Initiation rites in Kalenjin nation is considered the most significant rite of passage just like birth and marriage. The Kipsigis initiation process goes through seven major stages namely: Yatitaet, Labet-ab eun, Tienjinet, Kayaet, Ng’etunotet, Yatetab oret, and Tiletab kirokto.
Before going through the initiation process, a boy or a girl at the age of about 15 expresses their desire to undergo the rite of passage. It is considered a personal decision for an aspiring initiate hence there is no external pressure. Parents on the other hand usually do not hesitate allowing the child to proceed with preparations. In cases where the parent does not grant permission, the child usually waits for another year.
In some instances, the child wishing to undergo the rite and is denied by the parents would storm in during the occasion. By seeing the highly guarded cultural ceremony, the child would automatically be allowed to proceed with the initiates. This is because an intruder is not allowed to witness the rituals, and if they did by accident or intentionally, whether a Kipsigis or not is forced to undergo the process.
As part of the preparations, the boys build for themselves in the presence of their adult mentors a hut that would be their home for several months during the seclusion period. The structure is called menjet and has two entrances, one used by the priest and mentor while the other used by the initiates. The following are the stages in initiation process:
This stage is preceded by a collection of two plants, a vine, locally known as sinendet and a shrub also locally known as kerundut. These two plants are entwined and placed in the altars of the respective families. The entwined plants are called korosek and would be used during the celebration.
The eve of the first stage is marked by singing in the open while going round a bonfire that is lit outside the homestead of each candidate. Such celebrations are grazed by relatives, friends and other interested parties. Upon the right time, the candidate circles the altar, locally known as mabwaita four times before being anointed with butter kept in cow’s horn, locally called lalet followed by words of encouragement, cherset.
Early in the morning, at around 1am, candidates are led out of their individual homes and assembled in the home of the candidate whose father is the oldest among the fathers of the candidates. They are then given more words of encouragement and ushered into the esoteric stage.
The first step in the initiation of boys is called rotyinet. They are arranged in a procession called robet-ab lagok which simply translates to coupling up the initiates. Each candidate occupies a space according to the age of his father. The candidate whose father is the oldest automatically becomes the leader of the initiates.
Few hours to the crack of the eastern horizon, the initiates together with the trainer, motiryot, begin the next step that would culminate in the actual circumcision. Details of the process are kept secret especially to those who have not undergone the practice. After the circumcision, the initiates enter a period of seclusion. During this period, women and uninitiated boys are not allowed to see the initiates.
This stage in the past took place several months after circumcision, however, nowadays it takes only two weeks. It is a stage symbolized by initiates hand-ishing depicting the beginning of freedom to engage in various activities.
After this process, the initiates hunt in the nearby bushes. At this stage, no one, especially women can recognize them. The initiates conceal themselves by smearing white clay tartarik on their faces, arms and legs.
This is a stage for acquiring knowledge on a variety of cultural lessons under strict instructions of a selected number of experienced and respected teachers of the community law and ethics. It involves imparting new morals and religious code of conduct of the Kipsigis. Throughout this period, the initiates are bombarded with exhortations to be men of integrity in society. They are taught to be responsible men who can be relied on by the community. Perhaps, the teachings are linked to the fact that the initiates would wield considerable power as the reigning age set in their time.
The fourth stage can be termed as “baptismal”, it means that the initiates are officially admitted into the ranks of the adults. Their surnames are now preceded by arap meaning “son of”. Before initiation, the boy is not allowed to use his father’s name because he is yet to join adulthood through initiation. This ceremony is usually conducted in a river at dawn.
Dress code changes at this stage whereby they remove their apparel and white clay and start putting on headgear with fibres that cascade over their faces thus concealing their identity. They are also prohibited from facing women.
This is the graduation ceremony, final rituals and ceremonies that bring to an end the seclusion period and mark the beginning of transition from childhood to adulthood are conducted. It simply translates to passing out where initiates are allowed to come face to face with members of the society. During the ceremony, each candidate wears a special crown called nariet which is made from leather and decorated with cowrie shells. This is an item of great honour signifying successful completion of the rigorous initiation process.
Yatet ab oret
This translates to opening the way. It is part of the ng’etunotet process and is marked by a procession where each candidate walks through an arch built near the home of the candidate whose father is the oldest. This stage ushers the graduates into their new status as respected and responsible adults.
This simply translates to cutting of stick. It is the final ceremony where each initiate’s stick is cut into two. This symbolizes the authority being bestowed on the initiates to protect the interests of the community. The ceremony is preceded by the graduates and their teachers first marching a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep or goats before the livestock is driven to the altar and the process is repeated with the altar being the center circle. The hair is cut on the west of the altar but facing the east. Hair cutting is the first time a mother touches her son after the initiation, it is also the last time she will ever touch him.
Girls in the Kipsigis tradition largely underwent the passage of rite closely similar to that of the boys. Except for the few differences, the names given to female stages of initiation are similar to those of boys. However, the duration of the initiates’ seclusion and details relating to the activities of the initiation process are different. In the past, the seclusion lasted for about two years and their time was spent in the homesteads of their adoptive mothers mostly inside a day time shelter called kaptiryongut. During this seclusion period, girls were taught Kipsigis moral codes of ethics.
They were also taught how to make garments, weave baskets like food plates locally known as kiskisik. It is also important to note that chastity was a cherished virtue in the Kipsigis traditional society and so the girls always strove to maintain their virginity right into their initiation.
The passage of rite was and still is training that aims at churning out responsible men and women that drive the community. The initiation is like baptism in Christianity which gives the new convert membership into the church. Because of the controversy brought about by westernization and modernism, the Kipsigis have stopped initiating women. Efforts to have a modern initiation process have been put up and are bearing fruits in some parts of the Kipsigis and Kalenjin nation at large.