This region is an area of great cultural significance. The Highlands were a meeting point for two ethnic groups.
This area was originally inhabited by Cushitic people, originating from Southern Ethiopia. Around 4,000 years ago a migration of Nilotic peoples- from Southern Sudan and Uganda came into this area. The resulting intermarriages of these two groups melded them into one.
The resulting cultures remain separate from Kenya’s current Nilotic (such as the Maasai, Samburu, Luo) and Cushitic (such as the Gabbra, Boran Oromo) cultures.
These cultures are sometimes referred to as Highland Nilotes, but they are more popularly known as the Kalenjin. This is by no means a traditional name, but was only recently acquired. The name comes from a popular 1940’s radio show hosted by a member of one of these tribes, who would begin his show each week with the expression “Kalenjin”- meaning Let me tell you….
The term become associated with the tribe by listeners throughout the land, and the name stuck.
The Kalenjin collective includes a widespread group of tribes, including the Saboat of Elgon and the Pokot of Western Laikipia (see Related Links above).
Culturally the Kalenjin are united by a strong sense of community and by rites of initiation. A common traditional belief was that children were not considered to be members of a tribe until after initiation.
One of the larger Kalenjin communities, the Kipsigis, were once great cattle herders. Centred around the tea growing area of Kericho, the Kipsigis increasingly turned to agriculture throughout the 20th Century.
They had an extensive system of clans, and were socially centred around a unit called the kokuet. This was a large extended grouping of up to 60 family homesteads, relying on each other for support and assistance in times of need.
The Kipsigis’ closest relations and allies were always the Nandi. The territory of the Nandi was the Kapsabet region, and their community was based around a similar social grouping to the Kipsigis, with collective homesteads known as the pororiet.
Initiation was equally important to the Nandi, and there was a distinct age set system. Warriorhood was of great importance, with Warriors initiated at a special ceremony, the saket ap eito, at which a sacred white bull was sacrificed.
The Nandi were known as great cattle raiders, and raids were carried out against the Luo and Maasai, as well as passing caravans from the coast. This led to the tribe being given the name ‘WaNandi’ (raiders) by the Swahili.
The strength and prowess of Nandi warriors was proven when the British tried to penetrate this region in the early 20th Century. Their forces were repeatedly repelled by Nandi warriors, and it was only after a 5 year campaign that the warriors were forcibly ‘pacified’.
The Nandi maintained peaceful relations with their Kalenjin neighbours with whom they shared many cultural ties. These included the Tugen and the Elgeyo, both expert agriculturalists. Maize and Millet was extensively cultivated throughout this region, and large herds of cattle, sheep and goats were kept.
The Cherangani Hills themselves were home to another Kalenjin community, the Marakwet. The Marakwet consisted of six clans, one of whom gave their name, Cherangani to the hills.
Living on these steep slopes of the hills rising from the floor of the Kerio Valley, the Marakwet built terraced villages cut into the sides of the hills. Goats remain the most common animal kept by the Marakwet, as they are well adapted to life on the steep slopes of the Cheranganis.
Further south, the Kisii people were most likely migrants from Uganda. But the coming of the Luo in the mid 16th Century, and later aggressive raids by Maasai and Kipsigis, led to the Kisii resettling in the highlands that are still considered their homeland. They became a highly agricultural community, who traded their produce with the Luo.
The Kisii still have a well deserved reputation as Master craftsmen. They quarry and carve fine soapstone, as well as wooden stools and items of furniture. See Shopping for details.
This region became a popular agricultural centre for the British colonials. During the struggle for independence, the colonial authorities attempted to halt the rise of African nationalism by imprisoning nationalist leaders and agitators. Among them was Jomo Kenyatta, who was imprisoned in 1952 in a prison in the small town of Kapenguria. He was eventually released and when Kenya won independence in 1963, became the first President of the Republic of Kenya. Today, the detention cells in Kapenguria have become a small museum.
A more unusual piece of local folklore is the tale of the Nandi Bear, a strange creature said to roam through this region. Nandi and Tugen legends speak of an animal called the Chemosit, a large hairy beast said to resemble a hyena that walked upright. The Nandi believed that the Chemosit came at night to prey on their herds, and it was widely feared.
Many early colonial settlers gave credence to this myth, with several recorded sightings of a large bear-like creature, and reports of cattle and sheep killed by a mysterious predator. Descriptions varied from a Gorilla to a Grizzly Bear. This was nothing new to the Nandi, and to this day some locals still believe that the Chemoset lurks in these hills.
Several theories have been advanced to explain the mystery of the Nandi Bear, though sightings have greatly lessened in recent years. But strange stories are still occasionally heard, and like the American Bigfoot and the Himalayan Yeti, old myths die very hard.
At Kipsaraman, one of Kenya’s first community museums has been opened. The museum houses exhibits on biodiversity and conservation, as well as important local human fossil finds and a fascinating exhibit on the possible prehistoric origins of the Chemosit, or Nandi Bear.
Even more impressive than the museum itself is its location. Perched on a the edge of a precipitous drop, the view from Kipsaraman is an incredible panoramic vista of the Rift valley and distant Lake Baringo that quite literally takes the breath away.