Kenya // Western Kenya //

The Nandi and the Nandi bear

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Nandi (dialects of whose language are spoken by all the Kalenjin peoples) were probably in the strongest position in their history. Their warriors had drummed up a reputation for such ferocity and daring that much of western Kenya lived in fear of them. Even the Maasai, at a low point in their own fortunes, suffered repeated losses of livestock to Nandi spearsmen, whose prestige accumulated with every herd of cattle driven back to their stockades. The Nandi even crossed the Rift Valley to raid Subukia and the Laikipia plateau. They were intensely protective of their own territory, relentlessly xenophobic and fearful of any adulteration of their way of life. Foreigners of any kind were welcome only with express permission.

With the killing of a British traveller, Peter West, who tried to cross their country in 1895, the Nandi opened a decade of guerrilla warfare against the British. Above all, they repeatedly frustrated attempts to lay the railway line and keep communications open with Uganda. They dismantled the “iron snake”, transformed the copper telegraph wires into jewellery, and took whatever livestock and provisions they could find. Despite increased security, the establishment of forts, and some efforts to reach agreements with Nandi elders, the raiding went on, often costing the lives of African soldiers and policemen under the British. In retaliation, a series of punitive expeditions shot more than a thousand Nandi warriors (about one young man in ten), captured tens of thousands of head of livestock, and torched scores of villages. The war was ended by the killing of Koitalel Arap Samoiei, the Orkoiyot or spiritual head of the Nandi who, having agreed to a temporary truce, was then murdered at a meeting with a delegation led by the British officer Richard Meinertzhagen, who shot him in cold blood. As expected, resistance collapsed. His people had believed Koitalel to be unassailable and the Nandi were subsequently hounded into a reserve and their lands opened to settlers.

Traditionally keepers of livestock, the Nandi have turned to agriculture with little enthusiasm and focus instead on their district’s milk production, the highest in Kenya. Shambas, however, are widespread enough to make your chances of seeing a Nandi bear, the source of scores of Yeti-type rumours, remote. Variously said to resemble a bear, a big wild dog or a very large ape, the Nandi bear is believed to have been exterminated in most areas. But in the less accessible regions, on the way up to Kapsabet, many locals believe it still exists – they call it chemoset. Exactly what it is is another matter, but it doesn’t seem to inspire quite the terror you might expect; the occasional savagely mutilated sheep and cattle reported in the press are probably attributable to leopards. A giant anthropoid ape, perhaps a gorilla, seems the most likely candidate for the original chemoset, and the proximity of the Kakamega Forest may account for the stories. This is a surviving tract of the rainforest that once stretched in a continuous belt across equatorial Africa and is still home to many western and central African species of wildlife (though not giant apes). The chemoset possibly survived up until the early twentieth century in isolated valleys, even if it is now extinct. Whatever the truth, if you camp out in the Nandi Hills, you won’t need reminding to zip your fly-sheet.

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