Kenya // The Rift Valley //

The Kalenjin peoples

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, but unlike most hunter-gatherers, they do very little gathering. Meat and honey are the traditional staples. They consider wild fruits and vegetables barely palatable, though cornmeal and gardening have been introduced, and they now keep some domestic animals too. They may be the descendants of Kalenjin forebears who lost (or ate) their herds. There are other groups in Kenya who live mostly by hunting – Ndorobo or Wanderoo – for whom such a background is very likely, and who are all gradually abandoning their old lifestyles and dislikes amid the inexorable advance of “civilization”.

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. The same story was repeated at election time in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

20% off ebooks

Subscribe to the Rough Guides newsletter and get 20% off any ebook.

Join over 50,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month.