culture and customs
introducing the area
Mount Elgon is a dormant volcano that straddles
the border between Kenya and Uganda. At 4,320 metres high, it is
the second highest mountain in Kenya, and the fourth highest mountain
in Africa. It is home to a variety of rare plants, some of which
occur nowhere else in the world, and on its lower slopes are extensive
forest areas. The mountain is traditionally an important area for
the collection of forest products such as timber, honey, bamboo,
bush meat, and medicinal herbs by people living around the forest.
The fertile, usually well-drained, deep and workable soils, and
favourable climate combine to offer a significant agricultural potential.
In this sense, it resembles many other mountain areas in Africa,
which tend to have more favourable climatic and agricultural conditions
than the drier plains. This is less true of mountain regions on
other continents, which generally have less agricultural potential
than the lowlands.
for local map
oral testimonies were gathered from the upper and lower slopes in
Mount Elgon district, in Kenya's Western Province. The area is densely
populated and is primarily inhabited by the Sabaot people although
there are also Bukusu, Teso, and a few other tribes, and there has
been a fair degree of intermarriage. The majority of the narrators
in this collection are Sabaot, and therefore the interviews primarily
illustrate Sabaot society, concerns and perspectives. There are
a few Bukusu and Teso narrators. The Sabaot were originally pastoralists
and it is only in the last 50 years or so that agriculture has taken
over from livestock as the main source of income in the area, with
the introduction of cash crops such as maize, beans and coffee.
Most Sabaot live in Mount Elgon district.
Overall, some 55 interviews were gathered, of which 23 have been
selected for the website. For various reasons, but primarily translation
difficulties, the amount of work needed to prepare the remainder
of the collection for this site was prohibitive. However, anyone
wishing to have access to the other interviews could contact Panos.
There is much less about the environment in these interviews than
in other collections, partly because the interviewers did not particularly
focus on this topic. But it may also reflect the fact that - given
the relative fertility of Mount Elgon - people's concerns were less
about productivity or a changing environment, and more about poor
access to markets, credit and development facilities. For various
reasons, the Saboat feel they have been ignored by successive administrations
and have been unable to exploit the area's development potential.
There is considerable discussion about the Sabaot's relationships
with other groups, especially the Bukusu, and how they believe this
relates to a history of oppression and marginalisation. In the early
1990s, these tensions exploded into violence and many families,
on both sides, lost their homes and farms. More recently, the government
granted the Mount Elgon region its own district status, a move greatly
welcomed by the Sabaot, although many still feel that without enough
well educated representatives, their physical distance from the
heart of Kenya's decisionmaking will be continue to be paralleled
by economic and political isolation.
Almost all narrators talk of the changes that are affecting their
society. Varied experiences and opinions on education, development,
changing culture and custom, and relations with other groups and
between generations, and men and women, dominate these testimonies.
A tension between preserving a strong cultural identity yet being
open to learning from others is a common thread. Many recognise
that contact with others can bring new ideas, wider experience and
positive influences. Yet, perhaps because their relationship with
the Bukusu was characterised by oppression, many talk of ridding
the area of non-Sabaot, and express distrust and disapproval of
outside or modern influences. Finding a balance between preserving
the strengths of their old way of life without being excluded from
the benefits of modernisation is proving difficult, as it does for
many culturally distinct groups.
testimony collection formed part of the "Review of Development
Progress in Kenyan Districts" project planned by the Kenya
Oral Literature Association (KOLA) and Interlink Rural Information
Service (IRIS), a media organisation. The aim was to listen to and
document the views and experiences of ordinary Kenyans on development.
Mount Elgon was one of five districts where testimonies were collected.
KOLA are a literary organisation, primarily documenting oral artistry.
At a workshop in 1996, Panos and KOLA exchanged experiences and
ideas on gathering oral testimony and trained a team of 9 interviewers,
which included several IRIS journalists. It was the first time KOLA
had used this kind of methodology to explore development issues.
Since then they have continued to apply it, and are training other
NGOs to use oral testimony collection as a means of gaining greater
understanding of certain topics.
Using some of the testimonies, KOLA published in 1998 an English
language book called "Voices from the Mountain: Personal Life
Histories from Mt. Elgon" for national dissemination. IRIS
disseminated some of the findings in the national and regional press,
producing features based on the interviews and covering topics raised
by the narrators, and through a newsletter. Local dissemination
has been achieved through presentations at community meetings, at
which the interviews and findings were discussed by the contributors
and others in the locality, and through two Sabaot language booklets,
launched in the community in September 2000. One of these booklets
was for adults; the other for children. These are one of the very
few resources in their own language available to the Sabaot, thus
meeting one of their wishes expressed in the interviews.