The Making of a Kalenjin Nation

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A set up of a Kalenjin kitchen.

The Kalenjin community belongs to the larger Nilotic group called Highland Nilotes that lives mainly in East Africa. It comprises of the following sub-tribes in Kenya: Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot, Terik, Ogiek, Tugen and Sengwer. They include Sebei in Uganda and Murle in Sudan. The Kalenjin people can also be traced in some parts of Tanzania, these are Barabaek, Tatireek, Hilbangraek, Sonjoek, Sirikwaek (Sindawi), Nataek, Badyut and Tatogaeek.

Kalenjins are believed to have descended from two ancestors namely: Kingo and Tapnai. They were blessed with many children. Before the demise of Kingo, his eldest son Olchiangwal inherited his younger wife and was named “Non Kindii” which means one who inherits. This was later shortened to Nandi and became a sub tribe.

His other son relocated to a more fertile place and became prolific “Kipo-sigis” or “Kipsigis” which simply means the one who gives birth. Another version states that while Kingo’s son was looking after the cattle, he came across a traditional bowl, locally called “Kisiet” hence he was named “Kipsich-Kisiet” and that probably gave birth to the generation’s name Kipsigis.

One of the sons disappeared mysteriously. He was waited for long in vain hence his people kept on saying “Kigeni” which means having hope waiting hence his generation became Tugen. Another son was fondly known for his immense love for milking cows in the field. Whenever Kingo was asked about his whereabouts, he would respond “Kei-yoo” which simply means “the mother is milking” hence his generation became Keiyo.

The son who demanded for a ram, locally called “Kwesta” later became “Marakwet” locally “Machkwesta” which simply means the one who is in need of a ram. One of the sons was punished for the wrong he had done and out of anguish and anger, he fled away from home. Many thought he was dead but his mother kept on saying that “Sebei” which means he is still alive thus his generation became Sebei of Uganda.

Koony and Pokot remained in Kingo’s homestead. “Pokoot” is a local name which means the owner of the house. This is probably because he didn’t leave his father’s homestead. Koony means our home. Better known as “Koonyon” 

The term Kalenjin was brought about by early scholars of the community probably during 1940s most likely at Alliance High School since people from the community were known to utter the word “Kaleei” which simply means “I say”. This word is common in all the sub-tribes of the Kalenjin ethnic group hence collectively known as Kalenjin.

The original name of the Kalenjin is “Miot” following their immense love for honey and milk. Kalenjins are believed to be descendants of Lote. Miot could also refer to Moabites in the bible. A clear indication that they once came across each other and probably intermarried at a place called Goshen. It is important to note that present Kalenjin council of elders is called Miot because of the mentioned reasons.

Ever since, Kalenjin people were monotheists. They were worshipers of one supreme being called Asis that consists of many attributes for instance, Cheptalel (God the controller of everything), Cheptalil (one that glitters or pure), Chebomoni (the giver of life) Chepokipkoyo (God the protector of life), Chepomirchioo ( God who oversees), Chepkelyen sogol (the omnipresent God), Chemalus (God knows all), Chepokimabai (God the controller of harvests), Werit neo (God is important of all),  Cheboo ( God is great), Chepwooboit (God the great worker), Chepkochor (God is everlasting), Tororot (God is the most high).

According to Dr. Kipkoech Sambu, Kalenjins are believed to have migrated from Egypt. Most Kalenjin myths claim that they lived at a place called “Burgei” which means warm place. When blessing a ceremony, they usually say “Burgei kele burgei” signifying their originality. “Burgei” is a local word which means warm.

The legendary historian Dr. Sambu argues that the word Egypt was coined from Kalenjin word “Kagipotai” which means home of God. Also, the traditional Kalenjin huts resembles the Egyptian pyramids thus saliently showing the relationship between the two communities. It is also important to note that Egyptians use animals as totems for their clans just as Kalenjins.

The linguistic relationship between Egyptian and Kalenjin language justifies the fact that Kalenjin lived in Egypt before migrating to other parts of Africa. For instance, Egyptians refer to God as “Ptah” while Kalenjin called him “Kiptayat”. They both call the sun “Asista”

The Kalenjins fled Egypt around 500 BC citing search of greener pastures, draught, hostile neighborhood, disease outbreaks, enslavement and attack by powerful invaders called “Kipyayamungen”. It is worth noting that by the time they fled Egypt, they were approximately 270,000 in number.

In their vortex of migration, the Kalenjin moved slowly southwards and westwards with those going to Chad and West Africa having names like Serere, Wolof, Vai Akan (Ghana). Those who went Southwards passed Ethiopia and Sudan and settled there for many years leaving behind some of them as they venture deep into the Southern parts of East Africa.

While in Sudan, they occupied areas presently occupied by Oromo, Merille, Agaw, Hammer and Bodi in the Omo Valley. There is a place in Valley called “Sobat” a clear indication that they once lived there. This name probably come from Sebei or Sabaot sub-tribes. Dr Sambu argues that Ethiopia was coined from the words yetin-ptaiya, yetioptaiya or etiopteek which was later corrupted by Greeks to Ethiopia or Athiopia.

Kalenjin left salient traces in Ethiopia for instance in the Merille community. This is a community of leopard lineage which shares a common denominator with Murle people of Sudan. Pokot of Kenya has a clan by the name Marill which simply means leopard.

Oromo is another mark that was left by Kalenjins in Ethiopia. Basically, Oromo means fierce or strong people. This word survives in Kalenjin as “Korom” or “Oromen”. Kalenjins are fond of letter “K” hence it is salient that Oromo was coined from Kalenjin word “Korom”. Oromo is a community in Ethiopia that boasts of great long-distance runners bearing semblance with the Kalenjin people who are known globally as best long-distance athletes.

It is believed that while migrating to Kenya and other parts of Africa, their journey was barred by a lake that no one would dare cross but an elder, probably a leader stepped up and sang “beekab kamama yas ole yas” “waters of maternal uncles, part say part”. Magically, water parted and they comfortably passed. On reaching the other side of lake, the same elder intoned “beekab kamama king kole king” “waters of maternal uncles meet say meet” and as fate would have it, water met killing the enemy instantly.

The Kalenjin entirely had an organized system of governance. They were ruled and governed by council of elders, where Orgoiyot was the chief medicine man, religious leader and a guider of the community. As captured by the local name Oorkoi which means the highest house of the most intelligent people. Orgoyot was the highest leadership in the Kalenjin Nation.

During pre-colonial period, Kalenjin organization on social, economic and political system was unmatched. Religious practices were strictly adhered to and that led to well-rounded members. When the missionaries arrived in Kenya in the 1900s, they noticed that members of the Kalenjin community had eggshell like teeth hence calling them men of good teeth thereby giving birth to the name “bikab kutit”.

Kalenjin people since time immemorial have demonstrated admirable leadership qualities. From Koitalel arap Samoei, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, Professor Yusuf Lule of Sebei in Uganda to Dr William Samoe Ruto, the Kalenjins just like the Israelites, are arguably the most blessed people in the region.

3 thoughts on “The Making of a Kalenjin Nation

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