Much is made of our ethnic diversity, especially around elections, but how much do we truly know about our cultural heritage? At Kenya Yetu, we love that there is such a rich mix of people standing together as Kenyans. If we were all the same, perhaps Kenya wouldn’t have such a vibrant, creative and cosmopolitan outlook? But we wanted to explore our heritage a little deeper (without enduring an anthropology lesson!), so we asked Ngwatilo Mawiyoo to uncover some of the subtler details of our rich cultural story…
I went to a decent primary school and a decent high school. I paid attention in class. Mostly, anyway. I certainly paid attention in GHC and later history. (For the young’uns, GHC was short for Geography, History and Civics – the substance behind the shadow now called Social Studies – back when we used to fuata Nyayo.) [Obligatory jibe, done.] But for all its boons, it seems a lot of things were left out of the chapter on the peopling of Kenya – beginning, of course, with the fact that ‘tribe’ is an unfortunate word. So humour me: let’s play ‘Did you know?’ as we explore our rich cultural diversity…
How diverse are we?
The idea that there are 42 ethnic groups in Kenya is colonial and erroneous. Let’s get that out of the way. Pretty much everyone in the business of exploring the issue agrees on this. But academic disagreements on what a more accurate approximation might be prevent any corrections from taking place. My anthropologist friend at the National Museums of Kenya has her money on the number being well into the 50s, before we even get to the ‘Kenyan Americans’ that we counted in the last census (along with the regular Americans). Perhaps our esteemed anthropologists are suggesting, in their failure to agree, that the actual number of ethnic groups that call Kenya home is unimportant.
Let’s also remember that some of us come from traditions that advise us to miscount our children, lest evil spirits use this information to attack them. Thus it would appear that 42 is a number that (for the moment) protects us all, the named and the unnamed.
We are all one
In spite of our attempts to ignore, our failure to understand or our refusal to attend to the issues of our warring Cushite neighbours to the north, most of us probably carry the blood and genes of their ancestors. True story. Not only that, they’ve influenced many of our ‘traditional’ lifestyles.
To the Maasai and others, they gave the practice of bleeding cattle for nourishment. They also gave pretty much all of us the idea that domestic animals could be milked. Through both practices, the animal was spared until a later time when there could be no alternative to its meat.
To all of us, save the Luo and the Turkana (at least), they gave circumcision. Cushites were also the original Age Set bearers: absolutely no peoples of Kenya who have age sets in their culture got them from anywhere else. How did they manage this? Obviously Southern Cushites were the hotness. Bantus and Nilotes alike married them, absorbed them; heck, even the hunter-gatherer folks they found here way back then (we’re talking 5,000 years ago) couldn’t keep their bee-hive coaxing hands off of them!
It’s true, our northern brethren are descended from Eastern Cushites, but that whole thing about being your “brother’s keeper” has to take on new meaning now. It also might not be that much of a stretch to suggest that our recent war with or in Somalia has been one among brothers, not unlike the 4,000-year-old war between sons of Ishmael and Isaac. Just a suggestion.
Ameru: potted history
Merus are from Manda island. Well before they settled in present-day Meru. Some readers may know the Meru oral tradition that talks about their internment by the ‘Red People’; of their great magical escape through Mbwa along a migratory path that eventually leads them to their present home. It looks like ‘Mbwa’ might just refer to Pwani.
In fact, in her forthcoming book Populations and Ceramic Traditions: Revisiting the Tana Ware of Coastal Kenya (7th-14th Century AD), Freda Nkirote describes archeological evidence that puts the Ameru definitively on Manda island. Apparently they gave themselves away when they left some pots behind – pots that they’ve been making exactly the same way for the last 2,000 years. Talk about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
The discovery of these pots on Manda also revealed their close relationship with Cushites, as they were decorated in the latter’s style. Beyond the physical evidence (which is fun), it tickles me to think that they’ve been making pots the same way since before Christ, since before English missionaries arrived and they learned to sing the Ameru version of ‘Nearer My God To Thee.’ Apparently some NGO tried to give out potter’s wheels so they could make pots quicker to sell and make money and “develop”, but 2,000 years’ worth of investment and experience won – the wheels were thrown out and probably used to fire up the kiln.
The Ogiek are perhaps our most famous hunter-gatherer community, given the various shenanigans over the Mau Forest. But they aren’t the only ones: the Yaaku live beside the Maasai in the Makogodo forest in Laikipia. They adopted a pastoralist lifestyle, not least because they wanted to intermarry with the Maasai, which was kind of hard to do without cattle.
The Yaaku have essentially lost their language, now speaking what’s known as Maasai-Makogodo. Furthermore, there’s only a handful of living Yaaku people left. I have to say I’m glad I’m not the woman responsible for keeping an entire bloodline alive!
Speaking of which, the number of El Molo people seems to be steadily rising. El Molo is what their Samburu and Maasai neighbours called them, meaning ‘The people who eat fish’ or ‘Those who make a living from sources other than cattle’, respectively. To flee from the derogatory nature of the name, I’m made to understand they now prefer to be called The Gurapau, meaning ‘people of the lake.’
While no living person survives who fluently speaks the language formerly known as El Molo, their number increased from just 84 in 1934 to 2,844 at the 2009 census. Happily, there is now a renewed effort to revive use of the language.
The endangered Dahalo are the oldest surviving Kenyan immigrants, as far as the hunter-gatherer communities are concerned. They are said to belong to the Southern Cushites, who were the first people to migrate into the country.
Other community name changes from my school days include the Ilchamus, also known as the Njemps, of Lake Baringo. Remember them? They’re the ones who were fishermen, pastoralists and farmers before the rest of us thought these were morally acceptable to do. It’s no wonder that some say ‘Ilchamus’ is a Maasai term meaning ‘people who can see into the future’.
What not to call a Maasai
Speaking of the Maasai: you would do well to remember that ‘Torobo’ (also ‘Ndorobo’) is a poor choice of word. It’s like saying ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Red Indian’. (Use ‘Inuit’ or ‘Native American’ respectively next time, please.)
‘Ndorobo’ means ‘those without cattle.’ It was what the Maasai called the hunter-gatherer communities they found, looking down on them because they didn’t own livestock.
In the 1830s there was a terrible bout of rinderpest which wiped out the Maasai cattle stocks. They retreated into the forest and lived among the Yaaku, learning to survive as the hunter-gatherer community did. In this way they managed to rebuild their stock – at which point they left the forest to resume being pastoralists. The Yaaku meanwhile, had also learned how to raise cattle (which allowed them to gain Maasai wives – a classic win-win).
Where the Maasai required cattle as a prerequisite for marriage, hunter-gatherer communities prized honey. For the Meru, miraa was part and parcel of the ceremony; without it no marriage could be confirmed. In some parts of Meru it retains a ceremonial function to this day.
The Luhya are fascinating; as are the Kalenjin. Both names are cluster terms that refer to a bunch of similar but unrelated ethnic groups who have come together for mainly political reasons. For both communities, participation in World War II proved a turning point.
On their part, the word ‘Luhya’ (meaning ‘those of the same hearth’) came into use in the 1930s and was taken more seriously after WWII when they realised the political benefit of a ‘supertribal’ identity.
After various wartime mentions of ‘Kale’ or ‘Kole’ then ‘Kalenjok’, the first mention of ‘Kalenjin’ (meaning “I tell you”) to signify a group seems to have been uttered in the grounds of Alliance High School, when 14 boys – all from ethnic minorities at the school – formed a “Kalenjin club”. The idea of a Kalenjin identity came into broader use by the end of the 1950s.
What’s most interesting is how members of these communities balance their tiered membership to their two identities (not including Kenyan).
At the last census, most respondents identified with the ethnic groups under their umbrella titles (Luhyia or Kalenjin), although more than half a million Luhya (out of more than five million) identified themselves as ‘Luhya plain’, while a less impressive 95,842 (out of more than four million) identified themselves as “just” Kalenjin. It will be interesting to see if this number grows proportionately larger or smaller in 2019.
A common voice
Whereas this is not the case for the various Luhya and Kalenjin peoples, the Gabra, Oromo and the Borana all speak the same language and have conjoining roots but remain distinct people. The Gabra are a different group, at least in part, because of a unique cultural practice called the ‘Yaz’. The English language equivalent is hard to express, but it refers to an unusual form of a pilgrimage that they make regularly.
Making of the mic’ira
Still on Kenya’s northern frontier, The Konso are a small ethnic group originally from Ethiopia, who have consistently failed to pay attention to the line that has, for generations, divided Kenya and Ethiopia. The Konso are the original blacksmiths, having created the copper and iron twisted bangle we love so much, that was originally worn and loved by the Borana people. They called it ‘mic’ira’ (pronounced “mi-Chi-ra”).
A lorry driver named Ibrahim Carburretor (not joking) settled in Isiolo and began to make them, elaborating old designs and developing new ones. The bangles received a boost in popularity and marketability when film star William Holden noticed them when passing through Isiolo. It was thereafter called the Turkana bangle when the Turkana people began to make them. Like many, I’ve certainly owned a crude Maasai Market copy.
Origins of the Khanga
Friends, we have to talk about Khanga, even though my school textbooks never even began to discuss them. The Khanga came into being in the mid-19th century, but they only came to include (initially Arabic, then Kiswahili) proverbs around 1913, courtesy of Kaderdina Hajee Esaak. In those early days, ‘leso’ and ‘khanga’ did not mean the same thing. ‘Khanga’ actually comes from ‘kanga’, referring to the resemblance of the leso design to the guinea fowl’s plumage.
Ethnic purity is a fiction
Whereas both my parents are Akamba, a DNA test would probably show some Cushite DNA, perhaps even some Nilote. One might therefore suggest that there isn’t anything new or special about your or your relatives’ inter-ethnic marriage. It only seems special because you know about it.
Our natural heritage
Birds, bees, animals and trees are out there too! And some of that is thanks to our being good about taking care of the environment – sometimes on pain of death or curse.
Much of the conservation in many of our communities occurs around sacred sites. On Mfangano island on Lake Victoria, in spite of having assimilated themselves with the Luo, the Suba still retain many of their own cultural traditions, not least of which involve the preservation and protection of several sacred forests.
One may not chop down any tree or even carry away a fallen branch, or anything found in the forest. Similar forests exist among the Tharaka along the Kathita river.
Join the discussion! What does your ethnic heritage mean to you? Should more be done to celebrate our cultural diversity? What ceremonial tradition do you most respect? Are we losing our tribal identities and, if so, is that a good or a bad thing? Share your thoughts at the end of this article online at kenyayetu.net or via social media Facebook: kenyayetumag or Twitter: @kenyayetumag
Kenyans at a glance
1 The Bantu
You will find people of Bantu origin at the coastal, western and central provinces. Although Bantus make up about 70 per cent of our population, they occupy only about 30 per cent of the land surface. The Bantus are believed to have migrated from Cameroon, bringing with them the knowledge of root crop farming, iron working and a more settled lifestyle that enabled them to cultivate and occupy large areas of land. Most common are the Kamba, Kikuyu and Luhya. Other Bantu tribes include the Embu, Kisii, Kuria, Mbeere, Meru, Mjikenda and Taita.
2 The Nilotic People
Believed to have migrated from southern Sudan, Nilotes today represent the second largest group of people inhabiting the Great Lakes region, and the Nile Valley and southwestern Ethiopia. They are primarily fishermen and pastoralists, and include the Kalenjin, the Luo, Samburu, Turkana and the Maasai.
3 Cushitic People
Living mostly in arid and semi-arid eastern-and northeastern regions of Kenya, Cushites are nomadic pastoralists who own large herds of camels, sheep, cattle and goats. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages and originally come from Ethiopia and Somalia. They have close ties with their kinsmen in these countries. The Cushites represent about 2 per cent of the population, mostly represented by the Oromo and the Somali speakers.
Descendants of labourers who came to Kenya to construct the Kenya-Uganda railway, circa 19th century. Known for their business acumen and close-knit communities.
5 Kenyan Arabs
Descendants of Yemeni, Omani and Persian traders from the pre-colonial era, you will know them as the Swahili, an ethnic group that resulted from Bantu-Arab intermarriage. They mostly reside along Kenya’s coastline.