Kalenjin: Another lost tribe of Israel?

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Kalenjin youth at a traditional ceremony. Photo/Courtesy

By Philip Ochieng

If, in Kalenjin cosmology, the expanse of land that centers on the Mau forest was the “Promised Land,” then the Ogiek were their Canaanites.

As we read in Wanguhu Ng’ang’a’s newly published book Communities of Kenya, the Ogiek were the natives of that land.

The Kalenjin were later conquerors. Like the Israelites, who traveled northwards, the Kalenjin came southwards from Egypt.

No wonder the Ogiek remnants of the Ndorobo-Sirikwa cluster are beginning to pose what looks like a “Palestinian problem”.

The Kalenjin story is nearly identical in many other ways to that of ancient Israel. Why is it that certain central details of Kalenjin settlement in Kenya’s Rift Valley have mythical counterparts in Israel’s reported colonization of Canaan at the end of the 13th century BC?

Why does the Kalenjin epic claim a sudden exodus from Egypt, a wandering for long decades in the wilderness, the crossing of a river called “Jordan,” a mass circumcision at Pisgah, capped with the conquest of Jericho, Bethel, Ai, Hazor and other cities of the Levantine natives?

Even more astonishing, how is it that, for these events, Kalenjin tradition uses terminology almost identical to that of Judah’s King Josiah, his chief priest Hilkiah, their redactor Ezra and other masterminds of what Bible students call the Deuteronomistic History?

Today’s Kalenjin equivalents of the Soferim — those who wrote and edited the Jewish Bible in the seventh and sixth centuries BC (just before, during and just after the Babylonian exile) — assert that the Kalenjin arrived in abrupt escape from Egypt.

They began to settle only after some 40 years of wandering in the “wildernesses” of Southern Sudan and northwestern Kenya and “the Mountain God” (Elgon). Divested of the Bible’s thick ethnic self-aggrandizing gloss, it is true that a certain Semitic tribe left Egypt abruptly after a period of imperialistic rule.

Known to historians as Hyksos and including the immediate family of a certain Y-aa-gub (“Jacob”) — known in Kalenjin mythology as Yak-hober — this Semitic tribe renamed itself Ysro-el (“Israel”) after their leader had dreamed of an encounter with the god El at a place thereafter called Beth-el or Bethel (“House of El”).

In Out of Egypt, Ahmed Osman explains that the term Israel was derived from the Coptic god Asar-el, (a name that means “Osiris is God” or simply “El empowers”) the chief god of the Nilo-Hamitic Copts, Edomites and Canaanites.

Known in the Pentateuch as “Moses,” Amenhotep IV was the pharaoh who triggered so much religious unrest by revolutionarily imposing a monotheon called Aten — for which reason he changed his name to Akhenaten — and banned all other gods and goddesses.

Egypt was electrified. But what archaeo-history now knows conflicts with what we read in the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History.

Moses abdicated and fled not because he had killed an Egyptian and hidden him in the sand but only because the priests conspired to kill him on account of the Aten.

First, he went south to Nubia — his mother Tiye’s maiden country. There, he married Tharbis, the black beauty whom Exodus calls Zipporah.

After assuming the pseudonym “Moses,” he sneaked back into Egypt via Midian and gave his Aten religion to his former Israelites slaves.

In return for a promise to liberate them, they agreed to be recruited into an army which he then used to wage war on official Egypt to try to reclaim his crown.

But he was routed and forced to flee once again, this time into Sinai’s Shara Mountains — “the Mountain of God” — in Edomite country, to give rise to the legend called Exodus.

The problem we have is that it is the Jewish descendants of those Israelites who are writing that story and they are doing so after many centuries of oral tradition and with a great deal of ethnic self-glory.

The Pentateuch tells only the story of the small group that fled with Moses northwards. Historians now agree that the religious upheaval caused by Akhenaten-Moses occasioned “exoduses” in all other directions.

Some fled to West Africa (perhaps including the remarkable Dogon of Mali, Akan of Ghana and Wolof of Senegal).

Some fled to Crete, Peloponnesus, Thessaly and Colchis (creating the legend of Jason’s Quest for the Golden Fleece).

Some fled towards the Red Sea (later to emerge in Ethiopia as the “Falasha Jews”).

If we zero in on the Kalenjin, Luo, Maasai, Teso and Turkana, the question is: Are they the descendants of the Copts who fled southwards?

The Kalenjin thesis seems to be that the Myoot — their maternal ancestors — moved out of Egypt southwards at about the same time as the Israelites were scurrying out of Egypt northwards.

The linguistic evidence adduced by the Kalenjin counterparts of the Jewish Soferim is telltale. Compare the Pentateuch with, for instance, Kipkoeech araap Sambu’s book The Kalenjin People’s Egypt Origin Legend Revisited.

But, before we do so, let us summarise the Bible story on Israel’s flight. After wandering for 40 years around a peak in Edom (known variously as Hor or Horeb or Sinai or “Mountain of God”), they gave their new god Aten the name Yahoo, taken from the local Shasu-Edomites.

Finally, they arrived at the foot of Nebo or Pisgah, a Moabite hill on Jordan’s East Bank.

Atop Pisgah, “the Lord” showed Moses the extent, beauty and economic prospects of “the Promised Land” of Canaan but told him that he would never see that land.

Then, following a mass circumcision ritual at Gilgal, the “children of Israel” crossed the River Jordan to capture Jericho.

As we turn to the Kalenjin version of the story, please keep in mind the biblical terms “Pisgah”, “circumcision”, “Gilgal”, “Jordan” and “Jericho” which I have just used.

It was from a mountain called Psigiis that the leader of this southern “Exodus” viewed the Kalenjin “Canaan”.

On top of Psigiis (Pisgah?) — the term which gave this vanguard Kalenjin group its name Kipsigiis — the leader viewed the whole range of what would become modern Kalenjinland from Koibatek and Nakuru to Lake Victoria.

Because, during the wandering, the Kalenjin people had had no time to circumcise their boys, the whole Kalenjin community was forced to camp somewhere called Tulwaap Monyiis for a mass circumcision ritual.

But “mass circumcision”? Of course! Among Egypt’s most important religious impositions on Israel was the Nilotic practice of chopping off the foreskin of the male organ.

Among the Copts, it had been a bequest from the god Ra. Long after the Exodus, the Jewish writers of the Pentateuch would replace Ra with their own newfangled Yahweh as the god who had demanded the “cut.”

But, with the Soferim, there is no attempt to explain the significance of circumcision — which is among the proofs that their Nilotic masters had imposed it on the Israelite slaves without explaining its religious significance to them.

Indeed, the Book of Joshua reports that all the male Hebrews who came out of Egypt were circumcised, but that those born during the wanderings were not and that a mass circumcision was thus performed on all the males at Gilgal in the plains of Jericho.

Moses’ Levites performed a mass ritual at Gilgal just before crossing the Jordan. Sambu writes: “[The Kalenjin] did not name the [corresponding] hill Gilgal.

But… it is interesting to note that one of the places the [Kalenjin] occupied twice while wandering in the plains [of the Rift Valley] was Gilgil.”

Which Kenyan has never heard of Gilgil, the thriving trade centre between the lakes Naivasha and Elmentaita?

The Israelites then crossed a river called Jordan to take Jericho, just as the Kipsigiis crossed a river called Chooryan to take Kericho.

What can it mean? We now pronounce the “ch” in “Jericho” like the “k” in “Kenya”. But the native Jebusites — a clan of the Canaanite natives — pronounced it like the “ch” in “church”.

Jericho, therefore, rhymed with Kericho. Moreover, in the Kalenjin language, “k” is usually pronounced like a hard “g”.

Kericho, therefore, may originally have been Gericho (which is not at all far from Jericho.) What a small world ours is!

The only question is: Who borrowed from whom?

The near-identity between Pisgah and Psigiis, Gilgal and Gilgil, Yordan and Chooryan, Jericho and Kericho, etc., and the circumstances in which those terms occur affirm at least a historical confluence.

Neo-Hamites: A shared history of flight and fight

Kalenjin, Dholuo, ancient Coptic, ancient Canaanite (or Ugarito-Phoenician) and ancient Edomite belong to the same ethnolinguistic family known as Nilo-Hamites.

The Nilo-Hamites had a profound influence on Hebrew, both when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and for centuries in post-Exodus Canaan.

The Pentateuch is chockfull of religious imagery and vocabulary borrowed from Coptic. If the Kalenjin left Egypt at the same time as the Israelites, then that is a historical confluencer.

In mind-bogglingly salacious, the Deuteronomistic Historian tells us exactly what terrible things the Israelites, under “Joshua”, did to the Canaanites, savage deeds which reverberate up to now as a “Palestinian problem”.

The question is: What happened to the Kalenjin’s “Canaanites”, the autochthonous Ogiek- Sirikwa-Ndorobo cluster?

From the way the Kalenjin react whenever faced with that question, we can infer that the Ogiek’s fate was in every way as horrendous as the Canaanites’ — numerous fights, flights, deaths, assimilations and adaptations.

Those were exactly what happened also to the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Amorites after the Israelites had grabbed their lands.

The difference is only that, by their ‘euphemisms,’ the Kalenjin show at least a sense of remorse. The Khazari usurpers of Judah who now lord it over Palestine do not.

Philip Ochieng is a veteran journalist

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