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Kalenjin Tribe, People, Language, Culture and Traditions



Kalenjin Tribe

The population of the Kalenjin Tribe is about 3 million being the fourth largest ethnic group in Kenya. This tribe is traditionally pastoral and is made up of about 10 sub-groups. The largest sub-group is the Nandi. The Kalenjin live primarily in Kenya. They are an ethnic grouping of eight culturally and linguistically related groups or “tribes”: the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot (sometimes called the Suk), Sabaot (who live in the Mount Elgon region, overlapping the Kenya/Uganda border), and the Terik. Their present-day homeland is Kenya’s western highlands and the Rift Valley.

Kalenjin Tribe – Origin

The name “Kalenjin” is relatively new for these people, who used to be referred to as the “Nandi-speaking tribes” and not as one single group. They deliberately created a tribal identity for themselves in the 1950s to gain more political power from their numbers. Because they originally were many different tribes, there is no one single history for the Kalenjin people. Overall, they are thought to have come to Kenya from Sudan and their territory is in the Great Rift Valley.

Kalenjin Tribe Men Photo
Kalenjin Tribe Men Photo

Kalenjin Language

The Kalenjin speak Kalenjin languages as mother tongues. They belong to the Nilo-Saharan family. Kalenjin also encompasses languages spoken in Tanzania (e.g., Akie) and Uganda (e.g., Kupsabiny). Due to this even broader use of the term ‘Kalenjin’, it was common practice in linguistic literature to refer to the languages of the Kenyan Kalenjin peoples as the Nandi languages.

Kalenjin Names

Below is a selection of Kalenjin names and their meanings. Female equivalents have been placed in brackets eg. Kibichii (Chebichii), where Kibichii is male while Chebichii is female

Boisio

Bosek

Chemesunde – Born in deep darkness due to absence of the moon. No male equivalent.

Chemiron -This is a male name among the Nandi and Kipsigis. The name has no female equivalent.

Chepkeitany (mainly a Keiyo name with no female equivalent) – born during the milking of the cattle.

Chepkwony – this name is an oddity as it belongs to men among the Nandi and Kipsigis

Cheruyot – has to do with spending the night in the same hut with the mother. No male equivalent.

Chumo – This is an age set name which is also represented among the Kikuyu by the ‘Cuma’ ruling generaion.

Elgeyo (Keiyu)

Kenduiyo

Kibichii (Chebichii) – One of the parents or other relative was very harsh.

Kibiwot (Chebiwot) – Dry weather or farmine.

Kibor (Chebor) – (born after the older sibling had died. To ensure that the child survies, it is taken to the road (or) to picked by someone and given back to the mother).

Kibuigut (Chebuigut)- Stammerer.

Kimaiyo (Chamaiyo) – born when there was a lot of beer.

History of the Kalenjin Tribe

The Kalenjin people of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania had the role of defending Egypt,up to the time of Herodotus. When Herodotus visited Egypt during the 5th century BCE, he encountered a sub-nation of Egypt known as Sebenitus.

Until the 40s, all Kalenjin were known by fourth names namely Sebei, Sabaot, Miot and Midian. Scholars from the community coined the word, Kalenjin, meaning I tell you to unite all the sub-nations of the tribe. Sebei and Sabaot now live around Mt. Elgon in Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda. It is possible that Herodotus misspelled the word, Sebenitus, which should have been either Sebei or Sabaot.

Even the Bible confirms the presence of the Sebei (Kalenjin). Job 1:5 says “…and the Sabeans fell upon and took them away.” Ezekiel also wrote about the Kalenjins (Sabeans), a sub-tribe of Ancient Egyptians. ze:23:42 says, “..and a voice of multitude being at ease was with her, and with the men of the common sort were brought Sabeans from the wilderness which put bracelets upon their hands and beautiful crowns upon their heads.”

Kalenjin  People – Eight age sets

The Kalenjin Sub tribes has eight (8) age sets revolving around 100 year cycle. Each age set span over a period of 13 years before moving to the next age set. The age sets are as detailed below.

1)Maina – 1800 A.D. – 1885A.D
2)Nyongi – 1885 A.D.- 1900 A.D
3)Chumiot – 1900 A.D .- 1924A.D
4)Saweiyiek – 1924A.D. – 1940 A.D
5) Korongoro – 1940A.D .-1966 A.D
6) Kipkoimet – 1966A.D .-1976A.D
7) Kaplelach – 1976A.D .- 1996 A.D
8) Kipnyiige – 1996A.D .- to date.

Kalenjin Tribe – List of all Kalenjin Sub-tribes

Kalenjin Tribe Kalenjin variety Region
Kipsigis Kipsigis Kericho(Kenya)
Nandi Nandi Kapsabet (Kenya)
Keiyo Keiyo Kerio Valley(Kenya)
Marakwet Marakwet Cherangani Hills(Kenya)
Tugen Tugen Baringo (Kenya)
Terik Terik Kakamega and Nandi
Pokot (suk) Pokot Mount Elgon (Kenya)
Sabaot Sabaot Mount Elgon(Kenya)

Kalenjin Culture Customs and Beliefs

Traditionally, music and dance served many functions. Songs accompanied many work-related activities, including, for men, herding livestock and digging the fields, and, for women, grinding corn, washing clothes, and putting babies to sleep (with lullabies). Music was also an integral part of ceremonial occasions such as births, initiations, and weddings. Dances for these occasions were performed while wearing ankle bells and were accompanied by traditional instruments such as flutes, horns, and drums.

The social structure of a Kalenjin village is based on the “age-set”, like other tribes such as the Masai. Rites of passage, such as initiation and circumcision, take place every seven years. Young people tend to bond with others in their age-set, though the concept is not as important for Kalenjin who live in the cities.

Polygamy, or marriages with more than one wife, is allowed in Kalenjin culture but many men find that paying more than one bride price is too costly for them.

The Kalenjin people have a very strong oral story-telling tradition, consisting of stories, proverbs, riddles and songs. Evenings would often be spent telling stories or singing as a form of both entertainment and education.

Kalenjin Circumcision – Rites Of Passage

The Kalenjin people say that upon arrival in east Africa, they circumcised their boys in two places. They circumcised their boys near Mt Elgon at a hill called tulwop Kabiniet (ie the hill of Phallus). Around 1500 CE they circumcised their boys again at a hill called Tulwop Monyiseet (ie the hill of the foreskins).

It is interesting to note that like their ancestors in Egypt, the Kalenjins gave functionally descriptive names to hills where circumcision rites have been performed. Remember God telling Joshua to circumcise his boys again in the hill of the foreskins (Joshua 5;3) in Gilgal area. Again the Kalenjin say that their ancestors used to circumcise their boys in Gilgil area which is 100 km west of Nairobi. Gilgil is a corruption of Gilgal, which is the military base of the Kenyan Army.

For both males and females, becoming an adult in Kalenjin society is a matter of undergoing an initiation ceremony. Traditionally, these were held about every seven years. Everyone undergoing initiation, or tumdo , thereby becomes a member of a named age-set, or ipinda .

After male youths were circumcised, they were secluded for lengthy periods during which they were instructed in the skills necessary for adulthood. Afterward, they would begin a phase of warrior hood during which they acted as the military force of the tribe. Elders provided guidance and wisdom. Today, age-sets have lost their military function, but still provide bonds between men of the same set. Female age-sets have lost much of their importance.

In the past, only people who had borne children would be buried after death; the others would be taken out to the bush and left to be eaten by hyenas. Today all Kalenjin are buried, but not in a cemetery. People are returned to their farm, or shamba, for burial. There is usually no grave marker, but family members, friends, and neighbors know where people are laid to rest.

Kalenjin Religion and Expressive Culture

Traditional Kalenjin beliefs are monotheistic, with a belief in a single Deity called Asis (symbolized by the sun). The spirits of dead ancestors were also an important part of Kalenjin religion, as was the practice of sacrifice to the spirits. Modern Kalenjin are almost exclusively Christian, with some being Muslim. Even so, many blend their old beliefs with their new ones.

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 community wide 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 bead work. Expressive culture and leisure activities include storytelling, singing and dancing, beer drinking (for men), and games of strategy. A lyre like 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.

Kalenjin Music – Kalenjin Songs

Many Kalenjin musicians are self-declared kings of the Kalenjin music and by their achievement they could be right. For a decade now (2006 and 2016) Kass FM listeners vote for songs that see the artists walk away with prices in a competition for the listeners’ best song.

They are the leaders of the Boys Bands and some like Rotich, 27, holds the distinction of being the first ever Kalenjin musician to have his music on VCD. Rotich, 27,drew his inspiration from the great Kalenjin musician, the late Kipchamba who was also a neighbour. Occasionally, the great musician would drop by and share knowledge and experience with Rotich.

There are many people with interest in knowing how the Kalenjins Sing. They go distances from the Singing Wells trip to record the music of the Kalenjin tribes. The journey takes them to Kitale, Mount Elgon, Kapenguria, Iten, Kapsowar and Lake Baringo where they record the music of traditional groups from different sub-tribes including Pokot, Marakwet, Tugen and Sabaot.

Kalenjin Tribe – Economic Activities

Subsistence and Commercial Activities.

The Kalenjin people are essentially semi-pastoralists. 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 UasinGishu plateau also grow wheat and pyrethrum.

Kalenjin People – 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.

Kalenjin People – 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.

Kalenjin People – 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 not—typically 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.

Kalenjin People – Land Tenure.

In Kalenjin community, 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.

Kalenjin Tribe – Food

The staple Kalenjin food is Ugali . This is a cake-like, starchy food that is made from white cornmeal mixed with boiling water and stirred vigorously while cooking. It is eaten with the hands and is often served with cooked green vegetables such as kale. Less frequently it is served with roasted goat meat, beef, or chicken. Before the introduction and widespread diffusion of corn in recent times, millet and sorghum (native African grains) were staple cereals. All of these grains were, and still are, used to make a very thick beer that has a relatively low alcohol content. Another popular beverage is Mursik . This consists of fermented whole milk that has been stored in a special gourd, cleaned by using a burning stick. The result is that the milk is infused with tiny bits of charcoal.

Lunch and dinner are the main meals of the day. Breakfast usually consists of tea (with milk and sugar) and leftovers from the previous night’s meal, or perhaps some store-bought bread. Meal times, as well as the habit of tea-drinking, were adopted from the British colonial period. Lunch and dinner are both eaten late by American standards. In addition to bread, people routinely buy foodstuffs such as sugar, tea leaves, cooking fat, sodas (most often Orange Fanta and Coca-Cola), and other items that they do not produce themselves.

Kalenjin People – 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 Kalenjin—with some exceptions, notably the Okiek—pay 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.

Kalenjin Women

Polygamy 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.

Kalenjin Ladies

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.

Kalenjin Runners – Kenya running tribe legends

Many legendary Kenyan long distance runners are Kalenjins, including world-renowned athlete Kipchoge Keino, who was the first African to clinch a gold medal in the 1500m race in 1968. Though retired, Kipchoge Keino remains a Kenyan legend and sports icon.

Most of Kenya’s earliest running heroes were of Nandi descent. Kipchoge Keino and Mike Boit were both Nandi, as are latter-day stars Wilson Kipketer and Moses Tanui. Tegla Loroupe, who holds the course record for the Quad-City Times Bix 7, as well as the world record in the women’s marathon, is of Pokot descent. Five-time world cross-country champion and world 10,000-meter record holder Paul Tergat is Tugen. Helen Kimaiyo, winner of the 1996 Bix 7, is Keiyo, and three-time world steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui is Marakwet.

Though other Kenyan tribes have produced world-class athletes, the Kalenjins continue to dominate the marathon scene.

Scientists have long speculated that the Kalenjin people have some kind of genetic predisposition towards distance running, though no concrete evidence has been established.

Kalenjjin Athletes Photo
Kalenjin Athletes Photo

Kalenjin Tribe – Social Problems

Cigarette smoking is common among Kalenjin men but not among women. The same is true for alcohol consumption. Commercially bottled beer is expensive, as are distilled spirits. The Kenyan government has banned the brewing and distillation of traditional homemade alcoholic beverages, including busaa, a beer made from fried, fermented corn and millet, and chang’aa, a liquor distilled from busaa . Nevertheless, these beverages continue to be popular, especially with men, and they provide some individuals, mostly women, with supplementary income. Chang’aa can be lethal since there is no way to control the high alcohol content (unlike that of busaa, which tends to have a very low alcohol content), and there are many opportunities for contamination. It is very common to open the Kenyan daily newspapers and read stories of men dying after attending drinking parties.

Livestock rustling has always been part of Kalenjin culture, and this continues to be true. The difference is that now, instead of spears and bows and arrows, cattle rustlers use semiautomatic weapons such as AK 47 assault rifles.

Kalenjin  People – Video

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