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The Kalenjin Peoples of Kenya

Population:      3,914,400 (1996)
Religion:        Christian and African Traditional Religion
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Kalenjin:  104472
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue):  Kalenjin:  kln



The Kalenjin people can be found in the Rift Valley escarpment of Kenya.  There are related people in north central Tanzania.  The Sabaot extend across the Uganda border, where they are called Sebei.  One of the three subgroups of the Sabaot, the Kony (Elgon) gave their name to Mt. Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border.

The Kalenjin cluster of peoples of today are descendants of migrants from the Nile River area of the Sudan or the western Ethiopian highlands.  One of their myths says they came originally from Misri, a name for Egypt.  This name is common in origin traditions of many peoples, including some Bantu peoples in East Africa.

Much has also been learned from comparison of languages of the various peoples.  It is thought the ancestors of these Highland Nilotes were moving from their Nile River areas about 3000 years ago.  The ancestors of the Kalenjin were established in approximately their current areas by about A.D. 500.  One group moved on south to become the Datooga in Tanzania.

The Kalenjin are called Highland Nilotes because they live in the Highlands of the Rift Valley and are related to the people in the Nile area of Sudan and Uganda.

The Kalenjin are sometimes considered as a tribe made up of many clans.  The different clans are the Nandi Terik, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot, Sabaot and the Kipsigis.  Marakwet is actually a blanket term for the Endo groups and the Talai.

The Okiek (also called Ndorobo), though originally of Cushitic stock, now speak Kipsigis, and are sometimes classed with Kalenjin speakers.  The Kalenjin arrived in Kenya from the Nile River, possibly the Blue Nile, as it appears they came into Kenya from the Ethiopian highlands.

Most of these clans acted as warriors during independence.  The Kalenjin are related to the Datooga in north central Tanzania, the southernmost group of the Highland Nilote migration.

The Kalenjin people speak several languages that are not mutually intelligible but are linguistically closely related.  Nandi and Kipsigis are the two major dialects of what is called the Kalenjin language.  The Talai and Endo speak separate languages, as do the Pokoot, Sabaot and Tugen.

The Nandi, Kipsigis and Keiyo use the same Bible and similar vocabulary while the Marakwet use about half the same vocabulary, Sabaot about 1/4.  With the Pokot and Ndorobo there are very few if any linguistic similarities.  The Tugen sometimes use the Kalenjin Bible, but linguists find Tugen speech so different they classify Tugen as a separate language.  The Endo translation is now available.

The Kalenjin as a group are related to the Samburu and Maasai somewhat.  There are linguistic as well as cultural similarities.  "Subaa" (Good morning) is a word common to Kalenjin and Maasai.  The Kalenjin are people of the Highland Nilote branch, while the Maasai and Samburu are Plains Nilotes.

Political Situation:  The Kalenjin groups actually drew together in response to British colonial domination.  The British related to each group individually.  The Nandi were virtually the last ethnic group to be dominated militarily by the British.  It is from this colonial experience that the various Highland Nilote peoples consciously united to advocate their interests to the British colonial government.

Kalenjin relate well to most tribes, but there have been clashes between Kalenjin and the Luo and Kikuyu since even before independence.  There are also recurrent violent clashes between the Nandi and the neighboring Maragoli.  Kalenjin are very active politically.  They were active even before their son Moi was elected to the office of President.  They had a voice in government with or without Moi.  Kalenjin names are heard commonly in government and all areas of Kenyan life.

The Kalenjin at one time pierced their ears, men and women alike, and then put sticks in them to stretch the lobes.  They did this so that they could wear beads in their ears.  Many old Kalenjin can still be recognized by their stretched earlobes.  They stopped doing this for hygiene reasons.

Kalenjin love their cows and land.  They grow millet, maize and now tea and sorghum.  Traditionally Kalenjins built round homes of sticks and mud plaster, with pointed thatch roofs with a pole out the center.  Nowadays homes are commonly wood and stone with modern facilities, though traditional homes are still common also.

The children of Kalenjin were taught to respect elders.  Even now respect is very important in the Kalenjin culture.  Manners are important and men are the head of the house. Girls were taught to kneel in front of men and weren't allowed to speak to men until they had been circumcised.

Girls were taught how to make gourds and pots for carrying water.  They learned to carry firewood and look for wild vegetables.  Boys were taught to care for the cattle and the boma.  Boys were not allowed to sleep in the same house with their mother after the age of 5.

Traditionally, the Kalenjin worshipped the sun.  The word for god and sun are one and the same: Asiis.  This is the name of an ancient Egyptian (Cushite) god.  They would go to the mountain and worship at 5:00 a.m. and pray until the sun would rise.  They worshipped the sun because it gave life.

The Kalenjin are very responsive to the Gospel and are very religious people, traditionally monotheistic.  Local beer and chewing tobacco are very much ingrained in the culture and seem to be two obstacles to Kalenjin growing in a deep relationship with Christ.

Missionaries were allowed in to work with the Kipsigis where no Europeans had settled by 1933.  Missionaries of the Africa Gospel Mission pioneered the work among the Kipsigis while missionaries of the Africa Inland Mission started the work among the Nandi and Tugen.  Sources estimate that about 44% of the Kalenjin people are Christians.

A small percentage of Kalenjin are Catholic while a much larger percent are claimed by Africa Gospel Church and Africa Inland Church.  American missions seem to have done really well among the large clans of the Kalenjin, although the Okiek, Sabaot and Pokot have hardly been touched with the Gospel.



    Kipkorir, B. E. and F. B. Welbourn.  The Marakwet of Kenya:  A Preliminary Study.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1973.

    Mwanzi, Henry A.  A History of the Kipsigis..  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1977.

    Matson, A. T.  Nandi Resistance to British Rule 1890-1906.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Publishing House, 1972.

    Ochieng', William Robert.  An Outline History of the Rift Valley of Kenya..  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1975.

    Ogot, B. A. (ed.).  "The Kalenjin,"Kenya Before 1900:  Eight Regional Studies..  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Publishing House, 1978.

    -----.  "Okiek History," Kenya Before 1900: Eight Regional Studies.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Publishing House, 1978.

     Orchardon, Ian Q.  The Kipsigis. Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1971.

     Toweett, Taaitta.  Oral Traditional History of the Kipsigis.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Kenya Literature Bureau, 1979.

M. J. Grossman
Orville Boyd Jenkins
August 1996
Posted 22 August 2007

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