Kalenjin people

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Christianity, African Traditional Religion
Related ethnic groups
Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, other Nilotic peoples

The Kalenjin are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting the Rift Valley Province in Kenya. They are estimated to number a little over 4.9 million individuals as per the Kenyan 2009 census.[2]



Linguistic evidence points to the eastern Middle Nile Basin south of the Abbai River, as the ancient homelands of the Kalenjin. That is to say south-east of present day Khartoum. They were not a distinct group of people at this time but part of a wider society today referred to as Nilotic peoples.[3]

The Nilotic point of unity is thought to have occurred sometime between 3000 and 2000 B.C. though the form that this unity took and much of their way of life at this time still remains unclear.

Beginning in the second millennium B.C., particular Nilotic communities began to move southward into present day South Sudan where most settled. However the societies today referred to as the Southern Nilotes pushed further on, reaching what is present day north-eastern Uganda by 1000 B.C.[4]

Early presence in Kenya[edit]

The Southern Nilotic societies later moved into Western Kenya by 700 B.C., where they settled next to and were deeply influenced by particular Cushitic societies that had preceded them in Kenya. This impact was most notable in borrowed loan words, adoption of the practice of circumcision and the cyclical system of age-set organisation.[5]

A number of historical narratives from the various Kalenjin sub-tribes point to Tulwetab/Tuluop Kony (Mount Elgon) as their original point of settlement in Kenya. Of note is that these accounts come from the Southern Kalenjin while the Kalenjin closer to Kony, and in particular the Sebeii/Sabaot who live around Mount Elgon point to Kong'asis (the East) and more specifically the Cherangani Hills as their original homelands in Kenya. [6]


The most popular Kalenjin narrative of origin is often captured as a narrative of brothers, according to the account;

..the Kalenjin originated from a country in the north known as Emetab Burgei, which means, the hot country. The people are said to have travelled southwards passing through Mount Elgon or Tulwetab Kony in Kalenjin. The Sebeii settled around the slopes of the mountain while the others travelled on in search of better land. The Keiyo and Marakwet settled in Kerio Valley and Cherangani Hills. The Pokot settled on the northern side of Mount Elgon and later spread to areas north of Lake Baringo. At Lake Baringo, the Tugen separated from the Nandi and the Kipsigis. This was during a famine known as Kemeutab Reresik, which means, famine of the bats. It is said that during this famine a bat brought blades of green grass which was taken as a sign of good omen signifying that famine could be averted through movement to greener pastures. The Tugen moved and settled around Tugen Hills while the Kipsigis and the Nandi moved to Rongai area. The Kipsigis and Nandi are said to have lived as a united group for about a century but eventually were forced to separate due to antagonistic environmental factors. Some of these were droughts and invasion of the Maasai from Uasin Gishu.[7]

Pre-Colonial Kenya[edit]

Until the early 1950s, the Kenyan peoples now known as the Kalenjin did not have a common name; they were usually referred to as the 'Nandi-speaking tribes' by scholars and colonial administration officials, a practice that ended immediately following the adoption of the collective name 'Kalenjin.'[8]

In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, several "Nandi-speaking" peoples united to assume the name 'Kalenjin', an expression meaning 'I say (to you)'. Due to this effort, the peoples were transformed into a major ethnic group in Kenya. The adoption of the name Kalenjin also involved a standardisation of the dialects (Nandi, Markweta, Tugen Pogot, Keiyo, Kipsigis, and Sabaot/Sabiny) of the Kalenjin language.


According to the Kenya's 2009 census, the Kalenjin has a population of 4,967,328 people, making it the third largest group in Kenya after the Kikuyu and the Luhya.[2]


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 is common practice in linguistic literature to refer to the languages of the Kenyan Kalenjin peoples as the Nandi languages.


As with some Bantu groups, the Kalenjin and other Nilotes in the Great Lakes region have through interaction adopted many customs and practices from neighbouring Southern Cushitic groups. The latter include the age set system of social organisation, circumcision, and vocabulary.[9][10][11]

In subsistence modes, the Kalenjin have traditionally practised livestock herding.


There are several tribal groupings within the Kalenjin: They include the Keiyo Elgeyo, Endorois, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Nandi, Pokot, Sabaot, Terik, Tugen and Sebei.

Athletic prowess[edit]

The Kalenjin have been called by some "the running tribe." Since the mid-1960s, Kenyan men have earned the largest share of major honours in international athletics (track and field) at distances from 800 meters to the marathon; the vast majority of these Kenyan running stars have been Kalenjin. From 1980 on, about 40% of the top honours available to men in international athletics at these distances (Olympic medals, World Championships medals, and World Cross Country Championships honours) have been earned by Kalenjin. In recent years,[when?] Kenyan women have become a major presence in international athletics at the distances; most of these women are Kalenjin. Amby Burfoot of Runner's World stated that the odds of Kenya achieving the success they did at the 1988 Olympics were below 1:160 billion. Kenya had an even more successful Olympics in 2008, documented in the book More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way by Toby Tanser.

A number of theories explaining the unusual athletic prowess among people from the tribe have been proposed. These include many explanations that apply equally well to other Kenyans or people living elsewhere who are not disproportionately successful athletes, such as that they run to school every day, that they live at relatively high altitude, and that the prize money from races is large compared to typical yearly earnings. NPR advanced two explanations that apply more narrowly to the tribe. One is that by common genetic inheritance, many tribe members have unusually thin ankles and calves, significantly improving the physical dynamics of running. The other is that the tribe has historically conducted male and female circumcisions in a ritual where screaming out in pain is taboo, engendering a certain kind of psychological resilience and tolerance of pain which is useful in race discipline.[12]


  1. ^ [Ethnologue]
  2. ^ a b Census: Here are the numbers. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
  3. ^ Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 B.C. to A.D.400. University of Virginia, 1998, p.7
  4. ^ Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 B.C. to A.D.400. University of Virginia, 1998, p.7
  5. ^ Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 B.C. to A.D.400. University of Virginia, 1998, p.161-164
  6. ^ Kipkorir, B.E. The Marakwet of Kenya: A preliminary study. East Africa Educational Publishers Ltd, 1973, pg. 64
  7. ^ Chesaina, C. Oral Literature of the Kalenjin. Heinmann Kenya Ltd, 1991, p. 29
  8. ^ cf. Evans-Pritchard 1965.
  9. ^ Robert O. Collins, The southern Sudan in historical perspective, Transaction Publishers: 2006, p.9-10.
  10. ^ A. Okoth & A. Ndaloh, Peak Revision K.C.P.E. Social Studies, East African Publishers, p.113.
  11. ^ Robert Maxon, East Africa, An Introductory History, Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers, 1994, 32.
  12. ^ Gregory Warner (2013-11-01). "How One Kenyan Tribe Produces the World's Best Runners". NPR. Retrieved 2013-12-28. 

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