Nandi and Other Kalenjin Peoples

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Nandi and Other Kalenjin Peoples

ETHNONYMS: Endo: Chebleng'. Keiyo: Elgeyo. Kipsigis: Lumbwa, Sotek. Kony: Bong'om, Bok, Elgon Maasai, Elgonyi, Sabaot. Marakwet: Cherang'any, Maragweta, Sengwer. Nandi: Chemwal, Teng'wal. Okiek: Akiy, Dorobo, Ogiek. Pokot: Pakot, Suk. Sebei: Kipsorai, Mbai, Sabaot, Saping', Sor. Terik: Nilotic Tiriki, Nyang'ori. Tugen: Cherangani, Kamasia.


Identification. The Kalenjin are related East African peoples (Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Tugen, Marakwet, Endo, Sabaot, Terik, Okiek) who form one branch of the Highland N ilotes, formerly referred to as "Southern Nilo-Hamites" or sometimes "Nandi-speaking peoples." This description focuses on the Nandi; about one-third of all Kalenjin and second-largest of the Kalenjin subgroups, they are geographically the most centrally located.

Location. The Kalenjin live mainly in the highland of western Kenya, although the Sebei and some Pokot are located in eastern Uganda. Physical environment and ecological adaptation vary throughout Kalenjin country. The Nandi and Kipsigis live primarily on high plateaus with good agricultural potential: average elevation of 1,800 to 2,000 meters, thick topsoil, and 150 to 200 centimeters of rain annually distributed over the entire year. Many of the Kalenjin groups (Keiyo, Tugen, Marakwet/Endo) live along escarpments in the Rift Valley system, and the Sabaot on Mount Elgon. In these cases, most cultivation occurs between 1,350 and 2,000 meters, animals are herded in low-lying plains, and some communities may be situated at elevations of over 2,700 meters. The pastoral Pokot, the northernmost Kalenjin, live in arid lowlands where little cultivation is possible. The Okiek, mountain-forest-dwelling Kalenjin speakers, historically are foragers.

Demography. There are probably just over 2 million Kalenjin, at least 95 percent of whom live in Kenya. The Kipsigis were 32 percent of all the Kenya Kalenjin in the 1969 census, followed by the Nandi (27 percent), Pokot (13 percent), Tugen (8.6 percent), Keiyo (8.5 percent), Marakwet (6 percent), Sabaot (42 percent), and Okiek (less than 1 percent by official census figures, but perhaps undercounted). The number of Uganda Sabaot (Sebei) is close to their number in Kenya. In the 1979 census, there were 1,652,243 Kalenjin in Kenya. They were the fifth-largest ethnic group10.8 percent of the population. The vast majority of Kalenjin are rural, and population density differs greatly throughout Kalenjin country owing to highly varied ecological conditions.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although the Kalenjin are regarded as a unit on the basis of speaking a common language, there are numerous dialects. All of them, it seems, are mutually intelligible with practice, although not necessarily immediately. Nandi and Kipsigis are distinguished by small sound and terminology differences, similar to the difference between English as spoken in Britain and the United States. Speakers of these dialects cannot immediately understand Pokot, Sabaot, and regional variants of Marakwet. Greenberg (1963) classifies Kalenjin as a Southern Nilotic language (Eastern Section, Nilotic Branch, Eastern Sudanic Language Family). Aside from Tatoga, which is spoken by a few small peoples of northern Tanzania, the nearest language to Kalenjin is Maasai.

History and Cultural Relations

The oral traditions of all the Nilotic peoples of East Africa refer to northern origins. There is a consensus among historians and linguists that the Plains and Highland Nilotes migrated from a region near the southern border of Ethiopia and Sudan shortly before the beginning of the Christian Era and diverged into separate communities shortly thereafter. Ehret (1971) believes that pre-Kalenjin who already were cattle keepers and had age sets lived in the western Kenya highlands 2,000 years ago. Presumably, these people absorbed other populations already living in the region. From some time after a.d. 500 to about a.d. 1600, there seems to have been a series of migrations eastward and southward from near Mount Elgon. Migrations were complex, and there are competing theories about their details.

The Nandi and Kipsigis, in response to Maasai expansion, borrowed from the Maasai some of the traits that distinguish them from other Kalenjin: large-scale economic dependence on herding, military organization and aggressive cattle raiding, and centralized religious-political leadership. The family that established the office of orkoiyot (warlord/diviner) among both the Nandi and Kipsigis were nineteenth-century Maasai immigrants. By 1800, both the Nandi and Kipsigis were expanding at the expense of the Maasai. This process was halted in 1905 by the imposition of British colonial rule.

Introduced during the colonial era were new crops/techniques and a cash economy (Kalenjin men were paid wages for their military service as early as World War I); conversions to Christianity began (Kalenjin was the first East African vernacular to have a translation of the Bible). Consciousness of a common Kalenjin identity emerged to facilitate action as a political-interest group during and after World War IIhistorically, the Nandi and Kipsigis raided other Kalenjin as well as the Maasai, Gusii, Luyia, and Luo. The name "Kalenjin" is said to derive from a radio broadcaster who often used the phrase (meaning "I tell you"). Similarly, "Sabaot" is a modern term used to mean those Kalenjin subgroups who use "Subai" as a greeting. Nandi and Kipsigis were early recipients of individual land titles (1954), with large holdings by African standards because of their historically low population density. Economic development schemes were promoted as independence (1964) approached, and afterward many Kalenjin from more crowded areas resettled on farms in the former White Highlands near Kitale. Today's Kalenjin are among the most prosperous of Kenya's ethnic groups. Kenya's second president, Daniel arap Moi, is a Tugen.


The typical settlement pattern is scattered. Groups of family homesteads make up a neighborhood (Nandi: koret ), and today (in Kenya) several neighborhoods are combined into a sublocation, the smallest unit of government administration. Neighborhood size varies, but twenty to fifty or sixty households is typical. Among the Nandi, Kipsigis, pastoral Pokot, and Sebei, local communities historically were not, or were only to a limited extent, kin-based; among some other Kalenjin, they were based on patrilineal clans. Most Kalenjin combined neighborhoods to form a pororiet, a unit with mutual-defense functions. Old-style houses are round, of wattle and daub, thatched, and divided internally into two rooms; the back room traditionally sheltered sheep and goats. Modern houses (still the minority) are usually square and of permanent material, with iron-sheet roofs. A typical household consists of a small extended family, or a nuclear family with some attached nonnuclear kin, living in a compound composed of several individual houses facing each other.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kalenjin are essentially semipastoralists. Cattle herding is thought to be ancient among them. Although the real economic importance of herding is slight compared to that of cultivation among many Kalenjin groups, they almost all display a cultural emphasis on and an emotional commitment to pastoralism. Cattle numbers have waxed and waned; however, cattle/people ratios of 5:1 or greater (typical of peoples among whom herding is economically dominant) have been recorded only for the pastoral Pokot. In their late-nineteenth-century heyday of pastoralism, the Nandi and the Kipsigis approached this ratio; 1-3:1 is more typical of the Kalenjin, and in some communities the ratio is even lower than 1:1.

The staple crop was eleusine, but maize replaced it during the colonial era. Other subsistence crops include beans, pumpkins, cabbages, and other vegetables as well as sweet and European potatoes and small amounts of sorghum. Sheep, goats, and chickens are kept. Iron hoes were traditionally used to till; today plows pulled by oxen or rented tractors are more common. The importance of cash crops varies with land availability, soil type, and other factors; among the Nandi and the Kipsigis, it is considerable. Surplus maize, milk, and tea are the major cash crops. Kalenjin farms on the Uasin Gishu plateau also grow wheat and pyrethrum.

In most communities there are a few wage workers and full-time business persons (shopkeepers, tailors, carpenters, bicycle repairmen, tractor owners) with local clienteles. It is common for young married men to be part-time entrepreneurs. Historically, women could brew and sell beer; this became illegal in the early 1980s. Some men work outside their communities, but labor migration is less common than elsewhere in western Kenya.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, there were no full-time craft specialists. Most objects were manufactured by their users. The blacksmith's art was passed down in families in particular localities, and some women specialized in pottery.

Trade. Traditionally, women conducted a trade of small stock for grain between pastoral-emphasis and cultivation-emphasis (often non-Kalenjin) communities. Regular local markets were rare prior to the colonial era. Today large towns and district centers have regular markets, and women occasionally sell vegetables in sublocation centers.

Division of Labor. There was little traditional division of labor except by age and sex. Men cleared land for cultivation, and there is evidence that married men and women cooperated in the rest of the cultivation process. Husbands and wives did not (except during a limited historical period)and do nottypically cultivate separately, other than the wife's vegetable garden. Today women do more cultivation if their husbands are engaged in small-scale business activities. Children herded cattle close to the homestead, as well as sheep and goats; warriors (young initiated men) herded cattle in distant pastures. Women and girls milked, cooked, and supplied water and firewood. Today boys are the main cowherds, and girls are largely responsible for infant care. The children's role in domestic labor is extremely important, even though most children now attend school.

Land Tenure. In Nandi, individual title to land replaced a system in which land was plentiful, all who lived in a community had the right to cultivate it, and a man could move with his family to any locality in which he had a sponsor. Land prepared for cultivation, and used regularly, was viewed as belonging to the family that used it, and inherited from mother to son. The tenure systems of other Kalenjin were mainly similar. The Kerio Valley groups cultivated on ridges and at the foot of ridges, using irrigation furrows that required collective labor to maintain. This labor was provided by clan segments, which cleared and held land collectively, although cultivation rights in developed fields were held by individual families.


All Kalenjin have patrilineal clans, but clans do not universally have strong cooperative functions other than regulating marriage (with various rules). Specific patrilineal links are traced for only three to four generations.

Kin terminology is basically Omaha. The most common sibling terms do not differentiate gender. There are a large number of specific terms for types of affines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage took place in two stages: ratet, a small ceremony after which the couple lived together, and tunisiet, a large public feast held only at the completion of bride-wealth payment. Among the Nandi, these stages have typically occurred in rapid succession since about the turn of the twentieth century; among some other Kalenjin, at least during certain periods, a separation of many years has been customary, probably depending on availability of cattle or other livestock. Most Kalenjinwith some exceptions, notably the Okiekpay bride-wealth in cattle. Once payment is complete, marriage is theoretically irrevocable. Traditional divorce grounds and proceedings exist, but divorce is in fact extremely rare, even in modern times. Permanent separations occur but do not technically negate marriage.

Polygyny is prestigious and, in the 1970s, was practiced by about 25 percent of ever-married Nandi men. Christians were monogamous slightly more frequently than non-Christians. Woman-woman marriage, found among Nandi, Kipsigis, and, since about the mid-twentieth century, among Keiyo, is not customary among other Kalenjin. Both women and men are active in negotiating marriages and reconciling separated couples. Husbands are jurally dominant, with the right to beat wives for certain offenses. Wives are publicly deferential; private relations are more nearly egalitarian. Leisure is spent with same-gender companions more than with one's spouse.

Domestic Unit. Each wife has her own field, cattle, and house within the family compound. A separate farm for each wife is the ideal. Compounds may include the husband's parents or mother, and other kin, depending on circumstances. Brothers and their wives may share a compound, although this is rare.

Inheritance. Traditional norms of cattle inheritance have been extended to land, money, and other property. Each wife's house-property consists of cattle given to her at marriage, acquired by her on her own, or given as bride-wealth for her daughters. These may be inherited only by her own sons (or, in Nandi and Kipsigis, the sons of her wife). A man's other property is inherited in equal shares by each wife's house. Failing lineal heirs, a man's property reverts to his brothers or their sons, a woman's to her co-wives' sons.

Socialization. Infants are treated indulgently, but strict obedience (enforced by corporal punishment) is expected from children by about the age of 6. Routine care of infants and toddlers is largely the responsibility of girls between ages 8 and 10. Children are economically important and have heavy responsibilities. It is common to spend a part of childhood fostered by a relative, helping with domestic work in exchange for board and school fees.

Adolescent initiation (circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls, and instruction for both) is a key feature of Kalenjin life and ethnic identity. These are sex-segregated rituals for most, but not all, Kalenjin groups. Adolescents are allowed a period of license to indulge in courtship and sexual playbefore initiation for girls and afterward for boys. Girls marry directly following initiation; boys become warriors. Today some (mostly highly educated) girls refuse initiation.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Rotating age sets formerly existed among all Kalenjin, with the same or nearly the same names in all groups. There were eight sets among the Tugen, Marakwet, and Sabaot and seven among the Keiyo, Nandi, and Kipsigis (with some evidence that there may have been eight formerly). The Marakwet, Tugen, and Sabaot have formalized age sets for women, and other Kalenjin probably once had them. Members of younger age sets defer to members of older age sets. Men initiated together have a very high level of solidarity: they spend much time together, form work teams, try to live in the same neighborhood and marry sisters (wife's sister's husband is an important reciprocal kin type), and may not marry each other's daughters. Aside from territorial units and clans, there were no other formai associations.

Political Organization. Most political action took place in the kokwet, or council of the locality (today, sublocation council). Theoretically, any married man could be an active participant; in fact, a small group of influential elders formed the core. Women could observebut not speak unless invited. Local councils sent representatives to occasional meetings of pororiet councils. Such councils continue to be important under the leadership of a government-appointed sublocation chief.

Traditionally, there were no central authorities, although the Nandi and Kipsigis came close to having chiefs in the head orkoiyot. All the Kalenjin had men called orkoiyot, believed to have power to control weather and foretell events. The nineteenth-century Nandi and Kipsigis came to rely on one central authority to coordinate warfare (through representatives on pororiet councils) and predict the success of raids. The orkoiyot was rewarded with a share of the booty of successful raids, and his family became wealthy and powerful. For its short existence, this office was passed from father to son.

Social Control. Internal conflicts and norm violations are brought before neighborhood elders' courts. In modern Kenya, serious offenses are automatically matters for the police and government courts; other disputes can become police matters if someone files charges, but the elders' court is still the main arena for litigation. Offending parties would normally comply with fines imposed by elders; elders could also order punishments (e.g., beating) to be administered by offenders' age sets. People convicted of witchcraft were ordered to be put to death by their own kin. Traditionally, local groups of women could sanction men deemed guilty of "crimes against women."

Conflict. Cattle raiding was extremely important in the social life of the pastoral Kalenjin. The warrior age grade (youngest initiated age set) was responsible for defending cattle, and acquiring their own fortunes in captured cattle. War was not specifically for territory, but the Nandi and the Kipsigis did expand territorially at the expense of the Maasai. Whereas the Nandi and the Kipsigis did not raid each other, they did at times raid other Kalenjin.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The statistical majority of Kalenjin are nominally Christian, but many still follow traditional beliefs and practices. They believed in one god, with many names, identified with the sun and now believed to be identical to the Christian God. Prayers were addressed primarily to God. The oiik (sing. olindet ), or spirits of dead ancestors, were also believed able to intervene in human life. They were occasionally, but not systematically, propitiated. Thunder was another named supernatural being. Inchoate evil spirits were believed to lurk on pathways, especially at night, and cause harm.

Religious Practitioners. Every neighborhood has elders who serve as ritual experts. Diviners foretell events by patterns of pebbles poured from a calabash. The Kalenjin also believe in an array of different named types of sorcerers and witches.

Ceremonies. Formerly, there was an important communitywide festival, kipsunde, after the harvest. The major ceremonies now are the life-cycle rituals, many (e.g., those for for newborns) restricted to the family. The most important larger ritual is initiation.

Arts. The most highly developed visual art is decorative beadwork. Expressive culture and leisure activities include storytelling, singing and dancing, beer drinking (for men), and games of strategy. A lyrelike stringed instrument traditionally accompanied singing but is now becoming rare.

Medicine. Traditionally, "doctors" (male), with primarily supernaturally based skills, could ascertain the cause of bad luck or illness and treat it. These practitioners still treat patients, particularly for mental illness. Female herbalists' and midwives' skills are more technical than supernatural.

Death and Afterlife. Death customs varied. The Nandi buried only infants and elders. Corpses of adults were left to be consumed by hyenas. In some Kalenjin groups (e.g., Marakwet), only barren people were left for scavengers. Death was polluting, and corpse handlers (sons or other close kin) had to be ritually purified and compensated from the estate. Many stories refer to an afterlife that is an idealized version of precolonial Kalenjin life. In a family ceremony, elders decided which ancestral spirit has been reincarnated in a newborn infant.


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