African myths of origin have long both fascinated and perplexed historians. Naively taken as fact, they have led historians to create their own myths, such as the Hamitic Myth and its corollary, Sudanic Civilization. The most radical corrective has been to dismiss origin myths altogether on the anthropologial rationale that all myths are simply cultural charters and bear little resemblance to historical fact. By so doing, however, quite frequently we uncritically dismiss our sole source for the history of African peoples prior to the nineteenth century. The task, then, is to try to sift the historical wheat from the mythical chaff in order to recover as much valid historical evidence as possible from origin myths without violating the canons of historical method.
A case in point is the Singwaya tradition of Mijikenda and other Kenyan coastal peoples' origins. The Singwaya tradition is one of the most frequently cited and discussed myths of origin of African peoples. Most of the discussion, however, has taken place in a void, because the myth concerns peoples about whom we have known very little and whose traditions have been collected only fragmentarily at best. Its appeal has lain in the fact that this tradition has been collected dozens of times from the 1840s to the present from virtually all the coastal peoples, including the Bajun, the Pokomo along the Tana River, the nine different Mijikenda peoples, the Segeju, the lowland Taita, and two Mombasa Swahili groups. Its widespread distribution has caused the tradition to have a fatal fascination for historians.
The first collections of traditions of origin for the coastal peoples were made in the latter half of the nineteenth century by Krapf, Rebmann, Guillain, Burton, Wakefield, New, and Taylor, the earliest missionaries and travelers in the Mijikenda area. These collections were sketchy, and although they mentioned northerly origins they did not specifically mention Singwaya. Starting with Hollis' earliest collections in 1897, the traditions rapidly acquired greater detail. Collections by Johnstone, Platts, MacDougall, Champion, Pearson, Werner, Osborne, Sharpe, Weaving, Hobley, Griffiths, Dammann, Kayamba, and Prins among various coastal peoples all relate a common theme: that the Pokomo, the Taita, seven of the nine Mijikenda peoples, the Segeju, and the Kilindini and Jomvu Swahili all shared common origins in a place called Singwaya located on the southern Somali coast; that they were driven from there by an invasion of the Galla; and that they migrated south in several groups to their present areas of settlement.