Taitas - the gemstone miners

The Taita people are a Bantu tribe living in the Taita Hills on Kenya's southwest, near the Tanzania border and surrounding plains.

What is known as the Taita tribe actually consists of three separate but closely-related tribes: Wadawida (or Taita), Wasaghala (Sagalla) and Wataveta (Taveta).

The languages of these three tribes are very similar to each other and to the Swahili language.

The languages also bear some similarity to the language spoken by the Chagga people of Tanzania. The Wadawida tribe is the largest of the three, numbering about 300,000 people as of the last population census.

The beautiful Taita hills

The Taita hills consist of three main hills: Dawida, Saghala, and Kasighau. Dawida is by far the most massive, fertile, and densely populated area of the Taita tribe. The Wadawida living on the slopes of this hill practice different forms of agriculture, selling the bulk of the food they produce to the residents of Coast Province, especially to those living in Mombasa.

Tsavo West National Park along the foothills of taita
Red-skinned elephants in Tsavo West National Park

On the plains surrounding the Taita hills lays the expansive Tsavo West National Game Park. Before Tsavo was turned into a national game reserve, these plains were important game-hunting grounds for the Taita tribe.

History of the Taita tribe

Historians believe that the Taitas migrated from Central Africa alongside other Bantu tribes, arriving in present day Kenya from the south through Shungwaya before finally settling in the fertile Taita hills. The hills provided the Taita with refuge from raids and attacks by the neighboring Maasai tribe.

Culture and lifestyle of the of the Taita people

Taita people have since assimilated with many western values and most of their traditional cultures have faded away. Traditionally, one of the most important aspects of Taita tribal culture was male circumcision. Circumcision was considered an important ritual in training young boys, normally aged between 7 and 11 years, to take on more adult responsibilities. Traditional circumcision no longer takes place in most parts of Taita, as many parents opt to have the operation done in a hospital.

One very unique aspect of Taita culture is the respect accorded to the dead. In the past, when a person died, they were buried for a period of about one year, at which time their body would be exhumed. The skull would be 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 the skulls can still be found are treated as sacred in many parts of Taita.

Taitas and Music

The Taita people have always enjoyed expressing themselves through music. They had many interesting forms of traditional dance, the most fascinating of which was the pepo spirit-possession dance called Mwazindika. This and other traditional dances have since died off and are now 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 many recent Taita musicians.

Taita belief, faith and religion

Today, most Taita people are Christians, though a considerable number are Muslim. 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 calamity and misfortune, including droughts, locust invasions, barrenness, and famine. In "normal" times, sacrifices were made to the ancestors or household gods, milimu. Only a small number of Taitas still practice their traditional religious faith.

Economic activities of the Taita people

Being an agricultural society in a fertile land, most Taitas practice agriculture as their main economic activity. Horticultural production has recently become an important economic pursuit in the Taita hills. Taitas also rear dairy cattle and produce most of the milk supply for Kenya's Coast Province. They also grow coffee.

Gemstone mining is primarily done in the drier parts of Taita land, where large deposits of precious stones such as ruby, tanzanite and garnet can be found.

The Taita's staple food

The traditional diet of the Taita consisted of bananas, pumpkins, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and millet. Occasionally, this diet would be supplemented with game meat hunted from the plains. However, once the Taita started growing maize (corn), and after the government restricted hunting, ugali and green cooked vegetables, especially became their 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. It is often accompanied by mbangara, a traditional Taita drink made of sugarcane, corn or cassava.

Related Information

TOP of the Taita Tribe of Kenya

Go to Kenya Information Guide Home page