The Taita: Who Are They?

The Taita: Who are they?

For their special love of white-collar jobs, they have been variously described as serious Administrators, Mediators, Diplomats, and, also, Religious People. But they are great farmers, cattle ranchers and bee Keepers too.

Ironically,however, although the Taita people practise both modern and traditional forms of small-scale peasant farming, hardly any one of them can legitimately be described as commercial maize roasters in the whole of Voi City. Except Heltan Mwanyange who took up the trade, having initially worked as a manager at Milkah’s Bar and Restaurant in the 80s.

In their not-so-secret loathing for menial jobs, they have left this calling to the enterprising and aggressive immigrants from Ukambani. For their deep love for culture and music, they produced World-class Broadcasters like the late Joab Isaac Mwamto, Artistes and Musicians like Fadhili William of ‘Malaika’ fame, Mathias Mlamba, Habel Kifoto, Freshley Mwamburi of ‘Stella’ fame and even Gospel singers like Abednego Mwanjala and Marion Shako. The Taita, as Voi Court Prosecutor Joseph Mwangi describes them as capable of “ leaving you briefly, go for a break under a tree and return after barely half an hour with a composition, complete with lyrics and a perfect melody! But, who are they?

Historically, the Taita were part of a larger mobile mass of human Groups “Abantu” whose origins are traced back to West Africa. Wading through the Congo Forests and Rivers as they searched for roots (food) and shelter in the period 1100 to 1300, some of these groups moved eastwards towards the present day Uganda (the Baganda and Basoga) while others moved in a south easterly direction into Tanganyika and, finally into present day Kenya.

Over the centuries, the people known as the “Taita ” or “Wadawida” evolved into small distinct sub groups with distinct cultural, social and economic features comprising the Wadawida, Wasagalla, Wakasigau and the Wataveta. In contemporary times, however, whereas outsiders often lump these diverse entities into one close-knit grouping, a closer scutiny of the whole County of Taita Taveta reveals conspicuous differences of language or of dialects among the main Taita groups themselves, and the Taveta.

It is a fallacy, for instance, for up contry people to refer commonly to all Coastal peoples as the Miji-Kenda. Significantly, however although the Digo, Giriama, Duruma , Rabai, Chonyi, Jibana, Kambe, kauma and Ribe tribes of the Coast are members of the “coalition” of nine Coastal ‘Miji-Kenda’ , neither the Taita people, nor the Pokomo, are part of this large linguistic grouping.

Although it is easier to forgive an American who has never ventured out of his Continent, for thinking that Kenya is a part of Southern England, would a Taita forgive a Turkana of Northern Kenya for thinking that Taita is in Giriamaland?

The Taita people occupy the so-called Taita Hills and the surrounding Lowlands featuring the Tsavo National Park to the East and the Tsavo West Park. Ensconced between the northern Tanzania Border to its South, the Tsavo National Parks, and Makueni District to the North West, the Taita-speaking people sprawl across the Hills of Dawida, Sagalla, Kasigau and the Taveta plains that naturally flow from the Kilimanjaro Mountain Region.

The Sagalla, who occupy the high hills and massif overlooking the Voi City basin on the northern side, Maungu on the eastern side and Kasigau on the south-western slopes, is filled up by the wasagalla with their own conspicuously different local dialects, who in contemporary times have intermarried with their counterparts from the other Hills of Wundanyi, Bura, Mwanda, Mrughua, Rong’e and Mbololo Hills all commonly known as Dawida thereby producing a rich and diverse cultural cauldron.

The Sagalla dialect borrows heavily from the Duruma and Giriama tribes, with whom they share a border on the eastern side at Taru and Kilibasi. The word ‘Sagalla’ itself literally means ‘sit down’ in either KiGiriama or KiDuruma. Within the Wasagalla language itself, therefore, significant dialectical differences occur, between the Wateri and Wadambi of Sagalla Hills, for instance. On the grand scale, whereas the Sagalla as a whole refer to Voi Town as ‘Ore’, the Wadawida refer to the same Town as ‘ Voi’ or better still, ‘Woi’. Even though the origins of the word ‘Voi’ itself disppears somewhere into Kamba folklore, the Indian ‘Coolies’ who constructed the Kenya-Uganda Railway did somehow contribute towards the corruption of the City’s original name from the Dawida i.e., ‘Woi’ to the modern ‘Voi’, simply because the Indians could not easily pronounce the lettr ‘W’. The same fate applied to Taveta’s original ‘Tuweta’ which the Indians could not similarly pronounce, ending up with ‘Tuveta’ initially and now ‘Taveta’.

Duncan Mwanyumba,
Voi City, Saturday, December 8, 2012

Duncan Mwanyumba is a practicing advocate of the High Court currently based in Voi City, Coast Province of Kenya, a cultural enthusiast, and the Convener of Malaika Festival

This article initially appeared in www.malaika.co.ke