Traditional Mijikenda society was primarily a gerontocracy: old men had authority over young men, and both old and young men had authority over women. If members objected to their positions in the hierarchy, they could leave and find other sources of power or support. Rabai women, for example, created their own sacred friction drum, which was used to extract fees from any outsiders who inadvertently saw it. Similarly, spirit possession by women, who could become mediums for messages from the ancestors, has been used to extract material goods from men. These female mediums sometimes formed tactical alliances with kaya elders.
The power of the elders was sometimes challenged in disputes over rain magic. Given that insufficient rains often led to famines, control over the rain was a highly valued skill. Such control was a source of ritual power for kaya elders because it was their duty to take corrective actions, usually in the form of organizing rain-making ceremonies, if the rains stopped. Sanctions for not fulfilling their duties included physical attacks and accusations of witchcraft, which could result in murder.
The Mijikenda were not directly involved in the slave trade, but they did buy, sell, and kidnap people for their labor. These people were not classified as slaves, but as resources of a clan. As such, they could be used as a form of exchange between homesteads or between an individual family and a nonkin patron, especially in times of need (e.g., during famines). Dependents could be moved between homesteads of their own accord or transferred to another homestead by the homestead head. The person handed over occupied a generally low position, but his or her transfer still served to strengthen the family that acquired the dependent and was not regarded as slavery. This kind of arrangement also occurred between distantly related or nonkin groups: individuals could sell themselves or their dependents to a patron who could provide them with the immediate needs for their survival. This practice was known as "pawning"; there was always the possibility that the pawns could be sold if the original loan was not repaid.
Because young men and, especially, young women were the least powerful people in the homesteads, it was they who bore the brunt of any shortage of food. Also, the wealthier families could call in their debts in time of famine and rely on the support of those networks that their wealth had created. The dependents of lesser patrons, without such support, often tried to place themselves in new networks by leaving the homesteads of their paternal kin in search of new patrons before their seniors sold them or pawned them for food. Such migration was not always in response to famines; sometimes it was prompted by arguments between the generations.