Okiek - History and Cultural Relations

Living in different locations, each Okiek group has had distinctive histories of interaction with neighbors of other, more populous ethnic groups (e.g., Maasai, Kipsigis, Nandi, and Kikuyu). Their experiences with colonial and national administrations have also differed. To suggest this variability, this article will describe Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek as examples, briefly noting how they contrast with other Okiek groups. Kaplelach and Kipchomwonek live adjacent to one another on the southern part of the Western Mau Escarpment in Narok District, Kenya.

Like other Okiek groups, Kaplelach and Kipchomwonek interact regularly with their pastoral or agropastoral neighbors. Cattle-keeping Maasai live on the savanna to their south, and Kalenjin-speaking Kipsigis are their nearest western neighbors. Other Okiek groups live to their north, elsewhere on the escarpment. Okiek are a minority group in the area, considered low-status and inferior by their neighbors. This attitude is based in part on their neighbors' negative evaluations of the Okiek hunting-and-gathering economy and of the forest environment where Okiek live.

Despite these stereotypes, Okiek have interacted regularly with both neighbors. They have traded, intermarried, and, at times, formed long-term friendships with both Maasai and Kipsigis. Kipchornwonek-Kipsigis interaction has historically been more intensive than that of Kaplelach with Kipsigis because Kipchomwonek live farther west, closer to Kipsigis areas. In the late twentieth century, however, Kipsigis have been buying land from Kaplelach and settling in their midst (see "Land Tenure").

Okiek have diversified their economic pursuits over the mid- and late twentieth century, a complex process that different Okiek groups began at different times and in different ways. They began by supplementing hunting and honey gathering with small-scale gardening and started to keep small herds of domestic animals at about that same time. Gradually, the balance between hunting, honey gathering, farming, and herding has shifted. Most contemporary Okiek rely on maize and other crops, supplementing agriculture with trading, hunting, and honey gathering. Many keep cattle, sheep, or goats as well; a relatively small number of Kipchornwonek and Kaplelach have taken long-term wage labor in towns.

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