The Kalenjin People


The Kalenjin are a Nilotic people com-posed of several subgroups, the Kipsigi, Nandi, Keiyo, Tugen, Pokot, Marakwet, Endo, Sabaot, Terik, and Okeik, who mainly live in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanza-nia. The name Kalenjin for both the peo-ple and their language was adopted in the 1940s and means “I tell you.” The Kipsigi and Nandi are the two largest of the sub-groups and, in total, the Kalenjin number some 4 million people, making them the fourth-largest ethnic group in Kenya or 12 percent of the total population. The Kalenjin language belongs to the Southern Cushitic group and there are a number of dialects that are not easily intelligible.

The Kalenjin originally came from the region around the northern tip of Lake Turkana and began moving south along the eastern side around 500 BCE. They introduced a new form of age sets and expanded that of the warrior period, which gave the Kalenjin a decisive military strength over their neighbors. The Kalen-jin, like many other Nilotes, were cattle people, and they either absorbed or pushed out those they found living in the high-lands to the east of Lake Victoria. Among the hunter-gatherer populations they absorbed are the Okeik, who began mak-ing a type of pottery named after them, which was traded in much of East Africa.

Bantu peoples arrived in East Africa in waves between 500 and 1000 and were not able to dislodge the Kalenjin. Around 700 CE, Bantu cultivators added crops such as banana that were able to be grown in the highland areas, challenging Cushite control. The Kalenjin were able to resist Bantu challenges and generally Bantu moved around them. The Bantu also brought with them iron tools and weapons, but the Kalenjin did not adopt iron weap-ons until after the eighth century.

Between 800 and 1000, the Kalenjin expanded and became involved in com-mercial exchange with Bantu peoples. Their influence was such that many others adopted their traditions, including their age grade system. Pastoral products, such as animal skins, were traded for agricul-tural goods that the Kalenjin did not pro-duce themselves.

The Kalenjin were not greatly threat-ened until the arrival of another Nilotic people, the Maa, ancestors of the Massai, in the 16th century. Some Kalenjin, pre-ssed by the Maa, became Maa in identity and language. In the 17th century, the spread of agriculture among the Marakwet seems to have occurred, with forests being cleared and terraced fields with irrigation systems built. Some of the Kalenjin seem to have been absorbed by the Bantu Luyia. Nonetheless, the Kalenjin remain the larg-est Southern Cushitic group today.

The Kalenjin are mainly pastoralists, and cattle play a major role in their lives. Cattle and their products give clothes, food, and even housing to the people. Traditional homes are built of brush and cattle dung. Mursik or fermented milk is one of their main foods. Cattle raiding played, and still plays, a major role in Kalenjin life and in their social organiza-tion. Young men or warriors called muren developed in order to protect their own cattle herds as well as be a ready group to raid those of others. The muren stage lasts between 10 and 15 years before each war-rior goes through a ceremony that marks the end of this stage and the beginning of the next age grade as an elder or payyan.

Most Kalenjin claim they are either Christians or Muslims, but their traditional religion plays a significant role in their lives. Their traditional religion is mono-theistic and has a powerful god/goddess called Asis or Cheptalel, who is associated with the sun. The word asis means both “god” and “sun,” and some have specu-lated an Egyptian origin for the Kalenjin noting that Isis, one of the main gods of ancient Egypt, is close to Asis. Prayers to Asis are given before sunrise.

Under Asis is Elat, who though not a god, controls thunder and lightning. In addition, there are the oyik or spirits of the dead who can inter-fere with human life. There are diviners or orkoik who can contact the spirits and find out what they want and what needs to be done to set things right, often in the form of an offering of meat or beer. Christian missions did not appear in the region until 1933, mainly because the region where the Kalenjin lived did not attract many British families. Today some 44 percent of the Kalenjin are Christians.

Kalenjin identity grew in the 1930s and 1940s as much as a means to separate them-selves from other groups such as the Kikuyu. During World War II, the radio announcer John Chemallan signed off his segment with the phrase “kalnejok,” the plural form of Kalenjin, and was picked by students in high schools. The movement was backed by the British authorities to foster anti-Kikuyu sentiment during the Mau Mau revolt.

Following Kenyan independence in 1963, politics have been dominated by the Kikuyu and the Luo to the exclusion of other ethnicities. The Kalenjin have been able to make a name for themselves as great long-distance runners, and since the gold medal for the 1,500-meter race in the 1968 Olympics was won by Kalenjin Kip Keino, Kenya has won 38 other long-distance med-als, of which Kalenjin have won 75 percent. In addition, President Daniel Arap Moi, whogovernedfrom1978to2002,wasa Kalenjin.

John A. Shoupa

Further Reading

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa:A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

“The Kalenjin Peoples of Kenya.” (accessed May 28, 2010).

“The Kalenjin Tribe (Kenya).” (accessed May 28, 2010).

Newman, James. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995

Sobania, N. W. Culture and Customs of Kenya.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.