ETHNONYM: Lumbwa (an oppobrious name given to the Kipsigis by the Maasai that appears in many early texts)
Identification. Kipsigis are the southernmost and most populous of the Kalenjin peoples of Kenya. The term "Kalenjin" (lit. "I say to you") was coined in radio broadcasts and at political rallies during the late colonial period, at a time when political events spurred a growing awareness of the close cultural, historical, and linguistic ties between Kipsigis and neighboring peoples to the north. Within the broader political and cultural context of present-day Kenya, the Kalenjin are recognized as a distinct population that shares a common cultural heritage and common political interests.
Location. The Kipsigis occupy a portion of the highlands in southwestern Kenya that is roughly contiguous with the present boundaries of Kericho District. The terrain is composed of steep ridges, interspersed with numerous rivers and streams, which gradually give way to gently rolling hills and grasslands. Elevations reach nearly 2,100 meters along the eastern extent of Kipsigis country and about 1,450 meters elsewhere. Rain falls most abundantly during two rainy seasons, ranging from 180 to 190 centimeters a year in the high country to 100 centimeters a year in the grasslands. Temperature does not vary markedly by season, but it does fluctuate between daytime highs averaging about 30° C and nighttime lows of about 9° C.
Demography. A precise population figure for the Kipsigis is unavailable because the most recent Kenyan census data do not distinguish the Kipsigis as a separate population group. Informed sources estimate a population of no less than 600,000, which is at least a threefold increase since 1962. The vast majority of this population lives within Kericho District, an area of 4,909 square kilometers. Few Kipsigis elect to live in the market towns and administrative centers throughout the district, although it is not uncommon for young men and, with increasing frequency, young women, to leave the district to take advantage of educational and employment opportunities in other parts of Kenya. Population density within the countryside falls in the range of 80 to 150 per square kilometer.
Linguistic Affiliation. Kipsigis is a tonal language. Classified as Nilotic, it is grouped within the Eastern Sudanic Branch of the Nilo-Saharan Language Family.
History and Cultural Relations
Kipsigis say that both they and the Nandi come from a place called "To," which some of them locate in the vicinity of Lake Baringo. In the course of their southward migration, sometime between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Kipsigis and the Nandi separated. Today the Nandi are their immediate neighbors to the north. Pushing farther south, Kipsigis displaced the Luo, Kissi, and Maasai, the descendants of whom are currently their neighbors to the west and south. The Kipsigis once called these people puniik, meaning "enemies" or "strangers," although relations with these populations were never completely hostile. Relations with the Maasai were often characterized by fierce competition for grazing land. Despite reciprocal cattle raids, Kipsigis and Maasai intermarried and occasionally adopted one another's children. Exchange with the Kissi seems to have been more frequent, particularly in times of famine, when Kipsigis would exchange cattle for Kissi grain. There are a number of Kipsigis clans of Kissi origin. Okiek hunters occupy the forest to the west. Like the Nandi, the Okiek are Kalenjin speakers. Both groups have maintained intimate cultural and political relations with Kipsigis—they intermarry, share clan affiliations, participate in joint initiation ceremonies, and, in the case of the Okiek, they previously exchanged forest products for Kipsigis grain. Indeed, before the imposition of colonial administration, ethnic boundaries between the Kipsigis and their neighbors seem to have been quite fluid and permeable. The arrival of the British (around the beginning of the twentieth century) radically transformed Kipsigis society. White settlers alienated nearly half of Kipsigis land. Through a series of pressures and inducements, the Kipsigis were gradually drawn within the orbit of the colonial market economy. In the late twentieth century structural changes in the regional economy forced thousands of western Kenyans, mostly Luo people, to come to Kericho in search of employment. Many find work on Kipsigis farms, and they may spend years working for the same family.
Kipsigis country is a patchwork of contiguous small farms, ranging from less than 1 to more than 12 hectares. Most families live on farms of between 3 and 6 hectares. These farms are grouped into communities called kokwotinwek (sing. kokwet ). These are not nucleated villages; in fact, one who is unfamiliar with a particular kokwet cannot easily discern its boundaries, although certain physical features—such as roads, streams, or marshes—often separate one kokwet from the next. The kokwet provides a pool of neighbors with whom one is expected to cooperate in certain kinds of farm work and to rally behind in times of sickness or need. In the past, kokwet membership was largely elective, at least for married men, given that residence was ideally neolocal. Today land scarcity prohibits such mobility. It is unlikely that a young man can find, let alone afford, a piece of land away from his father's farm, and therefore the kokwet is becoming a less fluid social unit. A mature Kipsigis homestead generally has three house types: a father's house, rectangular in design, often covered by a corrugated tin roof; a kitchen building, which is round, with a thatched roof, where children and unmarried daughters sleep; and a bachelors' house, where initiated young men sleep. Most Kipsigis houses are of mud- and-wattle construction; however, some prosperous farmers are now building stone houses that incorporate various features of European design.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although the Kipsigis have always cultivated a range of food crops, they are generally—but perhaps anachronistically—identified as "cattle-raising people." Nearly every adult male owns at least one cow. Milk is a favored food and is considered crucial for the welfare of young children. Livestock, which include goats and sheep, are a unique form of value, insofar as they remain an important part of bride-wealth payments. Nevertheless, livestock are but one component of a mixed farming regime. Like other farming activities, herd-management decisions are heavily influenced by market factors and cash requirements. There is a growing market for milk, which is sold through cooperatives to the government creamery, and a brisk trade in livestock at weekly cattle markets. Maize has largely replaced finger millet and sorghum as the staple food, although the latter are often grown on small plots for home consumption. Maize is also an important cash crop. Given an average harvest, nearly every farmer has some surplus to sell to the staterun cereal board. Some farmers grow maize on a commercial scale. A variety of vegetables is grown in kitchen gardens. At higher elevations, where soil conditions and rainfall are favorable, most farmers grow tea on plots that generally range between 0.2 and 2.4 hectares. Green leaf is plucked throughout the year and sold to state-run factories, where it is processed. The Kipsigis themselves buy their tea at local stores. Served with milk and copious amounts of sugar, tea has become a mainstay of their diet.
Industrial Arts. The Kipsigis are renowned for building handsome and durable houses. Many are competent tanners and leatherworkers. Some women still construct delicately woven food baskets and decorate gourds, which serve as milk containers.
Trade. Small stores, rarely more than 1.5 kilometers or so apart, sell the basic items—cooking oil, salt, sugar, tea, kerosene—that are consumed in nearly every household. Often the proprietors also run a diese1-powered mill that neighborhood women use to grind their maize. Market towns, which are usually within walking distance of many kokwotinwek, offer a wide range of consumer products and services that are provided by commercial artisans. There is a growing cadre of Kipsigis entrepreneurs who run all sorts of businesses; the transport business is the most popular. Weekly cattle markets are lively events: women come to buy and sell fruits and vegetables, itinerant traders buy livestock from farmers and bring them to market, and other farm products are sold directly to government marketing boards.
Division of Labor. Women do all the cooking, which includes the ancillary tasks of collecting water and firewood. They tend the kitchen gardens and often grow small plots of finger millet and sorghum. Women are also the caretakers of children. Men build houses, repair fences, and clear rough land. They provide veterinary care for livestock and, when the situation demands, perform autopsies. Major agricultural tasks involve the entire family and, frequently, cooperative work groups composed of kokwet members. Plowing with oxen is men's work. Planting maize is done by all available family members. Weeding is generally done by women. Maize is harvested by work groups composed of both men and women, who move in a round from one farm to the next. Plucking tea, which is a daily chore on plots of more than 0.4 hectares, is shared by all available hands. Many farmers also engage migrant workers to pluck their tea.
Land Tenure. By the 1950s, virtually all agricultural land was claimed as private property. Land is owned almost exclusively by men, but it is difficult for a man to sell his land if his wife or elder sons object. Title deeds devolve to a man's sons. The rights of unmarried daughters and their children to stay on the farm are recognized; however, there is as yet no consensus regarding what portion of the farm, if any, such women or their children can claim.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Kipsigis have more than 200 exogamous patrilineal clans, which serve as descent groups. Clans are not localized and have a rather diffuse corporate character. Clansmen are expected to make homicide payments when one of their own is held responsible for a death. Close clansmen often take a keen interest in one another's careers and home affairs and may be called on when disputes develop within the family concerning inheritance of land or livestock, but clan identity as such has little influence in day-to-day affairs.
Kinship Terminology. The Kipsigis employ a modified Omaha kinship terminology.
Marriage. The Kipsigis are polygamous. Rates of polygamy may be declining, however, as people continue to adjust to structural changes within the local economy. Christian strictures against polygamy also influence marriage patterns for many Kipsigis. Bride-wealth payments include livestock and cash. Kipsigis say it is best if co-wives live far apart, but the increasing cost and scarcity of land make such arrangements impracticable for most. Men are expected to supply stock to each house, so that each wife will have cows to feed her children. Over the years, women develop a proprietary interest in these herds, which come to include bride-wealth cattle from their daughters' marriages. If a woman has no sons, she may use some of these cattle to "marry" another woman. According to convention, she will choose her "wife's" principal lover, whose status is acknowledged with the payment of one cow. Children born from such marriages take the clan identity of the cow giver's husband. Divorce is exceptionally rare, even in cases where husband and wife have been separated for many years.
Domestic Unit. Every married woman keeps her own house, in which the cooking is done and the young children sleep. As a man's family matures, certainly before his daughters reach puberty, he will build his own house nearby. Once initiated, young men move to separate sleeping quarters some distance from the main family compound. Older brothers who have married before a farm is subdivided build separate compounds for their families. Each household operates as a relatively autonomous family unit.
Inheritance. When a man is close to death, custom dictates that he call his sons together and instruct them about the disposition of his property, which, these days, may include certain off-farm assets. The livestock that a man has acquired by his own efforts—by purchase or by patient husbandry—are divided equally among all his sons. Bride-wealth cattle, however, are attached to the households from which his married daughters have departed, so that brothers from different houses may be more or less fortunate in the number of cattle they inherit. In cases where extended families occupy one farm, each household ideally receives an equal share of the land, which, over time, will be divided evenly between the sons of each house. If a man has more than one farm, each will be regarded as a separate estate to be shared exclusively by the members of the household who live on that farm.
Socialization. Young children are nursed, fed, dressed, bathed, and watched over by women. Fathers take a keen interest in their children, but physical contact and displays of affection are generally restrained. As a rule, young girls are given household chores at an earlier age than their brothers. Shortly after puberty, boys and girls undergo separate initiations, which coincide with a one-month break in the school calendar. Boys are circumcised, and girls have parts of the clitoris and labia removed. Boys return from initiation with an ascetic bearing that signifies their ascent from childish things and childish behavior. They are expected to remain aloof from their mothers and sisters, who in turn treat them with respect. Girls return from initiation with the expectation they will soon be married, a situation that is often forestalled these days by their continued education. Kipsigis who belong to certain Protestant sects do not send their daughters for initiation; some are developing a "Christian" version of initiation for their sons.
Social Organization. There are seven sequentially recurring age sets, called ipinda. One is free to dance, drink, and carry on with age mates but ought to be more circumspect in the company of seniors. Men should not marry the daughters of their age mates. Women are also initiated into age sets, but they take the age-set status of their husbands when they marry. Kipsigis men also belong to patrilineal associations called boriet, which, in the past, served as regiments in times of war. The kokwet is the hub of community life. People call on their fellow kokwet members for mutual aid. Members of the kokwet or of neighboring kokwotinwek also cooperate in public projects such as building schools. Church groups, particularly those formed by Protestant sects, are becoming important forms of association. Church women have organized cooperative groups that crosscut kokwet ties. The social and economic distance between prosperous farmers and those who are less fortunate is growing. The social implications of such differentiation are as yet unclear, but the emergence of a landless or land-poor rural proletariat seems a likely prospect.
Political Organization. Kipsigis place great value on personal autonomy and are reticent to interfere in one another's affairs. Men may be respected for their achievements and admired for their persuasive oratory, but they do not receive consistent support for their positions at public gatherings. Cliques and political factions are ad hoc and unstable. The basic forum of political participation is the kokwet council, which is composed of all adult men within the kokwet. These men appoint a "village elder," who serves as a liaison to the local subchief appointed by the Kenyan government. The subchief or the local chief may call a kokwet meeting to communicate government policy.
Social Control. Kipsigis place great stock in their notion of respect. A sister respects her brother by dropping her playful attitude toward him once he is initiated. A man respects his mother-in-law by keeping his distance from her. Elders always command respect. Losing one's temper is considered an unfortunate and embarrassing lapse. Angry words are rarely spoken; they may cause physical harm. Serious arguments are mended by a formal apology. The ultimate sanction of serious misconduct is a father s or elder's curse. It is believed that some elders have the power to curse even unknown culprits to death. Criminal conduct is defined by the Kenyan government, and local administration police handle it.
Conflict. In cases of chronic marital discord, a man may send his wife back to her natal home, or she may elect to go herself. Disputes between neighbors involving boundaries, property damage, and the like are heard by the kokwet council. Jealousy or hidden enmity may provoke witchcraft, which can be directed at people or cattle, but witchcraft accusations are rare. Sanctions include shunning or, in extreme cases, banishment. Cattle raiding, a once-popular pursuit of Kipsigis warriors, is no longer tolerated.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Many Kipsigis are Christians; they hold their faith with varying degrees of orthodoxy. Non-Christians believe in a watchful but distant god, whose main manifestation is the sun. Kipsigis are likely to trace personal misfortune to transgressions committed by themselves or by one of their close kin, particularly a parent.
Ceremonies. Kipsigis have ceremonies to "greet" a mother and her newborn child and also to celebrate the completion of a new house. Marriage ceremonies have become elaborate affairs, particularly in Christian families. There are joyful and sometimes raucous public ceremonies held during the first and final states of initiation.
Arts. The Kipsigis are great singers. Choral groups often compose original songs, which are performed at ceremonies and various public events. There is a small but well-established Kalenjin music industry. Popular singers combine upbeat Western and indigenous musical styles.
Death and Afterlife. The Kipsigis bury their dead quickly. The eldest son will bury his father, and the youngest son will bury his mother. After a death, the immediate family will retreat from public life to mourn. The spirit of a recently deceased patrilineal relative is believed to be reincarnated in a newborn child.
Komma, Toru (1984). The Women's Self-Help Association Movement among the Kipsigis of Kenya. Senri Ethnological Studies, no. 15. Osaka: Nation Museum of Ethnology.
Manners, Robert A. (1967). "The Kipsigis of Kenya: Culture Change in a 'Model' East African Tribe." In Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies. Vol. 1, Introduction and African Tribes, edited by Julian H. Steward. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Orchardson, Ian Q. (1961). The Kipsigis. Abridged from the original manuscript by A.ˇT. Matson. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
MICHAEL M. DONOVAN