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Little known tribe that census forgot

Friday March 5 2010


They were not listed as a tribe in last year’s national population census. And without the code given to each of the country’s tribes and which gives them official recognition, census clerks and officials were under no obligation to brand any person a Sanye.

But, although forgotten by the rest of the country and even their own government, the Sanye of Coast Province are alive and well. The government does not have official statistics on them, but unofficial figures put their number at about 500.

In a tour of the two villages inhabited by the community in Lamu and Tana River districts, I found about 100 children, none of whom seemed to attend school.

According to Unesco-supported research on endangered species carried out by the National Museums of Kenya, the Sanye, who are erroneously referred to as the Dahalo or the Dako — a derogatory term used to describe conservative members of the group — people who were suspicious of strangers and who lived an isolated life.

The Sanye live in the lower Tana River District, around Kipini, Witu, Mapenya — which gets its name from the fact that the Sanye could make small paths through a thick forest — and Mkunumbi in Lamu District.

According to stories passed from generation to generation, the Sanye were originally from Shungwaya. They later settled at Iwizoon on the banks of the Tana River, about 300km north of Mombasa town. The community spread out and occupied the forests of the vast hinterland, now defined by Tana River and Lamu districts.


The community is composed of seven clans — Walunku, Wamanka, Ebalawa, Ilam, Digilima, Simtumi, and Radhotu. They speak a dialect of sharp clicks similar to that of the Xhosa of South Africa. The Sanye abandoned hunting and gathering and adopted farming when hunting was banned in 1977. Their traditional territory was taken over by Swahili and Pokomo farmers and later by resettlement schemes.

According to neighbouring communities, the Sanye are very conservative and sensitive. Unannounced visitors are likely to find the village deserted. “They are so much at home in the forest that they can hide there without being seen,” says Mohamed Ali Baddi, a Lamu resident.

But Alio Batie, a Sanye elder, sees nothing strange about his community’s way of life. “I do not see our way of life as intriguing as most people from the outside world tend to believe. But we do derive a lot of comfort from the forest. Things like hospitals are foreign to us.

“In any case, it would mean walking for hours to get to a nearby dispensary. We are grateful that God gave us trees and other plants that provide us with the medicine we need.

“People take us to be primitive because our way of life has not changed. Some of the men go out to nearby townships to look for casual jobs, but they don’t stay there; they soon abandon modern houses and return to the forest where there is no competition for space,” he said.

The Sanye use aromatic herbs, locally known as mavumbani, and honey to make a beverage similar to tea. They eat wild tubers that grow near ponds. The tubers are dried and then pounded into flour, which is then cooked and eaten with vegetables and game meat.

Important decisions

Witchcraft is a key part of Sanye life and the intervention of spirits is always sought when important decisions are made. According to Batie, every Thursday evening, they gather under a tree in the middle of their village, light a fire and dance the night away.

“It is not an ordinary dance, but a culmination of treatment by a witchdoctor when all attempts to cure the sick using herbs fail. In such a case, it is believed that an evil spell has been cast and the only remedy is to exorcise it with special incantations known only to the witchdoctor,” he adds.