The group known as the Mijikenda is made up of nine closely related but distinct peoples—the Kauma, Chonyi, Jibana, Giriama, Kamabe, Ribe, Rabai, Duruma, and Digo—who live along the coast of Kenya and share a common linguistic and cultural heritage. Traditionally, each group lived within its own hilltop village ( kaya ) on the ridge along the Kenya coast, between the towns of Kilili and Vanga.
The members of each of the nine Mijikenda groups speak a separate dialect of the same language. That language, Mijikenda, is one of the Northeast Coastal Bantu Group of languages and is closely related linguistically and historically to other languages along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts. There were an estimated 730,000 Mijikenda speakers in 1980. The largest groups of Mijikenda are the Giriama, who numbered about 350,000 in 1987, and the Duruma, with a population of approximately 190,000 in 1986. Some of the dialects are mutually intelligible; some are not.
While change has come to the Mijikenda, they have maintained many of the beliefs and practices of their traditional culture. They have resisted the conversion attempts of Muslim and Christian missionaries to a much greater extent than many of their neighbors, and they adhere to many beliefs that were derived from their traditional religion, which was a form of ancestor worship. They have incorporated the myth of their origins, as well as a description of their kaya-based, stratified social structure, into a written record of their culture, which is passed on to their children.
According to a Mijikenda myth, the Mijikenda orginated in Singwaya (or Shungwaya), which was to the north of the Somali coast. They were driven south by the Oromo until they reached their present locations along the ridge, where they built their kayas within a protective setting. The historical accuracy of this myth is a point of controversy between those who believe that the Mijikenda originated from a single point in the north and those who believe that they do not have a single origin, but migrated primarily from the south.