culture and customs
family life
social change
social relationships
spiritual beliefs



introducing the area

 the themes
 the partners
 the testimonies

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Mount Elgon is a dormant volcano that straddles the border between Kenya and Uganda. At 4,320 metres high, it is the second highest mountain in Kenya, and the fourth highest mountain in Africa. It is home to a variety of rare plants, some of which occur nowhere else in the world, and on its lower slopes are extensive forest areas. The mountain is traditionally an important area for the collection of forest products such as timber, honey, bamboo, bush meat, and medicinal herbs by people living around the forest. The fertile, usually well-drained, deep and workable soils, and favourable climate combine to offer a significant agricultural potential. In this sense, it resembles many other mountain areas in Africa, which tend to have more favourable climatic and agricultural conditions than the drier plains. This is less true of mountain regions on other continents, which generally have less agricultural potential than the lowlands.

Mount ElgonThese oral testimonies were gathered from the upper and lower slopes in Mount Elgon district, in Kenya's Western Province. The area is densely populated and is primarily inhabited by the Sabaot people although there are also Bukusu, Teso, and a few other tribes, and there has been a fair degree of intermarriage. The majority of the narrators in this collection are Sabaot, and therefore the interviews primarily illustrate Sabaot society, concerns and perspectives. There are a few Bukusu and Teso narrators. The Sabaot were originally pastoralists and it is only in the last 50 years or so that agriculture has taken over from livestock as the main source of income in the area, with the introduction of cash crops such as maize, beans and coffee. Most Sabaot live in Mount Elgon district.

Overall, some 55 interviews were gathered, of which 23 have been selected for the website. For various reasons, but primarily translation difficulties, the amount of work needed to prepare the remainder of the collection for this site was prohibitive. However, anyone wishing to have access to the other interviews could contact Panos.

the themes

There is much less about the environment in these interviews than in other collections, partly because the interviewers did not particularly focus on this topic. But it may also reflect the fact that - given the relative fertility of Mount Elgon - people's concerns were less about productivity or a changing environment, and more about poor access to markets, credit and development facilities. For various reasons, the Saboat feel they have been ignored by successive administrations and have been unable to exploit the area's development potential. There is considerable discussion about the Sabaot's relationships with other groups, especially the Bukusu, and how they believe this relates to a history of oppression and marginalisation. In the early 1990s, these tensions exploded into violence and many families, on both sides, lost their homes and farms. More recently, the government granted the Mount Elgon region its own district status, a move greatly welcomed by the Sabaot, although many still feel that without enough well educated representatives, their physical distance from the heart of Kenya's decisionmaking will be continue to be paralleled by economic and political isolation.

Almost all narrators talk of the changes that are affecting their society. Varied experiences and opinions on education, development, changing culture and custom, and relations with other groups and between generations, and men and women, dominate these testimonies. A tension between preserving a strong cultural identity yet being open to learning from others is a common thread. Many recognise that contact with others can bring new ideas, wider experience and positive influences. Yet, perhaps because their relationship with the Bukusu was characterised by oppression, many talk of ridding the area of non-Sabaot, and express distrust and disapproval of outside or modern influences. Finding a balance between preserving the strengths of their old way of life without being excluded from the benefits of modernisation is proving difficult, as it does for many culturally distinct groups.

the partners

Woman interviewing manThis testimony collection formed part of the "Review of Development Progress in Kenyan Districts" project planned by the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) and Interlink Rural Information Service (IRIS), a media organisation. The aim was to listen to and document the views and experiences of ordinary Kenyans on development. Mount Elgon was one of five districts where testimonies were collected. KOLA are a literary organisation, primarily documenting oral artistry. At a workshop in 1996, Panos and KOLA exchanged experiences and ideas on gathering oral testimony and trained a team of 9 interviewers, which included several IRIS journalists. It was the first time KOLA had used this kind of methodology to explore development issues. Since then they have continued to apply it, and are training other NGOs to use oral testimony collection as a means of gaining greater understanding of certain topics.

Using some of the testimonies, KOLA published in 1998 an English language book called "Voices from the Mountain: Personal Life Histories from Mt. Elgon" for national dissemination. IRIS disseminated some of the findings in the national and regional press, producing features based on the interviews and covering topics raised by the narrators, and through a newsletter. Local dissemination has been achieved through presentations at community meetings, at which the interviews and findings were discussed by the contributors and others in the locality, and through two Sabaot language booklets, launched in the community in September 2000. One of these booklets was for adults; the other for children. These are one of the very few resources in their own language available to the Sabaot, thus meeting one of their wishes expressed in the interviews.


Local language booklet (Sabaot):
Kuurtooyeet kuchoonee tulweet
> Download booklet (pdf, 3.74 mb)

Voices from the mountain: Kenya

A selection of the oral testimonies gathered from the upper and lower slopes in Mount Elgon district
> Download booklet (pdf, 834 kb)


the testimonies

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   1   Lydia   Female/24   Teacher     
Summary Transcript   10   Ann   Female/47   Farmer/housewife/widow     
Summary Transcript   11   Masai   Male/57   Retired primary school teacher   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   12   Moses   Male/36   Teacher   Kibuk  
Summary Transcript   13   Joseph    Male/86   Former pastoralist now a farmer     
Summary Transcript   14   Hezron   Male/48   Village elder     
Summary Transcript   15   Samuel   Male/90   Retired court judge   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   15A   Samuel   Male/90   Retired court judge   Chepkarai  
Summary Transcript   16   Jane   Female/36   Teacher   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   17   Silbabel   Male/90s   Former preacher and religious teacher     
Summary Transcript   18   Ben   Male/59   local KANU Chairman   Kopsiro  
Summary Transcript   19   Wycliffe   Male/37   Schools inspector   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   2   Dina and Margaret   Female/42   Dispossessed farmers     
Summary Transcript   20   Jackson   Male/60   Farmer   Kibuk  
Summary Transcript   21   Joseph   Male/39   Farmer   Chepkuyi, Kibuk  
Summary Transcript   22   Robert   Male/30   Farmer   Cheptais  
Summary Transcript   3   Lois   Female/   Retired Civil Servant/ Electoral co-ordinator     
Summary Transcript   4   Andrew   Male/50   Teacher/unionist   Masindet village, Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   5   Beatrice   Female/53   Retired headmistress   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   6   Beatrice   Female/43   Chief's wife/businesswoman   Kapsokwony  
Summary Transcript   7   Zipora   Female/47   Housewife   Kamtiong  
Summary Transcript   8   Mary   Female/30   Farmer/petty trader   Kapsokwony market  
Summary Transcript   9   Patrola   Male/45   Cooked food vendor   Kamtiong