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 much of what was 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] Kalenjin in Kenya are divided into the Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Marakwet, Sabaot/Kony, Pokots/Suk, Terik, Ogiek/Dorobo, Samor, Eldorois, Lembus, Pokor, Keben, Kakimor, Aror, Sengwer/Cherangany, and Sebei sub-groups.



Areas where Nilotic languages are spoken.

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.[citation needed]

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.[3]

Early presence in Kenya[edit]

Beginning around 700 BC, the Southern Nilotic speaking communities, i.e. the proto-Kalenjin, whose homelands lay somewhere near the common border between Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia moved south into the western highlands and Rift Valley region of Kenya. Their arrival in Kenya occurred shortly before the introduction of iron to East Africa.[4] Contemporary studies, supported by 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.

They settled next to and were deeply influenced by Southern 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] An old Nandi tradition that may contain elements of historicity states that circumcision was introduced by a man called Kipkenyo who came from a country called Do (Tto).[6]

The past distribution of the Southern Nilotic (Kalenjin) speakers, as inferred from place names, loan words and oral traditions includes the known distribution of Elmenteitan sites.[4]

Occupation of the Rift Valley lands[edit]

A number of historical narratives from the various Kalenjin sub-tribes point to Tulwetab/Tulwop Kony (Mount Elgon) as their original point of settlement in Kenya.[7]

Mount Elgon, a common Kalenjin point of origin

This concurs with the consensus among historians and linguists that from about 500 to 1600A.D, the Kalenjin moved eastward and southward from a base near Mt Elgon occupying what would become their traditional lands. The movements themselves were complex and contemporary scholars present competing theories around them.[8] Among the Kalenjin, the most popular 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 Emet ab Burgei, which means, the hot country. The people are said to have traveled southwards passing through Mount Elgon or Tulwet ab 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.[9]

Radiocarbon dating of archaeological excavations done in Rongai (Deloraine) have ranged in date from around 985 to 1300 A.D and have been associated with the early development phase of the Sirikwa culture. From here the culture radiated outwards toward the western highlands, the Mt. Elgon region and possibly into Uganda.[10]

Traditional way of life[edit]

By the middle of the second millennium, the Kalenjin had been semi-nomadic pastoralists of long standing. They had been raising cattle, sheep and goats and cultivating sorghum and pearl millet since at least the last millennium B.C when they arrived in Kenya.[11]

The areas around Lake Baringo are home to a number of Kalenjin sections

They occupied parts of geographical Western Kenya and the Rift Valley.[12]

A territory that was not as a whole recognized as a geographic locality, though the various Kalenjin sub-tribes did have a similar set of classifications of geographic localities within their respective tribal lands.

Of these geographic classifications, the Kokwet was the most significant political and judicial unit among the Kalenjin. The governing body of each kokwet was its kokwet council; the word kokwet was in fact variously used to mean the whole neighbourhood, its council and the place where the council met.

Age set (Ipinda / Ebendo)

The social system divided the male sex into boys, warriors and elders. The female sex was divided into girls and married women. The first stage began at birth and continued till initiation. All boys who were circumcised together were and still are said to belong to the same ibinda. These age sets were used to record time. Once the young men of a particular ibinda came of age, they were tasked with protecting the tribal lands and the society, the period when they were in charge of protection of the society was known as the age of that ibinda.[13] There were eight ages in general though this varied between sections as an age-set would temporarily be dropped from use if a disastrous incident occurred during the age of the ipinda. As late as the early-1900s, the central Kalenjin groups initiated the same age-set concurrently while the outlying groups were one or at most two steps out of phase. It has been suggested that such synchronization suggests that most or all Kalenjin groups constituted not merely an ethno-linguistic category but a single information sharing system.[14]

Age set Names

Sebei Maina Chumo Sowe Koronkoro Kwoimet Kaplelaich Nyikeao Nyonki
Sabaot Sawe Maina Gabaiyak Korongoro  ?* Gamnenac Gamnyikewa Nyongiik
Nandi Maina Chumo Sawe - Kipkoiimet Kaplelach Kimnyigei Nyongi
Kipsigis Maina Chumo Sawe - Kipkoiimet Kaplelach Kipnyigei Nyongi
Keiyo Maina Chumo Sowe Korongoro Kipkoimet Kaplelach Kimnyegeu Nyongi
Marakwet Maina Chumo Sawe Korongoro Kipkoimet Kaplelach Kimnyigei Nyongi
Lembus/Pokor/Arror/Keben/Kakimor/Endorois/Samor - Chumo Sowe Korongoro Kipkoimet Kaplelach Kimnikeu Nyongi
Pokot Maina Juma Sowe Korongoro Kipkoimet Kaplelach Merkutua Nyongu[14]

- *La Fontaine states there are eight "age classes" but lists seven names, the order of which is questionable.

Sirikwa Era[edit]

For several centuries, the Sirikwa, linguistic ancestors of the Kalenjin would be the dominant population of the western highlands of Kenya. At their greatest extent, their territories covered the highlands from the Chepalungu and Mau forests northwards as far as the Cherangany Hills and Mount Elgon. There was also a south-eastern projection, at least in the early period, into the elevated Rift grasslands of Nakuru which was taken over permanently by the Maasai, probably no later than the seventeenth century. Here Kalenjin place names seem to have been superseded in the main by Maasai names[15] notably Mount Suswa (Kalenjin - place of grass) which was in the process of acquiring its Maasai name, Ol-doinyo Nanyokie, the red mountain during the period of European exploration.[16]

Archaeological evidence indicates a highly sedentary way of life and a cultural commitment to a closed defensive system for both the community and their livestock during the Sirikwa era of Kalenjin prehistory. Family homesteads featured small individual family stock pens, elaborate gate-works and sentry points and houses facing into the homestead; defensive methods primarily designed to proof against individual thieves or small groups of rustlers hoping to succeed by stealth.[17] A commitment to trade in this period is also highlighted by fact that the ancient caravan routes from the Swahili coast led to the territories of the Kalenjin ancestors.[18]

The Maasai Era[edit]

The Maa-speakers, Maasai and Samburu, were the last of the indigenous ethnic groups to arrive in modern-day Kenya and their rise and fall had far reaching effects on neighboring peoples including the Kalenjin. They moved into Kenya from the north, their emphatically nomadic pastoral lifestyle, allowing them to expand swiftly and in a few generations they were transformed from an obscure group to the regions dominant society. They borrowed culturally from their neighbors, especially the Nandi speakers of Kalenjin people. Nandi words and stories as well as Kalenjin cultural values were adopted, including circumcision, the age-set system and some ancient (probably of Cushitic origin) taboos against eating fish and certain wild animals. It is likely that the "traditional" Maasai appearance also owes something to these contacts.[19]

The cultural adoptions were far from one sided however, the innovation of heavier and deadlier spears amongst the Maasai led to significant changes in methods and scale of raiding bringing about the Maasai era of the 17th and 18th centuries. The change in methods introduced by the Maasai however consisted of more than simply their possession of heavier, and more deadly spears. There were more fundamental differences of strategy, in fighting and defense and also in organization of settlements and of political life.[17]

In the Maasai era, guarding cattle on the plateaus depended less on elaborate defenses and more on mobility and cooperation, both of these being combined with grazing and herd-management strategies. The practice of the later Kalenjin - that is, after they had abandoned the Sirikwa pattern and had ceased in effect to be Sirikwa - illustrates this change vividly. On their reduced pastures, notably on the borders of the Uasin Gishu plateau, they would when bodies of raiders approached relay the alarm from ridge to ridge, so that the herds could be combined and rushed to the cover of the forests. There, the approaches to the glades would be defended by concealed archers, and the advantage would be turned against the spears of the plains warriors.[20]

More than any of the other sections, the Nandi and Kipsigis, in response to Maasai expansion, borrowed from the Maasai some of the traits that would distinguish them from other Kalenjin: large-scale economic dependence on herding, military organization and aggressive cattle raiding, as well as 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.[21]


Resistance to British Rule[edit]

Koitalel Arap Samoei Mausoleum and Museum in Nandi Hills, Kenya

In the later decades of the 19th century, at the time when the early European explorers started advancing into the interior of Kenya. They first arrived in territory occupied by the Lembus People and faced fierce resistance. In the late 19th century, the Lembus fought with the British to protect their lands and more so their forest (Lembus Forest). The Lembus resistance eventually led to a peace treaty being signed between the British and the Lembus in a ceremony at Kerkwony in Eldama Ravine.

The Nandi people were also resisting the British almost the same time with Lembus. Led by Koitalel Arap Samoei, the Nandi resisted the British by waging a hard fought war. Thompson in 1883 was warned to avoid the country of the Nandi, who were known for attacks on strangers and caravans that would attempt to scale the great lands of the Mau.[22]

Matson, in his account of the resistance, shows 'how the irresponsible actions of two British traders, Dick and West, quickly upset the precarious modus vivendi between the Nandi and incoming British'.[23] This would cause more than a decade of conflict led on the Nandi side by Koitalel Arap Samoei, the Nandi Orkoiyot at the time.

Colonial Period[edit]

Until the mid-20th century, the Kalenjin did not have a common name and were usually referred to as the 'Nandi-speaking tribes' by scholars and colonial administration officials.[24]

Kenya African Democratic Union Eldoret Branch

Starting in the 1940s, individuals from the various 'Nandi-speaking tribes' who had been drafted to fight in World War II (1939-1945) began using the term Kale or Kore (a term that denoted scarification of a warrior who had killed an enemy in battle) to refer to themselves. At about the same time, a popular local radio broadcaster by the name of John Chemallan would introduce his wartime broadcasts show with the phrase Kalenjok meaning "I tell You" (when said to many people). This would influence a group of fourteen young 'Nandi-speaking' men attending Alliance School and who were trying to find a name for their peer group. They would call it Kalenjin meaning "I tell you" (when said to one person). The word Kalenjin was gaining currency as a term to denote all the 'Nandi-speaking' tribes. This identity would be consolidated with the founding of the Kalenjin Union in Eldoret in 1948 and the publication of a monthly magazine called Kalenjin in the 1950s.[25]

In 1955 when Mzee Tameno, a Maasai and member of the Legislative Assembly (LEGCO) for Rift Valley, tendered his resignation, the Kalenjin presented one candidate to replace him; Daniel Toroitich arap Moi.[26]

By 1960, concerned with the dominance of the Luo and Kikuyu, Arap Moi and Ronald Ngala formed KADU to defend the interests of the countries smaller tribes. They campaigned on a platform of majimboism (devolution) during the 1963 elections but lost to KANU. Shortly after independence in December 1963, Kenyatta convinced Moi to dissolve KADU. This was done in 1964 when KADU dissolved and joined KANU,

Recent History[edit]


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]


There are several tribal groupings within the Kalenjin: They include the Keiyo, Endorois, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Nandi, Pokot, Terik, Tugen and Sebei.[citation needed]


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.[27][28][29]


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.


Like all oral societies, the Kalenjin developed a rich collection of folklore. Folk narratives were told to pass on a message and a number featured the Chemosit (Nandi Bear), the dreaded monster that devoured the brains of disobedient children.

The Fall of the Long’ole Clan is a popular tale based on the true-story of the Louwalan clan of the Pokot. The story is told to warn against pride. In the story, the Long’ole warriors believing they were the mightiest in the land goaded their distant rivals the Maasai into battle. The Maasai, though at first reluctant eventually attacked wiping out the Long’ole clan.[30]

Modern literature[edit]

Traditionally, Kalenjin literature was expressed purely in folklore. The advent of the colonial period saw the introduction and adoption of the Latin script for transcribing Kalenjin lore and history.[31]

A number of notable writers have focused on documenting Kalenjin history and culture, notably B. E. Kipkorir[32][33] and Ciarunji Chesaina.[34]


Ugali with beef and sauce. A staple of Kalenjin and African Great Lakes cuisine.

Kimyet (ugali) made of millet; a vegetable relish and mursik have long been the staples of Kalenjin diet. These were supplemented with roast meat (usually beef or goat) and milk, sometimes mixed with cows blood.

Fish was also part of the traditional diet though largely limited to residents bordering the Nyanza region.

Honey was highly sought after and was used in the preparation of mead, a tradition dating back to the last century B.C.[35]

Cultural influences beginning in the 19th century have led to changes to Kalenjin diet. Notably, the introduction of maize has led to kimyet being made primarily of maize in the present day.

Additionally, the Kalenjin traditional areas of Kericho and Nandi have played a significant role in establishing Kenya as the world’s leading exporter of tea. Within these areas, tea plantations are a ubiquitous sight. Tea has in the process become a significant part of Kalenjin cuisine; it is usually taken in the morning with breakfast and at four in the afternoon. Whenever a guest drops in, it is customary to offer a cup of tea and depending on the nature of visit and visitor, an accompanying snack.


Athletic prowess 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.[36] 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.

Paul Tergat setting a new world record to the marathon at Berlin, 2003.

In 2008, Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics; she also became the first Kenyan to win the Golden League jackpot in the same year.[37] Since then, Kenyan women have become a major presence in international athletics at the distances; most of these women are Kalenjin.[36] 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.

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. One theory is that the Kalenjin has relatively thin legs and therefore does not have to lift so much leg weight when running long distances.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [Ethnologue]
  2. ^ a b Census: Here are the numbers. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
  3. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Clark, J., & Brandt, St, From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa. University of California Press, 1984, p.234
  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. ^ Hollis A.C, The Nandi - Their Language and Folklore. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909, p. xv
  7. ^ Kipkorir, B.E. The Marakwet of Kenya: A preliminary study. East Africa Educational Publishers Ltd, 1973, pg. 64
  8. ^ Nandi and Other Kalenjin Peoples - History and Cultural Relations, Countries and Their Cultures. Everyculture.com forum. Accessed 19 August 2014.
  9. ^ Chesaina, C. Oral Literature of the Kalenjin. Heinmann Kenya Ltd, 1991, p. 29
  10. ^ Kyule, David M., 1989, Economy and subsistence of iron age Sirikwa Culture at Hyrax Hill, Nakuru: a zooarcheaological approach p.211
  11. ^ Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 B.C. to A.D.400. University of Virginia, 1998, p.178
  12. ^ Chesaina, C. Oral Literature of the Kalenjin. Heinmann Kenya Ltd, 1991, p. 2
  13. ^ Hollis A.C, The Nandi - Their Language and Folklore. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909, p. 11
  14. ^ a b Daniels, R.E, The Extent of Age-set Co-ordination Among the Kalenjin, Nov 1982
  15. ^ Spear, T. and Waller, R. Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa. James Currey Publishers, 1993, p. 42 (online)
  16. ^ Pavitt, N. Kenya: The First Explorers,Aurum Press, 1989, p. 107
  17. ^ a b Spear, T. and Waller, R. Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa. James Currey Publishers, 1993, p. 44-46 (online)
  18. ^ Hollis A.C, The Nandi - Their Language and Folklore. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909, p. xvii
  19. ^ Trillo, R., The Rough Guide to Kenya, Rough Guides p.636
  20. ^ Spear, T. and Waller, R. Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa. James Currey Publishers, 1993, p. 47 (online)
  21. ^ Nandi and Other Kalenjin Peoples - History and Cultural Relations, Countries and Their Cultures. Everyculture.com forum. Accessed 19 August 2014
  22. ^ Pavitt, N. Kenya: The First Explorers,Aurum Press, 1989, p. 121
  23. ^ Nandi Resistance to British Rule 1890–1906. By A. T. Matson. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1972. Pp. vii+391
  24. ^ cf. Evans-Pritchard 1965.
  25. ^ Countries & their Cultures; Kalenjin online
  26. ^ Chesang, W. The Standard Moi and the Kalenjin: Just who owes who what? August 12, 2016
  27. ^ Robert O. Collins, The southern Sudan in historical perspective, Transaction Publishers: 2006, p.9-10.
  28. ^ A. Okoth & A. Ndaloh, Peak Revision K.C.P.E. Social Studies, East African Publishers, p.113.
  29. ^ Robert Maxon, East Africa, An Introductory History, Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers, 1994, 32.
  30. ^ Chesaina, C. Oral Literature of the Kalenjin. Heinmann Kenya Ltd, 1991, p. 39
  31. ^ Countries & their Cultures, Kalenjin online
  32. ^ The writer I knew: Remembering Benjamin Kipkorir, Nation online
  33. ^ Benjamin Kipkorir, the reluctant academic, Standard online
  34. ^ Cianrunji Chesaina, online
  35. ^ Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern & Southern Africa in World History 1000 B.C. to A.D.400. University of Virginia, 1998, p.180
  36. ^ a b Why Kenyans Make Such Great Runners: A Story of Genes and Cultures, Atlantic online
  37. ^ Million Dollar Legs,The Guardian online
  38. ^ Running Circles around Us: East African Olympians’ Advantage May Be More Than Physical, Scientific American online


External links[edit]