Members of the Ogiek community perform a jig during Mashujaa Day celebrations at 64 Stadium in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County on October 20, 2019.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The Ogieks' battle to return to forests

What you need to know:

  • The Ogiek community are farmers and livestock keepers.
  • Over 2,000 families live along the Keben River and Tindiret hills in Nandi County.
  • Because the Ogiek are squatters, their culture is disintegrating due to their movements.

When the government adopted a policy to restore Kenya’s forests, the Ogiek community became the first casualties of the resulting forcible evictions.

The predominantly hunter-gatherer community lost their land, and their culture faded as they scattered.

The indigenous community, who lived in the expansive Mau forest and other smaller forests in the North Rift, were flushed out of their ancestral land some 20 years ago.

Now they are on the verge of being swallowed up and assimilated by other communities in Rift Valley counties where they live.

Unlike the rest of the Kalenjin sub-tribes, who are mainly farmers and pastoralists, the Ogiek lived in forests. Two decades after they were evicted, they still cling to hope that they will be allowed back into the forests, which they argue they had conserved for decades.

The Ogiek were discovered between 1920-1930 and are believed to have arisen out of the Nandi and Kipsigis sib-tribes before breaking off and forming their own identities.

Lived in colonies

When the President Mwai Kibaki-led government took over in 2002, an initiative to conserve public forests saw them kicked out of places they had called home all their lives.

More than 2,500 families lived in colonies in the belly of the larger Mau forest, whose sections extend to Nandi, Kericho, Uasin Gishu and Nakuru counties.

Since encroachment on forests was banned, some families perched their temporary establishments along the periphery of the forest.

Mr Solomon Kosgei, the patron of Ogiek squatters in Cheboror, Uasin Gishu and Kipkurere and Keben villages in neighbouring Nandi, said the community now risks losing its culture and population as time passes.

"Our children born after our evictions cannot identify themselves as people who lived in the forest. Now, our way of living is just history," Mr Kosgei said.

To preserve most of what they remember from their culture, the Ogiek in Nandi and Uasin Gishu registered a cultural group to enhance the preservation of their traditions, which they say are adversely affected after the community left their ancestral lands.

When we visited, cultural songs emanated from a house, awakening the sleepy village of Keben.

It was a group of women and men practising their cultural songs, rekindling the circumcision of boys and girls during the festive seasons, just after the harvesting of sorghum.

They wielded spears and arrows while dancing to typical Ogiek folk songs, evoking the names of the men that came before them from the 1940s.

"It's now five years since we started coming together to try to retain our cultural ideals, though some are no longer acceptable. Some of the practices are no longer applicable, but we must reserve some of the items for posterity and for our children to learn our origins," Mr Kosgei said.

Teenage girls, he said, were promoted to adulthood through female genital mutilation (FGM) while boys underwent normal circumcision.

"When we were licked out of our ancestral land, our population was small and some were swallowed up by the Nandi community. And the decision to come together was to retain our distinct cultural practices that are under threat of fading away," he said, claiming that their Kalenjin dialect, which closely resembles Kipsigis and Nandi, has accelerated their assimilation.

Unlike other Kalenjin sub-tribes, Mr Kosgei said, the Ogiek were a peaceful clan and did not involve themselves in the inter-communal wars due to their small population.

Naum Chumba, 80, said the arrows they acquired from blacksmiths in neighbouring communities were used for security and hunting. She regretted that this great tradition is now being lost.

"We have experienced changes in our community and our children have lost their morals. We resolved to form a cultural group to bring back our ancient traditions," she said.

The group consists of over 60 members between the ages of 45 and 90, including 50 women and 10 men.

They registered it in 2016 with the tourism and culture department and it has been organising annual social functions, training girls and boys on the cultural ideals of the community.

"We show and train them on the items the community finds valuable. The crooked farm tools and ornamental outfits men and women dressed up in were mainly made from wild animal skins," said Chumba, fully adorned in traditional garb.

She claimed that the garments are not easy to find in the community these days.

She stood out with the full outfits, including muiwekab itik (ear tugs made from skin and beads), taet (necklaces blacksmith make from copper wires), kaliket (wrapper made from skin) and marariat (wrist bangles).

"These things are no longer available and the few remaining are stored by members of the community in their houses,” she said.

“I still have mine and we have mobilised other women too to come out and display whatever costumes they have for our children to recognise our unique culture."

Some women happily tied leketoik (waist belts) decorated with cowries.

The Ogiek were originally hunters and gatherers. It was not until the 1960s that they adopted livestock keeping from the neighbouring Kalenjin communities. The government had banned the poaching of wild animals including antelopes and gazelles. They also acquired domestic utensils like milk guards.

The korosio, maitkok, kumusarit, soliat, cheptuimuget, mososiot, kipsegerit, semwet are some of the milk guards, which come in various sizes and have specific functions.

Because FGM is outlawed, the senior women in the group are tasked with lecturing teenage girls on transitioning to adulthood, and the senior men do so to boys.

Mr Kosgei said that boys are trained during their initiation ceremonies. In the rest of their seclusion period, they are taught the communities social values and ideals in the bid to retain their culture.

"We need them to adopt our old ways or at least have knowledge of our origins. Like girls, they have to know the cultural items and outfits the community cherished and adored," he stated.

Cultural tools

With their removal from the forest, they have lost some of the cultural tools and ceremonial costumes.

They still have the kiboet (gown made from the skin) and the koroisit (skinhead gear), which was mainly made from the skin of the colobus monkey and antelopes.

Among the many ornaments, there are the lemerinik (ear tags) and walking sticks designed for various purposes, including the irokto, kipnamta and sharit.

"We have agriculture tools like the kipsisirit (hoe), samoito and mecheita (a tool used to brand livestock). We used some of them to identify our animals from straying cows from the neighbouring communities," Mr Kosgei said.

Traditional dancers

"All these forms differ from those of the other Kalenjin clans, though we adopted the seven age-set groups of the Nandi community. We have maina, chumo, sawe, kipkoimet, kaplelach, kipnyigei and nyongi." 

Jenifer Ng'etich, the traditional dancers’ group secretary, said that with the government's new education model, the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), their objective is to integrate their culture with learning to enrich the history their children learn.

"We have found that the CBC is basically teaching the learners on the environment aspects, and more so the culture, objects and social practices. This gives an opportunity to also give the moral values that would positively impact their lives," she said.

And for the communities to recognise the existence of the marginalised community, Ms Ng'etich said they perform at social functions and ceremonies where they sing their ancient songs.

"We no longer have the traditional costumes but at least we have uniforms and lessos with the colours of the Kenyan flag. This has helped us to be recognised and to protect us from being swallowed up by the Kenlenji communities," she added.

However, Mrs Ng'etich called upon the county government to establish a cultural centre for them so that they can preserve their diminishing cultural objects and share with their children the history and origins of their community.


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