Giryama / Giriama

Giriama / Giryama - Kenya

The Giryama are a sub tribe of the Mijikenda Group of people, who are made up of nine sub groups.

Giriama extended families reside in homesteads, or compounds. There are usually three generations—a father, his wife or wives, all of his sons, the sons' wives, any unmarried children, as well as numerous grandchildren. Homesteads range in size from seven to 70 people.


There is a single female secret society, known as Kifudu, who keep clay pots that stand for ancestresses, in a thatched roofed hut.  These pots are in the control of post-menopausal women, who are in control of the fertility of the entire ethnic group. To honor them, the women take the pots from the shrine, bring them to the center of the homestead, and "play" them—by putting their mouths in the openings of the pots and blowing. Without the women performing rituals centering on these clay pots, the Giriama believe that young fertile women will have problems in childbirth.


The Giriama have five male secret societies, the main society being the Gohu society, which similar to the Lions Club or the Masons, is a fraternal organization for wealthier-than-average men. You have to be elected to membership and pay membership fees, which by local standards are quite expensive. There isn't a lot of wealth stratification among the Giriama, but Gohu membership requires giving a bull. The key feature of the Gohu society is how they honor their members when they die. Men in the society are skilled carvers and are paid to create the kigango—a memorial statue—for the dead Gohu member. The posts, which range from four to nine feet tall, are created from indigenous termite-resistant hardwood. They consist of a circle for the head and rectangle for the body, and vary in decoration. Vigango are placed around the edge of the homestead, but they are not the sole monuments. Other uncarved wooden statues, called koma, are raised in honor of non-Gohu members and occupy the middle of the homestead. "These smaller statues are erected in a clear space that is surrounded by homes. People are buried right next to their houses, so these statues do not actually mark the graves. Even these ordinary statues play a role in the daily lives of the Giriama. When they drink palm wine, they'll pour a few drops on the ground in front of the statues and say a few words to the ancestors.

There's a strong belief in the power of the ancestors to influence the lives of the living on an everyday basis. The remarkable thing about the Giriama is that, despite the inroads of Islam and Christianity, indigenous religious beliefs continue to be strongly held, and primary among those is veneration for the ancestors and ancestresses.

In the case of vigango, they are believed to embody the spirit of the ancestor. These statues are the tangible link between the living and the dead, and must be honored through animal sacrifice and libations. Failure to perform these rituals or, worse yet, removing a kigango from its site will trigger the curse of the ancestral spirit. This curse can take the form of bodily illness or death of the descendants, drought, and diseased livestock.