The Kalenjin form the majority of the population in the central part of the Rift Valley. Their name, actually a recent adoption by a number of peoples speaking dialects of Nandi, means “I tell you”. The principal Kalenjin are the Nandi, Terik, Tugen, Elgeyo, Elkony, Sabaot, Marakwet and Kipsigis, and, more contentiously, the Pokot. They were some of the earliest inhabitants of Kenya and probably absorbed the early bushmen or pygmy peoples who had already been here for 200–300,000 years.
Primarily farmers, the Kalenjin have often adapted their economies to local circumstances. The first Kalenjin were probably herdsmen. The pastoral Pokot group still spurn all kinds of cultivation and despise peoples who rely on anything but livestock, calling the Marakwet, living against the western Rift escarpment, Cheblong (“The Poor”), for their lack of cattle. The Okiek provide another interesting clue to the past. Hunter-gatherers, they live in scattered groups in the forests of the high slopes flanking the Rift and traditionally regard wild fruits and vegetables as barely palatable, though maize and gardening have been introduced and they now keep some domestic animals too. The Okiek and other groups in Kenya who live mostly by hunting have often been called Ndorobo or Wandorobo, deriving from the Maasai term “Il Torobbo”, again meaning “poor people without cattle” – though today this is considered a highly derogatory term.
Many Kalenjin played key roles in the founding of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU, now disbanded), but the most famous of Kalenjin in recent years was Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, a Tugen from Baringo District. As he was from a small ethnic group, his presidency at first avoided the accusations of tribalism levelled so bitterly against Kenyatta. But Moi’s firm grip on the reins of power was increasingly exercised through the Kalenjin-dominated civil service, rather than the more ethnically mixed cabinet. In 1992, when democratic elections first took place, there were tribal clashes, often coordinated from behind the scenes, with the “ethnic cleansing” of non-Kalenjin (usually Kikuyu incomers) from the Rift Valley by groups of surprisingly well-organized young men. Similar incidents were repeated at election time in 1997 and 2002, while in 2007 post-election tensions resulted in retaliatory violence by Kikuyu groups against supporters of Raila Odinga, which included the Kalenjin, especially around Nakuru and Naivasha.