Taita - Introduction

Many thanks to Cynthia Salvadori, co-author with the late Andrew Fedders of "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya", which was my primary source of information about the Taita. I am also indebted to David Akombo and to Brandon Judge for letting me reproduce their excellent papers, respectively concerning Use of Drumming as Cure for Children with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and The Ngoma Healing Ritual of the Taita People. You'll find both in the section on feature articles, and linked off the music page.
In this page:
Facts & Figures


Heading west from Voi town along the road to Taveta on the Tanzanian border, east of Mount Kilimanjaro, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the entirety of Taita-Taveta District, which encompasses the southern part of Tsavo West National Park, is merely flat and featureless scrubland, dominated by dusty orange sand, a few clumps of thorn trees, and not much else. Yet if you turn right at Mwaktau, 25km west of Voi, a switchback tarmac road to the district capital of Wundanyi begins a rapid ascent into a surprisingly fertile, densely populated and beautiful land, replete with vertiginous cliffs, rushing rivulets and waterfalls. Beautiful in its own right, the contrast with the dreary semi-desertic plains below is astonishing.
   The Taita Hills are home of the Bantu-speaking Taita people and the closely-related Sagalla, who sought refuge here from the continuous attacks and raids of the Maasai from the west and Oromo-speaking peoples from the north. Now numbering over 250,000 (including some 10,000 Sagalla), the great majority (almost 80%) practice agriculture mixed with limited animal husbandry, whilst 8-12% are engaged in waged labour and trade.

Along with most of their Bantu-speaking cousins, they have been pretty thoroughly 'westernized', not just outwardly (mode of dress, type of housing, social structure), but socially, too. A large majority are Christians, and have dropped their former beliefs in witchcraft and spirit-possession. This is unfortunate from a musical point of view, as their pepo spirit possession/exorcism dances - which were one of the few examples of possession music in Kenya - have become or are becoming extinct.
   Nonetheless, some beliefs have resisted the change, such as the Taita's respect for their ancestors. Many groups still preserve their former sacred sites intact, where the skulls of the deceased are placed in niches as reminders of the presence of the ancestors, and of the obligation owed by the living to the dead.

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Kitaita, Teita, Teta (archaic), Dabida, Davida, Dawida, Kidabida. Various subgroups are known as Mbololo, Werugha (Weruga), Mbale, Chawia, Bura, Mwanda. The Sagalla are generally considered a separate people, and are also known as Sagala, Saghala, Kisagalla, Kisagala, or Teri.

Ethnic group: Coastal-Hinterland Bantu (Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Narrow Bantu, Nyika).

Neighbouring tribes: Makonde, Maasai, Taveta, Kamba, Mijikenda (Digo), Chaga (in Tanzania).

Language: Taita are bilingual in Kitaita and Kiswahili, to which Taita is related.
   Taita dialects include Mbololo, Werugha, Mbale, Chawia, Bura and Mwanda. 62% lexical similarity with Sagalla, 46% with Gweno, 41% to 44% with the Chagga of Tanzania. 25% to 50% literate.
   Sagalla dialects are now mostly extinct: they included Dambi, Mugange (or Muganga), Teri, Kishamba, Gimba and Kasigau. Kenyan Sagalla is distinct from the Sagala of Tanzania. 15% to 25% literate.

Population: Latest figure (projected estimate for 1996) is 248,186, of which half are 15 years old or younger. The Sagalla numbered around 10,000 in 1980.

Location: In and around the Taita Hills, Taita District, Coast Province, close to the Tanzanian border to the east of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Taita Hills adjoin Tsavo West National Park.

Way of life: The great majority (almost 80%) practice agriculture mixed with limited animal husbandry, whilst 8-12% are engaged in waged labour and trade.

Religion: 67% Christian, 28% traditional religion, 5% Muslim. The traditional religion is rapidly disappearing as younger generations are born into Christian families. The Sagalla have been less Christianized, and some are Muslim.

References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.

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