Dorobo (or Ndorobo, Wadorobo, dorobo, Torobo) is a derogatory umbrella term for several unrelated hunter-gatherer groups of Kenya and Tanzania.
They comprised client groups to the Maasai and did not practice cattle pastoralism.
The term 'Dorobo' derives from the Maa expression il-tóróbò (singular ol-torróbònì) 'hunters; the ones without cattle'. Living from hunting wild animals implies being primitive, and being without cattle implies being very poor in the pastoralist Maa culture.
In the past it has been assumed that all Dorobo were of Southern Nilotic origin; accordingly, the term Dorobo was thought to denote several closely related ethnic groups.
The "Dorobo" are not one tribe. Rather, the term Dorobo referred to the original forest-dwelling hunters in the Rift Valley of what is now Kenya and Tanzania. These peoples live in scattered groups in the plains of the Rift Valley and the forests of the neighboring escarpments.
Southern Cushite peoples, followed by Eastern Cushites, settled in East Africa's Rift Valley during the first millennium after Christ. They found San (Bushmen) peoples already here. Bantu traditions refer to these early peoples whom their ancestors found there. Early Nilotes, then various waves of Bantu and later Nilotes subsequently came into the area.
The Kikuyu refer to a people in Central Province as the Athi (the ground people), after the source the names Athi Plains and Athi River. Oral traditions say the Kikuyu paid the Athi to move into their land. The Athi seem to be either the Cushites or the original San people. (The Sandawe and the Hadzapi in northern Tanzania still speak San languages. The Bantu name "Twa" for the pygmies in Rwanda-Burundi-Zaire is the same word the Zulus use for the Khoisan click-language speakers they found in their early migrations into what is now Natal Province. There is still a San tribe there today called Twa.)
The San were the first people we know of in the Rift Valley. Southern Cushites then Eastern Cushites were followed by the Highland Nilotes (Kalenjin Cluster), then the early Bantu. It was from later intermingled waves of Plains Nilotes (Maasai-Teso-Karamojong-Turkana) that the Cushite peoples got their common name Dorobo.
The various Dorobo groups have associated themselves with various Nilotic groups, notably the Nandi, Kipsigis and Maasai. The largest group of the diverse Dorobo are the Okiek, who are widely dispersed, but have maintained their cultural identity.
The British colonial government recognized this Okiek unity and dealt with the "Dorobo" as one "tribe." Unfortunately, the British also grouped many "Dorobo" groups of diverse origin and culture together. The Dorobo groups have been outside the mainstream of development and education in modern times.
Various old Cushite groups in the Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania are called Dorobo. The Maasai called these hunter-gatherers by the name Torobo (Il Torobo), pronounced very like the word Dorobo. The term means poor people (who do not have cattle)! The Maasai term was taken into Swahili in the form Dorobo, and into Kikuyu and Kalenjin as Ndorobo. The term is applied to peoples of both Eastern Cushite and Southern Cushite origins. The Maasai-speaking Dorobo refer to themselves by the Maasai word Torobo.
Most Dorobo groups have become affiliated with various Nilotic tribes as clients, mostly as a self-defense for their own preservation under the various waves of Nilotic migration into their ancestral area.
Various peoples called "Dorobo" are the Okiek, the Mukogodo, the Mosiro, the Aramanick, the Kisankasa, the Mediak and the El Molo. Most of these peoples speak the various languages of their Nilotic neighbors. In addition, there are Dorobo sub-tribes of the Kipsigis and Maasai. The El Molo are an Eastern Cushite group, related to the Somali and Rendille. The "Dorobo" Maasai (Okiek) are the metal worker clan of the Keekonyokie and other Maasai tribes. The widely-scattered Okiek are the most populous among the "Dorobo" groups. The Digiri (Il Tigirri) group of the Okiek live near Mount Kenya and some have now migrated to Maasai areas near the Tanzania border.
Most of the Dorobo people have been completely absorbed into the culture and language of their Nilotic patrons. Some groups have accepted the name Dorobo as an identifier to distinguish themselves as a separate group even though they no longer speak a unique language. Most Okiek are bilingual in Kipsigis and Maasai with one of these languages being more the mother tongue and the other the second tongue. The "Dorobo Maasai" in Narok District are actually a group of Okiek who have taken up speaking Maasai and lost the Kalenjin language, but clearly identify themselves with other Okiek groups. The Mukogodo Maasai consider themselves a sub-tribe of the Maasai and speak the Maasai language (Maa). Many also speak Swahili.
The Mediak and Mosiro of Tanzania speak languages related to the Nandi language in Kenya, probably from the original form of the early Kalenjin settlers. Many of the Mosiro now speak Maasai. It is reported that 8 El Molo (Ol Molo) still speak the old language, while a few dozen more speak Samburu or Turkana.
In Tanzania, the "Dorobo" groups Aramanick and Kisankasa still speak Cushite languages, but many are bilingual in Maasai or Swahili. The Chamus (Njemps) are another of these old peoples. The Chamus speak Samburu, as do the Ariaal Rendille, who are Eastern Cushites now speaking the Nilotic Samburu language. (The "Rendille" Rendille still speak Rendille, a language related to Somali.) The Ariaal are not called Dorobo, but share a similar cultural history. Related peoples in Tanzania still speak Southern Cushite languages, like Mbugu and Iraqw.
The different peoples need to be targeted in the languages they now speak. In some cases "Dorobo" groups of one language see themselves as a separate people from others speaking that language, like the Dorobo and Kipsigis, who both speak Kipsigis. The various widely-dispersed Okiek family units, however, consciously maintain their identity with other Okiek groups.
The customs vary, with the "Dorobo" peoples in most cases following the dominant culture patterns of the Nilotic peoples they are "client" to. The Maasai Dorobo, however, constitute an ironworkers clan of the Maasai, while the Mukogodo Maasai are herders and raiders in the central Maasai tradition. More research is needed to better understand these people.
The various peoples called Dorobo maintain various forms of traditional animistic religion, while some have accepted the Christian faith as their Nilotic neighbours have. Many of the Okiek groups use the word Tororo for God, from the word tororr, meaning "very high." Some living among the Nandi and Kipsigis use the name Asis, the Kalenjin name, related to an ancient Egyptian god.
Since 1975 the gospel has been accepted by some Kipsigis-speaking Dorobo. More recently churches have been started among the Dorobo by Pentecostals and Baptists. It seems, however, that ministry to the Dorobo groups has been incidental rather than intentional. Mukogodo, Chamus and Tanzanian groups have had little Christian witness and remain traditional.
A historical survey of 17 Dorobo groups in northern Kenya found that they each maintained a close rapport with their surrounding territory through their foraging. Speaking the same language as their nomadic pastoralist neighbours, they would maintain peaceful relations with them and accepted a lower status. Occasional intermigration and intermarriage between the two groups was even possible. If the political landscape shifted and new pastoralists entered the area, then the local Dorobo would switch to the new language and build up new relations, while clinging to their territorial niche.