understanding Kalenjin initiation rites

Kalenjin Heritage

Kalenjin Heritage

Tuumwek (initiation rites)

There are several main events, rites of passage, in the life of a Kalenjin. The first of these events was birth which included the naming ceremony. At this time one became a member of a family. The second was puberty when one shifted from the status of a child to an adult; this marked the end of childhood and the start of adulthood. The third was marriage which made legitimate the creation of one’s own family.

The second main event, keeba tuum, the coming-of-age or the initiation period, was considered to be the most important event in the life of the Kalenjin. Initiation rites for both male and female extended over a period of months and were very involved. Initiation included not the only rite of circumcision but also the initiation into the secret rituals of the tribe and the teachings of tribal customs.

The months the initiate spent in the camp were a time of training for adulthood. It was almost like being in school for that period of time. The teaching done to initiates while in seclusion was known as kaayaaet-aap taarusyeek. The initiates learned many practical things which would help them later in life. On leaving, they were proud of what they had learned in camp. Orchardson put in writing the feelings of the Kipsigiis regarding initiation: “Before initiation, children are considered as being Kipsigis but only as the children of Kipsigis. During initiation, they are supposed to discard all childish ways, learn to control their feelings and behave in a way superior to that followed by the uninitiated… Initiation may be considered perhaps as a rebirth of which circumcision is the outward sign (1961:58).
Normally an initiate was between the ages of 12 and 18 years of age. Originally the coming-of-age process for boys lasted anywhere from six months to two years, but now it has been reduced to only one to two months. Girls originally spent three to twelve months or more in seclusion; as of now it is usually one month. This is due in part to the educational system of three months of school followed by a month of vacation. It is also due in part to government regulations which do not allow a circumcision camp to be started before school closes for vacation, nor does it allow for a camp to continue beyond the vacation time. Now the rites are usually performed in November and December, the longest school break of the year.
The blessing of the father was needed in order for a boy or girl to become a candidate for initiation. Even if the father was away from home, the child had to make a visit to him and get his permission. Prior to this, the child was required to gain permission from his or her maternal uncle.

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The Initiation Rites

Rites for male and female were probably almost identical, though even a husband and wife were not to divulge to each other what went on during the rites. The circumcision operation itself was not performed at the mabwaita, but prayers were offered there for the initiate.
Boys’ camps and girls’ camps were held at different times and at separate places. During early years in Kenya, girls were initiated at the Tulwop Kwony; boys at Tulwop Murenik (Koech 1974:10). Elders would decide when an initiation was to take place.
For either boys or girls, the food could be prepared by the parents, or they could hire someone else and pay them for doing it. It was the custom for one family to feed from two to eight children. Remuneration was normally one she-goat or ewe or young bull for each child fed whether it was a boy or a girl. The animal used as payment was known as chepng’abait.
There was no rule as to the number of candidates who could enter initiation at any one time. The number of candidates depended on the number of boys or girls ready to enter. Boys were usually circumcised in groups of five to ten. An elderly man fed them; they called him paamong’o (father) at that time as well as afterward. During the period of seclusion, either sex was called taarusyoot, taarusyeek.
Initiation was comprised of a series of ceremonies. Rites for boys will be dealt with in this article.

Male rites.

Prior to the operation, the boys built a meenyjeet, a temporary house to live in while in seclusion; it was away from other houses. The parents of the candidates helped to supply the materials. The motiryoot (ceremonial parent, equivalent of a teacher) of the camp placed the tolooita (kingpost). Separate doors were made for use by the motiryoot and by the boys.

READ ALSO: What The Future Kids Will Miss.


                                       A. Preparation

1. Rootyineet / Rootyineet-aap Laagok

This ceremony was begun the day before going into seclusion. Early morning on that day the candidates went to gather branches from the keruunduut (the “toothbrush” plant). It was not compulsory to gather a specific number. Usually, the bushes were available nearby. (When the branches of the keruunduut were used in ceremonies, they were known as koroseek.) Each candidate took the branches to his home and placed them against the mabwaita there. Tying anything to a mabwaita or placing anything near it was considered an act of worship. Tying korosyoot ne twoon (a green koroseek branch) at the mabwaita was like saying, “Here is where we can talk to our Creator.” The mabwaita was a help in talking to Asiis. The people believed this would result in life and health.
There was community involvement in this part of the rites. This activity began in the evening and carried on until the next morning. During that evening the candidates and their friends and relatives started visiting from house to house. Each family with a candidate would have lit a fire east of its houses where similar activities were going on. Adult female relatives garlanded by sinendeet vines circled the mabwaita as they held koroseek wands in their hands. The candidate would circle the mabwaita four times and then was anointed with butter on the chest, legs, and forehead. The butter for anointing was in a laaleet, a cow horn which was kept for ceremonial use.
A close relative could take home a wand consisting of one or two branches of the koroseek and tie them to his or her own mabwaita. This showed that the person had been present at that ceremony. All the sacred vines used in the ceremony would be buried on the dung heap after the initiate came out as an adult. The wands were kept on the roof of the house until burned.

2. Yaatitaaet

a) Rooteet (the arranging in line)

After the evening of singing and dancing, the candidates gathered at the home of the oldest father of those entering initiation. There they were given words of encouragement. They were also admonished not to fear what was going to happen to them.

The candidates would arrange their order of rank which became their order until their coming-out ceremonies were completed. This was done at the mabwaita. Rank was governed according to the ages of the father of the initiates. The son of the oldest father went first and automatically became the leader among the initiates. He was known as Kibooreetyet. Others then came into line after him according to the ages of their fathers. The son of the second oldest father went last and was known as Koyumgoi. He was called this because he “gathered in” the candidates or made sure that all the other candidates had gone ahead of him. He still would be known by this name years later.

The following the candidates and their motiryoot (ceremonial parent) passed through an arch called Kimusaang’it which had been made from Sieek (nettles). They faced east as they marched through the arch. Then the candidates were taken to the place where the operation was to be performed. This would have been near the meenyjeet, the temporary house where they would live while in seclusion.

b)   Yaatitaaet 

This was the actual operation, details of which have been kept secret.

3. Seclusion

Following the operation, the initiates were in complete seclusion for about one month. They were ritually unclean during this time. Traditional Kalenjin did not use forks or spoons but used their fingers to put their food into their mouths, but during this period of seclusion, the initiates were not allowed to touch food with their hands. They used Seegeetook (small wooden spoons) instead. All they could touch was their own clothes and persons. Only men were allowed around the boys. The motiryoot neoo, the keeper of the camp, came after the boys had healed and oversaw their activities. A motiryoot ne ming’in (assistant) was assigned to help him.

A woman known as kaameet-aap taarusyeek (mother of the initiates) cooked for the boys, but she did not see them. She would bring the prepared food and leave it, sometimes even as far as a quarter of a mile from the meenyjeet, and the boys would come and get it. No food was to be left over nor wasted. A girl or boy between the ages of seven and ten years old who was a daughter or son of the mother who cooked for the boys was assigned to collect and eat leftover food; each was known as theptolong’it. Boys carried green sticks and were not allowed to speak, so they beat their sticks together to let it be known that they wanted food.

Boys at initiation went through the suffering of the operation knowing that it was painful, but they looked forward to the time when they would be coming out of the seclusion. They knew they were being watched while undergoing pain. “I will endure pain now to strengthen me for what is ahead as an adult.” They were encouraged to look forward.

4. Labeet-aap Euun

Labeet-aap euun took place three to four weeks after the operation. This was mainly a ceremonial washing of the hands for cleansing. It was done so the initiates could touch things and eat with their hands again.

Until this ceremony was completed the initiates could not leave their camp. Following it, they had a bit more freedom. They had their faces disguised with paintings of white clay so they could not be recognized. They were not to be seen by women. Nights had to be spent in camp.

During seclusion, but following labeet-aap euun, the boys carried bows and arrows. The arrows were of the koisiit type. These were blunt, wooden-headed arrows for killing birds. The boys were not allowed to carry arrows with metalheads, and certainly not the barbed arrows with poison on them. (The poisoned arrows were always carried in a quiver.) The boys did a lot of practice shooting at targets if they were not actually hunting birds and animals for food. They were getting ready to be accurate marksmen in warfare. It was a time of testing for the boys to determine if they would make good soldiers.

The boys also learned what it meant to take responsibility. Two boys were always left in camp when the others were gone hunting, etc. They were responsible to look after the camp and keep the subeneet log burning while the others were away.

poiyoot (elderly man) joined the boys when they went hunting in a strange place. If they shot a large animal and were unable to carry all of the meat back to camp, they would hang some of it in a tree and return and collect the following day.

The boys also practiced wrestling and mock battles. They spent their time carving wooden objects, especially walking sticks, bows, arrows etc. They also made neck bands.

At this time the initiates began daily singing. Kibaees was the special ceremonial song of the boys and was sung morning and evening. Its meaning was, “Don’t be a fool.”

5. Tyenjiinet

The Keetyenji ceremony (one sings to them) was held about one month after labeet-aap euun, or the beginning of the third month of seclusion. Only those connected with the initiation took part in singing. This was also the period when the boys were taught by older men. While in the camp they were prepared to be adults, to be good members of their clans, etc. tribal customs and moral and religious codes were included. The significance of this ceremony was to emphasize the teaching going on in he camp: there must be no quarreling nor anger. No cursing nor bad words were spoken. Toolosyeet (goodness and kindness) were insisted on (Orchardson 1961:63).


6. Kaayaaet-app Taarusyeek / Lang’uneet-aap Laagok / Lang’uneet-aap Aineet

Kaayaaet (causing to do) took place not less than three months after circumcision. This forth stage was casting away of uncleanness. This ceremony took place at the river where water was dammed up. Initiates led by their sponsors crouched as they made their way beneath an arch erected in a pool: it was usually made of branches from ordinary trees. The arch was known as kimussang’it. The boys had to swim underwater for a short distance. A boy who lost his way was disgraced. If he did well, araap was added to his name. For the boys, the taking of the father’s name by the use of araap, was very significant. This was a period when the traditional past, its history, and customs were recited by way of sacred songs which could only be sung here and not any other place nor on any other occasion.

After this, they could travel about. The faces of initiates still could not be looked upon by members of the opposite sex. The boys wore the long fibers called maaseek over their faces.


        B. Ceremonies for Coming out of Seclusion

1. Kangeetunet-aap Laagok / Ng’eetunoteet / Ng’etuneet.

These were inclusive terms for the last stages of initiation rites. They indicated coming forth and arising. The final initiation ceremonies prepared the initiate for adulthood. They made the initiate aware of the change which had taken place in his position in life. “I am not going to play; I am going to face life.”

Ng’eetuneet was a freeing from ritual uncleanness and marked the end of seclusion. This was done the final evening before tileet-app kirokweek. It was a public ceremony; entire families could be present.

Each initiate wore a naaryeet (a crown or tiara) which was made of hiding and decorated with small cowrie shells. It was a sign of honor for having finished all of the ceremonial processes. This could be likened to our present-day graduation cap. Each family had one of these, and it was kept use by their children irrespective of sex.


i. Yaateet-aap Ooret

This coming-out ceremony involved going through an arch which had been put up. Usually, a younger sister of the initiate would stand at the arch to open the way for him. If he had no younger sister, another young female relative could perform this task. The initiates and their sponsors formed a procession. The motiryoot and the initiates marched through the arch facing east. Passing through the arch indicated arising from childhood to adulthood. The arch was burned later along their rubbish, etc. Before leaving the camp. The meenyjeet was left to deteriorate; it was not used by another group.

Other rites were performed. Then the initiates accompanied by their sponsors marched around a nearby mabwaita four times. Each time around, the initiates were sprayed with wine by the poiyoot-aap piisye, the elder in charge of the spraying. Males present anointed each female related to him with a dab of butter.

ii) Kaiilet

At this ceremony, each out-coming initiate was anointed with butter contained in a ceremonial cow horn. Each family chose a child of opposite sex to anoint the initiate from their family. The anointing was done with the right hand. A dab of butter was put on each initiate’s forehead, chest and legs of each of the four times march around mabwaita. Then a big feast was held with everyone in the community attending. It was a time of happiness to welcome the initiates from their seclusion.

iii) Muutulik

This was the final step of the initiation ceremonies. Boys were asked to go out in a group and look for girls. Each boy found a girl and touched her lightly with his stick. Then the stick was given to the girl. The one who received a stick had to bathe to wash away the muutuulik. (The exact significance seems to have disappeared.) Then the boys gathered again as a group. When they had indicated, “I have given out everything. I have given over everything of the past and am beginning anew. This is final. This is it.”

2.  Tileet-aap Kirokweek

The following day tileet-aap kirokwek (cutting the stick) took place. Initiates and their sponsors marched around a herd of cattle, or flock of sheep and goats. The animals were then driven up to the mabwaita and the process was repeated with the mabwaita as the center. Then the initiates lined up in front of the elder who was kneeling at the mabwaita. The walking stick which had been presented to the initiates at the coming ceremony was now cut in two by the elder; the lower half was given to the initiate to carry until his or her hair was cut four days later. This cutting of the hair took place west of the mabwaita facing the sun. A thin paste of milk and salt lick clay was rubbed on each head. The hair instead of being thrown away as normally done was plastered to the mabwaita with the same paste.

3. Keetuche metit

This was the first time a mother would touch the head of her son after he came out of seclusion. It was also her last time to do so. This practice was done at the mabwaita of the initiate’s father. It was a sign of the son being released from his mothers care.





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