

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

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

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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