Kenya glossary


(KENYA 14)








Village elder




November 1996



Section 1
Would you please introduce yourself?
My name is Hezron Kipseret and I was born at a place called Kapchai in the present Bungoma district in 1949.

Can you please tell us in what type of family you were born, whether it was monogamous or polygamous?
I was born when my father was monogamous and my mother was the only wife he had. But in 1950 my father married a second wife.

You've experienced life in a monogamous and a polygamous family. Can you try to compare life in the two family set-ups?
Life in a monogamous family was easy and simple. It was without any complications because there was unity, and something one can call a uniformity of thought. I might also hasten to add that by then the family was small and father found it easier to provide for a smaller family. But in 1950, when my stepmother was married things changed momentarily. All our father’s attention shifted to the new arrival in the family. This kind of behaviour strained the relationship between my mother and my stepmother. However, my father finally rose to the occasion and asserted his authority in the home. He managed to bring to an end the disagreements that were between the two ladies. Finally the ladies became friends, after a lot of persuasion from father, and life came back to normal. Nonetheless, this lady my father had married, divorced him just after a few years before she even bore him a child. She was a Munyore lady.
Again in 1963 my father married another Bukusu lady who was just our neighbour at Kapchai. This one then bore my father 5 children: two sons and three daughters. Personally, I think that this lady, my father married after divorcing the second wife, was easier to live with and more understanding. Because from the time she joined our family no major differences arose between her and my mother, and we lived minus the misunderstandings that bedevilled nearly all polygamous families. This lady was even to be more helpful to the family, when my mother passed away. She stood firm in the home, and in spite of being our stepmother, we just looked up to her like our real mother. My stepmother is in fact still alive now, but my father passed away a few years ago.
Therefore what I can only say from my experiences, is that life in a polygamous family can only be good if the head of the family has enough charisma to hold the family together. And for my case, I would say that my father was able to successfully hold the whole family together. But it is definitely easier to manage a monogamous family.
Section 2
Were you given any opportunity to go to school?
Yes I did go to school. It wasn't easy like it is now for you, but I was forced to go to school in 1948. Village headmen were charged with the responsibility of ensuring that every school age children, within their jurisdiction, went to school. During this time I was living with my grandfather who was a very wealthy person. He had a very big herd of cattle, and I had the responsibility of looking after his cattle from a very tender age. Therefore my grandfather was the main person against my going to school, because he knew that he would directly be deprived of a herds-boy. But the main advantage I had, is that my own father was a little bit informed on many issues, and I would say that he had some basic education. Because it is actually him who prevailed upon my grandfather to let me go to school, when my grandfather kept telling me to run away whenever village headmen came for me. I kept hiding in the rocks on the hills and they would have the task of hunting me down.

Now that they finally succeeded in taking you to school, how was your first experience of school?
The school I went to was sponsored by the Salvation Army, and they did everything possible to keep us interested in education. They used to give us sweets and they also fitted us with uniforms. They encouraged us to go to school by promising good things; as you are aware that sweets and new clothes for a young child were really good things. Therefore some of us liked school because of the things that we were given to entice us.

Were there people older than you, from your own community, who has gone to school before you?
There were a few people who had gone to school, and they were proud of their education. They were among the first educated people in my village. Others were Stephen Kisongoch, Nelson Sabai, and Samson Chepkwesi. In fact the latter two were my teachers, and it was these people who had gone to school earlier, that really inspired me to like education. Especially when I heard them speaking English. I also wanted to know how to speak English. In fact I remember shocking one of my teachers one time [by asking him] whether it was possible for me to speak English the way he himself did. He answered me that, that would only be possible if I put more effort in my academic work. He told me that I should be going to school everyday if that was my ambition.

When was the first school put up in the Sabaot area?
The first school that was put in the Sabaot dominated area is the same school I went to in 1948. At this time we were taking our classes under a tree, but later on in 1948 the Salvation Army Church started putting up structures for us. This Kapchai School was put up to specifically cater for the interests of the Sabaot, because it was in our midst. Most of our people who went to school before the establishment of this school had studied in Chebwai School and Yala.

Up to what level did you pursue your education?
I pursued my education up to standard eight in 1962. After this level, I did not perform well enough to proceed with my education, and also I was mature and was thinking of entering marriage. In fact I did marry 3 years later, in 1965.
Section 3
How were marriage arrangements organised in the Sabaot community?
What happened is that when a young man wanted a girl, he would inform his own parents that he wishes to marry a daughter of a given person. Usually after this your own parents can take up the battle for you, as they will talk with the parents of the daughter. This scenario occurred in a situation where a man really wanted to marry a certain girl, and yet the girl was reluctant. Usually it was your mother who went to plead with the parents of the bride to be, and such a thing could only be done in a situation where the parents of the boy were known to command a reasonable amount of wealth. But in a situation where a man was poor, the only solution was to elope with a girl who loved you. Because a proposal of marriage from a poor man would definitely be turned down.
To succeed the boy would elope with the girl and hide her away from the village for sometime, until the parents stopped looking for her. It was at this time that they would plead with you to now come down and negotiate with them. At this time, during the negotiations, you would have an upper hand because you already have the wife. But finally, you would commit yourself to pay whatever you could at that time, and then the remaining amount could be paid in instalments.

What was the acceptable age in the community for marrying?
Usually people could marry when they twenty years and above. I personally got married when I was 23, and for a man this was a very acceptable age. But ladies matured a little bit earlier than the men, because from around the age of 16, ladies were considered mature for marriage. I should hasten to add that the moral decay we see in our girls today was actually not there sometimes back. Most of the ladies in fact got married when they were still virgins. The community also encouraged ladies to get married early, between 16-20 years, because it was believed that they would get "spoiled" if they continued to stay in the custody of their parents. But today things have changed so much, and the youth of today have scant respect for elders. Today you will even find young men purporting to marry ladies the age of their mothers.
There is no respect for ages and more confusion has been brought in by use of cosmetics, which seem to disguise the real age of an individual and especially the ladies. We also have ladies today who do not want to settle down permanently in marriage, but only wish to hunt down these young men with the intention of ruining their future. The respect we had for age sets has completely disintegrated. In the past it was unheard of for anybody to marry a lady senior to him by age. Immorality was guarded against in the community, and grandmothers ensured that the ladies did not lose their virginity by constantly checking them. This ensured that no girl lost her virginity carelessly. The same strict code of discipline also applied to the boys and pre-marital sex was completely discouraged. Therefore in my opinion the youth of today is completely spoiled.
Section 4
You seem to be blaming the youth for the immorality in the present society; don't you think that today's parents have also failed in their role of bringing up morally right the youth?
I must admit that it is even difficult for us parents right now because we are not completely in charge of our children. Our children these days spend most of their time in school, and it is in school that they pick up bad habits. In school they interact with children from different backgrounds, and due to peer pressure you find that a child you were trying to mould into a good citizen changes drastically. When these children come back home during holidays, they seem to have a lot of contempt for the way the parents advise them, for they see us as being obsolete and old fashioned. It is in school that our children actually start experimenting with drugs, and many of them pick up smoking there. Therefore it is true that parents are nearly failing in their role to mould upright youth, because we don't have much time to stay with our children the way the old generation did.
I also want to point out that excessive drinking among the youth and the disco culture is another contributory factor that will lead to their [moral decay]. A long time ago, the discipline in the community did not allow young unmarried people to engage in drinking. Our dances long ago were done in broad daylight and there was discipline, in that incidents of fighting and sexual immorality were really low. But today most discos are centres of drug abuse, excessive drinking and sexual immorality. These factors make it very difficult for today's youth to be upright morally.

You have mentioned that there were dances in the traditional Sabaot community, is this how leisure was spent in the community?
Leisure was spent in various ways in the Sabaot community. First of all, there were times when we could spend our leisure time doing work in one of our age-mate’s home. For example we would fence the cattle boma (enclosed area for keeping animals) as a youth group, and then later settle down to slaughter a goat, and then we would celebrate. This was something that we would be proud of, and there was nothing to hide. We would even help in harvesting farm produce as a group, and thereafter share a meal, and after that we would share stories and later disperse. But most of our leisure time coincided with periods when we did not really have a lot of work to do.
During this period there would be many ceremonies, and the most notable ones were the circumcision ceremonies. During circumcision ceremonies we would have three groups of people celebrating. In one house we would have the elders enjoying their traditional brew and singing. Outside we would have the initiates dancing as people surrounded them sing. While in another separate house, we would now have the youth (this included those already circumcised but not yet married) drinking and dancing. This group would quite often have musicians playing music for them. But the youth did not drink excessively. This kind of meeting accorded the youth of our time, the time for courtship, and this was when age-mates would come out to assist their age-mates who had been rejected by the ladies. We would pick on a girl force her to accept this admirer of hers.
Therefore you can clearly see that we also spent our leisure time in a more fulfilling way, but we still had respect for our parents and elders. The youth of my time were in fact able to discipline one of their members if there was indiscipline. We instilled discipline in ourselves.
Section 5
You seem to disapprove the way the youth in the community today spend their leisure. Who is to blame? Is it their parents or the youth themselves?
I wouldn't blame each group wholesale because I believe that we the parents have failed in a way, although our children have also become too difficult to handle. Some parents have not actually come up to advise their children. They don't spare time to sit down with them and guide them in life. They think that teachers in school are going to do everything in school for their children. While on the other hand, the youth these days have a lot of contempt for the parents and even the elders. The assumption many of our youth make is that, because they have gone to school they know everything and cannot therefore be advised by illiterate parents. This kind of situation has made it difficult for some parents to exercise authority over their children.

How was bride price paid and how much was it?
The amount of livestock paid as bride price in our community has been changing. Because I am sure that what my father paid is not the same number that I also paid later on. But on average, and for a long time, the Sabaot have been paying bride price of 8 cows. This number could be less if the girl you are marrying has had a child out of wedlock, or even if she was just pregnant. But today most of the members of the Sabaot community, in most of the bride price negotiations I have attended, insist that the man should pay 13 cows. I think this could be due to the influence the Bukusu have had on us for a long time. However, these things are paid in instalments that can be spread over a very long time. Even great grandchildren can still come up to ask for what was left unpaid.

You are aware that some people nowadays look at bride price as something that is equal to buying a woman. What is your opinion on bride price now in the community?
Those thinking that payment of bride price is buying a woman are very wrong. In our community bride price is simply given as a token of appreciation to the parents who bore and brought up the girl you are now taking as your wife. It is not possible to buy a human being and if it were possible barren women would buy children. But this doesn't happen. Bride price also cements the new relationship that is now brought in by marriage. It strengthens the relationship and gives it recognition in the community. Therefore those who look at it as being a human being are only trying to smear a practice that has gone on for long, and has served the community very well. This is the practice that is still respected very much in the community and it is going to be with us for a very long time.

Although Sabaot are occupying other areas, the majority of the Sabaot are concentrated in Mount Elgon region. How did they come to occupy this region?
What I have heard being said is that most of the Sabaot were originally at a place called Sengwer, which is somewhere in the present Cherangany area. It is said the original father of the Sabaot people was called Kingo. Kingo moved from Sengwer area to Mount Elgon area. He had four sons and their names were Chebok, Chepkony, Chesabiny and Chebong’Om. It is also said that at one time these sons broke a gourd belonging to their father, and because their father was very harsh, he banished them from their home. Some went down to Bungoma, others went to different areas, and each one of them, wherever they went, formed the main clans of the Sabaot community. What I'm telling you right now, is what I also heard from my grandfather, and I cannot stand up right now, and say whether this is true or false.
Section 6
The name the Sabaot use, Bikap Koret, literally means the owners of the territory. Is this mountainous strip you occupy, what you are referring to, when you refer to yourselves as Bikap Koret?
The name Bikap Koret, which literally means the owners of the territory, is not a recent development. This is a name that was used, to refer to the Sabaot a long time ago, when the Sabaot were truly owners of a vast territory. Unfortunately, this name has remained with us up to now. Most of our land at the moment, has been taken up by Bukusu who, as we are told, came from Uganda. Initially they just came in to assist the Sabaot as herdsmen, but they took advantage of the nomadic nature of the Sabaot. Sabaot would declare an area unfit for human habitation even when they simply lost a calf through deaths. When the Sabaot moved away, then the Bukusu would invite their relatives to occupy that area. They used this tactic until they eventually dominated the area.
The growth of the Bukusu population became the source of great worry to the Sabaot community. This was an issue that then brought in conflicts. The Sabaot then started thinking about ways of checking the influx of the Bukusu, into what they considered their territory. Efforts to repulse the Bukusu resulted into very bitter conflicts, between the Sabaot and Bukusu, which brought a lot of bloodshed. The Sabaot were simply uncomfortable with neighbours who were intent on dominating them in their own land.

How did the Sabaot react to the coming of other visitors and now the white man?
This was the time the Sabaot had the worst experience. The Sabaot encountered the white man at the time when Sabaot men had decided to sport dreadlocks. The coming of the white man, is very much associated with the time when Bukusu chiefs were given the authority, by the white man, to subjugate the Sabaot, and this was when the Sabaot were molested and had their hair literally pulled out by chief Murunga. The Sabaot reacted by moving away as far as possible from the authority of the chief.
But one thing that was important in our community, at this time, was that, what was happening had been prophesied by our prophets who had earlier on, informed the people that strange visitors would one day come. They said that visitors would be carrying fire in their mouths, and they would have very strong spears that would hit the target that is even on the next ridge. Therefore when whites arrived, the Sabaot were already aware of their machinations and in fact they were thought of as cannibals. Due to the warning the prophets had given us, most of our people therefore, ran away from the whites because in the opinion of the prophets it would be foolhardy to stand up against the mighty Europeans. Most of the Sabaot who were living in Transnzoia suffered as much, because they lost their livestock to the settlers and were forced to work on European farms. Therefore in brief I want to say that our encounter with the white man was a very bitter experience.
Section 7
I believe that the white man did not come empty handed. He brought you education and Christianity. How did the Sabaot receive Christianity?
I must admit that a great majority of the Sabaot people even up to now, have not accepted Christianity. The Sabaot had their own way of worship, which used the dead forefathers as mediators between the living and their God. Therefore, to many, the white man's religion was unnecessary.

Usually the white man would build a church and a school together. Was it possible to go to school and fail to go to church?
What I'm saying is that, people would listen to the preaching in the church, but they would not change their way of doing things at home. They would continue with the offerings to their God, drinking the traditional brew, and even continued to circumcise their daughters - something the Christian religion was condemning. Therefore although education was resisted, it wasn't resisted as much as Christianity, because Christianity was listing many things, which were close to the hearts of Sabaot, as evil…of which, top of the list, was girl circumcision. This kind of criticism was seen by many Sabaot as an affront to their way of life.

From 1950 to the present, are you able to mention the changes that have taken place in the Sabaot community?
The first important thing that is evident to everyone is the expansion of education. The Sabaot have fully embraced education, and today we have our own university graduates like you. Parents have accepted to pool resources, in order to develop schools. Initially we had very few schools, which were neglected by the people, and education didn't receive support from the community.
The second thing that has happened in the community is that the Sabaot have now accepted to practice crop cultivation. You know originally, us the Sabaot had a lot of contempt for the people who cultivated crops. We were pastoralists, and virtually everything we used was obtained from the livestock. But right now the people have responded positively to the changes in the society, and crop production is taking root in the community. However, the Sabaot still hold livestock keeping in high esteem and you can hardly find a household that has no livestock. The few crops that were cultivated in the beginning were only millet, sorghum, cassava and bananas. But now many Sabaot are into commercial farming. The Sabaot have also ventured into other businesses unlike the past. I would even say that in the past Sabaot did not appreciate money so much. What they only wanted was livestock.

Today when the Sabaot talk about development what do they really mean?
When we talk about development, we mean progress as far as today's way of life is concerned. Generally we want to see that the community participates effectively in commerce, agriculture and education. Because we believe that this is what is going to improve the living standards of the people. Right now when we talk about development here, we emphasise the education of our children as the key to development. And here the issue of the leadership of the community also comes up, because we believe that the development people are demanding can only be seen when we have good leadership around.
Unity of the people in the face of hostility from our Bukusu neighbours is also seen as a component of development. The 1991/1992 clashes in this region produced a scenario where the person, who is able to rally people together, and tell them how they should defeat their neighbours, becomes a very important leader. Therefore development to us is that thing, which will improve our living standards and provide us with security, so that we can do whatever we want to do on our land, without fear.
Section 8
You seem not to mention medical facilities as being part of development.
I'm reluctant to talk about this, because I believe that us the Sabaot, to a great extent, are very lucky to be occupying this mountainous region, because in this area we don't have many diseases. Even a common disease like malaria is not very common in this area. But the few hospitals that we have somehow take care of the people, although I cannot say that we have adequate medical facilities. But previously Sabaot solely depended on herbal medicine. The disease that gave our herbalists the greatest challenge was small pox, which wiped out nearly whole families. We are grateful that this disease is no longer here today.
Another difficult thing in the past was when somebody broke a limb. This was a very difficult situation to handle. The general improvement of medical facilities has seen to it that diseases, that used to afflict people in the past, have been minimised. Presently the major scare in the community is the dreaded AIDS disease, for which seemingly no cure has been found. As parents, we are very much worried because of the immorality in the society right now, and we fear AIDS might wipe out whole communities.

The community right now seems to be aware of AIDS. What are you, as parents, doing to check the spread of AIDS?
As I said earlier, we want to talk to our children and tell them to be careful in the present world. Untreatable diseases are no child's play.

The Sabaot have been using herbs for a long time. Do you think there is room for herbal medicine in the present Sabaot society?
Yes, we still have many people who are using herbs. Some are also using modern medicine concurrently. But what is true is that the majority of the people now go to hospital whenever they are sick. Most of the herbal medicines are very bitter and this puts off many people from using them. Many people are also used to injections, which are said to produce results faster than the traditional medicines.

What is the position of the herbalists in the community right now?
The herbalists are still respected people in the community, but their respect is not as high as it used to be in the past. In the past they were nearly the only people who could assist in times of sickness, but today they are competing with modern medicine, and the number of people seeking assistance from them is also on the decline.
Section 9
Recently in 1991/92, the Sabaot had a bitter conflict with their neighbours the Bukusu. It is also said that there was another conflict in 1963. Can you say something on these conflicts?
The recent conflict we had with the Bukusu is something our prophets had talked about. Therefore the community is not surprised that it came to pass. However, this conflict did not start in the way it was expected. The war with the Bukusu was to begin with, started in this side of Mount Elgon, and swept towards Transnzoia. But as you are aware, this one started in Transnzoia, and came towards this side. Therefore according to what our prophets say, there is a major conflict on the way coming. This is a war that they say will kick out all the Bukusu and other tribes from Sabaot land, and this war will even be fought by our women.

As an elder in the community what would you say caused this conflict?
As far as I'm concerned, I want to say that this conflict was brought by God himself. I want to tell you that I have accepted and embraced Christianity and know that nothing happens without the authority of God. I have read the Bible and the Book of Leviticus. In chapter 32 verse 7 it says, that God created the earth and put up boundaries which demarcate the earth giving every community its territory. It says that if one doesn't know one boundaries, one should ask ones parents and other elders.
When I read this, it dawned on me that God has given everybody his land. And again when I read the Book of Isiah 13, 14 and 15, it tells me that the Lord saw that we have all come and crowded at the same place, and it said that there is something that the Lord will do, so that we can all disperse to our places of origin. When I read this, it tells me that the time has come for everyone to know the land given to him by the Lord. In the Acts of Apostles, the Bible also says that God created the earth and demarcated clear boundaries for each community. Therefore right now I personally think that it is God who is asking each community to occupy the land he originally gave them. As you can see, it is not us who are doing this, but it is God who is telling us, as a reminder to the Bukusu that they should go back to their land. And because the Bukusu don't want to go in peace, conflicts must arise.

Do you see any linkage between the 1963 conflict and the present conflict?
The 1963 conflict was meant to serve as a warning to the Bukusu that they should think of going back to their land. In this way the Sabaot sent a strong message that they wanted to be free from the Bukusu dominance. The 1991/92 conflict was now communicating the message that the Sabaot population has increased, and they want to be in charge of their own destiny. The Sabaot in the diaspora are supposed to come home and settle.

During the struggle for independence you were a grown up. Do you think the Sabaot also participated in the liberation struggle?
At the dawn of Independence the Sabaot wanted to form a party called “The Sabaot congress”. The Sabaot refused to join KANU because they were members of KADU, and more so because they wanted to form a party of their own. Our leaders of this time were the late Daniel Moss and Mr Cheptikit.
Section 10
What was the Sabaot understanding of Uhuru?
The Sabaot had a basic understanding of Uhuru, which was that the white man should be kicked out so that the blacks can rule themselves. But later on we realised that another boss was coming to lord it on us. To make things worse in Mount Elgon, most of the Sabaot at the time of Uhuru were still under Bukusu colonialism. Most of the chiefs here were Bukusu. We had our own chiefs previously like Chemengich and Kesis, but after these ones the Bukusu set in and dominated us. This was after the dispersal of the Sabaot, which was partly precipitated by our own prophets, who turned against the community, because they claimed that they were not taken good care of.

Was there any difference in the way things were done before and when independence came in the Sabaot community?
The Sabaot were even subjugated further at the time of independence, and this is why the Sabaot rose up against the Bukusu in 1963. There was a notorious chief called Jonathan Baraza who really frustrated the Sabaot. And for a long time we had been administered from Bungoma district, where we were discriminated against. In fact to say the truth, the Sabaot only got their independence in 1993, when we were granted a district of our own, and we could therefore decide our own destiny. The Europeans sat on the Sabaot for 30 years, and after that the Bukusu also colonised us for another 30 years. Therefore all the Sabaot believe that we only achieved our independence the other day when we got the district.

What does being granted a district mean to the Sabaot?
Now that we have a district of our own, everybody is happy. It means freedom from the Bukusu domination. This is why I can even sit close with you now and talk without anybody questioning.

How were you able to get a district of your own?
We got this district after a long struggle. We had requested a district for a long time but nobody bothered to listen to us. And the truth is that those who were blocking us from getting a district were the Bukusu. And this is why we decided to take up arms against the Bukusu, with the aim of kicking them out of the area occupied by the Sabaot. Therefore our 1991/92 war with the Bukusu came up because we were fed up with the Bukusu domination. We did not have any freedom at all because we did not have administrators of our own. Most of the chiefs were Bukusu and this made it difficult for Sabaot to even come together and discuss their problems. We have only had one MP for a long time and this one was unable to articulate the suffering of the Sabaot. I think that if we had more MPs we would at least be able to make a breakthrough in various things. But of now, people are still celebrating the fact that we have our own district.

What is the most memorable thing you can say the Kenyatta Government did to the Sabaot?
The most important thing Kenyatta did was to stop the Bukusu from completely taking over Sabaot land. Bukusu wanted to change the names of various things here. In fact Mount Elgon was to be called Mount Masaba. But we are happy with Kenyatta because he vehemently opposed this. It was Kenyatta who granted us the parliamentary constituency we still have now. Apart from what I have mentioned, it is difficult to see any other benefit the Sabaot reaped from the Kenyatta Government.
Section 11
You have mentioned that you the Sabaot only got independence in 1993 when you were given a district. But after the demise of Kenyatta, President Moi a fellow Kalenjin took over in 1978…didn't he help you?
We would have benefited much, but we lacked unity as Sabaot. We did not sit down and present a memorandum to the President. We also lacked a strong leader who would present our problems to our President. The preoccupation of our people was to demand that they be given part of the forest to use as farmland. The President must have declined this because he knew we were mixed up with other communities. However, we are grateful to President Moi because we now have a district of our own and therefore he has given us the much desired recognition. Also most of the chiefs today are our own Sabaot. President Moi has also made it possible for us the Sabaot to acquire land.

Do you think the president has assisted you simply because you are Kenyans or is it because you are Sabaot and part of the Kalenjin group?
I believe that we have been assisted more specifically because we are Sabaot. Because whenever we have pleaded with the President, we have gone there as Sabaot, not just as Kenyans. We tell him that the time will come when other people will say that Kalenjins have ruled this country and therefore they have benefited. We also want to benefit so that they don't make vain accusations.