The Kalenjin: Meet the tribe where many are born to run

It is undoubted that Kenya is world-renown for its prowess as an athletics powerhouse. For years, our athletes have time and again dominated  track and field events, bagging themselves numerous medals and therein putting Kenya on the world map. Legendary Kipchoge Keino, Henry Rono, Ezekiel Kemboi, Daniel Komen (junior), Vivian Cheruiyot, Pamela Jelimo, Asbel Kiprop, Julius Yego, just to name a few, are some of the big names that have with time set the bar high in athletics.Kemboi_dance_149865784_620x350The ever entertaining Ezekiel Kemboi, one of Kenya’s champions from the Kalenjin community

150019_10150304831060245_516070244_15895799_5683519_nAside from being Kenyan, what many might not know is that most of our athletes (if not all) hail from what we like to refer to in the country as the running tribe, the Kalenjin. Known for their traditional ‘mursik’ (a beverage made of fermented whole milk that has been stored in a special gourd and cleaned by using a burning stick resulting to milk infused with tiny bits of charcoal), the Kalenjin are highland nilotes belonging to the Nilo-saharan family and are believed to have migrated to their present location from the South Sudan region. They primarily reside in the western highlands and within the rift valley.

285234_10151351247008557_2007808379_nThe famous ‘mursik’

There are several smaller tribal groupings within the Kalenjin: Elgeyo(Keiyo), Endorois, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Nandi, Pokot, Sabaot, Terik, and Tugen. The Kipsigis are the largest sub-tribe accounting to 43% at 1.972 million speakers with recent estimates placing the Kalenjin as the third largest ethnic group in Kenya at 4.967 million people.

SWP-Kalenjin-tribes02Known to be friendly people these highland nilotes’ standard greeting is Chamge or chamuge (how are you) to which one replies with the same phrase chamge (fine) or Chamge mising for emphasis to mean either “very fine” or “close friend,” depending on the context. As a sign of respect, a younger person greets someone of their grandparents’ generation by saying, chamge kogo (grandmother) or chamge kugo (grandfather).

CulturalKalenjin5Until the early 1950s, the Kalenjin did not have a common name; they were usually referred to as the ‘Nandi-speaking tribes’ by scholars and administration officials, a practice that did not immediately come to a halt after the adoption of the common name ‘Kalenjin’ (cf. Evans-Pritchard 1965). An interesting story as to how these ‘Nandi-speaking tribes’ came to their identity as the Kalenjin Began in the 1940s during World War II. Individuals from the tribe fighting in the war used the term kale or kole (the process of scarring the breast or the arm of a warrior who had killed an enemy in battle) to refer to themselves whereas wartime radio broadcaster, John Chemallan frequently used the phrase kalenjok (“I tell you,”) in his broadcastings.

422586_336746216372268_124777214235837_910393_62160322_nLater on, students from the tribe attending Alliance High School formed what was to become the future Kalenjin elite. Numbering fourteen in total, these students who constituted a distinct minority in the prestigious school in seeking an outward manifestation of identity and solidarity to distinguish them from the dominant group of students from the Gikuyu tribe formed a “Kalenjin” club. An identity that was thereafter consolidated with the founding of a Kalenjin union in Eldoret in 1948, and the publication of a monthly magazine called Kalenjin in the 1950s.

The Kalenjin are as synonymous with politics as they are with athletics. Since the attainment of independence, the tribe has produced numerous top players into government and the political arena having produced Kenya’s second and longest serving president – Daniel Arap Moi, current deputy president – William Ruto, beside many other prominent politicians and government officials. Traditionally, the basic unit of  political organization among them was the koret or parish which was a collection of twenty to one hundred scattered homesteads.

moiFormer President Daniel Arap Moi, one of the pioneers of politics among the Kalenjin

It was administered by a council of adult males known collectively as the kokwet and was led by a spokesman called poiyot ap kokwet . This spokesman was someone recognized for his speaking abilities, knowledge of tribal laws, forceful personality, wealth, and social position. At public proceedings, although the poiyot ap kokwet was the first to speak, all of the elders were given the opportunity to state their opinions. Rather than making decisions himself, the poiyot ap kokwet expressed the group’s opinion, always phrased in terms of a group decision.

A number of koret formed the next level of political organization, the pororiet. Each was led by a council, the kiruokwet ap pororiet. This council consisted of the spokesmen of the individual koret, over whom presided two reasonably active old men called kiruokik, the “councillors.” In addition, among the Nandi, there were two representatives of the orkoiyot; a Nandi prophet called maotik and two senior military commanders of the pororiets warriors, kiptaienik ap murenik (B. Roberts – Gale group).

This system was later to be replaced by the system imposed by the British colonial government of village elders, assistant chiefs, chiefs, district officers, district commissioners, and provincial commissioners. Today, the realization of a new constitution has since revolutionized Kenya into a decentralized republic doing away with the British system to a larger extent.

SUB2PIXDeputy president William Ruto and Kalenjin elders

The Kalenjin are a religious people as well. Their traditional religion is based upon the belief in a supreme god, Asis or Cheptalel, who is represented in the form of the sun. Beneath Asis is Elat, who controls thunder and lightning. The Kalenjin also believe that spirits of the dead, oyik, intervene in the affairs of humans, and can be placated with sacrifices of meat and/or beer, called koros.  A peculiar practice of the Kalenjin regarding the dead was the burial of only the people who had borne children; the rest would be taken out to the bush for hyenas to devour. Something else that the Kalenjin had strong belief in were the diviners, called orkoik, believed to have magical powers and who assisted in appeals for rain or to end floods.

429458_336742066372683_124777214235837_910344_862548011_nToday, nearly every Kalenjin member belongs in an organized religion—either Christianity or Islam. Major Christian sects here include the Africa Inland Church (AIC), the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK), the Roman Catholic Church as well as the African Gospel Church (AGC). Muslims are relatively few in number among the Kalenjin. For the most part, only older people can recall details of traditional religious beliefs.

427136_336748073038749_124777214235837_910416_733537409_nTransformation from childhood to adulthood among the Kalenjin constituted an initiation ceremony ‘tumdo’  which involved circumcision for both males and females. Traditionally, the ceremony took place every seven years to which the initiates were bestowed new status as members of a named age-set ‘ipinda’. After circumcision, the young men would be put into seclusion for instructions about the skills necessary for adulthood. They would then be expected to begin a phase of warrior hood during which they would act as the military force of the tribe. Circumcision for girls on the other hand prepared them for marriage. Today, male age-sets have lost their military function, but still provide bonds between men of the same set. Female age-sets on the other hand have lost much of their importance.

the-nandi-circumcision-ritual-21491379Nandi boys prepared for Initiation ceremony

Marriage as an important stage of life is very vital among the Kalenjin. Typically, after marriage men brought their wives to live with them in an extended family sort of setting. The practice of polygamy was and still is permitted albeit today’s economy has caused a setback to it as bride price has proven to be quite burdening for many. Monogamous marriages now prevail and nuclear families are becoming more common. Children were traditionally seen as a blessing from God hence the high population rate among Kalenjin. The younger generation however is opposed to having larger families and tend to have fewer children when they marry. This can be attributed to the fact that to some degree, many women are now prioritizing career over raising children and also the cost of raising children today has greatly sky rocketed.

In family settings, work division among the Kalenjin is traditionally divided among gender lines. Men do the heavy work; clearing fields for planting, turning over the soil, herding livestock among other pursuits while the women take over the bulk of farming; planting, weeding, harvesting, and processing crops. The women are also involved in the general running of the household.


Most Kalenjin are rural dwellers who do not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Traditionally, the Kalenjin made round walled thatched houses constructed from bent saplings anchored to larger posts and covered with a mixture of mud and cow dung; roofs were thatched with local grasses. While these kinds of houses are still common, there is a growing trend toward the construction of square or rectangular houses built with timber walls and roofs of corrugated sheet metal.

news_163755_0One of the major challenges that the Kalenjin grapple with to date would be Cattle rustling. Although raids have always been a part of the Kalenjin culture, especially among the Pokot, the situation has now exasperated as raiders have since upgraded their tools of trade from spears, bows and arrows to semiautomatic weapons like AK 47 rifles. The Marakwet in particular have continued to suffer at the hands of armed cattle rustlers, often from the Pokot. To make matters worse, their marginal status does little to help them as their complaints are met by a general lack of concern from the government. Aside from raiding, other challenges that the Kalenjin face include ethnicity, HIV/AIDS and land disputes.

3 thoughts on “The Kalenjin: Meet the tribe where many are born to run”

  1. Rudisha is maasai and also we have AGC church that is common in South Rift and among Kipsigis sub-tribe. The Africa Gospel Church has also done mission work in the North Rift (Pokot, Marakwet) areas.

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