Giriama people


Giriama / Giryama

The Giriama (also called Giryama) are one of the nine ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda (which literally translates to "nine towns").

The Mijikenda occupy the coastal strip extending from Lamu in the north to the Kenya/Tanzania border in the south, and approximately 30 km inland. The Giriama are among the largest of these ethnic groups. They inhabit the area bordered by the coastal cities of Mombasa and Malindi, and the inland towns or Mariakani and Kaloleni.

With the total population of over 750,00 people Giriama are amongst the largest (or the second largest after Digo) of the  Mijikenda (meaning "The Nine Tribes) Coastal people formally known as Nyika people, who are made up of nine sub groups. The Mijikenda other sub tribes include: the Digo, the Duruma, the Chonyi, the Rabai, the Jibana, the Kauma, The Kambe and the Ribe.The Giriama are subdivided into clans which include Thoya, Mweni, Nyundo, Nyale and so on.

Giriama people map

In recent years, the Giriama have extended their living space down to the coast. They are now a big part of service employees in the growing tourism centres. Education programmes initiated by the state included building of central primary schools alongside the coast street. School attendance has become compulsory even for girls up to an age of 12 years. The continuous migration of Giriama to places such as Takaungu and Mtwapa has allowed them to get access to paid labour, hence they have become part of manpower resources, which were once dominated by the Chonyi. The relationship of the Giriama to other Mijikenda groups such as the Ribe, Rabai, Digo and Duruma is rather loose. The Kamba and Jigana have mixed with the coastal population in recent decades. Only a very few villages could sustain them. The Kauma have also been assimilated. The area around the Kilifi Creek is inhabited by Giriama up to nearly 90 percent.

The Giriama grow crops to sell and partake in subsistence agriculture.

The Giriama people experience spirit possession.

Extended information The sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forest

Mijikenda ("the Nine Tribes") are a group of nine related Bantu ethnic groups inhabiting the coast of Kenya, between the Sabaki and the Umba rivers, in an area stretching from the border with Tanzania in the south to the border near Somalia in the north. Archaeologist Chapuruka Kusimba contends that the Mijikenda formerly resided in coastal cities, but later settled in Kenya's hinterlands to avoid submission to dominant Portuguese forces that were then in control. Historically, these Mijikenda ethnic groups have been called the Nyika or Nika by outsiders. It is a derogatory term meaning "bush people."

The nine Ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda peoples are:

  • Chonyi
  • Kambe
  • Duruma
  • Kauma
  • Ribe
  • Rabai
  • Jibana
  • Giriama
  • Digo



Their language is called Kigiriama, or Kigiryama, and is a sub-language of the Kimijikenda. The nine Mijikenda groups speak closely related languages, all types of Bantu language, which is the same group to which the more widely known Swahili belongs.


History of Giriama people

Giriama are part of Mijikenda people whose oral history relates that the ancestors of the Mijikenda, who were then one people, lived in a place called Singwaya, believed to be north of Tana River and south of Juba River in Somalia. However due to conflicts with other communities there they migrated south in waves into the present Kenya coastal region from the early 16thcentury onwards (Spear 1978). These assertion is also supported Islamic records of the Swahilis, Kitab al Zanuj, which asserted that Mijikenda were already on the coastal lands but had to establish themselves in fortified villages known as Kayas.

As they continued to be harassed by other groups, especially nomadic pastoralists, the defensive function of the kaya village was crucial to their survival. This was achieved by (i) siting the kaya within thick forest so that it could only be approached on narrow forest paths (ii) surrounding the village with a strong stockade (iii) burial the sacred objects or fingo within the kaya, essential to the material and spiritual well-being of the community (Nyamweru 1998). 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 19thand 20th centuries.

According to Giriama peoples own oral tradition "from Singwaya the Giriama stopped at Mwangea, Mwaeba, Kinarani and Mwijo all the time pursued by the Oromo people (Galla). At Mwijo however they met Laa hunters. These hunter-gatherers showed them a safe forest refuge and the use of iron arrowheads and poison, and they were finally able to repel the Oromo people (Galla). Some accounts name Jorore to the north of Giriama as the precursor of Giriama but there is no unanimity on this. The other common name for the Kaya – Fungo is after a historical kaya leader of the 19th century who acquired great power and influence among the Giriama and became a virtual despot of his people. He successfully led them against the Masai raiders of that time.



 The Giriama people are mainly subsistence farmers, producing crops and rearing small flocks of animals e.g. cows, sheep and goats. They also grow some cash crops e.g. coconut, cashew nuts and cotton. Those living at the Southern part of the forest also practice fishing. The amount of produce has however gradually deteriorated with time, leaving the people not only without surplus for sale but also not meeting the basic human needs. The attractive beaches along the coastline have attracted many investors in the hotel industry.

The communities rely on many natural resources within the forest for fuel, medicine, food and as a source of additional income. However these resources are being over exploited due to increase in the population, ignorance and deteriorating soil fertility. The community has been supported to benefit more from their natural resources through the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Conservation Community Project.


Sexual division of production

Like in most tribal cultures the men are responsible for providing food and protection to the family, while the mother is left all domestic responsibilities.


Land tenure

Each man places a boundary mark around his shamba or farm often consisting of a path or marker of sticks. That man will retain that land for the rest of his life. He may choose to leave the land unused, and leave for many years. If he hears of someone using his land he may return and demand the price of the land leaving the farmer forced to pay. The bush and trees (jungle) are public domain.

As the far as sharing goes the Giriama people have a very simple philosophy. They believe that anyone who help with the work get a portion of the harvest. If the community.


Food taboos

There are no taboo foods in the Giriama culture. They believe in using every part of the animal from organs to blood. Milk is regularly enjoyed and sold. The drink of choice is a grain alcohol called tembo that is precious to their people. The Giriama fish for some of their food and often use canoes to reach certain kinds of fish. The canoes are made of hollowed out trees from the surrounding jungle.


Parent-offspring interactions and conflict

Parent offspring interactions must be excellent since so many people live together in the same houses. All member of the family must know their place in the chain of command and exist only there. Parents have a large amount of control over their children because they believe in the parent curse. This is where the parent can curse the child at anytime with infertility. The curse canonly be lifted once the child admits to their misgivings and parents are pleased.


Age at menarche

The women of the culture reach menarche at the common age of 9-12. On the night of a young girls first menstraion the father is forced to leave the hut and not return until after she has completed her fist cycle. During at age of menarch the girl is isolated from the rest of the tribe and she is covered in oils and perfumes. She is not allowed to leave the hut unless it is to use the restroom when she must cover her fae so on one can see. After the first cycle the girl is then moved to another hut where other unmarried women who have reached menarche. She will leave this hut once she is married.


Inheritance patterns

Inheritance is through the father to the sons. The head of the household in the eldest male and inheritance follows to his eldest son. That is only partially true because the eldest son shares the responsibility of the land with his brothers. Since all work the land they each share in the harvests equally.
Since the families live in multi-generational groups the children are given to the care of the other women in the family, traditionally the eldest daughter. Also the children are property of the father so the death of the mother has little effect.


Kuhaswa - Traditional Giriama wedding

The parents of the bride groom look for the bride.They go to the bride’s home and the father of the bridegroom introduces himself and then says”Fudzire mala Mudzungu wa utsunguni”. We have come to look for the cucumber that is painful. The father of the bride answers”nanmambale”let the painful cucumber spread. The bride is then called by the father and asked any question that will take time to answer, for the intention of the parents of the bridegroom is to look and observe her body language. If the bridegroom’s parents are impressed by the bride’s character and presentation, they say that they are contented and then fix a date for the bride groom to come and see the bride for the first time.

The bridegroom is accompanied by friends and cousins to come and meets the bride. When they get there, the bride says that he has been sent by his father to come and pay a visit to the village. The father-in-law understands and calls for his daughter to bring some water to the visitors. The bridegroom is not necessarily thirsty but takes the opportunity to make the bride stay there for sometimes so that he can observe her physical features. When contented the bridegroom tells the grandma of the bride that”mautin ni toto”-meaning he is pleased.

The bride and the bridegroom are put in one room so that they can introduce to one another and this is how it goes-: They tell their names first then:”Nidzire haha henu Kwa sababu nidza fahirwa ni nne, je unnambadze?”-I have come to your home because I have a passion for you, what do you say about that? The bride may decide to conceal her feelings-“sidzihisi ma mtu yoyosi mino” I do not feel for anybody. The bridegroom goes on persuading her”Mwanzangu umudzo zhomu ma mahedzu niknhale fukale hammenga siku zosi”My friend you are so cute and I wish I marry you we be together for the rest of our lives. The bride shrugs her shoulders meaning that she has agreed but can say it verbally. The bridegroom stands and hugs the bride then he goes out the house. He tells the grandma that things are okay and they leave. The bride groom tells his parents he is pleased and procedures follow.

The parents of the bridegroom go to the bride to discus dowry. The parents of the bride asks for”ndama”bull and”kadzama mirongomiri na nane”eight liters of liquor (mnazi) that will be sent twenty eight times. A day for giving the bull and the liquor  is planned, the visitors go to the bride and a ceremony is held. This time they take the bride with them. They sing and dance. The main song is”Nangoza mwanangu, dama mwanaanenda, zho kwaatu, anenda kwamulumewee…dede, mudzungu wa utsunguni nau hambale”meaning Iam nursing my daughter dama,the daughter is going to peoples home, to her husband, my dear the cucumber of pain let it spread. “The father in law asks for a blanket as a gift to bless the couple. The mother in-laws for an”mkamba wa kurekeketa mwana”The kanga for carrying the baby. The bride is blessed and asked to agree with all that her husband tells her .The father in law takes water and swirls in his mouth then blows it on the chest of the bride and the bride groom. The mother in law does the same. The bride groom is told that the bride is not a ball for him to beat all the time, he is advised to protect the bride in happiness and in problems.


Culture and Traditions of Giriama people

The Giriama people of Kenya include pastoralists living in the hinterland; farmers, who work land closer to the coast; and migrants, who earn money as laborers or fisherman on the coast itself. Wherever they live, they revere an ancient and formerly fortified capital, located in the pastoralist hinterland, which few of them ever see or visit. It is the site of occasional large-scale ceremonies and becomes especially important at times of national crisis. It then acts as a moral core of Giriama society, and a symbolic defense against total domination and assimilation. Giriama extended families reside in homesteads, or compounds. There are usually three generations—a father, his wife or wives, all of his sons, the sons' wives, any unmarried children, as well as numerous grandchildren. Homesteads range in size from seven to 70 people.


Kaya Fungu

Kaya Giriama, also called Kaya Fungo is the primary kaya of the Giriama people. It is located in the deep hinterland on the high coastal plain sometimes referred to a the Nyika Plateau. The relief is flat to gently undulating between 150-300M with soils derived from siltstone, shale and feldsparic sandstones.

The area is semi-arid and charactersized by thorny woodland / bushland and grassland with lowland dry forest sometimes occurring on low hills. Poor and unreliable rainfall and poor soils have resulted in low population density (50 per sq KM) and the livestock rearing as the main economic activity. Around Kaya Giriama in this rural area, are scattered homesteads with patchy maize crops, and earth dams to take advantage of the limited rain.

The local villages are called Gandini, Nzoweni and Kwa Choloto. Due to its sacred status, Kaya Giriama is one of the few relatively undisturbed areas of vegetation. It is an area of Brachystegia, Afzelia, Julbernardia, terminalia woodland. And Diospyros wooded grassland.

Kaya Giriama has two paths leading into the kaya from the east and west. The Eastern mwara which is the official entrance has 2 former gate sites while the western one was protected by one gate. Tsangalaweni is the where the path into the kaya begins on the eastern path, and there is a kiza there to cleanse those who go in.

At Chiza cha Mwaruga some way in, you must pluck a twig from the thicket on your left side, and drop it into the pot there. After this you may not look back as you advance into the kaya. Mwaruga is believed to have been a woman prophet who was buried at this site about 100m inside from Tsangalaweni. This is a place of thanks giving and offerings site for blessings received. In the past, green maize, bananas, cassava, dry maize flour, tobacco, meat and money would be offered but due to frequent droughts and famines people can no longer afford this. Instead visitors pluck and drop a symbolic green twig. If one forgets to cut the green twig, tobacco can substitute. A heap of dry twigs is evident when you get here.

The Moroni is quite central in the clearing and the Singwaya Fingo is believed to be buried near it in a location known as Furudai. This is the forested area south of the moro and is the most sacred and terrible place in the kaya. Strictly no entry is permitted except for a Mumwangoa clan elder initiated to do so. In the kaya the residential areas of the various clans are also identified (Chiro, 2007).


Ritual Huts

There are two important ritual huts still erected and maintained at Kayafungo: the Nyumba ya Tutu and Nyumba ya Ngiriama. The Nyumba ya Tutu is used to house specific secret objects of the community associated with the administration of oaths. It is positioned next to Moroni. Only one appointed Elder may enter it and sit in it and the circumstances of its use are elaborate and complex.

The materials used for building the hut are highly specific. The thatch grass is kitoja and is obtainable from the fields while the poles must be of Mkone, or myama trees. The ropes used are either of Mkone or Morya bark.

Nyumba ya Ngiriama is the official state house and is used to house all secret objects of the community. It is positioned next to Moroni. Entry is limited only to one senior member of the council. The protocols of access are very strict and complex. Poles from a mix of the trees associated with spirits such as Mkone can be used and all the materials must be sourced from within.


Chiza / altars

Besides the chiza (Plural Viza) along the paths which prevent the entry of enemies and bad influences, there are other places of prayer at specific localities within and outside the kaya. Some are hidden in the forest while some are within the central village area.
They can be under very tall trees, by a river or spring, or at the graves of the founders of the Kaya. Some of the kiza at Kaya Giriama include the following:

Zia ra Ache. This is a permanent water point where women attending a funeral go to bathe and wash clothes. The spirits that caused the death are washed off at this place and left here, never to haunt the morning family relatives again.

Kiza cha Mvula This is a rain prayer altar found after the last gate to the cental clearing. During the rain prayer ceremony, the half buried pot has to be filled with water drawn in guards by virgin young girls from the 4 corners (pembe nne) of the kaya. The water must not be allowed to overflow otherwise there will be floods.

Mbari tandahu This is near the Moro and there are river stones symbolizing Giriama ladies from the six main clans. During ceremonies at the spot, women dressed in black, red and white cloth loincloths are smeared with castor seed oil. If too much oil is applied as to cause spillage, there will be too much rains and the crops will fail. This is a prayer site for good rains, health and a bumper harvest. Access is restricted to the women elders who apply the oil and men elders of the senior kambi.

Mtsara wa Kaya This is a permanent water point and prayer site for good rains, peace and also pray for healing against disease outbreak. The water is only for human consumption and no cattle is allowed is. Livestock who accidentally drink here will die (Chiro, 2007).


Tradtional Rules of Kaya Giriama

The Kaya Elders of Giriama are the main custodians of the Kaya and its traditions. Meeting regularly in the kaya they provide advice to local people on cultural and spiritual matters, adjudicate disputes and lead ceremonies. They enforce a code of rules for the Kaya including the following (from Chiro, 2007):

• A ban on the wearing of shoes beyond the last gate of the kaya. It is also a taboo to enter the kaya with foreign items or use them while in the kaya as there purity is doubtful. Consequently, caps/ hats (Chepeu) are not allowed into the kaya.
• A ban on livestock in the kaya. They are taken there for ceremonies only and if accidentally stray into the kaya, they must be cleansed otherwise they should be slaughtered and eaten in there.
• Elders must abstain from sex on the night preceding a cereminy as this could compromise their purity. To ensure this the elders normally stay in the kaya away from their families the night before or a few days to the ceremony.
• All cooking and serving of dishes must be done using traditional items such as the clay pots, mvure, Lwiga and chifudu cut from coconut shell. Modern day kitchen ware such as Sufurias, bowels and plates are strictly not permitted.
• It is a taboo to bring in flames from outside the kaya. All ceremonial flames are started using friction of Mkirindi flame materials.
• It is a taboo to cut trees in the kaya without the blessing of the elders. The trees are believed to be abode or shelter of ancestral spirits and also shelters the secret objects of the community. Any felling of trees must be consented by the elders and a cleansing ritual must be undertaken to appease spirits. Cutting of trees desecrates the site..
• Firewood in the kaya forest is collected only to be used in the kaya and the species collected must not have thorns. The firewood is harvested from the periphery of the village and women must use the same paths on their return.


Political system

The people if giriama adhere to a non-centralized government based on a council of elders called the Kambi, which are derived from age sets. Age-sets and secret societies rule the Kaya. The Giriama people adhere to strict age-sets. These age sets delineate the chain of command and ensure the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. There are a total of 13 age-sets that each male will go through. In order to advance in society you must go through certain rituals of recognition. Men age 60+ go through a ceremony called, Mung’aro in order to enjoy retirement. To become part of the kimbra, the ruling council, men ages 40-69 go through a Kirao. If you wish to be part of the Kimbra you must be prepared by going through the Sayo ra Mudhanga from ages 37-69 and the ritual continue along the road to maturity.

There is a single female secret society, known as Kifudu, who keep clay pots that stand for ancestresses, in a thatched roofed hut.  These pots are in the control of post-menopausal women, who are in control of the fertility of the entire ethnic group.

To honor them, the women take the pots from the shrine, bring them to the center of the homestead, and "play" them—by putting their mouths in the openings of the pots and blowing. Without the women performing rituals centering on these clay pots, the Giriama believe that young fertile women will have problems in childbirth.

The Giriama have five male secret societies, the main society being the Gohu society, which similar to the Lions Club or the Masons, is a fraternal organization for wealthier-than-average men. You have to be elected to membership and pay membership fees, which by local standards are quite expensive. There isn't a lot of wealth stratification among the Giriama, but Gohu membership requires giving a bull. The key feature of the Gohu society is how they honor their members when they die. Men in the society are skilled carvers and are paid to create the kigango—a memorial statue—for the dead Gohu member. The posts, which range from four to nine feet tall, are created from indigenous termite-resistant hardwood. They consist of a circle for the head and rectangle for the body, and vary in decoration. Vigango are placed around the edge of the homestead, but they are not the sole monuments. Other uncarved wooden statues, called koma, are raised in honor of non-Gohu members and occupy the middle of the homestead. "These smaller statues are erected in a clear space that is surrounded by homes. People are buried right next to their houses, so these statues do not actually mark the graves. Even these ordinary statues play a role in the daily lives of the Giriama. When they drink palm wine, they'll pour a few drops on the ground in front of the statues and say a few words to the ancestors.

There's a strong belief in the power of the ancestors to influence the lives of the living on an everyday basis. The remarkable thing about the Giriama is that, despite the inroads of Islam and Christianity, indigenous religious beliefs continue to be strongly held, and primary among those is veneration for the ancestors and ancestresses.

In the case of vigango, they are believed to embody the spirit of the ancestor. These statues are the tangible link between the living and the dead, and must be honored through animal sacrifice and libations. Failure to perform these rituals or, worse yet, removing a kigango from its site will trigger the curse of the ancestral spirit. This curse can take the form of bodily illness or death of the descendants, drought, and diseased livestock.



Giriama people just like all Mijikenda people worship a Supreme being and Creator god known as Mulungu. Mulungu is believed to the God above all the gods and cannot be seen. He is worshiped through mediators who ask favors for Giriama people. Mulungu punishes and blesses according the deed of an individual.

Apart from Mulungu, the Giriamas traditionalists also believe in ancestral deity worship. Their famous deity is called the Koma. They used to sacrifice at the Koma,nearly on weekely basis. Sacrifices included alcohol (the tradiational Manazi) which is palm wine. They believe that the koma were actually the representatives of the living dead, they would therefor name the komas with names og all the elders that have gone befopre them. The koma was a curves piece of wood, and the eledest of them that have already gone before them was represented with a bigger peice of wood called the Kigango. When trouble befalls a family, they would sometime go to scarifice by the koma side, sometimes porridge and blood would be used. Th Giriama however are now largely migrating from these believes and majorly have become Christians, with some few becomeing muslims. There are afew however that stiil practise the tradition religion. They also believed in witchcraft.