Pokomo people

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Total population
94,965 (Kenya) (2009)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Pokomo language
Related ethnic groups
Mijikenda, Swahili, other Bantu peoples

The Pokomo people are a Bantu ethnic group of southeastern Kenya. The population in Kenya is currently more than 150,000.[citation needed] Despite their proximity, they are not one of the groups that make up the nearby Mijikenda peoples; they are a distinct ethnic group with their own sub-clans/tribes. They are predominantly agriculturalists and both freshwater and ocean fishermen living along the Tana River in the Tana River County. They speak the Pokomo language, which is similar to Swahili.

The Pokomo population is split into two groups: the Upper Pokomo, who make up 75% of the population, and the Lower Pokomo. The Upper Pokomo people are mainly Muslim, and have been so since the first half of the 20th century. The Lower Pokomos, who live along the lower part of the Tana up to the delta, were receptive to the teachings of the Christian missionaries who arrived in the area in the late 1870s, and, by 1914, were almost exclusively Christian.[2] The Joshua Project states that, in total, 25% of Pokomo are Christian (Evangelical: 18%) and 65% are Muslim.[3] Ethnologue indicates that the group is mainly Muslim.[4]


In his paper published in the Journal of History in Africa 10 (1983), 207–237 entitled "History of Linguistics: Case Study of Tana River", Dereke Nurse confirmed that the Pokomo regard themselves and their language as being divisible into Lower (LP) and Upper (UP) Pokomo.[5] The people and the language of roughly the northern one-third of the River Tana towards Garisa are known as Malakote (M: also known as Ilwana or El-Wana). Malakote differ considerably from UP and LP. Even the two-way split UP: LP is partly artificial linguistically, as in any continuum. The major break does occur around Mwina, but these are also internal isoglosses dividing UP and LP. Some of these link adjoining part of UP and LP.

Within Pokomo, there is considerable linguistic variation at all levels: lexical, phonological and morphological. Despite the smallness of the Pokomo Community, there is at least as much internal difference between UP and LP as between the two poles of the 150 mile-long Malakote Community. Van Otterloo assess the level of lexical similarity between UP and LP as much as the same as that between Giriama and Digo. UP and LP refer to each other jocularly as "two-week" languages; that is, they take two weeks to learn but Malakote, within UP is regarded as a "two-months language". It is therefore clear that Pokomo are not part of the Mijikenda community, which is composed of nine sub-tribes. Some of these are the (i) Kauma, (ii) Chonyi, (iii) Jibana, (iv) Giriama, (v) Kambe, (vi) Ribe, (vii) Rabai, (viii) Duruma and (ix) Digo.

The Pokomo are subdivided into eleven (11) sub-tribes: six sub-tribes in the Upper Pokomo (Mila Julu) and five sub-tribes in the Lower Pokomo (Mila Nchini). The word Mila connotes "culture"; julu, nchini and kote mean "up", "lower" and "both" respectively; therefore the word milajulu refers to the culture of the Upper Pokomo and milanchini to the culture of the Lower Pokomo. Thus, milakote (with time being pronounced as malakote) connotes culture from both sides (here referring to blended culture of Pokomo and Orma/Somalis/Borana).

Upper Pokomo (Wantu wa Julu: "Milajulu")[edit]

All the clans of UP live along the riverine and in the hinterland from the river on both sides in villages located on small hills, probably to avoid being flooded by the river. The farmlands are within the riverline on both sides of the river stretching an average of 3 miles long or until the farms touches the sandy soils.

  • Milalulu (are located along the riverine from the Rhoka village in the north to Bohoni village)
  • Zubaki (are mostly found from Chewani village to Lenda village);
  • Ndura (are within Kelokelo village to Maweni and Mazuni village)
  • Kinankomba (from Boji and Bububu to Kilindini)
  • Gwano (from Wenje village to Baomo and Hara Village)
  • Ndera (from Mnazini village to Sera village)

Lower Pokomo (Milanchini)[edit]

It should be noted that the LP occupy the entire Tana Delta (which starts at Baomo) to the mouth of the River before it empties into the Indian Ocean; however, currently some UP have settled together with the LP in the villages of Kipini, Ozi, Kilelengwani, Chara, Chamwanamuma, and Kau among other villages up to Lamu Archipelago and its surrounding islands.

  • Mwina (live in the villages of Mnguvweni, Gamba, Sera and Maziwa)
  • Ngatana (live in the villages of Wema, Sera, and Garsen)
  • Buu (live in Ngao, Tarasaa, Odha, Idzowe, Maziwa and Hewani villages)
  • Dzunza (mostly found in Kibusu and Shirikisho villages)
  • Kalindi (they border the Giriamas in Malindi)

In these sub-tribes, there exist clans ranging from three to nine in either sub-tribe, and they are mostly found cross-cutting across the eleven sub-tribes. The only difference is within the sub-tribes on naming those clans i.e. the same clan in a sub-tribe can be found in another sub-tribe with a different reference name. The Zubaki sub-tribe is the largest amongst the Pokomo eleven sub-tribes. It has nine clans: Karhayu, Meta, Jabha, Kinaghasere, Garjedha, Utah, Ilani, and "Kinakala.

The word "Tana", Tana River, and its origin[edit]

While Pokomo people are in two major groups, namely Wantu wa dzuu and Milachini its good to know how river Tana and the district which is today the county adopted the name "Tana". The word "Tana" came from the early Europeans who also brought Christianity mainly into the Lower Tana area. As the Upper Pokomo may have known other rivers apart from the Tana including Chana Maro or River Maro, the Lower Tana Pokomo "Milachini" referred to the "River Tana" as "Tsana" which means "river" to them this was the only river and the rest were referred to as Muho or Mukondo - "streams". "Chana" and "Tsana" both have the same meaning as "river".

When the first Europeans came to Tana River for the purpose of spreading Christianity, they found it difficult to pronounce the word "Tsana" which means "river" in Milachini dialect and so they found it easier saying "Tana" omitting the letter "S" and this is why we have "River Tana", which is just as saying "river river", otherwise it would have been easy to pronounce the word "Chana".


Pokomo culture is well defined with rules, rituals, humour and glamour. Pokomo culture was also exported to Lamu Archipelago and its surrounding islands, Nkasija and Comoro Islands of the Indian Ocean.

The story is told that the name Lamu came from the word Muyamu, which means "in-laws", that is, the Pokomo intermarried with the early Arabs during the 12th to 13th century. This proof could be traced in the Lamu Museum, where Pokomo artifacts can be viewed and it was during this time that the Swahili culture was taking shape. The in-breeding between Pokomos and Arabs in Lamu could be the origin of Swahili People, Swahili culture and the Kiswahili language (which was born out of Kingozi language) in the East Africa Region as indicated in Derek Nurse and Thomas Spears' book The Swahili, Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society 800–1500.[6] This case is also firmed up by Bishop Steers biography in 1869[7] when he wrote about Liongo Fumo, whose grave, water well and settlement can all be found in Ozi village even if you visit there today.

There is also strong evidence of Pokomo culture influence in Pate Island, where most of the Islamic Teachers (Sheikhs) are Pokomos. Probably the name "Comoro" was derived from the Pokomo name "Komora". In fact, the Comoroans and the Pokomo communicate and understand one another very well as confirmed by Derek Nurse in his 1983 article in the Journal of History in Africa Vol. 10: History from Linguistics: The Case of the Tana River.

Pokomos are Bantu and agriculturalists. The Pokomos are the only tribe in the world with Kingozi language in use today. Kingozi language is the precursor of Kiswahili language as quoted on page 98 in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean, .[8] The Pokomo culture is rich of folk tales, songs, dances, weddings, arts/artifacts to name but just a few. In closer comparison, Pokomo culture resembles that of West Africans and somehow they share names with them, for example Ade, Kofa or Kofi, etc.[citation needed]


Stories were used to deter and correct certain behaviours. For example, a story may be told to a group of children that when you whistle during the night, you will encounter a spirit being (seha). This was meant to scare the children not to whistle during the night to avoid disclosing their location to an enemy. The stories were normally given by the elders (grandfathers) near a bonfire. Grandmothers also gave stories to the children before bedtime.

Age groups[edit]

Age groups are automatically joined whenever that group of adolescent men are circumcised together. Some of these age groups are:

  • Uhuru or Wembe - circumcised during the time of Kenya getting independence
  • Mau Mau
  • Shiti
  • Pali
  • Kingishore

Initiation to adulthood[edit]

The passage to adulthood for men is by an initiation which involves circumcisionkuhinywa.[citation needed]

Marriages and weddings[edit]

The marriage process within the Pokomo community is well elaborated with conditions (Maadha). When a man found a woman, whom he would like to marry, he will inform his parents, who will do a background check of the bride's family. Once this is done and the man's'] parents approve, they will visit the bride's family with a perenkera, this is a small vessel for holding tobacco. Once at the bride's parents house, they will give them the perenkera as sign to indicate that there is a woman in their home, who is fit to be married by their son. They will introduce the topic to the bride's parents and they will be told to go back for them to consult the bride to be. After she is consulted and has given the green light, the groom's parents will come back with hasi (a reeds sworn basket) as sign that they are ready to move to the next level. If the bride's family accepts the basket, the groom's parents will go back and then arrange to come later with jifu. This is the second to last step of formalizing the marriage. After that the groom's family will come back to pay the dowry (mahari) and the next step will be to hold the wedding ceremony. Currently, these steps are not being followed and in most cases, the current generation opts to elope. Mahari was paid to the bride's family as a sign of respect. After staying together for sometime, the bride is released to go to her parents for further training by her aunts on how to take care of her family. Divorces were very rare and they were not encouraged.


Naming in the Pokomo community is based on the husband's family tree. The first born if a boy is given the name of the husband's father and if a girl the name of the husband's mother. The second, third, fourth.. born boys takes the names of the husband's brothers in that order and if they are girls, the names of the husband's sisters in that order. There are names that are referred to both boys and girls by putting the prefix Ha before the name. If this prefix is put in the name it changes it to a girl's name. For example, Babwoya (name for a man), Habwoya (name for a lady); Maro (for Man), Hamaro (for a lady). Names are also given to children from plants and animal's names if the first born died during pregnancy or delivery. There was the belief that this will cut short the bad omen following the unborn child and thus enable the subsequent children to live to adulthood, children with such names are referred to as Mwana Fwisa such names include Mabuke (banana suckers), Nchui (cheetah) etc. Names also are given to children who are born during a certain season.

Songs and dance[edit]

The Pokomo have different types of songs and dances they include;

  • Kingika – this is a women dance that is sung whenever a woman got a new born baby and she is about to come out of the house after finishing the mandatory number of days confined to heal and breastfeed the baby
  • Miri – performed by young men and women in wedding and birthday ceremonies. During the performance, the young men and women compete to outshine one another. It is complemented with Michirima and Mbumbumbu drums together with a metal plate known as Upatsu and Chivoti flute
  • Beni
  • Mwaribe[9] – danced with young girls to the beat of a drum during circumcision time. The traditional costume is grass skirt made from the fronds of the Doum Palm (Mkoma leaves) worn especially by boys.
  • Kitoko
  • Mela ya Walume (men songs)
  • Mela ya Kitoko – These songs that are sung during working in the farm fields or whenever one is rowing a canoe in the evenings as he sail downstream of the river. These songs are sung like or resemble the "sundowner songs" and at that time the canoe is full with cargo ( bananas, mangoes etc.) sailing downstream with little effort from the oar.
  • Other songs known as Dulila were sung to correct the behaviour of an individual by putting him/her to shame because of disgracing the community (Kudabha). These songs were mainly sung by women in a group and they approach the person who has erred (Kadabha) and start to pinch him/her.

The tune of the Kenya national anthem is an African song whose tune was borrowed from the Pokomo community lullaby. This traditional lullaby song is sung even to date by mothers to their babies; the song goes: Bee mdondo bee, mwana kalilani njoo mudye mwana ywehu alache kuliloo Roughly translated, this means, "you animal, you animal, our child is crying, please come and eat it so that it can stop crying." The song was composed by Mzee Menza Morowa Galana of Makere village, Gwano location in Wenje division. The hero (Mzee Menza) died on Thursday 12, November, 2015 at the age of 96 after developing pneumonia disease. Pokomo people are musical and they use music to blend their culture in celebrating achievements; harvest, fishing, hunting, wedding, circumcision and also when new babies were born, this was done in the form of songs and dances.


Pokomo have only two seasons in a year namely, Sika and Kilimo. They were able to tell by looking into the sky and the moon whether the coming rains are for Mvula ya Masika - short rains, which meant that the community will plant fast maturing crops or Mvula ya Kilimo – long rains, which meant that the community will plant long maturing crops and those that require a lot of water to mature such as rice.

Land tenure[edit]

The Pokomo Community land stretches all the way from Mbalambala to Kipini along the River Tana on both sides. Largely, the Tana River County land belongs to the Pokomo Community. Land was earlier distributed by the Kijo and Gasa Council of elders as per each sub-tribe as indicated in the names of the villages they are living in. There are three types of land tenure systems among the Pokomo. These are:

(a) Mafumbo, where in each clan each family was given land from one side of the river flooding zone to the other side of the river flooding zone across. This was meant to avoid conflicts whenever the river changes its course;

(b) Mihema ya Walume, these are virgin lands which do not belong to anybody, but it depends on someones strength to own it. What is meant is that once you are shown the area to farm, you have to clear the forests within a certain time and if you are not able, someone else who is capable can come in and clear the forests and own that piece of land and

(c) Bada or loosely translated to mean forests, which were preserved for medicinal plants, firewood and to provide building materials.


Pokomo cuisine is characterised by their agricultural lifestyle and the Tana River they inhabit. The Pokomo mostly live along the Tana River up to the delta where they grow their crops, which used to be mainly rice. The Tana River also supplies the Pokomo with catfish (mtonzi, or, if it is the largest, it is called mpumi), tilapia (ntuku), trout (ningu), eel (mamba) and crocodile (ngwena). Catfish are mainly boiled or sun dried/smoked prior to eating. Other food sources include plantains, palm tree seeds, bananas, peas, and pumpkins.

Pokomos are mainly farmers and have always depended on the flooding regime of River Tana to grow rice, bananas, green grams, beans and maize. The staple foods of the Pokomo are rice and fish. Other famous foodstuffs include matoli, cooked banana chips mixed with fish; marika, cooked banana mixed with fish and smashed together; konole, a cooked mixture of sifted maize and green gram/beans; and nkumbu, ash baked or boiled banana. Currently, sima or ugali in Kiswahili, or stiff cornmeal porridge in English, has become the main Pokomo dish due to the changing or nonexistence of river flooding regimes and weather that is not able to support the cultivation of rice.

Governance and spiritual life[edit]

The government of the Pokomo Community was led by a council of elders referred to as kijo. Below the kijo, there are three arms: (a) judicial system referred to as Gasa; (b) the secretaries (executive assistants) referred to as the Wagangana and (c) the Pokomo religious arm of the Kijo.


Kijo is a group of Council of Elders who were very powerful. They had absolute powers to excommunicate, confisticate, and execute those who have been found guilty by the Gasa. The execution was by tying a heavy stone around the neck of the individual and throwing him/her into the River Tana to drown.

There were times during the year when people would gather near the sacred places (Ngaji) in the night singing and dancing and the Kijo leader would emerge from the sacred forest in the middle of the night walking on poles covered with a white dress and his face covered with a mask. He will walk around and dance to the sound of beating drums and go back into the forest, leaving behind a hysterical crowd of people believing that their issues have been solved spiritually. The main sacred places were Mji wa Walevu (Elders village), Nkozi and Laini Keya located near Kone village.

Blogspot report[edit]

There is a report from a blogspot,[10][unreliable source?] which is partially edited, and it also revealed another sacred place in Kitere. This is how the author of the blog put it Nkozi the mother village of Kitere was then found on the riverine forest in the flood plains of River Tana. It was the centre of the Pokomo traditional leadership the Kijo. Before someone becomes a Mkijo he should undergo an activity natively known as Kuyumia Ngaji and that was only done at Nkozi. You may ask why then did people leave Nkozi to settle at Kitere village? The answer is that, Nkozi is situated in the flood plains of River Tana. There used to be floods twice a year. The locals term these seasons Sika and Kilimo. During these flooding seasons, people would erect structures above the water level, which are known in the Pokomo community as Mahandaki. The people would the live on top of these structures raised above the water all through the flooding season. However, in 1946 the floods were astronomically high and people were marooned for days and not able to move anywhere; this time, the floods were nicknamed Seli ya Nkozi, loosely translated to mean the Nkozi jail cell; the floods covered almost everywhere even those areas that the yearly floods did not. By then Kitere village was known to the community but not in good light. It was said that haunting spirits (Maseha) lived at Kitere village.

Others also said that some ancestors of Nkozi people could be heard talking at Kitere village and that these haunting spirits would sing and dance Miri (a Pokomo dance) and could be heard singing, dancing and playing with this famous song at Ndera - mpanzi mpanzi kuniyawa... nakwenda Kitere... People from Mnazini village on the south of Nkozi would set northwards in direction of Nkozi where the singing was being heard from the other side, and those from Nkozi would be heading to the south toward Mnazini village in response to the same singing and dancing. They would eventually meet on the way wondering where the really singing and dancing was coming from; Of course those songs being heard from Nkozi and Mnazini village were not being sung by real people but as one said they were being sung by Maseha (many evil spirit beings).

This made it difficult for anybody to dare to settle and live at Kitere village. However, the 1946 floods changed all this. Because all the places around Nkozi were covered with water and it was not possible to build the Mahandaki due to the high water level from the river, the only option for the community was to flee Nkozi by using canoes and sail towards Kitere village. However, it was not possible to settle at Kitere village before performing religious cleansing rituals that were meant to drive away all the haunting spirits.


The judicial arm of the Kijo was and is still headed by the Gasa. This was also a group of Council of Elders who have shown exemplary unmatched skill of wisdom and without reproach. They are revered and believed to possess wisdom in administering justice. The Gasa is the only elder group which is still in existence and active and it is always approached by the community to give political guidance up to date. The Gasa has also been formally recognised to dispense justice on land and family matters. There are two Gasa's in the Pokomo community, one for the UP and the other for the LP; and then there is the overall Gasa, which brings together the UP and LP Gasas.


This is composed of a group of elders who are sent by the Kijo to deliver a message or to call somebody who is needed by the Kijo. For example, whenever the Kijo is meeting, they can send the Wagangana to go and collect food staff from community members; or whenever the punishment or an order is given by the Kijo, the Wagangana are the ones to ensure it is implemented. In a way the Wagangana are like the secretaries or policing arm of the Kijo.

Pokomo religion: third arm of Kijo[edit]

Mulungu (UP) or Mungu(LP) is the universal being of the Pokomo, referring to God the creator of everything. He is believed to bring upon the community abundance and scarcity. The Pokomos had one religion and they were guided by a group of spiritual elders among the council of elders in the kijo. There were sacred areas of prayers along the riverine forests, where the kijo members would go to seek guidance; however, due to increased population growth and the introduction of Christianity and Islam in the Pokomo community, these sacred places have been converted to farmlands. A good example is the former sacred place at mji wa walevu, translated to mean village of the elders. This sacred place is sandwiched and is not far from Hola Mission and Laza Trading Centres, it is actually less than 1 km from either centre. Coincidentally, majority of the Pokomo community leaving in Hola Mission are Christians and those in Laza centre are Muslims. The word "mission" comes from the Christian Missionaries who brought Christianity to the UP community. Other examples of these places is Nkozi in Kitere in the areas of Mnazini and Laini Keya located at Kone village.

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ "Population and Housing Census 2009". Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.  (archive link)
  2. ^ "People of Kenya: Pokomo". Retrieved 2013-04-18. 
  3. ^ Project, Joshua. "Pokomo in Kenya". Retrieved 2017-07-03. 
  4. ^ "Kipfokomo: A language of Kenya". Retrieved 2013-04-18. 
  5. ^ Derek Nurse (1983) History in Africa Vol. 10: "History from Linguistics: The Case of the Tana River" pp. 207–238 (32 pages)
  6. ^ Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear (1985), The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society 800–1500, University of Pennsylvania,
  7. ^ http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/mlb/mlb12.htm
  8. ^ https://archive.org/stream/periplusoferythr00schouoft#page/98/mode/2up
  9. ^ George Senoga-Zake (1986) Folk Music of Kenya, for Teachers and Students of Music and for the Music Loving Public, Macmillan Kenya (Publishers) Limited, Nairobi,Kenya
  10. ^ (http://kiterevillage.blogspot.com/2012/08/nkozi-mother-village-of-kitere-was-then.html)


  • A. H. J. Prins (1956). The Coastal Tribes of The North-Eastern Bantu, P. Schumacher, Anthropos Bd 51H. 1./2 pp. 367,. 
  • Alice Werner (Dec 1983). Pokomo Forklore, Forklore Vol. 24. No. 4 pp. 207-238,. 
  • A. Werner (1926). Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London Vol. 4. No. 2 : The Swahili Saga of Liongo Fumo pp. 247-259 (9 pages),. 
  • A. Werner (1983). A Pokomo Funeral, Man Vol. 13. pp. 66-68,. 
  • Derek Nurse (1983). History in Africa Vol. 10: History from Linguistics: The Case of the Tana River pp. 207-238 (32 pages),. 
  • George Senoga-Zake (1986). Folk Music of Kenya, for Teachers and Students of Music and for the Music Loving Public, Macmillan Kenya (Publishers) Limited, Nairobi, Kenya. 
  • N. A. Townsend (Feb 1980). Age, Descent and Elders among the Pokomo, Current Anthropology Vol. 21. No. 1 pp. 102-103,. 
  • N. A. Townsend (Feb 1980). Bantu-Cushitic Relations in Northeastern Kenya, Current Anthropology Vol. 21. No. 1 pp. 102-103,. 
  • Robert Louis Bunger Jr. (1982). Islamization among the Upper Pokomo, Reviewed by Marguerite Ylvisaker, The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 15. No. 4 pp. 707-709,. 
  • Thomas Geider (Autumn 1982). Die Figur des Oger in der traditionellen Literatur und Lebenswelt der Pokomo in Ost-Kenya, Reviewed by Said A. M. Khamis, Research in African Literature Vol. 23. No. 3 pp. 128-129,. 

External links[edit]