Kenya glossary


(KENYA 13)








Former pastoralist – now a farmer




November 1996



Section 1
Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Joseph arap Bera. I was born in 1911. I am a resident of this area and I have lived here since I was born. I have two wives. These are the ones who have stayed with me to date. But I had initially married so many, who never stayed with me for long.

How was it possible for you to keep on marrying one wife, after the other left you, in a society that had a lot of respect for the marriage institution?
I was not actually to blame because it is them who divorced me, but not vice versa. It is them who left me for no apparent reason. But some of them left because they were guilty of the wrongdoing they were engaged in. Quite often, I did not make a follow up of any of them, because I did not find it appropriate to follow up somebody I had not wronged. In fact, for some of them, I had already paid bride price. In spite of this I could not follow them up. This was because my family was generally rich, and paying some more livestock for another wife would not be a difficult thing. But later on, I came to hear that most of them used to complain that I was very strict.
For instance when I sent my wife anywhere, I expected her to be back on time. But there was this woman who kept spending a lot of time wherever she went. She came back late one time, but when I asked her why she was late, she complained that I was looking after her. I told her that I could not look after her because she was not a cow. At times I think that I was just very jealous, because I suspected most of my wives of infidelity, and it was such an issue that eventually it led to most of them quitting me. It is only one wife that I did not doubt and it is with her that I have lived with to date. I have a second wife who is very young, and she has just come into my life when I am already an old man.

In your opinion would you say that the women who were caught up in polygamous marriages enjoyed living in such marriages?
They must have been happy, because this was something that was very common in the community. In fact it symbolised status, therefore I do not think there was any woman who did not wish to be associated with status. I also know that it was in these polygamous marriages that unfaithfulness thrived. Therefore, one reason that would have brought unhappiness, like sexual starvation, would easily be taken care of by the multiple partners wives would have, though secretly. This is one thing, which I suspected very strongly, and it explains why I was extra sensitive.

How do you look at polygamy today, would you mind if say your son became polygamous?
I would not mind for sure, because as long as he is confident that he can manage his family. A son is a man, and he should be given the opportunity of learning through experience. If he burns his fingers then he can retreat. Actually it is not that polygamy is bad, it is only that it has more challenges, and is more difficult to manage than a monogamous family.
Section 2
But how would you advise your daughter if she wanted to marry somebody as a second wife?
There is a category of women that would leave you if you decided to marry a second wife. And then there are those who are very welcoming. I would not allow my daughter to go and disrupt another woman's marriage. But if the first wife does not mind having a co-wife, then I too would not mind my daughter going as a second wife. As long as there is going to be peace and harmony in the home. My main interest as a parent would be to see that my daughter marries a man she loves. It does not matter to me whether this man has another wife or not. But I know most of the men today have been influenced by the Christian religion, which discourages polygamy, and this explains why many men are only marrying a single wife today.

Have you personally accepted Christianity?
I would, but at the time Christianity was introduced, it was going hand in hand with education, which cost money. My father was very adamant, as he did not want to spend his resources on things that he did not believe in. Therefore he did not give me the opportunity of going to school or church. Later on when I grew up, it was like I was too late, and I actually did not have any interest in it. Therefore Christianity is something I have just been watching from the sidelines.

How many children do you have?
I have 15 children in total. Eight of them are daughters. These ones are the children that I have had with the two wives I still have to date. The other ones I mentioned to you, did not stay with me long enough to bear any kid.

Your father did not give you an opportunity to go to school. But have you given your children an opportunity to go to school?
I am happy to say that none of my children are illiterate. I have tried my level best to see to it that all my children at least go to school. I was even able to take my daughters to school at a time when many people thought that it was a waste of resources to educate a girl. Some of them are working in Nakuru, others in Bukura, while others are secretaries. I simply treated my daughter as being equal to the sons, because I considered all of them as being my children. I know many parents who neglected the education of their daughters. But what I know is that their actions were only based on ignorance. Because who can stand up and say that all boys are cleverer than the girls. I have taken all my children to school but in some cases my daughters used to perform better in school than the sons. Therefore in such a situation why should one deny a bright girl the opportunity to continue with education, in preference for a low performing boy? People forget the fact, that even a girl can be helpful to the parents, if they are in a position to assist.
Section 3
You say you did not get the opportunity of going to school, but would you say that education facilities were easily accessible?
Surely schools were not easy to come by on this side of the mountain. Schools were down in the Bukusu land. You can see the famous Kamusinga School was in the midst of the Bukusu. Therefore people down there benefited from education earlier than the Sabaot. In fact [when] education reached this side it had lost taste. Education reached here when Maragolis and Luos had already enjoyed it. In fact it is only now that education is beginning to take root in Sabaot land. The Sabaot would have enjoyed education earlier but our Bukusu neighbours frustrated our efforts to access education through their notorious chiefs.
Another point is that [education] favoured a settled life, but as you know, the Sabaot were pastoralists who moved from one place to another in search of green pasture for our livestock. This made it impossible for us to go to school. However, today we have discovered the value of formal education…everyone in the community would like to take his child to school. Before I forget I should also mention that witchcraft in the Sabaot community made it difficult to settle down permanently. One would live in an area, but when he suspected that his neighbour practised witchcraft he would move away.

Do we still have witchcraft in the community right now?
Witchcraft is actually still there, but many people have abandoned it. Many people who have gone to church, and those who have gone to school, no longer believe in witchcraft. I think it is modernity that has now come, that has made people abandon such evil practises. A person who practices witchcraft is a very evil man, who does not wish good to others. A witchcraft practitioner is driven by malice to injure neighbours who he thinks are doing better than him.
It is instructive to note that witchcraft was even unleashed against livestock in such a way that it was impossible for one's livestock to produce even a glass of milk. The witchcraft would even kill your livestock. In the past things were different, because the buying and selling of milk had not came up those sides. This means that even your neighbour had cows and milk, [and therefore] you did not need to buy from him because he would simply help you with the milk. Therefore your neighbour's cows were just like your own. However, to witches things were different. They could not sit back and know that killing your neighbour’s cows is equal to denying yourself a livelihood too.

If a person was bewitched, what type of treatment was he given in the community?
Usually they contacted prophets. But first they tried treatment by use of herbs; but when the illness persisted, this was when prophets were consulted. Usually prophets would tell you the person bewitching you…in most cases it would be your neighbour. At this time the bewitched person might decide to migrate from that area. Once a person had been bewitched, chances of recovery were nearly nil. Death was the final result of witchcraft. Even up to today, modern medicine hardly succeeds in treating a person who is bewitched. Most of those bewitched are diagnosed not to be suffering from anything, in hospital while a person is dying. The doctors will always say that they cannot tell what the patient is suffering from. Therefore we are still at square one, because traditional medicine tried to treat witchcraft and failed. Right now modern medicine is also unable to cure those who are bewitched.
Section 4
You said that people tried to treat witchcraft cases using herbs. How did they get the herbs?
We had special people from specific clans who had the knowledge of medicinal herbs. In a family, an old man would show one or two of his sons the herbs. It was also possible for an outsider to be taught. This happened, when a herbalist had cured someone, and this person would request to be shown the herbs after the payment of a fee to the herbalist. Usually if one wanted to be shown the herbs, he would prepare the traditional brew for the herbalist and give him a goat. After this one would be trained to also become a herbalist.

How would you assess the efficacy of herbs?
Herbs used to cure some sicknesses very well, but there were cases when a patient would die in spite of the fact that he had used herbs. I think it was just like what happens today, because people still die in hospitals. So what I know is that once your days are over, you can still die even if you are given the best medication in the world.

Do we still have herbalists right now in the Sabaot community?
Yes, they are still there. This is because in spite of the present modern medicine, the herbalists still retain a loyal clientele. Most people who are treated once, and get cured by a herbalist once, will usually go back to him again. This ensures that a herbalist will always have people to treat. But the herbalist could be surviving because medical facilities are not easily accessible here. The high cost of modern medicine has also turned people away from them. You know that even original herbalists did not actually charge so much for their services. And usually a person paid after he had recovered. One would pay a cow, goat, sheep or even chicken if that herbalists wanted money. But they are still cheaper in comparison with the cost of modern medicine.
But I feel that modern and traditional medicine are playing a complementary role, because there are some diseases that are better treated with traditional medicine for example mokongiondet (?) and female infertility. While other diseases are easily treated by use of modern medicine. Other problems like wounds were also very common in the past. It took a very long time to treat them.

How about venereal diseases, did you have them in the past?
A venereal disease that has been with us here from the time I grew up is gonorrhoea. I know my age-mates who got this disease but recovered, because we had very effective herbs in combating this disease. This was a disease the youth were advised to guard against by the elders, because it was believed that it could cause infertility. Therefore this explains why very few people that time would catch such a disease. Sexual immorality was at its lowest during that time in the community.

What was the acceptable family size in the Sabaot community?
I cannot be categorical here and say that a family of 10 or 5 children was acceptable in our community. But usually we valued children. A family of say three or two children would be seen as being too small, and here in fact the community will complain and ask you what was wrong. But I never heard of a situation where somebody complained that one had a very big family of say thirty children. In the Sabaot community a person with a big family was held in high esteem. And perhaps a family of 10 children and above would be seen as being normal.
Section 5
This means that the Sabaot community preferred big families. Have you heard of people talking about family planning?
Yes, I have heard people talk about the need for small families.

What do you feel about this, should people really have small families now in the Sabaot community?
Family planning is not bad because I believe that they want us to have the number of children we can provide for effectively. But if you also consider the general population of the Sabaot perhaps I can say that there are still too few for us to think about family planning. However for those who do not have resources it will be understandable if they went in for small families, but I am really disturbed if I see well-off people in the community also accepting to go for small families.

I hope you understand that the cost of bringing up a child today is very high given that you have to take him to school and also take him to hospital when sick and all these things are expensive, don't you think that these are reasons enough for people here to have small families?
I understand your point of view but now what do we do? I know that education is expensive I have taken all my children to school. Taking a child to hospital is also expensive. But I fear that if we reason like this we cannot make any headway. We should accept that it is not possible for us to take all our children to school. Since primary education is not very expensive, a parent should make sure that all the children have primary level education, and then a few bright ones can continue to secondary school. Because when I look at communities like the Bukusu, I do not think that they have big families because they are richer than Sabaot.

You have occupied this mountainous region for a long time. What has been your main source of livelihood?
Us the Sabaot have mainly been pastoralists. But a semblance of modern farming started penetrating this region from about 1930. Before this year we never even had Ox-ploughs. This means that whatever little we cultivated, we only used hoes. Before 1930 we cultivated sorghum, millet, cassava and sweet potatoes, and this was purely for subsistence. But the most important food of all was milk.

Now when crop cultivation began in earnest in 1930, what type of crops did you cultivate?
The main thing that took over as a staple food at this time was maize. Maize became a prominent meal in the community. This crop came with the establishment of Europeans in this region, especially in Transnzoia district, which had many European settlers. However, we continued cultivating our original crops together with the crops introduced by Europeans. This was the time the ox-plough also came in size of land cultivated. At this time, we started having a surplus of the food produce, and this is certainly the time money penetrated the community, and it was possible to sell a little produce for money. But what was prominent is that you would exchange your produce for a goat or sheep. The yardstick for measuring the value of anything was livestock.
Section 6
Before the introduction of the modern crops by the whites, how frequent were famines?
In the past things were very difficult, there was shortage of food nearly every time. There were times when people would even feed on banana stems. These are things that one cannot even attempt to eat now because they are tasteless. The main famine struck the community in the 1920s, when the first cars had just started appearing, and it was called "the car famine". This famine had been caused by lack of enough rain. Many people were killed by this famine, together with the livestock. People are lucky today because, when there is a famine, they can be assisted by the government. But in the past the whites had come, but it is like there was no authority that would assist people during a calamity. Because when I remember the food shortage that was there recently in 1980, there was a positive response from the government, to the plight of the people. I also want to point out that, in spite the frequent droughts in the past, the main cause of famine that time must have been the low productivity of the crops we used to cultivate. But today people have known better methods of farming which enable them to have a surplus.

Have all the people accepted modern methods of farming?
All of us have actually accepted modern methods of farming. The biggest problem for us now is lack of capital. This had frustrated our efforts to improve our farming. Today if a person does not cultivate his farm properly, it is not because he does not know how to cultivate but it is due to lack of resources to invest. The same applies to the use of certified seeds. Most of our traditional crops, like millet and cassava, have been relegated to the periphery and everyone would like to use high yielding crops like maize. Even when we look at our livestock today, the low yielding indigenous breeds are slowly being replaced, but not with grade cattle, which are expensive to maintain, but with crossbreeds. Crossbreeds might not produce a lot of milk like grade cattle, but they are better than our traditional stock.

Communities used to go to war from time to time with each other…can you please tell us something about conflict with special reference to the Sabaot?
What I can say is that in the past there were conflicts between tribes. That time we were not mixed up like we are today, because each community used to occupy its own territory. I must also admit that there was absolute hatred for other communities. And the main source of conflict was cattle rustling. The most notorious communities in this were the Nandis and Maasais, who could come from very far to steal cattle from us the Sabaot. It was during these raids that blood would be shed, because we would resist the raiders, while they would also insist that they do not go back empty handed. Therefore this was just a continuous thing, because they would steal our cattle and we would also [get] revenge by hitting back.

Did this kind of life make people feel very insecure in the community, given that you knew that raiders would strike anytime?
Indeed there was insecurity, but this is something we were used to from childhood.
We always had our weapons ready for any eventuality, and especially the warrior group, which was prepared to defend the community at anytime. The feeling of insecurity was not the main issue in the community, because we also participated in cattle raids and brought home livestock. It was always very honourable to bring home livestock from a raid, because this emphasised the fact that you were a brave and courageous man. Therefore I cannot say that insecurity was really an issue because all of us were socialised to this kind of life.
Section 7
Do you mean to say that even the women in the community had come to terms with this reality?
Everyone in the community had actually accepted the way things were done. We had a way of protecting the women, children and the aged in the community. During raids our culture did not allow us to kill women or children. And I think that this was the same with the many other communities we interacted with. It is only the warriors that were killed, for it was considered that there was no bravery in killing a woman or a child. These were the rules that were strictly observed by the warriors, and it was believed that a calamity would befall a person if he did not observe the rules. At times such a calamity, as defeat in a war, would also befall a community if the warriors failed to respect the rules of the war. This discipline ensured that you did not kill a person who had surrendered or one who was not a position to defend himself.

To be a little bit specific on matters relating conflicts, what has been the bone of contention between the Sabaot and Bukusu?
Bukusu are very proud people who have always looked down upon the Sabaot. This is something we detest so much, because we think that there is no reason why any community should despise us. In fact for a long time, we have also tried to look at non-Sabaot as non-persons. And to illustrate this clearly, if three people were passing by the road, and one of them happens to be a Bukusu, and you asked a Sabaot to tell you who were passing by, he would respond that there are two people and one Bukusu. We did not see the need why we should give recognition to a person who despised us.

What could be the main reason why, you think, the Bukusu despised you?
Actually there was nothing so by but I tend to think that this was because our lifestyle or way of life was very different from theirs. For example we circumcised our girls while they did not. We were also pastoralists who survived most on milk and other livestock products, while the Bukusu were farmers and their staple food came from crops. This made it possible for them to look at what they did not do as being backward and therefore despised the people who practised it.

Would you say that the clashes you have had with Bukusu were caused by the fact that they despise you?
Partly yes, because of late, other factors have also come in. For example the clashes that occurred recently were our way of resisting the domination of the Bukusu. But I still think that it is because they despise us that they found it necessary to humiliate us in everything. For example when we were still part of Bungoma district, everything good was meant to be for the areas inhabited by the Bukusu, for example roads, schools and even hospitals. It was the suffering, the Sabaot had been subjected to by the Bukusu, that led to the clashes that touched this region. Even when a coward is pushed to the wall, he can also fight back and to us, this was the only way. During the clashes we suffered very much, we lost lives and property, but life has taught me that nothing good comes easily. We had been asking for a district for a very long time, but it was only until we took arms, and were prepared to die, that the government finally heard our cry for a district.
Section 8
You grew up during the colonial period. How did you and the Sabaot in general participate in the liberation struggle?
The Sabaot did not actually have much to do with the Kikuyu MauMau. The liberation struggle was being carried out very far from where we lived, and many of us did not even understand why people should fight. The main talk was about kicking out the mzungu (whites).

Wouldn't you have been happy if the task of kicking out the mzungu succeeded?
Now to be happy for what? What was it that I would be given after the mzungu had gone? The mzungu has gone, and I think life is even more difficult for us than it was before the mzungu went away.

Are you saying that the African leadership that replaced the mzungu leadership was not good enough?
What I am saying is that, us ordinary people do not see any advantages that we have [been] given, now that we have an African government. I think that it is only the leaders up there who are enjoying [Independence]. At times I even think that life was generally better and cheaper during the colonial period. The whites were better off, surely because they could not deprive you of your property arbitrarily. They would only do it when it was legitimate.

Can you remember anybody who has lost his property to the government without reason recently?
There are cases when the administration police roam the villages, taking away people's beer brewing drums, destroying utensils and even arresting some innocent people. This hardly happened in the past.

Can you please say what are these things that were so good during the colonial period, that you do not get today?
Many of us think that today the government has complicated so many things. For example the prices of commodities are not even standardised like they were in the past. Even fees in schools were very low, unlike today. This why I miss the colonial period.

Since Independence, we have had two African presidents, under which presidency would you say the Sabaot have benefited more?
The majority of the people say that Kenyatta was really good to us the Sabaot. We also have another big number of people praising the Moi presidency. This makes it difficult for me to really say which presidency has been better than another one. It is like each presidency has had both positive and negative aspects on the Sabaot as a community. Many would like to say that Moi is good, but they complain especially about the banning of the brewing of the traditional beer. The harassment we are constantly receiving from the security forces does not endear many to president Moi. For example the police would get you on a drinking spree, arrest and take you to the police station. On the way they might demand a bribe, promising to release you if you comply. But occasionally you would pay a bribe and still be taken to court.
Section 9
What is your personal opinion?
For me I see no reason of praising a dead man. You cannot continue criticising a man even after he has married you and become your husband. Moi right now is just like my husband and in spite of everything I think he is good. On top of this, he comes from the Kalenjin community and I therefore think that I am under obligation to say he is good even if he is not doing the right thing.

From your talk, I gather that the ban that was imposed on the brewing and talking of the traditional brew did not augur well with the community. What is your opinion on this ban?
From the beginning we have been taking this beer peacefully. It is not now that we are beginning to take beer. Many people together with the government are supporting this ban. I think that the people who made this decision were influenced by Christianity, which does not support the taking of alcohol. I personally feel that this ban was ill informed because I cannot support the ban of something that was used during my circumcision, used during the marriage of my mother. How can I refuse something that has served me so well for so long? I think people should be left alone to make their own choices. If you like beer, you can take it, and those who do not like it, can leave it for others. Otherwise imposing a ban that all people should not take this beer is very bad, and I think it is unfair for us who like this beer very much. This beer was the integral part of our leisure. When we wanted to relax and discuss something, we did this while drinking.