culture and customs
family life
social change
social relationships
spiritual beliefs

introducing the area


 quotes about conflict
 key testimonies featuring conflict

The clashes of the early 90s in Mount Elgon, between the Sabaot and the neighbouring Bukusu, is much discussed. Tension between the two goes back a long way; several narrators talk of incidents in 1963, and others make it clear that taking part in continuing raids on the cattle of these and other ethnic groups was almost a point of honour: "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.. 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." (Joseph, M/86, Kenya 13)

The fighting between Bukusu and Sabaot in the early 1990s, however, was of a slightly different nature. Other socio-ethnic groups, such as the Teso, were also involved, but there has been some debate over how accurate it is to call them 'tribal' or 'ethnic' clashes. Many feel that their real cause was political and economic. Several narrators state that multi-party politics have exacerbated, even exploited traditional rivalries. One farmer believes land shortage to be the root of the problem and certainly many Sabaot feel that the Bukusu have over the years taken their land and forced them on to the more marginal areas they now occupy. This is why many Sabaot want to clear the area of all but Sabaot. Other scores were settled too - one man felt that he was a target during the clashes because of a personal vendetta. Yet despite the recognition of contributory factors, most narrators - who are all Sabaot bar one - feel that ultimately the clashes stemmed from the long-term oppression of the Sabaot by the Bukusu: "Bukusu are very proud people who have always looked down upon the Sabaot....the clashes that occurred recently were our way of resisting the domination of the Bukusu."

The effects of the clashes were far reaching. Development is often perceived to have stagnated since then, and schooling has suffered too: many teachers were Bukusu, who fled during the fighting and haven't returned. Several women felt they were the most adversely affected because many had intermarried with other tribes and so they were hit "on both sides". "We are hurt as women because we gain nothing.women have no boundaries, we have no tribal boundaries" (Kenya 5) .

However much the Sabaot believe that the conflict of the 1990s was justified, many also acknowledge that the impact has been negative on all concerned. There are several stories of personal tragedy, particularly from those who lost their homes and became refugees as a result. One Teso narrator talks of the aftermath of the clashes: "I...did not want to come back, for I had lost everything that I had. I do not have the energy to go back and till the land, but the government appealed to us to come regain my wealth is impossible" (Silbabel, M/90s, Kenya 17). Interestingly, despite the strong desire to separate themselves from other groups, especially the Bukusu, several Sabaot narrators point out that it was from the Bukusu and Teso that they learned useful agricultural practices and about the value of education. And several women narrators say that not mixing with other groups can cause underdevelopment as well, because without ethnic diversity, people lack exposure to different ideas and innovations.

quotes about communications

"The feeling of insecurity was not the main issue in the community, because we also participated in cattle raids and brought home livestock..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."
Joseph, M/86, former pastoralist - now a farmer, Kenya 13

"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."
Joseph, M/86, former pastoralist - now a farmer, Kenya 13

"I am one of those who suffered a lot [in the 1990s]. When the people ran away, my wife ran away, I stayed in the bush for three days. There was no drinking water, nobody to cook for me. the houses started burning.. But nobody could help me. A [disabled] grown up like me, nobody could carry me up to is hard. I just stayed up in the forest. "
Patrola, M/45, cooked food vendor, Kenya 9

"...none of us benefited, neither the Bukusu nor the Sabaot. We all lost. We lost our lives, we lost property and some of our young men are still in custody as I am talking. And we also lost quite a lot on the side of education. The majority of the teachers were non-Sabaot. So during the clashes, all these people fled away and abandoned the schools."
Ben, M/59, Local KANU chairman, Kenya 18

"...the Sabaot and the Bukusu of Mount Elgon have no problems among themselves. Most of the hatred that is being alleged to appear between Sabaot and the Bukusu, is not being done by the Mount Elgon Bukusu. This is being said and done by the Bukusu outside Mount Elgon.... I think the clashes were politically instigated by people who knew what they were doing..."
Wycliffe, M/37, schools inspector, Kenya 19

"...a District Commissioner...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..."
Joseph, M/39, farmer, Kenya 21

key testimonies featuring conflict

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location