Mariakani was a route to the coast during the long-distance trade. The town derives its modern name from the spot where long-distance traders would leave their bows and arrows before entering Mombasa.
The Akamba traded in locally produced goods such as sugar cane wine, ivory, brass amulets, tools and weapons, millet, and cattle.
The food obtained from trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines experienced in their Kamba land. They would trek long distances from Ukambani to Kikuyu land to Kalenjin neighbors and in Maasai land to trade their wares at the coast for beads, food, metal, and clothes.
They also traded in medicinal products known as ‘Miti’ (literally: plants), made from various parts of the numerous medicinal plants found on the Southeast African plains. Maingi Ndonye Mbithi, commonly referred to by his peers and locals as Kanyi, from Kimutwa village in Machakos was best known for his concoction of herbs mixed with locally fermented brew (kaluvu) with the ability to heal cancerous boils (Mi’imu).
The Akamba are still known for their fine work in wood carving, basketry, pottery, and the products. Their artistic inclination is evidenced in the sculpture work that is on display in many craft shops and galleries in the major cities and towns of Kenya.
In the mid-eighteenth century, a large number of Akamba pastoral groups moved eastwards from the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas to the coast. This migration was the result of extensive drought and a lack of pasture for their cattle. They settled in the Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani), shimba hills, and Mombasa North (Kisauni) areas of the coast of Kenya, creating the beginnings of urban settlement.
They are still found in large numbers in these towns and have been absorbed into the cultural, economic, and political life of the modern-day Coast Province. Now in the old days being the first hinterland tribe to come to the coast was worrying to the Sultan’s kingdom because they were known for their prowess in bow and arrow warfare and especially the poisoned arrows which could zonk dead even the mightiest elephant in minutes.
The Sultan had banned traders from entering the town with any weapons. One theory suggests that the ban was the result of several fatal brawls between Kamba traders and coastal residents.
The place, thus, became known as Riaka, the Mijikenda (sic Duruma) name for a single quiver, or Mariaka, its plural form. The Giriama and the Kamba word for quiver are Thyaka (singular). They called the place ‘“Mathyakani”. Mariakani thus translates directly to “the place of Quivers” in the Duruma language. The Kambas would leave their Thiakas there before entering the island to trade and buy wares for their hinterland journey.
Travelers to and from the coast through that trade route would say they were going to “Mariakani” to drop off or collect their weapons.