Taita - History


Despite early contact with missionaries, little is known of the Taita before the Kenya Christian era (mid-1800s onwards), although the existence of six major divisions (or clans) would suggest that the Taita are in fact an amalgam of several different peoples, who probably arrived in present-day Taita-Taveta District in separate migrations possibly spread over several hundred years.

As to why they migrated here, this would most likely have been both to avoid cattle raids and attacks from both the Maasai to the west and the Oromo-speaking peoples from the north, and migrations by people who had lost their herds in such attacks. The hills, with their steep, fortress-like flanks, were an ideal refuge, being not only easy to defend, but also well-watered and lush, making agriculture a more than viable economic alternative to herding.

In the 1850s, the Reverend Johann Ludwig Krapf, the first missionary to travel to the Taita Hills (en route to 'discovering' Kilimanjaro, together with Johannes Rebmann), was positively enraptured by what he saw as:

"its rich variety of mountain, hill and dale covered by the most luxurious vegetation! I could have fancied myself on the Jura mountains near Basel," he exuded, "so beautiful was the country, so delightful the climate. Our way through plantations of Indian corn and beans, past small herds of cattle ... then along fields of sugar-cane and banana, till we descended into the valley with its rich pasture lands...
   In this lovely green country of hills and valleys and running streams, exhilarating air that puts new life into limp and tired Coast residents, the natives are naturally brisker in their movements than those of the lower lands, and they have not so many unwholesome microbes to contend with! This beautiful land, however, cannot be reached without passing over the dreary and monotonous plain."

The name Taita itself is commonly said to originate from Kiswahili-speakers, who heard the inhabitants of Sagalla describe the region as "Teta" ('defensive', 'quarrelsome' or 'aggressive'?). By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Swahili had corrupted Teta into Taita and the name came to be applied both to the entire area and to its principal inhabitants. True or not, this story - as well as linguistic similarities between Kiswahili and Kitaita - points to the historical involvement of the Taita with the Swahili-dominated caravan trade. It is known for a fact that the Taita participated in the caravan trade with Pare and Usambara in Tanzania, with which they traded ivory and rhino horn in return for manufactured material goods.
   Things changed suddenly - and violently - at the end of the nineteenth century, when the British began construction of their railway from Mombasa on the coast to Kampala in Uganda, which included a branch line from Voi to Taveta on the border with German East Africa, now Tanzania. To build the railway, the British needed both the land it would pass along, and the 'pacification' of the tribes whose territories they passed through. Obtaining the land was easy enough - they simply stole it. But obtaining 'peace' was more difficult, and the Taita, along with the Giriama, Kamba, Kikuyu, Kisii, the Nandi and the Elgeyo were all the receivers of brutal and vicious 'patrols' which many times ruthlessly killed men and women and exterminated their stock.
   With the railway, of course, came European culture and religion. Attempts to convert the Taita to Christianity began in earnest after 1885, when the Church Missionary Society (CMS) began to spread its activities inland, and by 1892, the first Catholic Mission was established at Bura, which is now Bura Girls High School. Mbale Mission Centre, near Wundanyi, followed in 1900, and then what is still one of the biggest Taita Churches, at Wusi Mission, in 1905.

More than a century of contact with Europeans and Christianity has considerably 'westernized' the Taita, although they have culturally also been exposed to Kenyan influences, notably from Kamba and Kikuyu traders. Yet despite these changes, the Taita remain a remarkably homogenous group, due in part - I have no doubt - to the respect they continue to show their ancestors.

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