Kenya glossary


(KENYA 15)








Retired court judge




November 1996



Section 1
Perhaps you could start by telling us your name.
I'm Samuel Naibei Kimkung. I was born in 1907 at a place called Malakisi in the present Teso district. But this area that we're living in presently, from the beginning, in this area, we were invaded by Nandi, Maasai and the Samburu. These are the people who dispersed us from our land and we escaped to place called Chelelmok Morie (the present Amagoro). Reaching there, we also started naming the area using our own names. For example there is an area we called Kabindiraroi (because it was infested by pythons). Chelelmok is this imposing hill that one sees when standing at Kolanya.

Now that you were dispersed from your own land, how were you able to come back and retain it?
We lived there for a long time until the Teso started wondering. They asked us what we were up to in their land. We told them that we had been kicked out of our land by our enemies. They told us that they also had enemies in their area who had been invading them for long. They asked us if we could help them in fighting their enemies. We asked them to tell us the type of weapons their enemies used to because we wanted to gauge the strength of their enemies, which is to a large extent determined by the type of weapons used. We were told that they used poles sharpened as spears instead of wooden spears. We told the Teso that us the Sabaot had very tough shields made of buffalo skin, which we believed, could not be penetrated by wooden spears. We told them that we were ready to help them repulse their enemies. We asked for the identity of their enemies and we were told they were people called Balebe, and lived in Busoga. They were also generally referred to as the Wasoga - the traditional enemies of the Teso. We asked them when they thought their enemies would strike, and they said it was any time from then on.
Their enemies always struck because they wanted livestock. [So the livestock was moved] to the areas dominated by the Sabaot so that it would be easy for us to notice the arrival of the enemies because they would head straight for the livestock. And indeed they came marching majestically, confident that the battle with the Teso would be won easily like it had always been. As they approached one of our warriors drew a sword and aimed at one of the approaching Wasoga. The sword by sheer strength was thrown at the head of the enemy right away. The Wasoga were surprised, and right away they asked themselves whether they were really facing the Teso they had always defeated. They concluded that these were not the Teso they used to know. When we saw the confusion that they were in after they had been disoriented by the death of one of their fighters, all of us appeared and they started running away! We pursued them up to Busoga land and we were even able to bring back the livestock they had taken away from the Teso in earlier battles. When we arrived back with the livestock, the Teso started pointing out their cows and we distributed these to them.
And then in the evening, when we were nearly through with the distribution of the recovered livestock to the owners, one of our own elders misbehaved. He got blood from ticks and then emerged from nowhere with the blood smeared on his spear and shouted that he had killed a Teso son. When people looked at his bloody spear they surely believed him. We were all surprised because we wondered why Kesis would kill a son of our hosts. In fact people dispersed from the field where they were holding this function and we feared being attacked by the Teso in retaliation. But we later discovered the trick and we realised that Mzee Kesis was only being greedy because he wanted to have a share of the recovered livestock belonging to the Teso.
At around this time, a white man called Mr Rego came and said that everyone should go to his homeland. He assured people that the enemies they were talking about would no longer be there, and if they were still there he would protect us from the enemies because he had a gun. We agreed with him and decided to come back.
Kesis took the direction of Tulienge and another group that was in came via Kolanya to Cheptais, and my group was led by Mzee Tendet. The group that was led by Mzee Kesis met with the Bukusu on the way, and all the livestock was taken away by the Bukusu. When this happened, Kesis ran away to Mumias where the colonial District Commissioner was stationed, and informed him that the Bukusu have taken away his livestock when he was on his way back to his homeland. He was given four guards (policeman) by the DC who accompanied him to the place where the incident had taken place. They searched Bukusu homes and recovered some of the livestock in fact most of the livestock was recovered.
When this exercise was over, one Bukusu man stood up and asked their chief who was called chief Busolo a question. It went like this “Mr chief, if one spills millet on the ground, is it picked up again? Is all the millet that spilled out really collected?” Then the chief said that the few livestock that went and had not been recovered, should be left with the Bukusu because the Sabaot should not be allowed to collect all of them. Then the exercise of continuing with the search of the livestock was actually stopped. So Mzee Kesis did not recover all the livestock but he came back home with the livestock he had recovered.
All these I must mention took place between 1900 and 1911 because my own father told me that we came back to Mount Elgon when I was only 4 years and having been born in 1907, this must have been in 1911.
Section 2
Does this then mean that you personally grew here in Mount Elgon and you've been her to date?
That is very true. This is where I've lived from the age of four to date. My main occupation when I was growing up was looking after my father's cattle. I did this from the age of about 7 years. In 1918, my father was prevailed upon by chief Tendet to take me to school. My father resisted this, arguing that he would not be deprived of somebody to look after his livestock. Finally the chief won and I was taken to Kapsokwony Primary School. We took our classes under a tree and we initially used our fingers to write on the ground before we graduated into using slates. But I should hasten to mention that in spite of my going to school, I still looked after my father's cattle in the afternoon because my school was half day. I continued with my education until 1926 when I was circumcised. By class 3, I was able to read and write. After I had been initiated I didn't go back to school again for I thought I had learnt enough in school. That time knowing how to read and write alone was not a mean feat!
Section 3
When did you take your money?
I married my first wife in 1936 and this is the time I had my first born.

It is like you did not stop at one wife?
Yes, In fact I married 8 wives and to date I still have seven wives. One passed away a few years ago. After I married my first wife in 1936, I married the others all of them within a very short span of time of about ten years.

How were you able to marry so many wives and why?
Marriage of many wives was influenced by many things. Take for instance my case, I was the only child in the family. I had neither sister nor a brother. Therefore my main intention was to expand our family. I was encouraged by my parents to do this so that should tragedy strike and I die, there would be people to carry the family name.

How did the general community view polygamy during that time?
Polygamy was something very honourable during our time. In fact to gain recognition in the community one needed to be polygamous. Polygamy enhanced your status in the community and it also symbolised that you were a wealthy man. If you paid dowry for all your wives then you were a tough man. The people who were monogamous were ridiculed as being single-eyed and would not actually have a say in front of polygamous men. Therefore polygamy during our time was something very sweet, which the community embraced whole-heartedly.

Can you say whether the wives in polygamous families were also very excited about the whole set-up?
The ladies of those days were not as jealous as the ladies you fellows are marrying now. I must say that our wives did not feel bad when we married many wives and I have no reason to believe that any of my wives regret having me. In fact it was my second wife who recommended the third wife to me because she was a well-behaved lady and wouldn't mind if she joined the family. Therefore it should be clear that our wives had nothing to fear with polygamy. I pity young men of today, whose wives would pour boiling water on their heads if they only heard a rumour that they were contemplating marrying a second wife.

Would you support polygamy now for the community and more so for your own sons?
I must admit that there is no room for polygamy now. First of all, there is no adequate land, which means that there is no livestock for dowry. Again bringing up a child right now is very expensive because many demands like education weigh down on the parent. Hence there is a need for people to cut down their families, and polygamy will mean many children. Another factor is that the ladies of this generation are a very jealous lot and therefore marrying many of them is equal to inviting trouble into your homestead. At the moment, I would surely not encourage anybody to go the polygamous way. I enjoyed living as a polygamous man but I still don't believe that the man of today can afford to be happy in a polygamous family.
Section 4
The Sabaot have been associated with this mountain (Mount Elgon) for a long time. Do you think this mountain has any significance to the community?
This mountain is our home. We've lived here from the beginning. We've occupied the slopes of Mount Elgon (the Kenya side) from Malaba border, covering the whole of Bungoma district and the whole of Transzoia district for a long time. Some of our people even migrated to Sudan and they got lost there.
At the moment, we've lost a very high percentage of all that land because we were nomads and we needed very little provocation to migrate, for example, the death of a calf would make us declare a place uninhabitable. Coming back to the mountain...the mountain is important because it is our home. The forest provided us with the herbs and fruits to eat. It provided our livestock with the pasture that is evergreen. The caves in the mountain were very important especially when we took our children on seclusion most of the training would be done in the caves.
Even the word Elgon comes from the word Kony, which is one of the big clans in the Sabaot community. It is from that word that the name Elgon was coined from by the whites. This also goes a long way to show that we've been living here for a long time.

At times, we are referred to by other communities as the Elgon Maasai. Do you know where this name came from?
When the white man came, he first of all encountered the Maasai on the plains of Uasin Gishu. So by the time they reached the Sabaot, they had already seen the Maasai. When he met the Sabaot, he was surprised to meet people who had the same lifestyle as the Maasai. He looked at our homesteads, our cattle sheds, our mode of dressing and even the way we carried out things like circumcision, and concluded that he had encountered another group of the Maasai on the slopes of Mount Elgon. It is therefore the white man who started referring to us as the Elgon Maasai simply because our way of life was nearly the same as that of the Maasai.

How do the Sabaot relate with the forest? Do you by any chance support the conservation of the forest?
Today, people should know that we support the conservation efforts. We know that when we do not have forests, our rivers will dry up. Therefore most people here would like the forest conserved so that we can always have our rivers. However, I still think some part of the forest should be sub-divided to the people to farm on. Just a small portion should be given to the people, because indeed this forest is too big.
Section 5
Do you still regard the forest now the way you did in the past?
The Sabaot have been conservationists for long, we loved trees and did everything possible to preserve them. Some trees were very important for shade when it was hot, or would provide shelter when it was raining. Therefore we respected the forest because we understood that it attracted the rainfall. Sabaot also loved honey and we collected honey from our mwengeshok (?) that we put in the forest. We were also hunters and the wildlife in the forest was also a source of meat. Another important thing is that the forest provided us with herbal medicine. When I was growing up, we never had the modern medicine that you people are using now and therefore the forest was our main source of herbs and this made it imperative for everyone to think of preserving the forest. Anybody cutting down trees unnecessarily would be admonished by the community.

What was the Sabaot concept of God before the coming of Christianity?
Before the coming of the Bible, the Sabaot still worshipped the creator (Yeyia). The creator of the earth and the heaven. In the morning the head of the family would pray facing the rising sun, asking for blessings to enable him to face the day. In the evening when the sun was setting, the head of the family would again pray facing the setting sun, asking God that all those people, who do not wish him and his family well, go down with the setting sun. This is an indication that we knew God before the coming of Christianity.

Moving to the gender aspect, do you think both the boys and girls were treated equally in the Sabaot community?
It was not possible for a boy to be equal to a girl. From early childhood, the son is trained to be protector of the community, and it was possible for a boy of age 15 to join the warriors, when a girl of 25 years was still at home. This is why a son in the family was seen as being very important. In case of death of the head of the family, it was supposed to be your son who should stand up to support the family. A son even in a simple setting of a homestead was like a security officer. The importance of a girl in the Sabaot community was also distinct and different from that of a boy. A girl was looked at as a source of income. A man who had no livestock but had daughters looked forward to getting some livestock when his daughter got married (bride price). There were situations were girls would get children out of wedlock (although this was not as common as it is now). Their children would be accepted as members of the clan but they would always carry a certain name that will be an indication that they were born out of wedlock.

What is your opinion right now on the way the boys and girls are treated?
Right now, I think that there should be no discrimination. Right now, the boys should just be seen as equal to the girls. Girls of today, if they are taken to school, the moment they are employed, they will also support their parents the same way as the sons do. I personally have daughters who are very good to me. Even this suit I'm wearing now was bought for me by one of my daughters. Parents should take there daughters to school the same way they take their sons to school, so that even if a daughter does not get a husband she can still take care of herself. Right now in our community, we don't simply look at a girl as a source of income like we did before. In fact right now there is no livestock so we don't expect a high number of livestock as dowry for our daughters.
Section 6
Another issue that is raising a lot of storm right now in the community is circumcision of the girls. Do you know how you started circumcising girls?
This is something that has been going on for a very long time. We've been circumcising both girls and boys from the beginning. A girl would not be married before she was circumcised. Circumcision for the boys was meant to enhance cleanliness and to inculcate bravery into a boy that was to grow into a warrior. But for the girls, circumcision was aimed at eradicating prostitution. It was believed that the clitoris gave woman the sexual desire, and therefore by removing it, the temptation by a woman to commit adultery would be reduced. Men were usually away for long periods during the wars or when they went hunting, and therefore we believed that the temptation for circumcised women to commit adultery was minimal. This must be the reason why the circumcision of girls was supported.

Do you think circumcision of girls is still relevant to the present Sabaot community?
I don’t see the reason why people are campaigning against girls’ circumcision. This is a tradition that has served us well from the beginning and I see no reason why it should be wiped away. I think it should be encouraged so that it can help to clamp down on prostitution that is now rampant in our urban centres. During circumcision, the girls were trained on how they were to stay (behave) with their husbands. This could explain the reason why divorce cases were not as common in the past as they are now. Therefore, girls’ circumcision is still relevant now as it was during our generation. But I do not believe that anybody should be forced. Our girls should be told the importance of this rite so that they do not simply oppose it out of ignorance.

The Sabaot have been circumcising boys for a long time, but I don't think you've got your own boys' circumcised. Why?
From the beginning, we've always hired circumcisers from the Bukusu community. Initially, we had our own circumcisers but they were ridiculed until they gave up the trade. The Sabaot didn't see being a circumciser as an honourable profession. They looked at it as something beneath their dignity. And this is the reason why we have depended on Bukusu circumcisers to date. We would suspend circumcision of our boys during the times when we had conflicts with the Bukusu until the time when conflicts were over. We would even stay for five years without circumcising our boys.

You the Sabaot are a sub-group of the Kalenjin. Why is your dialect a little bit different from the other Kalenjin groups?
All Kalenjin sub-ethnic groups dispersed according to Mount Elgon stories. My grandparents told me that other Kalenjin subgroups dispersed from here between 1700 and 1800. They could remember this by citing the age groups, for example they would say that they had dispersed during the age group of Rimrim and Samonjen. Therefore the Nandis, Tugens and the Kipsigis were once residents in Mount Elgon. The original dialect therefore in the Kalenjin community should be the Sabaot. This is why it is possible for us to understand other Kalenjin dialects while they don't understand ours.

Do you know any Sabaot who participated in the Second World War?
So many people from our community participated in this war. Some were not lucky to come back. But many of them came back with money. People who were originally poor were able to buy livestock in their families. People became rich all of a sudden.
Section 7
Did veterans of the Second World War also play a role in the liberation struggle?
The Second World War gave us an opportunity to send people out to other communities so that they could see how other people do their things. Second World War opened up the eye of our people. During the liberation struggle, I was a member of KAU (Kenya African Union) together with Mzee Raphael. But it was difficult because the Kikuyu who were the leaders of the struggle were not allowed by the whites to interact with other communities. And this is the reason why many Sabaot could not participate in the liberation struggle. We even heard rumours that the whites were planning to isolate Kenyatta from people. A prominent member of the liberation struggle like Eliud Mathu came up to this area and I hosted him in my home and slaughtered a goat for him.

What did the Sabaot think about Independence?
I knew Independence was something that would send the white man out of the country and give us an opportunity to govern ourselves. The community generally understood Independence as freedom. Everyone was looking forward for it although I must admit that not many people, including myself, believed that Independence would happen as it did. I never imagined that the white man would ever leave this country.