Saturday, 4 April 2009


by Martin Walsh

[This is the corrected text of an article that appeared in March 1992 in the East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 22 (1): 2-9. A pdf version (with minor diacritical marks that can't be shown here) can be downloaded from the site of the Ethno-ornithology Research and Study Group.]

The following notes set out to solve a simple linguistic puzzle: why do the Mijikenda of the East African coast have more than one word meaning “bird”? Why is the generic term for avifauna in some dialects the name of a particular species in others? And why do some Mijikenda dialects have no special term at all, but refer to birds in general by circumlocutions such as “little creatures”, “flying animals” and “animals with wings”? The answer to these questions leads far beyond an account of the principles or accidents of local taxonomy. Perhaps surprisingly, it reveals something of a forgotten episode in coastal history; while in general it provides an introduction to the relatively unexplored field of ethno-ornithology, in this case as exemplified by the practices and beliefs of the Mijikenda.

First, a few remarks about the people and language in question. The Mijikenda inhabit a large part of the East African coast and its immediate hinterland, between the Tana River in the north and the Usambara Mountains in the south. Until relatively recently they were known as the Nyika or “people of the wilderness” in implied (and unkind) contrast to the urbane Swahili of the littoral. Their modern name is a reference to the original “nine villages” or kayas in the lowland rainforest said to have been occupied by the different ethnic groups which comprise the Mijikenda today: the Giriama, Kauma, Chonyi, Dzihana, Kambe, Rihe, Raßai, Duruma and Digo. All of these people speak mutually intelligible dialects of the same language, also called Mijikenda. Its closest linguistic relatives are Pokomo, Comorian, Swahili and Elwana, which together with Mijikenda form the Sabaki group of the North East Coast Bantu languages. The dialects of Mijikenda, meanwhile, can be divided on phonological grounds into two groups, northern and southern. Southern Mijikenda consists of Raßai, Duruma, and at least two varieties of Digo: the remaining dialects, the most widely spoken of which is Giriama, belong to the northern group. Available evidence suggests that these two groups began to diverge less than 500 years ago and that the emergence of the modern Mijikenda dialects thus postdates the first appearance of the Portuguese on the East African coast.

The Mijikenda dialects share most items of basic vocabulary. The word for “bird”, however, is not shared in this way: instead a number of different terms are in use. To make matters more complicated, it seems that their application varies within as well as between dialects. Moreover, it is evident that this usage is in a continuing process of change, and has been since records of the language were first made by the missionaries Krapf and Rebmann in the middle of the last century.

Basically three terms are involved: nyuni, ts’ongo and, variously qualified, nyama. Nyuni is recorded as the generic term for birds in Dzihana, in 19th century Raßai, and among some, but by no means all, speakers of the northern and southern varieties of Digo. In Duruma, however, it refers solely to woodpeckers, one and probably more species of the family Picidae. In Kauma and northern Digo nyuni is also recorded as referring to a particular bird species, though whether these are woodpeckers too remains to be clarified. The second term, ts’ongo, has a much wider currency as a generic term: it has been recorded with this meaning in all of the dialects except Dzihana (on which lexical information is too sparse for its use to be ruled out) and Duruma. In Duruma, though, ts’ongo is the name of a bird, otherwise unidentified, which feeds upon sorghum and other grain crops. Early records indicate that ts’ongo had the same restricted meaning in 19th century Raßai and suggest that it has only displaced nyuni as the generic term for birds in the relatively recent past. The third word, nyama, is the common Mijikenda term for animals (and their meat) and appears in a number of different forms and expressions. In Duruma nyama ya kuburuka, literally “flying animal”, is the generic expression for a bird. Similar phrases, meaning “animal with wings” are recorded for northern Digo (chinyama cha maßa, mnyama wa maßa) as well as Giriama (nyama wa mahaha). Giriama also use the diminutive form kanyama, “little animal”. The overall result, as can be seen, is an extremely irregular pattern of usage and distribution which does not, for example, conform neatly to the division of Mijikenda into northern and southern groups nor the further subdivision of these into individual dialects.

Given the relative youth and closeness of the Mijikenda dialects, it is unusual to find their speakers at variance over the term for such a basic feature of everyday life. The coastal mosaic of forest and shrub hosts a rich avifauna which the Mijikenda are much less indifferent to than a quick glance at their generic terminology would suggest. Birds play a significant practical role in the lives of rural Mijikenda, and not just as crop pests or shooting practice for children. They provide an occasional source of meat as well as other specialized products like the feathers (especially of vultures) for fletching arrows. Perhaps more importantly, birds act as sensitive indicators of changes in the weather and local environment, and they help to identify, for example, the most poisonous Acokanthera trees or, in the case of the Black-throated Honeyguide, the sources of wild honey. Their economic importance is underlined by the fact that the Mijikenda have a large vocabulary to describe the different bird species they know (but none, for example, to describe different kinds of butterfly). Thus the published dictionaries, although they are far from complete, include more than one hundred different names of birds, and there are no doubt many waiting to be recorded, not to mention identified. Why then so some Mijikenda call birds “flying animals”? And why are there such basic differences in terminology that one speaker’s bird is another’s particular species and vice versa?

The answer to these questions turns upon the role which birds play as omens of the future, and the way in which Mijikenda beliefs in this respect have developed over time. To begin with, let us look at the general form of these ideas. Like their Swahili neighbours, not to mention many other peoples in the region, the Mijikenda believe that certain birds, most notably owls, are harbingers of misfortune. On top of this, however, the Mijikenda have a much more specific set of beliefs about the role of birds as omens. We owe the most detailed description of these beliefs, or at least one variant of them, to J.B. Griffiths, a Methodist missionary who lived among the Duruma of Mazeras for some 35 years. His account, which was published in 1935 (see the bibliographic note at the end of this article), is reported in full below:

“They [the Duruma] are in the habit of taking the auspices of two birds which are called Jelele and Kokota. Jelele has a deep blue coat and a red beak, and makes its home in a hole it burrows in the bank of a watercourse or a pit. It is never heard except when it screams in flying from tree to tree. Kokota has a brown coat with regular rows of white circular spots and a reddish crest, and makes its home in a hole it digs in the bole of a dead tree. It is frequently heard to call “Nje-nye-nje” after a spell of tree-tapping, the taps being so rapid that one can hardly take count of them. They are shy birds and are not often seen near dwellings.
The nature of the omen is determined by the position of the birds at the time one hears them. If the birds are in front of one, it is a warning not to proceed; and if they are behind one, it forebodes trouble in one’s absence. If they are on one’s right, it foretells of good health with scarcity of food; and if they are on one’s left, it foreshadows plenty of food and poor health. But if the one is on one’s right and the other is on one’s left, or if a Jelele or a Kokota is on one’s right and another Jelele or Kokota is on one’s left, the omen is that of good health and success.
The second, fourth and eighth of the first and second decades of the moon and the second and fourth of the last three eight days of the moon are called the “Days of the Birds.” They are the auspicious days of the people. Travelling, removing, building, cultivating, planting, harvesting, sacrificing: in fact, everything of importance, domestic or tribal, is commenced on one of these days.
It was well known to me that they were in the habit of listening to these birds, but it was a long time before I understood why they did so. One morning, when I was on a journey, a Jelele flew screaming across our path, and I heard the man who was in front of me mutter to himself: “I wonder whose shade that is.” That gave me my first cue. I have toiled many years among these people since then, and I have no doubt that they regard these birds as the mouthpiece of the shades, and that is why they consult them. They listen to the birds to find out the disposition of the family shades.”

This passage provides a fascinating picture of the way in which a people’s ideas about birds can permeate their everyday lives. Unfortunately nothing more is known (at least to this author) about the jelele, its identity (could it be a kingfisher?) and its role as a bird of omen. The kokota can be positively identified as a woodpecker, if not the Nubian Woodpecker, Campethera nubica, then one of the related species with a red crown or nape – or, equally probable, all these together. Kokota is also recorded as a term for woodpeckers among the Giriama and Raßai. Meanwhile, contemporary Duruma from the Taru area contradict Griffiths by saying that their name for this bird is nyuni and that it is the Digo who call woodpeckers kokota.

Whatever the case, there are a number of indications that the ideas and practices described by Griffiths did not originate with the Mijikenda, but were borrowed from elsewhere. Both jelele and kokota appear (because of the presence of the non-inherited phonemes /j/ and /t/) to be loanwords in Mijikenda, and though the latter is clearly related to Swahili gogota, also a woodpecker, the immediate origin of both words is unclear. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that analogous beliefs do not exist among, or at least have not been described for, the Mijikenda’s closest relatives, the Pokomo, Swahili and other speakers of Sabaki languages. If this specific set of ideas about birds of omen did not originate with the Mijikenda themselves, then where did it come from?

A first clue comes from the following passage, taken from Gerhard Lindblom’s classic 1920 monograph on The Akamba. After mentioning the role of owls as birds of ill-omen, Lindblom goes on:

“The most important and best known of all prophesying animals is also a bird, the ŋgomakomi, a red-headed species of woodpecker, to which the natives listened, especially in former times, before marching out on plundering expeditions. It is considered to be a good or bad omen according to the side on which one hears his pecking. The interpretation varies to some extent in different parts of Ukamba; the following detailed account is from Kikumbuliu, the south-east part of the country.
If the bird is heard straight in front, one will “see blood”, i.e. get scratched in the thickets, be gored by a rhinoceros or wounded in fighting, etc.; which of these things is most probable depends on the object of the expedition or the environment one is in or is going to be in. To hear the bird in front in an oblique direction and high up is also a bad sign, whereas if it is low in the same direction it only means that the listener will return without having effected his object. The left side is, on the other hand, the good side (in other districts the bad one), and if the bird is heard on that side, one has prospects of acquiring women, cattle and other wealth. Finally, if it is heard from behind, it denotes that the listener will carry a burden, so that if he is going out hunting he will probably shoot something, if he is about to cut the honeycombs from the beehives, he may be pretty sure of a good result, and similarly with those who are going to steal cattle, etc.
This woodpecker is looked upon as a messenger from the ancestral spirits; it is not killed, and its flesh may not be eaten by men. This prohibition does not apply to women, probably because as a rule they do not know of this bird, as they seldom have cause to go out into the desert, where the bird principally stays. In the immediate neighbourhood of Machakos, where trees are very rare and the bird is consequently not found, only a very few people seem to know of it. The Akamba who live there also carried out most of their campaigns on the steppe, where they probably had no opportunity of observing it.
The natives state that even certain animals, such as the giraffe, wild boar, etc. are so shrewd that they listen to and understand the ŋgomakomi’s call.”

Lindblom continues his account by giving the special Kamba names for the different directions from which the woodpecker is heard, before concluding with an anecdote about a travelling party which turned back home after hearing the birds call on the second day of their journey. The beliefs he describes are sufficiently similar to those of the Mijikenda to enable us to posit some connection, but different enough to render it unlikely that they were borrowed directly by them. Similar ideas are also held by at least two East Nilotic peoples, the Turkana and (as Lindblom also noted) the Maasai. Again, some kind of connection can be posited, though it is not clear between whom or in which direction, and further elucidation of this wider pattern of diffusion remains beyond the scope of the present article.

The connection between the Kamba and the Mijikenda is a tangible one. Most Kamba live far to the west of the Mijikenda, the two peoples separated by the vast semi-arid expanse of the Tsavo. For the past 200 years or more, however, Kamba have traded with the coast, while by the mid-19th century significant numbers of them were settled permanently in close proximity to the Raßai and Duruma. The Kamba also speak a Bantu language, though it is not very closely related to Mijikenda nor even a member of the North East Coast group to which the Sabaki languages belong. Instead, Kamba speech is classed together with that of the Kikuyu, Meru and others living in the vicinity of Mount Kenya as belonging to the Central Kenya Bantu, or what is otherwise known as the Thagicu group of languages. Most of the cultural and linguistic ties between the Mijikenda and Kamba arose not as a result of their direct contact but through the historical influence of another member of this group, the Segeju. And it is to these people that we must look to find the immediate source of Mijikenda ideas about birds of omen.

Who are or were the Segeju? It is tempting to say that if Segeju history had not happened it would have been impossible to invent; although this is precisely what earlier historians, misled by the Segeju’s own traditions, tried to do. A reliable picture, informed by linguistic research, has only begun to emerge in the past decade, and many of its details have yet to be filled out. The following is a brief outline.

Contrary to earlier speculation, the linguistic evidence makes it clear that the Segeju originate from the same area as other Thagicu speakers, most probably somewhere on the upper reaches of the Tana River. Indeed the different names by which the Segeju are known are all variants of the name Thagicu, which was given to the language group because of its widespread occurrence in the historical traditions of different members: “Segeju” itself is derived from the Swahili version (wasegeju, whereas the Mijikenda call them asagidzu, the Sagidzu). Sometime in the 16th century, possibly before, the ancestors of the modern Segeju migrated down the Tana River and settled near to the coast. There they became involved in shifting patterns of conflict and alliance with their neighbours, including the different Swahili communities in the area. This brought them to the attention of Portuguese visitors to Malindi, where the first reference to the Segeju dates from 1569. Before the end of the century they had achieved considerable fame for their military exploits in support of the ruler of Malindi. The Portuguese portrayed them as barbarous pastoralists who subsisted on fresh blood and milk, fearless warriors who kept the genitals of their victims as trophies of war. This notoriety was, however, short-lived. The Segeju were pushed south by another, much larger, group of pastoralists, also responsible for destroying many Swahili settlements along the coast: the Galla or Oromo. By the mid-17th century a number of Segeju had settled in and around Bwiti on the north-east edge of the Usambara Mountains. Their modern descendants are mixed farmers who call themselves Daisũ (cognate with Thagicu) and still speak a Thagicu language. Meanwhile, still in the 17th century, a significant section of them moved down to the coast where they acted as mercenaries for the Swahili of Vumba Kuu (near Vanga), subsequently settling in the territory they had helped to conquer. Today most of these Segeju live on the coast between Tanga and the Kenya-Tanzania border, where they speak a dialect of Swahili and/or a variety of Digo as their mother tongue.

The history books are largely silent about past relations between the Segeju and Mijikenda. Likewise the Segeju themselves, although they do recall more recent relations with their Digo neighbours. By contrast, recorded Mijikenda traditions have a lot to say about the Segeju, especially their shared conflict with the Galla and subsequent flight south. Some northern Mijikenda – Chonyi – even go so far as to claim that they were once Segeju. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, if it is taken to mean that some Segeju were absorbed by the Mijikenda during this early period. Indeed, it becomes a very real possibility when the linguistic and other cultural evidence is considered. This evidence indicates a very close interaction between the Mijikenda and the Segeju in the past. The Mijikenda lexicon, for example, is replete with loanwords from a Thagicu language which can be conclusively identified as that once spoken by the Segeju, the direct ancestor of modern Daisũ. Similarly, and in conjunction with the linguistic evidence, many cultural practices of the Mijikenda can be traced to the Segeju. The picture which emerges confirms, corrects, and at the same time is much richer than that bequeathed to us by the Portugese. It shows, for example, that the Segeju were much more than just livestock herders and efficient fighters: they were also traders and left an important legacy of political organization and ritual practice.

Mijikenda ideas about birds of omen are part of this legacy. The existence of parallel beliefs among the Kamba, close relatives of the Segeju, is only one indication of this. Much stronger evidence, however, comes from the terminology employed by Mijikenda to refer to omens and the practices associated with them. Many of these terms were borrowed directly from the Segeju, as can be surmised from their phonological characteristics and the fact that cognates can be found in other Thagicu languages. This includes the word for a portent or ill-omen, mudhana (as recorded in Giriama and 19th century Raßai). Likewise verbs reported to mean “to seek an omen from the birds” (given as kudhecha or kudheja) and “to meet with a good omen” (recorded as kudhenja). Also belonging to the same set is another expression recorded from Raßai, kuera nyuni, “to take the bearing of birds when seeking an omen from them”, recalling that it is the direction in which they are heard which determines the interpretation of the omen. The wider vocabulary of prediction and prophecy is similarly permeated with Segeju loanwords. One of these is the name of a bird, called madhio or mario. These are described as large birds which are rarely seen except in flocks circling in the sky, and whose appearance is taken as a sign that the rains are imminent.

This brings us back to our original puzzle: why do the Mijikenda have different generic terms for birds? The answer lies with the Segeju and the distinctive set of ideas about birds of omen which they introduced. Before their intensive contact with the Segeju it seems that the Mijikenda had a far less developed notion of birds as omens, something akin perhaps to their current belief in the misfortune presaged by owls. Like other Sabaki speakers they had inherited a single generic term for bird, nyuni, which may already have had the secondary and extended meaning “omen”, as it does in Swahili and the modern Thagicu languages. The Segeju changed all that. By introducing a new and more pervasive complex of ideas about birds of omen they unwittingly set in motion the processes of semantic change and innovation which have given this particular segment of Mijikenda ethno-taxonomy the heterogeneous shape it has today. In the speech of many Mijikenda the secondary meaning of nyuni as an “omen”, including omens drawn from sources other than the birds, became its primary connotation. Meanwhile ts’ongo, the name of a common and gregarious species, began to take its place as the generic term for birds. The current distribution of these terms suggests that this process began in one of the northern dialects, probably Giriama, and has since been spreading south. In 19th century Raßai nyuni was still the generic term for both birds and omens: today, however, ts’ongo is used for birds. The latter name has also spread further south to the Digo: in this case, though, it has not succeeded in erasing earlier usage or preventing the adoption of other alternatives.

These alternatives stem from a different, but parallel, process, initiated by the speakers of another southern Mijikenda dialect, Duruma. Among the Duruma nyuni became restricted in meaning to the bird species which provides most of their omens: the woodpecker described by Griffiths and called kokota by other Mijikenda. In place of nyuni as the generic term for birds the Duruma adopted a neologism: nyama ya kuburuka, “flying animal”. Variations upon this neologism have since spread to other Mijikenda, including the Digo (“animal with wings”) and Giriama (“little creature”), perhaps in response to the confusion caused by the conflicting connotations of nyuni and ts’ongo. The result is today’s complex and cross-cutting pattern of usage. To all intents and purposes, this is still in a state of flux and it may only be resolved in the long run by adoption of the Standard Swahili term ndege, which is already gaining some currency among young and educated Mijikenda speakers.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this, it is surely that there is often much more to a name or a classification than even its users might suspect. Ethno-taxonomy is typically treated as little more than a guide to identification, a diversion from more serious pursuits, and at best a source of material for parentheses and footnotes. As a serious topic of study ethno-ornithology is virtually non-existent, and it is no accident that most of the names of birds cited above await proper identification. However, the wealth of information contained in these names, not to mention the associated practices and beliefs, suggests that the collection and study of data of this kind is far from worthless, and is ignored at the cost of a fuller understanding of the human and natural environment in which we live.


In writing this article I have drawn upon a large number of sources in addition to my own research among the Mijikenda. Many of these sources are listed in Thomas Spear’s standard, though now outdated, study The Kaya Complex: A History of the Mijikenda People of the Kenya Coast to 1900 (Nairobi, Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978).

Linguistic data are taken from L. Krapf and J. Rebmann (ed. T.H. Sparshott) A Nika-English Dictionary (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1887) and W.E. Taylor Giriama Vocabulary and Collections (London, S.P.C.K., 1891), as well as more recent work by Thomas Hinnebusch, Philip Sedlak, Wilhelm Möhlig, Derek Nurse and myself. Among the sources on the Segeju special mention should be made of Derek Nurse’s paper “Segeju and Daisũ: A Case Study of Evidence from Oral Tradition and Comparative Linguistics”, History in Africa 9, 175-208 (1982).

The two passages reproduced in the text are taken from pp.276-277 of J.B. Griffiths “Glimpses of a Nyika Tribe (Waduruma)”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 65, 267-296 (1935) and pp.293-294 of Gerhard Lindblom The Akamba in British East Africa: An Ethnological Monograph (Uppsala, Appelbergs Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1920).

Otherwise Mijikenda, and in particular Kauma, beliefs about birds are set in fascinating context in Maurice Kambishera Mumba’s novel The Wrath of Koma (Nairobi, Heinemann Kenya, 1987). Finally, and for an introduction to the ethno-ornithology of another Kenyan people, readers are recommended to turn to Anthony Barrett’s Akiyar A Ngiturkana: Turkana Way of Life (Nairobi, New World Printers, 1988), “a book of poems, stories and pictures of birds found in Turkana country”.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Professor Walsh for expanding our knowledge about the Segeju and their contributions to linguistic innovations and social formations among Mijikenda