The Taita Community of Kenya

From the beautiful Taita Hills to the incredible music of Fadhili Williams

By National Museums of Kenya

Anklets (1950)National 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 Taita community. 

BeadsNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Taita community

The Taita speak 'Kidawida' and belong to the coastal Bantu lingustic group. They live around the Taita Hills and mostly depend on agriculture. They are known for their many dialects and contribution to Kenyan music. One of the most well-known 'Taitas' was the composer Fadhili Williams, who wrote the popular love song 'Malaika' in the late 1950s.

Migration and settlement of the Taita

The Taita are believed to have migrated from Central Africa alongside other coastal Bantu communities, who went north to Shungwaya. Due to attacks from Cushitic communities, the Taita migrated south to the Taita Hills.

BasketNational Museums of Kenya

Mulungu, Milimu, and the sacred Taita Hills

The Taita believed in one supreme God, Mulungu, and ancestral spirits (Milimu), whom they called upon in times of calamity and misfortune. Evidence of their worship and sacrificial remains has been found in caves in Taita Hills.

Taita (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure and economic activity

Traditionally there were six clans among the Taita, each with a numerical name derived from the claimed order of arrival in the Taita Hills. 

Back apronNational Museums of Kenya

Elders and leadership

Leadership among the Taita was based on territorial allegiances. The three main regions are Dawida, Sagala and Kasigau.

HoeNational Museums of Kenya

The elders and the headmen

There were two types of authorities: the headmen and the elders. Once appointed, a headman couldn't be deposed, and on his death he would be succeeded by one of his sons who was approved by the people.

SpoonsNational Museums of Kenya

Division of labour

Like almost all the agricultural societies in Kenya, the Taitas' traditional division of labour delegated the clearing of land to the men and the cultivation to women. Harvesting was done by men or women, depending on the crop. Men maintained the irrigation scheme.

Land small shellsNational Museums of Kenya

The main task of the headman was to preside over the council of elders. The concerns brought before the council included cases of debt, conflict between lineage and villages over land and water rights, marriage questions, matters to do with cattle, as well as criminal offenses.

ChokerNational Museums of Kenya

The initiation of girls and boys

Traditionally, circumcision of girls was done between the first week after birth and two to three months of age. It was believed that wounds bled less and healed faster at an early age.

In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and the communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation rites which do not involve female genital mutilation.

Beer Gourd (1952)National Museums of Kenya

Boys' initiation

Circumcision of boys was done between the ages of eight and twelve in a ritual ceremony that took place in the homestead. A second initiation for both boys and girls was done years later, to initiate them from childhood to adulthood.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

The second initiation: Ngasu and Mwari

Here they were given 'the secrets of the society'. Boys’ seclusion was called Ngasu, while for girls it was called Mwari. They were both taught their roles separately. After the training period, a girl would be deemed ready for marriage.

Anklets (1950)National Museums of Kenya

Taita music and recreation

The Taita people have always enjoyed expressing themselves through music. They had many interesting forms of traditional dance, the most fascinating of which was the pepo spirit-possession dance called 'Mwazindika'. This dance was for exorcism and celebrating life. 

Necklaces (1931)National Museums of Kenya

'Malaika' love song

Members of the Taita community are talented musicians. The late Fadhili Williams, known for his international hit song 'Malaika', was one of many recent Taita musicians.

Beer gourds (1952)National Museums of Kenya

Beer gourds

A long narrow and a small round gourd with a hole on the side and at the top. These were cut by old men, using a knife, and washed out with water and small stones. The long gourd was for drinking beer while the other was for pouring.

Snuff containerNational Museums of Kenya

Snuff container

This is a snuff container (Lwembe) made of wood cut from the mwaghare tree by an old man, and used to keep snuff.

Waist belt (1946)National Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Taita are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Taita 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 Curators: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. philenyamanga@gmail.com

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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