POPULATION: About 2.7 million
LANGUAGE: Kalenjin; Swahili; English
RELIGION: Christianity (Africa Inland Church [AIC], the Church of the Province of Kenya [CPK], Roman Catholic Church); Islam
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 translates roughly as "I tell you." The name has played a crucial role in the construction of this relatively new ethnic identity among formerly independent, but culturally and linguistically similar tribes. The origin of the name Kalenjin and the Kalenjin ethnic identity can be traced to the 1940s. It represents a clear desire to draw political strength from greater numbers.
Beginning in the 1940s, individuals from these groups who were going off to fight in World War II (1939–45) used the term kale or kole (the process of scarring the breast or the arm of a warrior who had killed an enemy in battle) to refer to themselves. During wartime radio broadcasts, an announcer, John Chemallan, used the phrase kalenjok ("I tell you," plural). Later, individuals from these groups who were attending Alliance High School formed a "Kalenjin" club. Fourteen in number, they constituted a distinct minority in this prestigious school in an area dominated by another tribe, the Gikuyu. The Kalenjin wanted an outward manifestation of identity and solidarity to distinguish them from the Gikuyu. These young high school students formed what would become the future Kalenjin elite. Kalenjin identity was consolidated with the founding of a Kalenjin Union in Eldoret in 1948, and the publication of a monthly magazine called Kalenjin in the 1950s.
The Kalenjin movement was not simply the development of a people's identity. The British colonial government supported the Kalenjin movement and sponsored the Kalenjin monthly magazine out of a desire to foster anti-Gikuyu sentiments during the Mau Mau emergency. The Mau Mau movement was a mostly Gikuyu-led revolt against British colonialism that provoked an official state of emergency lasting from October 1952 to January 1960. Gikuyu conflicts both with the British and with non-Gikuyu tribes (including the Kalenjin) factored in the creation of Kalenjin solidarity and unity.
Traditionally, the basic unit of political organization among the Kalenjin was the koret or parish. This was a collection of twenty to one hundred scattered homesteads. It was administered by a council of adult males known collectively as the kokwet and was led by a spokesman called poiyot ap kokwet . This spokesman was someone recognized for his speaking abilities, knowledge of tribal laws, forceful personality, wealth, and social position. At public proceedings, although the poiyot ap kokwet was the first to speak, all of the elders were given the opportunity to state their opinions. Rather than making decisions himself, the poiyot ap kokwet expressed the group's opinion, always phrased in terms of a group decision.
Today, this system has been replaced with a system imposed by the British colonial government. Several villages form a sublocation, which is part of a location. Several locations form a division, divisions form districts, and districts are included in provinces. Each village has a village elder who settles minor disputes and handles routine affairs. Assistant chiefs, chiefs, district officers, district commissioners, and provincial commissioners rule each of the other levels of administration, the latter directly under the president's authority.
Accurate population estimates for Kenya are difficult to acquire. Recent estimates put Kenya's total population at 27.5 million people in 1993, with the Kalenjin totalling 2.7 million people. In the late 1980s, there were about 1.2 million Kalenjin, while Kenya's total population was some 22 to 24 million people. Together, the Kalenjin comprise Kenya's fourth-largest ethnic group. The Kipsigis are the largest Kalenjin population, with approximately 470,000 people. The rest of the Kalenjin and their estimated populations are as follows: Nandi (260,000); Tugen (130,000); Keiyo (110,000); Pokot (90,000); Marakwet (80,000); Sabaot (40,000); and Terik (20,000).
The first language of the Kalenjin peoples is Kalenjin, part of the Chari-Nile language group of Africa. Three Kalenjin dialect groups have been identified. Although the various dialects are all supposedly understood by all Kalenjin, speakers of one dialect often have difficulty understanding speakers of another. Most Kalenjin people also speak KiSwahili and English, since both are official national languages in Kenya and are taught in school.
Oral tradition was and still is very important among the Kalenjin. Prior to the introduction of writing, folktales served to convey a sense of cultural history. The Kalenjin have four oral traditions: stories, songs, proverbs, and riddles. Stories are usually about both people and animals, and certain animals are thought to have particular character traits. For example, the hare is a trickster figure whose cleverness can get him in trouble, the lion is courageous and wise, and the hyena is greedy and destructive.
Songs accompany both work and play, as well as ceremonial occasions such as births, initiations, and weddings. Proverbs convey important messages and are often used when elders settle disputes or advise youths. Riddles involve word play and are especially popular with children.
Traditional Kalenjin religion is based upon the belief in a supreme god, Asis or Cheptalel, who is represented in the form of the sun, although this is not God himself. Beneath Asis is Elat, who controls thunder and lightning. Spirits of the dead, oyik, are believed to intervene in the affairs of humans, and can be placated with sacrifices of meat and/or beer, called koros . Diviners, called orkoik , have magical powers and assist in appeals for rain or to end floods.
Today, nearly everyone claims membership in an organized religion—either Christianity or Islam. Major Christian sects include the Africa Inland Church (AIC), the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK), and the Roman Catholic Church. Muslims are relatively few in number among the Kalenjin. For the most part, only older people can recall details of traditional religious beliefs.
Today, the major holidays observed by the Kalenjin are mostly those associated with Christianity (Christmas and Easter), and national holidays such as Jamhuri (Republic) Day, Madaraka (Responsibility) Day, Moi (the current president) Day, and Kenyatta (the first president) Day. At Christmas, it is common for people still living in traditional mud-walled houses to give the outer walls a new coat of clay whitewash and paint them with holiday greetings (such as "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year").
There are three month-long school holidays in April, August, and December. The first two coincide with peak periods in the agricultural cycle and allow children of various ages to assist their families during these busy times. The December holiday corresponds with both Christmas and the traditional initiation ceremonies, tumdo .
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 warriorhood 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.
Chamge or chamuge is the standard greeting among the Kalenjin. If people meet face-to-face, the spoken greeting is almost always accompanied by a hearty handshake, and people often clasp their own right elbow with their left hand. The response is the same— chamge , sometimes repeated several times. It may be emphasized with mising, which can mean either "very much" or "close friend," depending upon the context. As a sign of respect, a younger person greets someone of their grandparents' generation by saying, chamge kogo (grandmother) or chamge kugo (grandfather).
Holding hands after greeting is very common for people of the same sex. Even when walking, these people may hold hands or lock little fingers. There is no sexual connotation to this behavior. People of opposite sexes are strongly discouraged from these and other public displays of affection. In their conversations Kalenjin do not point out objects or people with their fingers. Instead, they point by turning their head in the proper direction and puckering their lips briefly.
Taking leave of someone is accompanied by the farewell, sait sere (meaning literally, "blessing time"), and hearty handshakes. Often people walk with their visitor(s) a distance in order to continue the conversation and to give their friend(s) "a push." Once again, these people often hold hands.
In the past, dating and courtship were almost entirely matters of family concern. Today, young men and women have more freedom to exercise their own choice, especially those living at boarding schools. Young people meet and socialize at dances in town discos and in cafes called hoteli in KiSwahili. Still, when a young man decides on a wife, he and his father's family must gather together a suitable bride price payment to be given to the bride's family. In the past, this consisted almost entirely of livestock, but today it is becoming more common to use money in place of or in addition to livestock.
Traditionally, Kalenjin houses were round. Walls were constructed of bent saplings anchored to larger posts and covered with a mixture of mud and cow dung; roofs were thatched with local grasses. While these kinds of houses are still common, there is a growing trend toward the construction of square or rectangular houses built with timber walls and roofs of corrugated sheet metal.
Most Kalenjin are rural dwellers who do not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Radio/cassette players; kerosene lamps and stoves; charcoal stoves; aluminum cooking pots; plastic dishes, plates, and cups; and bicycles are the most common consumer items. Those few people who do not have electricity but who do have televisions use car batteries for power.
Typically, after marriage a man brought his wife to live with him in, or very near to, his father's homestead. Marriage of one man to multiple wives (polygyny) was and is permitted, although most men cannot afford the expense of such unions because of the burden of paying the bride price. Regardless of the type of marriage, children were traditionally seen as a blessing from God. As a result of this, until very recently Kenya had the highest population growth rate in the world.
Monogamous marriages (one husband and one wife) now prevail and nuclear families (a man, a woman, and their children) are becoming more common. Moreover, younger people are now expressing a desire to have fewer children when they get married. This is due to the increasing expense of having many children who not only must be fed but also educated. To some degree, young women are also changing their aspirations, wanting careers in addition to being mothers.
Traditional Kalenjin clothing consisted of skins of either domesticated or wild animals. Earrings were common for both sexes in the past, including heavy brass coils that made the earlobe stretch down almost to the shoulder. Today, the Western-style dress of most Kalenjin, even in rural areas, is hardly different from that of people in nearby towns. Men wear trousers and shirts, usually with a suit jacket or sport coat. Women wear skirts and blouses, dresses, and/or khangas —locally made commercial textiles that are used as wraps (one for the top and one for the bottom). Young people of both sexes like T-shirts with logos, especially those of American sports teams or ones bearing the likeness of famous entertainers such as Michael Jackson or Madonna.
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.
Traditionally, education among the Kalenjin was provided during a period of seclusion following circumcision. Young men and women were taught how to be a functioning and productive adult member of society. Nowadays, young men and women are still secluded after initiation, but for shorter periods (one month as compared with three months in the past). The timing of the December school holiday coincides with the practice of initiation and seclusion.
Primary school education in Kenya is free, since no tuition is charged. However, parents must provide their children with uniforms, books, pens, pencils, and paper, as well as contribute to frequent school fundraising activities. These expenses constitute a tremendous financial burden for families in a country where the average adult earns less than $300 per year. Post-primary school education is relatively expensive, even at the cheaper secondary schools, and entry is competitive. Tuition at the more prestigious high schools, which are all boarding schools, is very expensive. Most parents must rely on contributions from a wide circle of family, neighbors, and friends to meet the high tuition costs. Tuition at Kenya's universities is not high, but the selection process is grueling and relatively few students who want to attend are admitted.
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.
Most Kalenjin make a living by cultivating grains such as sorghum and millet (and more recently corn), and raising cattle, goats, and sheep. Farming and raising animals tend to be separate activities since grazing land is usually located a distance from the fields and homesteads.
In Kalenjin societies, much of the work, is traditionally divided along gender lines. Men are expected to do the heavy work of initially clearing the fields that are to be used for planting, as well as turning over the soil. Women take over the bulk of the farming work, including planting, weeding, harvesting (although men tend to pitch in), and processing crops. Women are also expected to perform nearly all of the domestic work involved in running a household. Men are supposedly more involved with herding livestock than with other pursuits. However, when men are engaged in wage labor away from home, women, children (especially boys), and the elderly care for animals just as often as men.
Soccer is of major interest to the Kalenjin, especially the youth, as it is with many other Kenyans. Nonetheless, running (especially middle and longer distances) is the sport that has made the Kalenjin people famous in world athletic circles. St. Patrick's High School in Iten has trained many world-class runners.
In rural areas, the radio is still the main form of entertainment. KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) programs are popular, as are shortwave radio transmissions by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the VOA (Voice of America). A relatively small number of people have televisions, and the only programming available is from KBC. In towns and trading centers, video parlors are becoming common, and action films (starring Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce and Brandon Lee, and others) are especially popular.
In other parts of Kenya, the famous sisal bags (called kiondo in KiSwahili) are manufactured and marketed worldwide. Although the Kalenjin are not well known for their handicrafts, women do make and locally sell decorated calabashes (sotet) from gourds. These are rubbed with oil and adorned with small colored beads.
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.
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