Kenya glossary


(KENYA 12)












November 1996



Section 1
Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Moses Chesari Kimtai. I was born in 1961 in Toroso, the present day Chesikaki location in Mount Elgon district. I came from a very large family and I am the sixth born in a family of twelve children. I can not say that we were very rich neither were we poor, but ours was an average family, the kind you can find in Elgon. I started my schooling in 1971, and did my Certificate of Primary Education in 1977, and qualified to join Kapsokwony Boys School, and later on, joined Karbanet High School. I finally enrolled in Siriba Teachers College for a Diploma in education.
On completion of my studies in Siriba, I was posted to teach in Kolanya Secondary, and there after moved to Kibuk Girls School, where I am still teaching presently.

In what type of family did you grow up, and what were your early childhood experiences in life?
I grew up in a polygamous family on neither extremes. It was an average family, and my father made sure that though it was a polygamous family, we did not develop unnecessary friction based on houses - a common phenomenon in most polygamous families. When there was food, especially a delicious meal, he made sure that we shared it. You might find it funny but whenever something like chicken was slaughtered, certain parts would be shared despite the large size of the family. He made sure that we had a healthy relationship in the home, and whenever he realised any friction, he would really be disappointed. He hated a situation where a brother turned against a brother.
Our mothers would always have their petty jealousies, but he also made sure that attempts to divide us met with stern measures, which were very deterrent. Although you can not iron out differences completely between mothers, I can say that we were generally in a free and happy home.

Now, can you perhaps tell us something about the changes that have taken place here from the time you were young to the present day?
I think there are certain changes which are universal, and you would tell me that elsewhere there have been things that have changed so much. For example, the songs we used to sing during circumcision ceremonies are no longer the same. The present songs do not reflect much about our culture, our tradition, and our history. When you look at some traditions like the naming ceremonies, they have almost ceased and even if you asked anybody how naming was conducted, most people can not tell.

Would you say that changes that have been taking place in your culture have always been negative?
There are some I would say have been negative. For example if you asked me about the negative aspects, I would tell you that the songs we used to have, informed, educated and told us about our roots. For example there is this song that goes like this...Sirikwa eh oeh eh eh, Sirikwa eh...You know, it kind of tells you many things because it mentions Sirikwa and Bukwo. Bukwo is in Sebei and Sirikwa is mentioned in history as a place of origin. The song has been there for a long time and it keeps reminding people of where they came from. But now, if you listen to the songs we are now having like, Chomolea...Chomelea twende...actually, you begin to wonder whatever they mean by Chomolea twende. The songs we sang in the beginning tended to inculcate positive values in our youth.
Section 2
What do you think has been responsible for the negative changes in our culture?
It is the flooding of our society with western culture. Our people are the worse imitators of foreign cultures. Sabaot are very bad people when it comes to this, and in fact, I hate the Sabaot for this reason. Anything new to the Sabaot represents civilisation as far as they are concerned. When a few boys come across a video showing, and perhaps it is music by Loketo band playing, everyone will come out singing the loketo song. In my opinion, this eclipses and overshadows our aesthetic and cultural beauty. We now forget that we have our own songs and begin singing what is rooted in our culture.
When you also examine what happens during circumcision, our people have a habit, which might have been there since the colonial period - they like adopting the ‘I don't care’ attitude. They are not very concerned about some things, and can be said to be very passive. This kind of attitude has been responsible for our dispossession and dis-inheritance. I say this because when I look at our neighbours the Bukusu during their circumcision ceremonies, the old go to the house and sing very traditional songs and then the young take control by buying their own experiences, and continue. But our elders do not care to give you direction. We had a plan of holding a meeting at Kibuk, in which we would ask elders to tell us what they have for posterity, and we would also want to know some of the ideas they held so dear to them.
So where we might blame the western culture, we should also blame our people's attitude. We blame what our neighbours have over time made people believe. They have tried to make us look at ourselves as being inferior. They have made us have a negative image about ourselves, such that in those days when you went to an office, they were there, holding responsible positions. This goes back to the days of Nabongo Mumias, Jonathan Baraza. When you went to the office, the first thing was to show allegiance, and by speaking their mother-tongue you thought that you would please them more. So when some of our people would see someone speaking our language, they would despise it on the spot and look at it as being a primitive language. Due to this, our people came to believe that anything from us was inferior, and anything from other people was superior and worth emulating. This has had very devastating effects on the community.

What is your vision of the Sabaot culture, or where would you say the Sabaot culture is going?
Something must be done, and I believe that those who went to school like you must re-examine themselves. They are the opinion leaders of our people. I have had a very rough time with the people, because I am one person who has decided that I will fight the battle, whether those other people will join me or not. That is why even right now, the old people point at me when they are unable to resolve a certain issue about our culture. They are not even ashamed to have me as young, as I am telling other people about our culture, when they would be better placed to do so.
I think that we must re-educate our people and tell them in no uncertain terms that our culture is just as good. Let us not believe in the propaganda, from other quarters, that we have nothing to offer the world, that we are people without a history, that we are people without a culture. I want cultural festivals like the one organised sometime back by nominated MP Moben, to include all the people.
We should examine all areas of our life. Things like bride price was not as expensive as it is right now. That will give us a forum for discussing things dear to us (the Sabaot), and the people to take to organise such a forum, are the elites in the full consultation with the elders in the community. We should not despise anybody; we must try to learn something from a cross section of elders who have different experiences in life.
The elders should teach the youth how to be proud of their culture, and more specifically their language. This is because you find some people, who have even come to a remote town just like Kapsokwony, not wanting to speak the Sabaot language. Most of them teach their children Kiswahili, and even the Kiswahili they teach their children is far from fluent. I am surprised that even right now, people who are living in this town, which is supposed to be the capital of the Sabaot, still think that the Sabaot language is inferior to other languages. Our people think that when a child speaks a language other than Sabaot, that fellow is closer to civilisation than the others. This is why you even find a mother struggling very hard in the village to teach a child how to speak Kiswahili.
Section 3
Do you think a time will come when the Sabaot will learn to appreciate their own culture?
It is difficult, but when we all get involved…like I am happy there is a project and I am one of the consultants, although we have not had a major meeting. The Bible translation is such a good forum. I am personally not a pessimist. I am optimistic that things will have to change, but it is good to salvage the situation before things get out of hand.

What types of developments or changes have taken place in this area since say 1950 to the present day?
First of all, I should mention that there has almost been a stagnation of development. I hope that when you are talking about development, you have in mind things like schools, hospitals, roads, etc. You must then bear in mind that development came from the South, and it came hand in hand with religion.
Therefore when colonialism brought education, you must realise that there are some schools that should have been located in Mount Elgon – e.g. Chesamisi and Friends School Kamusinga. But since we were not as informed, and that our destiny was in the hands of the Bukusu, who all along felt that the only way to dominate the Sabaot forever was to keep him sleeping, they did not want us to enjoy the benefit of formal education. Therefore when we began to look at education positively, it was already too late, we did not have schools and therefore we struggled to put up some for ourselves. And still many of our people had not recognised the value of formal education.
So because of that, nearly every aspect of development was tampered with in the region. You can see for yourself that we do not even have an inch of tarmacked roads here! However, as time went on, particularly as we neared independence… because during Jonathan Barazas reign (he was a chief), we the Sabaot suffered a great deal.
You know that during the colonial period, we did not have our own chiefs. Kapsokwony area fell under Kimilili location while Cheptais fell under Malakisi location, and therefore all those areas were put under non-Sabaot colonial chiefs. The whole scheme as we are told, was aimed at making Mount Elgon a Bukusu area.
The most notorious colonial chief was called Murunga, who literally pulled out the dreadlocks that the Sabaot men of that age used to have. Due to this inhuman treatment, some Sabaot took off from this area and took refuge in places as far as Tanzania, some went up to Uganda in places like Soroti, Busoga.
Our own leaders at that time were impotent in the face of the powerful Bukusu administrators who had been empowered by Nabongo Mumia, who was the overall leader of this region. Most of our people would make sub-chiefs, and this position did not empower them. A chief and sub-chief are not the same, and complaints of the sub-chief would not have made an impact at that time.
Chief Jonathan Baraza would literally cane the Sabaot, and even jail some on flimsy grounds. And when one was in jail, he would make sure that a Bukusu moved in and took over his piece of land. When you came out of the prison, you found that your property was no more. Sometimes, he would just clear a whole area of Sabaot, and demand that they move out and create room for the Bukusu, and this explains why the Sabaot were pushed out of the plains, to this strip of land along the mountain.
Therefore, even when we are examining things like the recent land clashes between the Sabaot and Bukusu, it is rooted in that history. People complained bitterly and questioned why they had been rooted away from their land. They in fact petitioned the government of the day when this thing was happening. Areas like Chelebei, Kaptenai and Chesiro were taken away by the Bukusu, and this prompted the Sabaot to petition the governor. Some of the elders who were involved in this petition are even still alive to date. The government accepted the Sabaot petition and said that the land taken should be given back to the Sabaot. But just before that, the governor went to Britain and when he came back, title deeds were issued first from Chelebei, and he the governor never did anything. And this is why the Sabaot never forgot what happened, because they knew they had lost land in a very unfair manner. What happened during that time rendered the Sabaot - Bukusu relationship very poor to date.
Sabaot had fought wars with Bukusu before the coming of the colonial administration, and the most celebrated wars that I have heard about was the war which was fought at the present Cheptais, in around 1880. It was called the war of 'Ngachi', and there was another one that was fought in 1890, and it was led by somebody called Manyiror who was known to be a very courageous warrior. It was in this last battle that a very important warrior that was called Mikimba died in battle. Therefore our history has it that in all the battles we fought with the Bukusu before colonialism, we defeated them. But with the coming of the colonial administration which in a way favoured the Bukusu , Sabaot life was a nightmare for a very long time.
In short, I have talked to you about development and how it was hampered by various factors. I want to emphasise that our own people were also very reluctant in opening up things like schools. Take for instance Kolanya Secondary School, the Salvation Army Church wanted to put up a school in Cheptais but our people rejected it and that school was taken to Kolanya. This shows that we did not have any representatives in the ranks of those who were enlightened, to explain to our people the value of education. Our people could not listen to Bukusu telling them things.
But I want to say that things have been improving slowly from the time we got independence. We never had even a single constituency as a community, but Jomo Kenyatta granted us one at the dawn of independence. We had formed western Kalenjin Alliance and by then Moi was the chairman of KADU (Kenyan African Democratic Union). At that time also, the fate of Kitale was unknown because the Bukusu wanted to grab it. Our people strongly resisted. The late Masinde Muliro used to plant stones. He went to the coast (i.e. Mombasa) and planted stones. It was this that drove the Sabaot out of KADU, because we the Kalenjins and Luhyas were in KADU but the Luhyas wanted to take over Kitale, which the Sabaot genuinely believe belongs to them to date. The Sabaot wanted Transzoia district as a whole to remain in the Rift Valley because they felt that one day they will move and be counted in Rift Valley.
We are also told that the late Jomo Kenyatta made a promise to the Sabaot that, “Should you move out of western Kalenjin alliance and join KANU (Kenyan African National Union), I'll give you a constituency”. And indeed this is what happened. President Kenyatta came here accompanied by the late Tom Mboya and this was the time KANU promised us many things in terms of assisting the Sabaot. We had the late Daniel Moss as our elected MP. Mr. Kisiero the present MP was given a job in the foreign embassy in Britain, and when he came back he was made the director of Kenya Farmers Association. And this was the time we were allocated land in the forest. People were given land in Chepyuk and Kiborowo. Allocation of this land translated into a fairly stable economic base for the Sabaot. And this was given when people started to recognise the value of formal education.
I believe that had our people been given chances all along, they would have really excelled in education. I am informed that those Saboats, who went to school early, had to change their names to disguise their Sabaot identity, in order to gain admission to some schools. Usually they would take on names that made them be assumed to be either Bukusu or Luos. For example, Wilberforce Kisiero was at one time called Wilberforce Ojiambo, and he maintained that name until he went to Makerere University, when he went back to his original names. I know so many other people who changed their names to be able to pursue education. And this is why, there is that image in many of our people, that anything that is Sabaot is inferior.
Section 5
Did the Sabaot participate in the liberation struggle?
Although this has not been recorded anywhere, I am reliably informed that there were elders from here, who went to see Kenyatta when he was in jail. A few elders from this area were members of the Kenya African Union for example there was an elder called arap Kororia. And in my opinion, these are signs of being involved. Otherwise the centre of action was in the central province, and that is why I can not say that the Sabaot actively participated in the liberation struggle.
The major concern of the Sabaot was the looking after cattle. When the settlers came to Transzoia district, the Sabaot were disinherited and they were given restrictions on the number of livestock they should keep. Most of them did not agree with this and they ran away.
Section 6
When independence finally came, would you say that the Sabaot appreciated independence?
They were happy with independence alright, but they never believed that the white man went away forever. I am saying this because they were reluctant to buy farms. On the issue of land, I think that the then MP of this region, contributed a great deal to many Sabaot not buying land. He made us believe that because Transzoia had been our land originally, we did not need to buy it but we just needed to be allocated it free of charge.

Now, how would you compare the pace of development in this area during the Kenyatta era and the Moi era?
If I look at Kenyatta's time, I would say that the employment of our people in senior positions was good and people were generally better off because they had land in Chepyuk and Kiborowo forest area. In fact, I must say that it is very unfortunate today, because in spite of our efforts to send a good number of our children to school, the Moi government has not seen the need for employing them in responsible positions. During the Kenyatta period, we had people working as D.Cs for example Mr Psenjen. We had people in foreign embassies, we had directors of parastatals (state corporations), and for sure, for a community like ours, which had very few people with education, it was very good that we had a few people in good employment.
But now, looking at the Moi era, most of those Sabaot who were holding good jobs have been sacked. Moi started by frustrating the late Daniel Moss. Even Kisiero was sacked at one time and reinstated after some time as an assistant minister. In fact, I must point out very clearly that the Sabaot have suffered very much during the Moi era, because this was the time our people were kicked out of the forest in Chepyuk and Kiborowo, and most of these people are landless and destitute up to now. They can not afford to take their children to school and most of them have turned out to be thugs because they can not make ends meet. Their main preoccupation at the moment is drinking chang'aa (illicit home brew).

What reason did the Moi government give for kicking people out of the forest?
The main reason they kept talking about, was that of environmental conservation. This was a reason our people did not take seriously because they had been in the forest for a very long time and we had not destroyed the environment.

Do the Sabaot have the concept of environmental conservation. Do they think it is important to conserve the forest?
The forest is very important to the Sabaot and they know that. They do not need to be lectured on the importance of the forest by anybody. This is where the Sabots would get their herbs and it provided pasture for the livestock. In fact, the livestock grazing in the forest has been very healthy, because the leaves they eat are medicinal, and for a long time the forest has provided a hiding place wherever there is danger, because caves are located in the forest. Our people have also associated the forest with rain because during the dry season when everywhere was dry, they would still find something for their livestock in the forest.
There are some people who live in the forest and can not come out even now. These people are not a threat to the existence of the forest, and therefore, the government's claim that people had to be kicked out to preserve the forest was not genuine. We have always thought that the government had a different motive in chasing out our people from the forest.
Section 7
Now that Sabaot were asked to get out of the forest…how did that affect the relationship of the Sabaot and the government?
As I must have mentioned to you earlier, our people are conservatives. When they begin to like you, they do not change very easily. Like when they elected the late Daniel Moss, they kept electing him to parliament. [Only] until the time when he had become obviously weak, did some of them started seeing the logic of not voting for a sick man. Then when they elected the present MP, most of them do not see the need of replacing him in spite of the fact that Kisiero has retarded development in this area. Many think that life will not be the same without Kisiero.
Therefore many people here have a lot of love for president Moi. However of late, people have been wondering why they keep voting for Moi when Moi does not even recognise them. Sabaot feel the Moi has ignored them, and this is why he has not even bothered to come to Mount Elgon since the time he was elected in 1992. We think that we are only important to Moi only as voters, but when it comes to the sharing of the national cake, nobody remembers us. This is the time someone can easily move the Saboats to the opposition party, because the morale is very low. What we want from Moi, is a sign of concern, at least to show that we matter to his government.
If you can remember, we were on a par in job placements with these other Kalenjin communities before Moi took over the reigns of power. But right now, we have fallen behind if we are to compare ourselves with some of the Kalenjin communities in terms of education and general development. I personally find it very difficult to understand how this government operates, because we have Sabaot like Mr Psenjen, who is a former DC with very good education, [and who] now is simply wasting away at home, when a person like Mulu Mutisya is a chairman of the presidential commission on soil conservation, without any formal education. I at times wonder whether we are ignored because we are few.
Everything that we have right now in Mount Elgon certainly came during the Kenyatta era. All the schools we have were put up during that time. I can only credit President Moi with granting us a district. And indeed we are grateful for this, for we had suffered discrimination from the Bukusu for a long time.

Do you think the location of Mount Elgon District in a mountainous region, is part of the reason why the community is somehow neglected?
It can't be! Baringo where Moi comes from is in a worse location. I went to school in Baringo and building roads here is cheaper than building roads in some parts of Baringo. Our location in a mountainous region can be an excuse to deny us development, but it can not convince anybody.
I have always wondered why we fared well during Kenyatta's time as a community. I have always thought that Kenyatta simply looked at us Kalenjin as a Kalenjin, and did not bother to go in to the details of whether one is a Sabaot, a Nandi or a Tugen as it is happening now. This is why Jack Butaki, a Sabaot had to be sacked as the managing director of KGGCU only to be replaced by Tugen a Mr Kiptoon. Therefore what I am saying is that the president leadership only wants to recognise us as Kalenjin when it comes to elections, but during other times, we are not even thought of as Kalenjins.
Section 8
How did the Sabaot also come to be referred to as Kalenjins, when in reality they are actually far off from the other Kalenjin sub-tribes, considering the language they speak?
Looking at the linguistics, we are basically the same. The Sabaot only have a bit of Bantu influence in their language. The Sabaot can be divided into two major groups: i.e. Bok and the Kony. But when you speak to the Bok, their language has been diluted the most.

Would you know the reason why the Nandis, Tugens and Kipsigis understand each other more easily than any of them would understand the Sabaot?
These other Kalenjin groups went and settled an area where external influence was limited, but for us we were isolated and our language tampered with. We are in the Western Province - an exclusively Bantu region.

Where did the Sabaot come from to occupy this region of Mount Elgon?
Our people talk of a place called Sengweer and Sirikwa. Sengweer is somewhere in Cherangani hills, while Sirikwa is down the plains of Uasin gishu. The argument is that our people parted ways with other Kalenjin groups around Sengweer, and they were struck by the Uasin gishu Maasai. The other communities took to the east and these were the Nandis, Keiyo Marakwet and Tugens. Our people moved further east to occupy the Transzoia region, and the enemy never stopped following them. The Maasai struck again and some Sabaot took the north western direction to occupy the present day Kapchorwa district in Uganda. Some are believed to have gone to Bagisu land and then moved further when the Bagisus were coming from Busoga region.
Some remained and they were assimilated, and some came back and occupied the present day Cheptais. And then the Kony had taken this direction of south-western to form the present day Kony around Mount Elgon. But the Nandi struck the Sabaot here in Mount Elgon. It was so terrible that the Sabaot were completely defeated by the Nandis, and most of the Sabaot were killed in caves. But the Nandi were stopped by the Sebei groups who gave them a thorough thrashing never to come back to Mount Elgon again.
During that period, it was the search for livestock that brought about all these raids. The Nandis and Maasai wanted to get livestock from us, and that is why they never stopped invading us. However, with time, communal cattle raids have nearly come to a stop.
Section 9
How does the Sabaot community look at education in the present day?
They are very positive, and they think that their children should be able to take the best education they can offer. This is why right now Sabaot parents can even sell their livestock to pay fees for their children. This was previously the last thing that the Sabaot would do.

What does education mean to the Sabaot now?
It means better living, and the knowledge would help one overcome the many hurdles of life. They feel that they have been short-changed in the past because they did not have enough education. We believe that we can bargain better for the national cake if we have good education. We have seen how education has helped other communities, and how they have taken advantage of the education they have to prosper themselves.
We are also aware of some of the first people of our community, who benefited from the formal education, and almost transformed their families. The standard of living improved because they were in the gainful employment. They even expanded the size of their herds. To the Sabaot, this was a positive thing and many people got an inspiration to go to school, from these people who had made it. Many people wanted to emulate the few educated people. People in the community right now appreciate the fact that, had it not been for education, we would not even be aware of our rights presently.

Now turning to the gender aspect, was educating a boy equal to educating a girl in the Sabaot community?
No, a girl was not meant to go out. A girl was to remain at home and be trained on how to be a good wife. Even up to now we have very few women who are educated, and I admit that our community has discriminated against women when it comes to education opportunities. The Sabaot believe that a woman's place is in the kitchen, and you do not need education to be in the kitchen.

What do you personally think?
I believe that our girls presently should be given equal opportunities with the boys. We should not repeat the same mistake our parents made, by ignoring the education of our sisters. My wife is educated and I think she is a better wife because she has had formal education. In my household, I do not have a son, I only have daughters. But I can not pretend that I would not be happier if I had a son, because in spite of everything, I would also want somebody who would carry my name. But this does not mean that I would not give my daughters the best education I can afford. I would not discriminate against them at all, although I would also like to have a son, because my relationship with a daughter is short lived. For the continuity of the clan, we need to have sons.

Right now, if you had limited resources and you had a daughter and a son to educate and you are in a situation where you can only support one, whom would you support?
If my resources can allow me to support one of them in school, I would not blindly rush to support the son at the expense of my daughter. But I will have to consider the performance of the two. I will support the child whom in my opinion that education is going to benefit more, and I would not mind if the child I choose is girl.