The Taita people (the Wataita or Wadawida) are a Kenyan ethnic group located in the Taita-Taveta County. They speak Kidawida which belongs to the Bantu languages. The West-Bantu moved to the area of the Taita-Taveta County first approximately in 1000-1300.
It has been argued that the Taita people migrated to Kenya through Tanzania. They migrated to Kenya in five groups each settling at different places in the present Taita-Taveta District in Kenya. While settling in these areas the Taita-speaking people interacted with other communities or tribes particularly the Taveta, the Pare of Tanzania, and the Maasai. Contrary to this argument, the inhabitants reveal migration occurred back and forth throughout the history of these groups, and the Taita people should be viewed as a part of the bigger population inhabiting the entire Kilimanjaro Corridor.
There are subgroups or subtribes of Taita. They can be divided into Wadawida who traditionally lived around the Dawida, the Wasagalla who lived around the Saghalla and the Wakasighau who lived around the Kasighau massif of the Taita Hills. The Saghalla people speak Kisaghala which is much closer to Kigiriama or Mijikenda (nine tribes who speak almost same language). The Kasighau are more closer to the Pare and Chagga of Tanzania but are a Taita-speaking people.
Traditionally the Taita tribe consisted of lineages/clans (vichuku; singular kichuku). Each lineage occupied its own territorial area of the hills. These lineages were autonomous political units and before colonialism there did not develop an idea or a consciousness of a unified Taita tribe.
While some cultural traits among the Saghalla, Kasighau and Dawida were shared, like the skull "burials" in caves and rock shelters, there were small variations among the Dawida and the Saghalla. While the Dawida only kept the skulls of old men above seventy years, the Saghala kept women and children skulls as well as the men. In some parts of Saghala they had places where they kept skulls of any other communities that died in their territory.
There were also other traditions such as the secret cult of the Wabasi. While the origin of this tradition is not very much known it thrived in Taita. The Wabasi were a feared group of people (cult) in Taita. Anybody who joined the Wabasi cult can not be buried by a non-Abasi (singular). They had their sacred forests and meeting places.
Mwangeka, a legendary figure for the Taitas, resisted the British colonists from approaching the lands of the Wataita.
Today the language of the Taita (Kidawida, Kitaita) is an enriched language full of shared words from Chagga, Pare, Maasai, Mijikenda and the other communities they lived with.
The Taita people have several dialects. The Mbololo Taita have their own, Bura Taita have another. Wusi, Kidaya, Mghange, Chawia, Mwanda, Kishamba, Werugha, Wumingu, Wundanyi—these are the so-called Dawidas. Kisaghalla and the Kasighau are rather independent dialects and when visiting the other Taita Massifs they would say "we are going to Dawida."
Historians believe that Taitas migrated from Central Africa alongside other Bantu tribes, coming into present day Kenya from the south through Shungwaya before finally settling in the fertile Taita hills. The hills provided the Taita refuge from raids and attacks by the neighboring Maasai tribe
Taita people have today assimilated many western values such that most of their traditional cultures have faded away. Traditionally, one of the most important aspects of Taita tribe culture was male circumcision.
Circumcision was considered an important ritual in training young boys normally aged between 7 and 11 years to take more adult responsibilities. Traditional circumcision no longer takes place in most parts of Taita, with many parents opting to have the operation done in a hospital.
One very unique Taita culture is the respect accorded to the dead. In the past, when a person died, they’d be buried, then after a period of about one year their body would be exhumed and the skull severed from the rest of the body and taken to a sacred cave, their “proper” abode with the ancestors. While this is no longer practiced today, the caves where skulls of long dead people are still found are treated as sacred in many parts of Taita.
Traditionally, the Taita people liked expressing themselves in music. They had many interesting forms of traditional dances, the most fascinating of which was the pepo spirit-possession dances called Mwazindika.
This and other traditional dances have since died off and are only performed during national holidays. Members of the Taita tribe are however still very talented musically. The late Fadhili Williams of the hit song Malaika was one of the many recent Taita musicians.
Today, most Taita people are Christians, though there is a considerable number of Muslims. Taita traditional religion revolved around the spirits of the ancestors.
While Taitas believed in one supreme god, Mlungu, this god was only called upon, and given sacrifices for appeasement or thanksgiving in times of calamities and misfortunes such as droughts, locust invasions, barrenness, and famine.
In “normal” times, sacrifices were made to the ancestors or household gods, milimu. Only very few Taitas still practice their traditional religious faith.
Being an agricultural society in a fertile land, most Taitas practice agriculture as the main economic activity.
Horticultural production has recently become an important economic activity in Taita hills. Taitas also rear dairy cattle and produce most of the milk supplied in other parts of Coast province. They also grow coffee.
Gemstone mining is primarily done in the drier parts of Taita land, which have large deposits of precious stones such as Ruby, Tanzanite and Garnets.
The traditional diet of the Taita consisted of bananas, pumpkins, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes, cow-peas, and millet.
Occasionally, this diet would be supplemented with game meat hunted from the plains.
However, when they started growing maize (corn) and after the government’s restriction on hunting, ugali and green cooked vegetables, especially cabbage, is now the staple food.
Kimanga (a mashed combination of beans plus either cassava, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, or bananas) is still a traditional taita delicacy prepared during special occasions, and accompanied by mbangara, a taita traditional drink made out of sugarcane, corn or cassava
The spectacular Taita Hills were the focus for religious activity and there are huge Rocks (Magamba), and caves known as 'Mbanga' that were considered very sacred places for the dead and for worship. In earlier times the caves also offered security and a places of shelter. At the caves the skulls of the dead were arranged according to clans or lineages. The caves also acted also as isolation wards for dreaded diseases and infected patients. The sick would be isolated and confined to the caves and food provided to them at the caves. If a patient survived he or she would be allowed to rejoin the community. Some forests also were important sacred places and people were prohibited from carrying any other activities in turn also helping a great deal in conservation. The sacred forests are known as Fighi and they are the equivalent of the Mijikenda's Kaya.
The hills and rocks on the other extreme served as grounds for discipline and instilling fear; criminals were taken up the rocks and thrown down to their death. In the caves also lived some of the largest poisonous snakes and other dangerous creatures.
Most of the Taita families practiced polygamy. Normally, marriages were pre-arranged where the groom was a family friend to the bride's family. Dowry, in form of livestock, would be paid over time, the decisions made by the bride's father and uncles (from the mother's side) were highly regarded during the negotiations (Wupe). When the girls were perceived old enough for marriage, they would be 'kidnapped' by their would be in-laws and this happened in the evenings when they went out to fetch water or firewood.