Okiek people


Okiek / Ogiek / Akiek

The Okiek (Ogiek), sometimes called the Ogiek or Akiek (although the term Akiek sometimes refers to a distinct subgroup), are a Southern Nilotic ethnic group native to Tanzania and Southern Kenya (in the Mau Forest), and Western Kenya (in the Mount Elgon Forest). In 2019 the ethnic Okiek population was 52,596, although the number of those speaking the Akiek language was as low as 500.



With the exception of the Akie, who live in the Maasai Steppe region of Tanzania, most Okiek groups live in the highlands of west-central Kenya (e.g., the Mau Escarpment, the Tindiret forest area, and the highlands north of Nakuru). The majority of these areas are located within Rift Valley Province.

Digiri and Omotik Okiek groups live on savanna plains rather than in areas of highland forest. Until the late 1800s, Kalenjin-speaking hunters (who may have been Okiek and who were known to Kikuyu speakers as "Athi") lived around Mount Kenya and the Aberdares as well; they were largely absorbed or displaced by Kikuyu adoption, intermarriage, and "land sales."

Okiek people

Okiek people


"Okiek" is the name of a Kenyan people who formerly lived by hunting game, making beehives, and gathering and trading honey; it is also the name of their language. The collective name "Okiek" includes over two dozen local groups, each with more specific names (e.g., Kapchepkendi, Piik aap Oom, Kaplelach). Okiek are usually called "Il Torobbo" by Maasai speakers, a derogatory reference they apply to all hunters—and even to impoverished Maasai who have no cattle; other names for the Okiek—"Athi," "Dorobo," "Ndorobo," "Torobbo," and "Wandorobo"—are derived from the Maasai term. These names have long been a source of confusion because they refer to more peoples than the Okiek. For example, the term "Torobbo" combines Okiek together with Maa-speaking hunting peoples living in northern Kenya around the Mathews Range, Mount Ny'iru, the Ndoto Mountains, and the Leroghi plateau. There is no clear historical relation between these Torobbo and Okiek living in highlands farther west and south. Other Torobbo-based names have the same ambiguity. Okiek call themselves Okiek" in their own language.



The Okiek are one of Kenya's smaller ethnic groups. Because they live in dispersed groups, it is difficult to estimate accurately the total number of Okiek living in Kenya today. This uncertainty is magnified because of the use of the term "Dorobo," rather than Okiek," in the national census. The Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek groups include approximately 600 people each. If other groups are roughly the same size, the total Okiek population in Kenya would be around 15,000. Including the Tanzanian Akie group would increase this estimate slightly. Okiek settlement patterns and population density in Okiek areas have changed significantly since about the mid-twentieth century (see "Land Tenure," "Settlements," and "Subsistence and Commercial Activities").

Linguistic Affiliation. Okiek is part of the Kalenjin Branch of Southern Nilotic languages. In addition to Okiek, the Kalenjin ethnolinguistic group (formerly called "Nandi-speaking tribes") also includes Kipsigis, Nandi, Marakwet, Pokot (Suk), Sebei, Keiyo, and Tugen. Kalenjin languages are more distantly related to Eastern Nilotic languages (e.g., Maa, Teso, Turkana, Karamojong) and Western Nilotic languages (e.g., Luo, Nuer, Dinka). The Okiek spoken by different groups can vary lexically, morphologically, and tonally, but Okiek dialects are mutually understandable. Okiek are usually multilingual, speaking the language of their nearest neighbors in addition to Okiek. Many contemporary Okiek also speak Kiswahili, a national language in Kenya and Tanzania alike; those who have attended school know some English as well.


History and Cultural Relations

Living in different locations, each Okiek group has had distinctive histories of interaction with neighbors of other, more populous ethnic groups (e.g., Maasai, Kipsigis, Nandi, and Kikuyu). Their experiences with colonial and national administrations have also differed. To suggest this variability, this article will describe Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek as examples, briefly noting how they contrast with other Okiek groups. Kaplelach and Kipchomwonek live adjacent to one another on the southern part of the Western Mau Escarpment in Narok District, Kenya.

Like other Okiek groups, Kaplelach and Kipchomwonek interact regularly with their pastoral or agropastoral neighbors. Cattle-keeping Maasai live on the savanna to their south, and Kalenjin-speaking Kipsigis are their nearest western neighbors. Other Okiek groups live to their north, elsewhere on the escarpment. Okiek are a minority group in the area, considered low-status and inferior by their neighbors. This attitude is based in part on their neighbors' negative evaluations of the Okiek hunting-and-gathering economy and of the forest environment where Okiek live.

Despite these stereotypes, Okiek have interacted regularly with both neighbors. They have traded, intermarried, and, at times, formed long-term friendships with both Maasai and Kipsigis. Kipchornwonek-Kipsigis interaction has historically been more intensive than that of Kaplelach with Kipsigis because Kipchomwonek live farther west, closer to Kipsigis areas. In the late twentieth century, however, Kipsigis have been buying land from Kaplelach and settling in their midst (see "Land Tenure").

Okiek have diversified their economic pursuits over the mid- and late twentieth century, a complex process that different Okiek groups began at different times and in different ways. They began by supplementing hunting and honey gathering with small-scale gardening and started to keep small herds of domestic animals at about that same time. Gradually, the balance between hunting, honey gathering, farming, and herding has shifted. Most contemporary Okiek rely on maize and other crops, supplementing agriculture with trading, hunting, and honey gathering. Many keep cattle, sheep, or goats as well; a relatively small number of Kipchornwonek and Kaplelach have taken long-term wage labor in towns.



Okiek settlements have changed over time in conjunction with shifts in economy and mode of subsistence. When hunting and honey gathering were major sources of subsistence for Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek, they lived in small settlements composed of extended-family groups. For example, one residence group might include the households of a man and his adult sons or of a group of brothers. At times, they might also include households linked by affinal relations. People moved several times a year, with households sometimes regrouping, going to live in forests at different elevations according to honey seasons.

As agriculture became more important, Okiek began to settle more permanently in middle-altitude forest. These settlements provided a home base where gardens were located and from which men traveled to more distant forests to hunt and check their hives. As lineages owned land (see "Land Tenure"), the lineage basis of smaller settlement groups remained the same. Some larger communities with multiple crosscutting ties based on patrilineal, matrilateral, and affinal relations formed as well, especially in Kipchornwonek areas.

Settlement patterns began to change again in the late 1970s and 1980s in response to government changes in land tenure. As government-demarcated group ranches in Narok District began to be subdivided into individual holdings (see "Land Tenure"), Okiek families moved onto the tracts that would be theirs. They were also able to sell portions of their land for the first time. The result of this has been a large influx of people from farther west, where population densities are higher and land is scarcer and more costly. Most immigrants into Kipchornwonek and Kaplelach areas are Kipsigis, although some people from Kisii and Kikuyu ethnic groups have also bought land. Kikuyu are the main settlers in areas on the Mau Escarpment between Narok and Nakuru.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Okiek have a long history of hunting wild game and collecting honey. Whereas most Okiek groups continue these activities, they have diversified their economy to include farming and herding (see "History and Cultural Relations"). Hunting weapons consist of bows and arrows, spears, and clubs, along with traps. Animals hunted include bushbuck, buffalo, duikers, hyraxes, bongo, and giant forest hogs (probably the most common quarries); in the past, Okiek also hunted elephants with poison spears and arrows. Maize is the staple crop, supplemented by millet, beans, greens, pumpkins, and other vegetables. Some Kipchornwonek Okiek plant pyrethrum as a cash crop; Okiek of other areas (e.g., Piik aap Oom), have smallholdings of tea and sell milk from crossbreed cattle.

Industrial Arts. Okiek crafts include the making of pottery, baskets, leather bags and clothing, and beaded personal ornaments by women. Men produce their weapons (bows, clubs, and various kinds of spears and arrows) and fashion snuff and tobacco containers from horn, ivory, and wood. Okiek do not smelt the iron for arrows, swords, and spears, but obtain it from blacksmiths among the Maasai. They do, however, file them to shape.

Trade. Okiek have long traded a variety of products with their neighbors, honey being the most important trade item. Honey is important as food, but is especially sought for brewing into honey wine for ceremonial uses and drinking. With Maasai, Okiek men exchanged buffalo hides for shields and hyrax hides for ritual capes; Okiek also could offer herbal medicines from the forest and various finished articles such as sheaths, necklaces, and tobacco containers of ivory or buffalo horn in trade. Okiek would get livestock from Maasai; before they were keeping herds, they ate the animals received. Early in the twentieth century, the price for a large container of honey was a cow, but money later became the medium of exchange. Okiek also performed certain services for Maasai in exchange for livestock, including circumcising boys and, sometimes, herding cattle.

Trade with Kipsigis brought hunting dogs and grain to Okiek, also in exchange for forest products. Okiek women also made and traded pottery with Kipsigis. Before prices began to be reckoned in monetary terms, a pot would fetch the amount of grain that it could hold. More recently Okiek men have begun to participate in other small-scale commerce, opening small shops and teahouses in village centers, managing public transportation vehicles, or participating in long-range cattle trade. Okiek women now also sell agricultural produce, shop goods, tobacco, beads, or secondhand clothing in markets and at home.

Division of Labor. Gender is the major principle of Okiek labor division, although age is also relevant. Women's work includes processing and cooking food, keeping the household supplied with water and firewood, most child care, and making animal hides into leather bags, straps, and, formerly, into clothing. Hunting, making hives, and gathering honey are all forest-based work that is done by men. Agricultural work is shared by men and women, with men responsible for heavy garden clearing. Households vary in how farmwork is divided between husband and wife. Women are responsible for milking livestock, and herding is often done by children. Men are considered managers of the herd and might take them grazing when children are not available. Children are also expected to help with farmwork, and girls assist in housework (e.g., getting water and firewood, cooking).

Land Tenure. Until recent land reforms, Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek divided land into lineage-owned tracts that stretched along the slope of the escarpment. Each crossed four or five of the escarpment's altitudinally defined ecological zones, giving every family access to each zone during each honey season throughout the year. Each lineage tract was subdivided into named places. Some lineages allocated honey rights by place to particular families; others used the entire tract cooperatively.

Legislation for general land demarcation was passed in Kenya in 1969. Prior to that, a group-owned-ranch division policy was developed for two Maasai-dominated districts (Narok and Kajiado). Although their high- or mediumpotential highlands are very different from semiarid Maasai savanna country, Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek land was included because they live in Narok District. Group-ranch demarcation began in the mid-1970s, consolidating and crossing previous lineage land boundaries, incorporating non-Okiek neighbors into some groups, and registering some Okiek land to influential individuals who had never lived there. The highest Okiek forests were declared forest reserve. These changes initially had little effect on Okiek land use, although they were extremely consequential and became the basis for later developments. Beginning in the 1980s, Okiek began to subdivide their joint group ranches into individually held plots. Accordingly, families moved to claim and live on their own land, perhaps settling with a few close relatives. Subdivision also gave individuals the right to sell or lease land; almost all have done so, resulting in a large influx of settlers from other parts of Kenya (see "Settlements").



Kin Groups and Descent. Okiek groups vary in the relative importance they place on lineages and clans as kinship groups (see "Social Organization"). For Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek, patrilineally defined lineages are most important: they figure in landholding and residence, the arrangement of marriages, and legal matters. Matrilateral and affinal relations are important emotionally, in the recruitment of work groups, and on ceremonial occasions; they can also affect residential and legal decisions. For some Okiek groups farther north, such as Kapchepkendi and Piik aap Oom, the patrician is far more important as a social unit and is central in defining land rights.

Kinship Terminology. Kipchornwonek and Kaplelach Okiek reckon kinship in a way that resembles an Omaha system, but their cousin terminology is not the same as the canonical Omaha model. Mother's brothers, all their children, and all children of one's father's sisters are called maama. The children of one's mother's sisters are regarded as siblings ( tuupca ), but are called lianashe, a term related to the Maasai word for "sister," enkanashe.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until the late 1980s, Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek lineages arranged most marriages. Young men usually married while in their twenties, whereas young women married at about sixteen, soon after initiation to womanhood. Arrangements were made through a series of four or more visits from the groom's family to the bride's. Discussion during later visits centered on bride-wealth property, which today averages six or seven cows (or their equivalent). In the past, engagements could begin when the couple were still young children, but such early engagements became rare after the 1970s. Between formai meetings, the groom was expected to visit, bring small gifts, and help his future affines in various ways. Alternatives to arranged marriage were also possible through various kinds of elopement, although these attempts to circumvent family plans were not always successful. Marriages are usually patrilocal.

With the multiple demographic and economic changes related to land sales, increasing education, and economic diversification, far more young Okiek have been eloping, refusing arranged marriages, or delaying marriage since about the mid-1980s. These shifts have also contributed to an increase in plural marriage, relatively rare among Okiek in the past. The pattern of plural marriage has also changed: it is now possible for young men to an extent never before feasible. Many plural marriages in this new trend are between Okiek men and women from other, settler ethnic groups.

Domestic Unit. Husband, wife, and their children form the core of a typical Okiek household, but other relatives (e.g., an aged parent of the husband or children of the couple's siblings) might also be part of it on a permanent or temporary basis. If a man has more than one wife, each woman has her own house. Parents do not sleep in the same house with adolescent children of the opposite sex. A separate sleeping house might be built for an adolescent son or adolescent children might sleep in another house with friends.

Inheritance. Land, hives, livestock, and other property are inherited patrilineally. In some cases, daughters might receive an animal or some other particular item. A man's widow does not inherit his property, but should be cared for by his siblings after his death if her sons are still young. Some contemporary Okiek argue that daughters should have inheritance rights as well, a national issue that the Kenyan parliament is also considering.

Socialization. Okiek mark the growth and maturation of children through a series of life-cycle ceremonies (see "Ceremonies"). These are the same for boys and girls until initiation into adulthood, which occurs at 14 to 16 years of age. There are important gender differences, however, in the way that children are socialized, ranging from the games they play to the tasks they are given. These correspond to and help to teach them the work they will do as adult men and women; they also teach children that men and women have different rights, responsibilities, and abilities.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lineage, clan, local group, and age set are the main units of Okiek social organization above the household level. Lineages are the most important large-scale social grouping for some Okiek groups; for others, clans play a similar role (see "Kin Groups and Descent"). For Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek, clans are invoked as a more diffuse mode of relation, for instance to establish a link with a stranger. Clan membership is defined patrilineally. These Okiek lineages often share clan names with Maasai; in some cases, people can also equate the Okiek clans with those of Kipsigis.

The local group is a significant social unit for Okiek in terms of cultural identity and history. Local groups have specific names, such as Kaplelach or Maresionik, but local-group membership is not associated with particular rights or responsibilities. A local group is constituted of six to ten lineages that traditionally held adjacent tracts of land (see "Land Tenure").

Age sets (sing. ipinta ) define relations that crosscut those of lineage, uniting men of different lineages into a cohort of equals. An age set is a named group that includes all men who undergo initiation into adulthood within a specified period of time, usually about fourteen years (although each age set is further divided into two shorter periods, the "right" and "left" sides). Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek age sets share names with those of nearby Maasai, and they can also relate these names to the different age-set names used by Kipsigis. Men of a single age set should treat one another in a brotherly way; they should respect and honor men of senior age sets. Women have no separate, parallel age sets, but they are integrated into male age sets in terms of their male relations. For instance, a woman is known as a wife of her husband's age, a daughter of her father's age, and so forth.

Political Organization. Local political organization parallels social organization for Kipchornwonek and Kaplelach Okiek. Until recently, when a few Okiek individuals became administrative government chiefs, Okiek had no ranked overall offices. When there were political or legal issues to discuss, men from the appropriate groups were called together to meet. These could be meetings of men from one lineage, from several lineages, or men from a large neighborhood area ( latyet ). Women were not part of these meetings. Whereas all adult men have the right to attend and speak at meetings, older men often address the gathering more fully, and they are able to relate precedents and other experience to the issues at hand. When contemporary meetings about national, district, or development matters are held, adult women sometimes attend as well.

Conflict and Social Control. Meetings (see "Political Organization") are also forums in which legal disputes can be heard and resolved. These might concern theft, assault, murder, serious arguments, or (rarely) accusations of witchcraft. Those at the meeting decide cases, fining the person(s) found at fault. Before calling such a large meeting, however, attempts are usually made to settle matters with smaller meetings, within or between the families involved. Late in the 1800s, some quarrels led to lineage feuds and raids; these conflicts usually arose over issues related to land and women. Contemporary Okiek continue to resolve some disputes in local council meetings, but they take others to be heard at governmental offices and courts.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. Okiek believe in one god, called Torooret or Asiista, who is thought to be beneficent and is invoked in blessings. Ancestor spirits, on the other hand, can cause illness and misfortune for the living if they are forgotten or in retribution for wrongs committed among their relatives (see "Medicine" and "Death and Afterlife"). Okiek visit a variety of healing specialists and diviners who can identify ancestor spirits responsible for such difficulties (see "Medicine"). Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek know about Christian churches, but Christian missionary activity is relatively recent in their areas, taking hold only after 1980 and largely in conjunction with the settlers who have moved in (see "Land Tenure"). Other Okiek groups, such as Maresionik, have a longer history of involvement with Christian churches.

Ceremonies. Life-cycle ceremonies marking stages of maturation are the major rites celebrated by Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek. The first is a one-day ceremony that includes shaving the heads of child and mother and giving the child a new name. In the second, rarely practiced now, the ear lobes are pierced; this takes place when a child is 12 to 14 years old. The final and most important ceremony is initiation into adulthood. Performed at about age 15, initiation itself consists of four ceremonies. During a seclusion period, children are taught about gender-appropriate adult behavior and rights and learn sex-specific ritual secrets from a pair of ritual leaders. Girls and boys both go through this ceremonial sequence. Other Okiek ceremonies have to do with marriage, peacemaking, and pouring libations to ancestor spirits.

Arts. Okiek artistry has material expression in a range of products, including tightly woven baskets, a range of rouletted ceramic forms, and other material culture. Beaded personal ornaments, worn in various combinations, are one of the most aesthetically striking Okiek creations. Okiek also decorate Containers and other objects with beads or incised patterns and in the late twentieth century have begun to paint houses with designs for special occasions. Okiek verbal art is rich and varied as well, including many genres of song, skilled oratory, proverbs, and stories.

Medicine. Okiek use a variety of treatments for health problems, which can have physical and social causes alike. They have substantial knowledge of herbal medicines made from forest plants and trees and also consult a range of traditional healers. For Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek, these include Okiek diviners (who use the fruit of the lowisto tree), Maasai diviners, and Kipsigis or Nandi diviners. Other Okiek groups probably avail themselves of healing specialists from other neighboring ethnic groups. Health clinics and hospitals make biomedical treatments available, although they may not be nearby or well provided.

Death and Afterlife. Death is not an occasion for elaborate ritual observance among Okiek. For several days, mourning families observe certain restrictions in dress, on visiting other houses, and on sharing food. In the past, corpses were laid to rest in the forest or bush; now they are buried. Upon death, adults become ancestor spirits and can continue to affect the living in some ways. If angered, for instance, they can bring disease or bad luck to their living relatives.