Kenya glossary


(KENYA 21)










Chepkuyi, Kibuk





Section 1
Today, I am talking to Joseph Biketi from Chepkuyi village, Kibuk sub-location, Mount Elgon location.
Mr Biketi, could tell us when you were born?
I was born in Kaptama village, Kaptama division in 1958. My mother was alive then. We lived there up to 1964 when my mother died. You know those days, people so much believed in witchcraft. They could not just believe that a person could die of any other sickness. My elder brother prevailed on my father to sell the land that we were occupying which was around fifteen acres. Father sold that land, so we moved to settle in Kamusinga in 1964. I was the last born in my family.

How many wives did your father have?
By then he had two wives. Later in 1970, he married the third outside whose house we are seated.

How many were you in the family?
In my mother’s house, we were ten boys and five girls

How was it being brought up in a polygamous family?
Even if I was young at that time, I was around 5-6 years old, I saw life was so good then. People had more wealth then today, for I remember in our homestead we had many cattle and many other things.

How were you having your meals?
We would eat from one common plate. For vegetables, two or three of us would share a dish.

Are you implying that members of these two families used to eat together?
For those of us who were left at home, we used to eat together.

So, there was no problem if one mother cooked food.
There was no problem. Any of the mothers who happened to return from the shamba (small family plot) first, would cook food for all of us, and she would serve it to us to share.
Section 2
What kind of foods were there those days?
There was mostly traditional food, like sweet potatoes, which was planted in majority in a big piece of land. My mother used to plant sweet potatoes using what we presently call strip-cropping. She could also plant sorghum, wimbi (finger millet), maize and other foods. Traditional food crops used to be planted in larger quantities then it is these days.

If you look at that time, what foods were meant for children, old men, and mothers?
Us Bukusu, other than alcohol drinks that were not meant for the young ones, all the other foods we can eat.

I have heard that you Bukusu like chicken that was reserved for a particular person?
That is there up to date. If for, example a hen is slaughtered now, all of you are my visitors but you will eat all the other parts in the kitchen but the back of the chicken will be reserved for men.

What is the significance of this?
I did not really understand but all I know is that, that is the special part for the head of the house.

What could the ladies eat?
Women have no special piece. Like in my family, we were so many. So mother could serve us first. She could either take the soul (gizzards), or the leg of a hen or part of the wing of the hen.

If you found out that they have slaughtered a hen, but the back of the hen is not there, what would you do?
Nothing much.

So you will assume everything is alright?
You know it is fine, but for these women of ours, it has been like a taboo not to keep the back for the husband. You know as they grew up, they saw their mothers keeping the same for their fathers. So, she follows the same when in your place.

Are you married?

How many children do you have?
Five children

Is there any special food Bukusu reserve for pregnant women?
On my part, possibly due to my education I know that pregnant women are given a balanced diet. I do try to give her a balanced meal.
Section 3
We are interested to know whether there are special foods put aside for the pregnant women for both the literate and illiterate.
Because we are farmers, we have plenty of beans and many other foods. It is rare to get famine here because of the availability of all sorts of foods in the home. The pregnant women ask for the food they desire. Some desire blood from the cow. So it is your duty as the husband to go to the slaughter house and tap blood to bring to her to drink. She may desire to eat liver, so you avail it. In most families, monogamy has taken route, so she is the one who prepares the meals. She chooses what is best for her.

You went to school up to what level?
I went to school up to form four.

Still on food, are there any foods that are prohibited from being eaten by particular members of the family?
We eat all foods together even if you are old or young so long as the foods are known not to cause any damage. Prohibited things are like alcoholic drinks, which are only meant for adults not children

Are mothers allowed to take beer?
If a woman desires beer, she drinks. Though life has changed. The government has put pressure on the brewing of beer. So some of us have surrendered, so we take tea instead.

So you are saying in the past, women were allowed to drink beer.
They were allowed to drink beer, but they never went at the same time as the men. Men would take care of the cattle from morning to around three o'clock, then bring them home. The women would then start milking. After they finished milking, they could go and drink a little and come back home.

Which beers were they allowed to take?
The local busaa (traditional brew).

Is there a time when you have differed with your wife?
Many times.

When you have differed with her, what do you do?
My clan members come in and try to advise me on how to live with her. I used to differ with her, especially as we were newly married. That time she used to behave as she used to in her home. She would go and fetch firewood in the morning and come back in the evening. I would sit at home, I missed lunch, so when she came back, we would differ. The longer we lived together, the less the differences became. She understood me and I also did the same.

When you have differed, how do you resolve the conflict?
The conflict is resolved by the family. If we have differed with my wife, my father calls me and inquires what the problem is and then he advises us on how to live. If the differences prevail, she goes to her home, calls her father, or brother who comes and listens to the problem and advises each of us on what to do. He will rebuke the woman for doing wrong things.
Section 4
That is say, any time you differ you call in your father...
No, he is only called where a major mistake has been done. Most of the small differences, you solve them alone, you and your wife.

You as a man, what if you are the one who has wronged your wife?
If I do something wrong to her; she will just get annoyed and will calm down later.

So, if you do something wrong to your wife, there is no way you resolve his conflict.
We do resolve...

How do you resolve this?
You know, us young men, when I differ with my wife, she may take her time and realise that the mistake is hers. But when she realises I have intentionally done wrong to her, her reaction will be tough. She will go away to her home where she will report this to her parents.

When she runs away to her home, what happens?
Her father will come, or her brother will come to know what really happened, what caused the quarrel or fighting between the two of us. It may be possible that you may have inflicted injuries on her. It is rare that we inflict serious physical injuries on them. We just cane them.

You mean canes do not cause injuries?
Canes do not cause much damage.

How do you measure the beating of your wife?
She lies down and you cane her like a pupil. If she refuses to lie down, you beat her while she is standing, the cane lashing on her back.

You hit even her head.
Not very much. The cane mostly falls on her back as you raise it to hit her.

What kind of mistakes can lead you to beat your wife?
Especially pride

What kind of pride?
You may tell a woman to wash your clothes. For example, you want to use these clothes for a journey tomorrow. She then leaves them there, unwashed. Even if she washes them at night, when you are back, they will not be dry. So, you get angry and you might end up beating her without prior notice. Sometimes, a woman can do mistakes that she does not acknowledge quickly. So you are forced to beat her for her to accept her mistakes.
Section 5
If we draw back a bit to the time of your birth, how was your youth?
In 1964, my mother died and my father sold our land in Kaptama. We came to live with our stepmother here in Kamusinga. She has a shamba here.

So it was your stepmother who was given that land.
The land had been bought by my father. You know in our tradition there before, every woman had to have her own piece of land. If he marries another one, he would buy her a piece of land or if his land is big, he subdivides it to his wives. They could not be heaped in one homestead. In 1965, I used to take care of our cattle and also in 1966. In 1967, my eldest sister qualified as a teacher from a teacher training college. So she took me to start school in Macere Primary School in Sabaot. Formally the place was called ‘three rivers’. In 1973, I did my C.P.E and passed. Then I joined Kabiyet Secondary School in form one. I was there for two years. Then my sister’s husband passed away, so I got a problem of school fees. In 1977, I joined Kimilili boys where I learned in form three and four. I never passed very well but I managed to get division four.

When you were taking care of the animals, how did you do it?
We could graze the cows in the grasslands especially around the plains where there were swamps. By that time, they never used to cultivate swampy areas, unlike today when they have realised the importance of these parts and they dig and plant sugar cane, and vegetables during the dry season. We could identify a super bull and we could let it fight with another one from another group. If our bull won the fight, we could feel so happy and be proud of it. Later we could play football. We used to make balls from papers tied together with a string.

What other games did you play?
We would play that game of chasing one another with sticks. You would arrange yourselves in tens. Then you would stay in opposite directions. In between, you would make a line and put a stick there. You would run from the opposite side and the first one to pick the stick would win.

Tell us about circumcision.
In 1970, I was twelve years. I came from Kitale and my parents organised for a feast. I was then circumcised with my brother who was my age-mate. You know the date would be set, beer brewed and a cow slaughtered. Then you would be sent to invite your relatives. On the material day, you would be taken to the river in the morning, dipped in the cold water, then your uncle or any body special chosen person the night before, would apply mud all over your body, then you would be taken to have the cut.

Why was it that you had to be smeared with mud?
This is part of tradition. The founder or the first man to be circumcised was a very brave man who killed a snake that spilled blood all over his body. He smeared himself with mud, and when the mud was dry, he went to the river and washed all the stains of blood. So we follow what this man did. This hero killed a python that lived in a cave. This python had finished the goats of the villagers who lived around the area, those sides of Bungoma. That cave leads to Uganda and it was later called the cave of ‘Mengo’. Mengo was the name of this hero.
Section 6
Was this man circumcised before he killed this python?
It was after he killed this python that he got circumcised. You know, this python had caused havoc by depleting the goats in that area by swallowing them. The people had tried to kill this python but they were defeated.
This young man volunteered himself. He sharpened his sword, he cut, he cut a piece of log and he went into the cave with it. He first timed the python and saw it come out to go and get its prey. He dug a hole on one of the sides of the entrance of the cave. He then put the log on the foot of the entrance to the cave and hid in the hole he had dug. He waited for the python to come back.
Finally, when the python came, he saw it. It also instinctively realised there was something amiss in its living place. It got inside, looked for the predator that may have been there and when it failed to find the predator, it brought its head to the entrance of the cave to watch out for this enemy it had sensed. It put its head on that log the young man had put on the entrance of the cave.
The young man took his sword and with all its strength brought it down on the head of the python. He cut the python into two. The python's head jumped out and bit a tree that was in front of the cave and this tree later died. So this young man came out of the cave singing a victory song on how he had killed the python.

Can you sing for us that song if you know it?
I am not good at singing.

We would like to get the words.
Blood spilled all over. After cutting the python's head, the blood spilled on him. The woman who this young man wanted to marry told him that although he was a hero by killing a snake, he could not marry her because he was not circumcised. So he went and he was circumcised.

From which tribe was this woman?
She was a Sabaot lady. She is the one who enabled this man to be smeared with mud, then he was circumcised.

That is to say that the circumcision of the Bukusu began through this Sabaot lady who made this young Bukusu hero be circumcised.
Yeah, it was then that we started being circumcised.

Can you recall the name of this woman.
She was known as Sarah.

Section 7
In your own words, tell me the importance of this song.
When he went to kill the python, he was told to be afraid, he was told to be brave. When you are being brought from the river in the morning when you are going to get circumcised, this song is sung to you. The song is meant to stress that you should be brave like this brave man Mengo who killed the python. They sing for you this song so that you do not let them down. These are your uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and friends. So when you reach the home where you are circumcised, you are meant to be confidant, not to tremble, or diarrhoea on yourself which is very bad.

If it happens that the initiate cries or does something unusual that is not expected, what do you do?
You know, there are others who hold the circumciser’s hand. This is so bad for misfortune will befall him. If you cry and you are with other initiates, it is so bad. You will have ruined your comrades. It becomes imperatives for them to slaughter a sheep to cleanse the others from misfortune that might befall them. If they do not do this, their lack comes to the person who has cried. He can get a good job, marry many wives and even have many children. The rest will make it in life, they might even not marry.

How do you feel when the initiate cries during the cut?
We feel so bad. We beat him seriously after this. If you cry before they finish cutting you, even if you hide wherever, people will not settle down till they get you and circumcise you. This is because you have caused so much to be prepared - like a cow being slaughtered, beer being brewed and even people travelling from very far to come and witness your circumcision.

Which plans are made for circumcision to take place?
In the morning or evening.

Let’s start at the river in the morning...
The young man who sings this song is special for the song is special than all the others sung. When they reach the river, the uncle takes the mud from the riverbed and smears him with it. The mud is also special. It has to come from the riverbed where even if drought comes for ten years, it can not dry up. If they take mud from a place which will be dry up, all those smeared with mud from this place will be ruined.

How will their lives be ruined?
Those smeared with mud from that place, their lives will be ruined. Others will not marry, even those who marry will chase their wives and live alone. Others will not even be able to keep a steady job. Their life will be full of misfortunes.

What importance do you attach to circumcision as Bukusu.
Circumcision is good for it did not start yesterday. When we were born, we found it being practised. If you are a Bukusu and you refuse to be circumcised, people will laugh at you. Even if you return to Nairobi, during the period of circumcision, they will time you one day and they will circumcise you by force. When you are not circumcised, you look like a goat among the sheep.
Section 8
If you refuse to be circumcised in the traditional way, but you get circumcised in hospital, how does the community feel about you?
It is alright. Earlier on, they used to despise those circumcised in hospitals but these days due to inflation, many are taking their children for circumcision in the hospitals. During December when all the others are given a new dress, you also bring yours, invite friends for a meal and they will bless your child.

What is the significance of this new cloth?
When putting on the new clothes, it means that you have left your mother’s ways and taken over your father's ways. You are now a man.

Now that your girls do not get circumcised, how are they initiated to adulthood?
You know most of the time, they stay with their mothers and other women. When they reach the age of twelve or fourteen, when reach their menarche (menstruation). They are taught to avoid pregnancy by avoiding men. So they are told to take care.

What other education are the girls given?
They are advised on how to work hard in school if they have to better lives. They are taught on how they will be expected to behave when they get married, not to show pride to their husbands, on how to cook and even on how to iron clothes.

Among the Bukusu, how is the division of labour between men and women?
The women are charged with milking the cows, weeding the crop. During tilling, it is the men who dig the land. They plough the land by the use of bulls in January, they plough it again and during the planting season they make the lines, whereas the women plant the seeds. After this, the men do not get back to the farm again till the next planting season.

So the men's duty is to prepare land for planting...
Yeah. When they complete planting, the women weed the crop twice. The women are also charged with planting sweet potatoes, millet, sorghum, bananas. There before, the sowing of millet was done by the women, but weeding was done by both. During this kind of weeding, beer would be brewed and then people would come together and weed within one day. This work was done communally.

How has this changed?
These days the lands have become small. Like me, I cannot call the community to come and help me to do some work, for my land is small. But we have groupings, the women group and the youth groups. If you have work or a problem, you can call that group and tell them that you are a member and they will come and assist you.

Now, when you look at the behaviour of the boys who were circumcised at your time and those of these days, what comparison can you make between the two?
There is a great difference. During our time, we used to be very obedient. After circumcision, the circumciser would come and advise you on how you will be expected to live as an adult. He would advise on good respect, on working hard in education. You know you boys of these days do not know how to behave. Even if you instruct them, they turn a deaf ear to you. We were advised that if you wanted somebody as your wife, you should not follow her to their house. You were to time her in the bush when she has gone to collect firewood.
Section 9
So, if you wanted a married woman, you were to time her when she goes to the bush to collect firewood...
When she goes to the bush, do not wait for her to start spitting the firewood. For if you stopped her after she had began splitting the firewood, people will wonder why the splitting of the firewood has stopped and ask why? Or be curious why?

What if you were caught in the act?
You would not be killed. You would just be asked to produce a sheep and a cow. The sheep would be slaughtered and eaten by all the people. The cow would be given to the woman's husband to keep.

What of if they caught you a second time?
You would continue to give them the sheep and cow. It would just be like business. The man will receive more cows from you. The Bukusu understand that a woman is just like a river.

How is it that they came to make this equation?
They say that if you go with a spear and plunge it in the riverbed, there will be no mark or difference. They then equated a woman to a river for even if a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, you will not notice a mark or the difference.

At the moment, if you find your wife has had sexual intercourse with another man. How will you feel?
I will feel bad because of the fear for AIDS. In the past, I think there was no AIDS. There only used to be gonorrhoea and this has its own drugs. I too know the drugs for gonorrhoea. I sometimes treat cases like these using herbal medicine. They would take the herbs with busaa (traditional beer). You know you will take traditional medicine with local brew but not with the white man's medicine.

If you find your wife with another man, you might kill the man unlike men in the old days.
Yeah. I can kill. But since I was born I have only heard of one case of a man who killed another man whom he had suspected was moving with his wife down at Kamusinga.

In the present day, how do women feel about their husbands moving with other women?
They feel very bad. They say, “My husband why are you moving with women so carelessly and yet you know so many diseases have come, you might infect me with a disease? If you infect two of us, where will it leave our children? Instead, marry even two or three wives instead of endangering our lives.”
Section 10
Now for you, would you like to marry more wives?
I would like to marry a second wife but I can’t because the cost of living cannot permit it.

What about your age-mates. Do they prefer....
My age-mates prefer church marriage. They prefer marrying only one wife.

How did you come to marry your wife?
I married just recently in 1987. In 1986, there was an outbreak of typhoid. All the people in this homestead were affected except me and my father. I asked myself, “now if this disease attacks me, who will provide me with even water for drinking or light the lamp for me?” I got scared. I then decided to go and look for an old girlfriend. I talked her into marriage, but she declined my offer.
I decided to look for another girlfriend of mine whose home is in Chesikok. I talked her into marriage but she told me to wait for her to collect her K.C.P.E (Kenya Certificate of Education) such that I could take her home. Fortunately, I got word from my uncle who lives there that the lady’s family practise witchcraft. Then I decided to drop the idea of marrying her. After six months, I went back to my old girlfriend. I re-seduced her to accepting to be my wife, which she did. So I married her in 1987.

Which system of marriage did you take?
I went there and she told me to go and pick her after one week. My in-law from my elder brother’s side came and accompanied me to this lady's home. So we went to her home in Kaptola and she made us wait for a few hours in a friend’s place. At around 8.00pm, she came and accompanied us to my house. She carried a few clothes and oil to apply, the brand of oil was Yolanda. So we came and arrived here at ten in the night. And that is how I got married.

What if a woman got pregnant when she was still in her parents home?
She could bring you the child if you liked it or not or you could be forced to marry her. If you refused, you could be accused in the court of law.

How many children do you have?
I had five but one passed away.

I am sorry for that misfortune. The others are aged...
The eldest is nine years and the youngest is two years.

Do you feel like increasing the number of your children?
We are doing family planning. The standard of living makes you think twice. The children need to eat, dress, go to school where you buy uniforms, pay activity fees, building fees... This forces you to plan your family.
Section 11
Were you here during the times of the 1991-92 clashes.
Yeah I was here.

How did these clashes start?
The main cause of these clashes was never known or understood. Though a District Commissioner by the name Samuel Chang'ole was heard telling his people the Sabaot, to “separate the maize from the beans”. We did not comprehend its meaning till the clashes begun. The Sabaot started eliminating the Bukusu, Teso and other tribes- Abagusii, Luos, Kikuyu and Merus, all those who used to work here in the forest.

You had earlier said that tribal clashes caused you people to move from Kaptama to Kamusinga in 1963?
Those clashes were political - between KANU and KADU followers. I was young but I saw vehicles transporting people who were fleeing the clashes. I too saw the G.S.U (General Service Unit). Even the recent ones were political between KANU and FORD. The KANU zones feared the opposition. So that started burning and chasing out those that were not supporters of KANU.

How did these clashes affect you?
We ran away. We lost property, they burnt houses, we lost everything that we had built. Even if you walk around this area, you will not see the cows. They stole all our cattle.

Did you know those people who stole the cows?
Yeah. It is the Sabaot who got support from across the border of Uganda. These people happen to be their cousins. They are the Sebei. We did not resist. We just ran away.

Here where we are, did they burn houses?
They burnt all the houses here up to the market there.

Now, are these new houses that you have built?
These are houses that have been built for us by ActionAid people. They provided us with material. Don't you see that all houses here are round in shape? Even the house plan was given to us by these ActionAid people. They gave us assistance, then we came back.

So, were it not for their assistance, you would not have come back.
We would have come back but it would have been very difficult. We do not have grass, trees and many other necessities.

All those who ran away, have they all come back?
Most of them have come back though they are coming slowly. Since 1991, they came back by last year 1995. Up those sides of Kamweru, Namorio, most of them have sold their land. Even here in Kamtiong, others have sold their land. Even there across the river. You will be able to see him. Mr Kaipei saw compassion for him. He was living in Kamtiong market with his large family. He told him to come and live in a portion of his land with his family instead of suffering there in the market.
Section 12
Thanks for the good conversation we have had. If we have anything we would like to enlighten us on, we will come back to you.
You are welcome anytime