The Kipsigis are a pastoralist ethnic group in Kenya who are famously known for growing Kenyan ‘green gold’ – tea. They are a sub-group of the Kalenjin and originated in Sudan, moving into the Kenyan area in the 18th Century. Their current settlement is in the Rift Valley region of Kenya.
These are the most numerous of the Kalenjin. They occupy the highlands of Kericho stretching from Timboroa to Mara River in the south, the west of Mau Escarpment in the east to Kebeneti in the west. They also occupy parts of Laikipia, Kitale, Nakuru, Narok, Trans Mara, Eldoret and Nandi Hills.
Men undergo circumcision at an average age of 14 years. Traditionally, boys are housed in a ‘menjo’ next to a forest and fed there as they await their genitals to heal.
During this period, they undergo 3 main traditional ceremonies: Kelab-eun, Tyenjinet and Kayaet. After the first ritual, the boys are allowed to go out into the forest for hunting using bows and wood-made arrows.
It is at this point in time that they master the use of these weapons essential in traditional warfare. Christianity has seen the 3 stages phased out and replaced with biblical teachings in a number of areas although the location of the menjo remains unchanged.
Christian beliefs and government legislation have seen female circumcision lose ground as a practice. The Kipsigis are a part of the Highland Nilotes group of People. Apart from the Kalenjin, the other tribe in this group is the Tatonga of Western Tanzania.
In their expansion Southwards, the Kipsigis and the Tatonga people reached the present-day Shinyanga area in Western Tanzania only for the former group to return to the Kericho area before some went back again going Southwards but could only settle at Angata Barigoi in Trans mara next to the Tanzanian Border.
Although the Kipisigis are traditionally pastoralists, pressure on land and a high population has forced them to live both as farmers and pastoralists.
Kipsigis say that both they and the Nandi come from a place called ‘To.’ Some of them settled in the vicinity of Lake Baringo. In the course of their southward migration, sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries, the Kipsigis and the Nandi separated.
Today the Nandi are their immediate neighbours to the north. Pushing farther south, they displaced the Luo, Kisii, and Maasai, the descendants of whom are currently their neighbours to the west and south.
The Kipsigis once called these people puniik, meaning ‘enemies’ or “strangers,” although relations with these populations were never completely hostile. Fierce competition for grazing land often characterised the relationship with the Maasai.
Despite reciprocal cattle raids, Kipsigis and Maasai intermarried and occasionally adopted one another’s children. Exchange with the Kisii seems to have been more frequent, particularly in times of famine, when Kipsigis would exchange cattle for Kisii grain.
There are a number of Kipsigis clans of Kisii origin. Ogiek hunters occupy the forest to the west. Like the Nandi, the Ogiek are Kalenjin speakers.
Both groups have maintained intimate cultural and political relations with Kipsigis – they intermarry, share clan affiliations, participate in joint initiation ceremonies, and, in the case of the Ogiek, they previously exchanged forest products for Kipsigis grain.
Indeed, before the imposition of colonial administration, ethnic boundaries between the Kipsigis and their neighbours seem to have been quite fluid and permeable.
The arrival of the British around the beginning of the 20th century radically transformed Kipsigis society. White settlers alienated nearly half of Kipsigis land. A series of pressures and inducements gradually drove the Kipsigis within the orbit of the colonial market economy.
In the late 20th century, structural changes in the regional economy forced thousands of western Kenyans, mostly Luo, to come to Kericho in search of employment. Many find work on Kipsigis farms, and they may spend years working for the same family.