The Digo are an ethnic and linguistic group based near the Indian Ocean coast between Mombasa in southern Kenya and Tanga in northern Tanzania. In 1994 the Digo population was estimated to total 305,000, with 217,000 ethnic Digo living in Kenya and 88,000 (1987 estimate) in Tanzania. Digo people, nearly all Muslims, speak the Digo language, called Chidigo by speakers, a Bantu language. They are part of the greater Mijikenda ethnic group of people which contains nine smaller groups or tribes, including the Duruma, Giriama, and others.
Digo women do a tremendous amount of labor, but are excluded from participating in politics, religion, kinship issues, and major economic transactions.
The Digo are a Bantu tribe and are actually grouped together with eight other tribes. Together these tribes make up the Mijikenda, or “nine towns.” Tradition tells us that the nine Mijikenda tribes originated farther north, but were driven south as a result of war. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Digo experienced a time of great famine. It became a common practice for them to give either themselves or their children as kore, or “blood money,” to serve as temporary collateral for a loan of food. Sadly, there were many times when the debt could not be redeemed, thus leaving them to live as slaves. Many of the Digo who were brought to Mombasa as slaves later obtained their freedom by converting to Islam.
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:
For many years the Digo have been involved in trade with Muslim Arabs. As a result, they have enjoyed a higher standard of living than most of their neighboring tribes. In addition to trading, farming and fishing are two other sources of income for the Digo. Their principal crop is “manioc,” a small shrub with thick roots that are eaten like potatoes. They also grow sesame, corn, rice, and beans. “Palm wine” is a popular drink produced from the palm tree.
The Digo tribe formerly lived in large, fortified villages but today their villages only consist of about 40 huts each. The shape of each hut clearly indicates to the villagers who live inside. The huts of elders are round, while those of other people are rectangular.
When a young Digo man marries, he must pay the normal bride-price of four heads of cattle, two goats or sheep, and palm wine. He is then incorporated into the bride’s family. Eventually, as he demonstrates leadership qualities, he will be accepted into the body of tribal elders.
Islam is more widely accepted among the Digo than among any of the other Mijikenda tribes. Nevertheless, ties with traditional practices (such as animism and ancestor worship) still have more influence on the Digo community than does Islam. (Animism is the belief that non-human objects have spirits. Ancestor worship is the practice of praying to deceased ancestors for help and guidance.) One example of spiritism is their use of blood sacrifices. Such sacrifices are very significant to the Digo, especially in the exorcism of evil spirits. Witchdoctors are also consulted regularly.
Most of the Digo people over forty years of age have no real understanding of the Koran. Only a few of them have studied Islam in any depth, and most of them have only a superficial knowledge of its principles and doctrines. However, its presence among the Digo over the past eighty years has not gone entirely unnoticed. Its existence has altered both religious and political structures. For example, the people have adopted new attire and diets from their Muslim Arab neighbors. Although they know no religious significance for wearing the black veil, Digo women wear it to show respect for their husbands. This nominal identification with the Muslim religion is referred to as “folk Islam.”