The Kalenjin
Community

The Kalenjin live primarily in Kenya. They are an ethnic grouping of eight culturally and linguistically related groups or “tribes”: the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot (sometimes called the Suk), Sabaot (who live in the Mount Elgon region, overlapping the Kenya/Uganda border), and the Terik. Their present-day homeland is Kenya’s western highlands and the Rift Valley.

Kalenjin translates roughly as “I tell you.” The name has played a crucial role in the construction of this relatively new ethnic identity among formerly independent, but culturally and linguistically similar tribes. The origin of the name Kalenjin and the Kalenjin ethnic identity can be traced to the 1940s. It represents a clear desire to draw political strength from greater numbers.

Typically, after marriage a man brought his wife to live with him in, or very near to, his father’s homestead. Marriage of one man to multiple wives (polygyny) was and is permitted, although most men cannot afford the expense of such unions because of the burden of paying the bride price. Regardless of the type of marriage, children were traditionally seen as a blessing from God. As a result of this, until very recently Kenya had the highest population growth rate in the world.

Traditionally, music and dance served many functions. Songs accompanied many work-related activities, including, for men, herding livestock and digging the fields, and, for women, grinding corn, washing clothes, and putting babies to sleep (with lullabies). Music was also an integral part of ceremonial occasions such as births, initiations, and weddings. Dances for these occasions were performed while wearing ankle bells and were accompanied by traditional instruments such as flutes, horns, and drums. 

Traditional Kalenjin religion is based upon the belief in a supreme god, Asis or Cheptalel, who is represented in the form of the sun, although this is not God himself. Beneath Asis is Elat, who controls thunder and lightning. Spirits of the dead, oyik, are believed to intervene in the affairs of humans, and can be placated with sacrifices of meat and/or beer, called koros . Diviners, called orkoik , have magical powers and assist in appeals for rain or to end floods.

Today, nearly everyone claims membership in an organized religion—either Christianity or Islam. Major Christian sects include the Africa Inland Church (AIC), the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK), and the Roman Catholic Church. Muslims are relatively few in number among the Kalenjin. For the most part, only older people can recall details of traditional religious beliefs.

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