Teso people

Teso - Iteso

Teso / Iteso

ETHNONYMS: Bamia, Itesyo, Omia, Wamia

The Teso (or Iteso) are an African people that reside primarily in western Kenya and in northern and eastern Uganda. They are related to the neighbouring Karamojong and Turkana peoples. In Kenya, the Teso number approximately 350,000, making them one of the largest indigenous groups in the country and the largest non- Bantu-speaking group. In Uganda, they are the second  largest ethnic group, numbering more than 1.7 million.

Teso refers to the traditional homeland of the Iteso, and Ateso is their language. Iteso is plural (two or more people from Teso), Etesot and Atesot are singular. Etesot is for male person from Teso and Atesot is feminine. Iteso are believed to have migrated from Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Teso people map

Ugandan and Kenyan Teso

In 1902, part of eastern Uganda was transferred to western Kenya - leading to further separation of Teso.

Northern Teso occupy the area previously known as Teso District in Uganda (now the districts of Amuria, Soroti, Kumi, Katakwi, Pallisa, Bukedea and Kaberamaido) . Southern Teso live mainly in the districts of Tororo, Bugiri and Busia in Uganda, and Busia District in Kenya's Western Province.

Uganda. In Uganda, the Iteso live mainly in Teso sub-region, i.e., the districts of Amuria, Bukedea, Butebo, Kaberamaido, Kapelebyong, Katakwi, Kumi, Ngora, Serere and Soroti, but also in Bugiri and Pallisa, as well as in the districts of Tororo and Busia. They number about 3.2 million (9.6% of Uganda's population). Until 1980, they were the second largest ethnic group in Uganda. As of 2002 they were the fifth largest but this has remained questionable especially since there has never been any genocide that could have massacred more than a half of the Iteso populace. Most of the Iteso therefore contend that they are still the second largest ethnic group in Uganda. In fact the figure portrayed by UBOS is rather a political statement than an accurate recording of the Iteso in Uganda . Most Teso elites continue to argue that, since the national budget is disbursed based on population numbers, some individuals in government often manipulate these figures to suit their political interests and as such, as long as the current NRM government continues in power, the national population census figures can never be accurate but rather will continue to serve selfish political interests in order to justify why some areas in the country like Teso, remain poor and underdeveloped.

Kenya. The Iteso in Kenya, numbering about 578,000, live mainly in Busia county. The Kenyan Teso people are an extension of their Ugandan counterparts in that they were merely separated by the partition of East Africa during the historic scramble and partition of Africa just like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and the Oromo of Kenya and Ethiopia. They are among the Plain Nilotic groups closely related to the Turkana, Karamojong, Toposa, Kumam, Lango and the Maa groups of the Maasai and Samburu. The prominent people in Teso include the current governor of Busia County, Hon Sospeter Ojaamong, Hon Albert Ekirapa, Ojamaa Ojaamong, Oduya Oprong, Pancras Otwani, educationists like Isogol Titus, Silvester Silver Omunyu and student leaders like Titus Adungosi,Odula Ongaria, Cyril Etiang, Meshack Patrick Emongaise, Samson Iliwa and Odeke Opama Silas Okatagoro(Information Scientist/ Teso Author). The Iteso people are located in Western Province of Kenya currently in Busia County which is in South of Mt. Elgon. In Busia county, they inhabit two subcounties currently, Teso North and Teso South Subcounties. Still, a large number of them inhabit parts of Bungoma and even Trans Nzoia Counties which are dominated by the Bukusu of the Luhya community. Teso people are the only Plains Nilotic people whose lifestyles underwent drastic changes. Having been pastoralists since time immemorial, these people are now the most successful farmers in both Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda. In recent years the people have changed much of their lifestyle. They used to exhume the dead after some time because of population pressure on their land and they no longer have bushes to dump the bones of people who died long time ago. Now they use cement graves—a sign that they have embraced new ways of dealing with the dead. They believe in one God (Akuj/amsabwa) and also in life after death.



The Iteso speak an Eastern Nilotic language. The Eastern Nilotic Branch of Nilotic is divided into the Teso-speaking and Maa-speaking (Maasai) branches. The Teso Branch is further divided into speakers of Ateso (the language of the Iteso) and those of the Karamojong cluster, including the Turkana, Ikaramojong, Jie, and Dodoth in Kenya and Uganda.


Historical background and culture of the Iteso People

The Iteso People are believed to have originated from Sudan over some period back though it not possible to calculate their period of movement. Other theories assume that Iteso Originated from the Karamojong and took the south direction. This is believed to have happened sometime back since the Iteso don’t bear the cultural names and rituals like the Karamojong. Most of the Iteso clan names are mixed with the Bantu speaking people and the Nilotics. The Iteso people are also mixed with the Japadola due their migration.

During the Colonial era, the Iteso had a cool relationship with the pre-colonial period and they were acrimonious. Due to the intermarriages, the Iteso were intermixed with their neighbors and this diluted their customs and traditional element that can be as well spotted in the nearby surrounding people.

The Iteso situated in the Kenya and Uganda, are as a result of the britsh colonial rule who indirectly ruled them. In the 1902 the western Kenya was transferred from Uganda to Kenya.



The culture and social organization of the Northern Iteso has been sparsely studied. The material that follows refers primarily to the Southern Iteso. Settlements are dispersed: each household is usually situated at the edge of its own land but is frequently adjacent to other households. In the immediate precolonial period, Iteso households were combined into larger settlements centered around an important person called the lok'auriaart, "man of the cattle-resting place." For a considerable period of time after the establishment of colonial rule, these important men dominated decisions to settle, but households were increasingly dispersed. The primary organization in terms of which households currently cooperate and interact is the adukete, "those who have built together." This is a loosely defined territorial unit whose members do not always agree about its membership, not unlike an urban neighborhood. It is a network rather than a corporate group. Members of the adukete feel an obligation to help one another and settle disputes among themselves. Because people no longer move their households at will, there is a greater tendency for members of the same lineage to live near one another in settlements.



The main food consisted of millet, not mixed with cassava, and unsalted peas with groundnut paste and oil. Besides, people would also eat akobokob (cucumber) and simsim paste (sesame oil). The use of pots was prohibited, so also the use of tubes for drinking ajon (millet beer). They have had a variety of other foods such as, for example, pumpkins, wild berries, beans, meat of both domestic and wild animals, milk, butter and fish. The men did not eat together with women.

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Eleusine (finger millet) and sorghum are major food crops. In the 1920s colonial officials introduced cassava as a supplement to these staples and as a famine-relief food. Cassava, which the Iteso cook with finger millet and sorghum, is planted in fields that would otherwise be fallow. Women grow vegetables in gardens next to their sleeping houses and gather various wild foods, especially mushrooms and flying ants, a delicacy. Men herd cattle, and the grazing of animals was regarded as a commonly held right until the late 1960s and early 1970s; there have been conflicts over the right to graze since then, and some people have fenced their fields. The primary cash crop was cotton, which was grown by men and women in separate plots (and for individual income) during the short rains. As a result, the labor demands for cash crops did not conflict with demands for subsistence farming. Many households have teams of oxen and plows; others trade their labor for the use of a richer household's teams. Newly introduced cash crops such as maize and tobacco are grown during the long rains and have caused considerable concern about how people will manage the conflicting demands of cash and subsistence farming. The primary commercial activities are trading in cattle, owning small shops, and (in Kenya) employment in such public-sector jobs as local administration and schoolteaching.

Industrial Arts. The primary occupations are carpentry, tailoring, butchery, and various indigenous skills, such as making the boards used for elee, a game of calculation played with seeds, which is the Iteso national pastime. Few of these are full time occupations. In some areas there are women potters, but blacksmithing is unknown. The Iteso of Kenya traded with the Samia people for their iron goods in the precolonial period.

Trade. There were a few markets at independence; some have grown much larger with the addition of government facilities such as schools and dispensaries. Market and cattletrading days rotate among different major markets. These have also become centers for an extensive trade in dried fish and goods such as used clothing imported from the United States. Gas-operated grinding mills are now frequently found at market centers. Women pay for the grinding of foodstuffs through the sale of beer they have brewed and small amounts of grain and vegetables.

Division of Labor. The division of labor among the Iteso is characterized by the radical separation of the sexes in subsistence and ritual activities. Men are responsible for building houses and clearing land. Both men and women plant, weed, and harvest, but women are solely responsible for processing food crops, including threshing, grinding, and cooking. Although public rituals have largely disappeared among the Iteso, domestic and life-cycle rituals are regularly performed by women. Ritual is defined as part of their work—protecting the lives and health of the children of their households. Within neighborhoods, households regularly cooperate in tasks such as harvesting cotton; in this way, individual harvests are quickly garnered, and labor is fluidly distributed in a period of peak demand. The social mechanism underlying this cooperation is the beer party, which is also a context for cooperation between husbands and wives. People who do not work cooperatively and attend beer parties are judged to be epog ("proud" and thoughtless of other people's needs)—a very serious insult to the Iteso.

Land Tenure. Land was freely available during the precolonial period. Only improvements—for example, trees planted on the land—were owned. Today such trees are a source of considerable conflict because people own trees on land belonging to someone else. Land was first sold in the mid-1950s, but registration did not begin until the early 1970s. Land was never held by corporate groups such as lineages, and thus the transition to individual landholdings was accompanied by less conflict than elsewhere in Kenya. Important men anticipated the impending land scarcity and moved their former clients to large, newly claimed land parcels. For the first time, some Iteso in Kenya are unable to grow enough food to feed themselves. They have to work at very low rates for wealthier, usually salaried, people.



Kin Groups and Descent. The Iteso are a patrilineal people with three levels of patrilineal descent, each defined by the activities associated with it. The nominal clans are nonexogamous name-bearing units associated with Iteso historical narratives and ideas about the inheritance of character. Nominal clans are divided into clans, within which marriage is forbidden. These exogamous clans are further divided into lineages, with genealogies three to five generations deep, whose primary duty is to supply support and attendance on ritual occasions such as funeral rites. The more closely related descent groups are bound by ties of sentiment but also divided by intrahousehold conflicts over property, which have emerged in the late twentieth century. Descent groups are not property-holding units but do figure significantly in Iteso definitions of their social universe.

Kinship Terminology. The Iteso use Hawaiian cousin terminology with bifurcate terms for the first ascending generation and descending generation from Ego.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are defined from two points of view: they are alliances between spouses but also between two exogamous clans. The first alliance is evident in the practical arrangements of setting up a household, and the second is expressed in ritual and healing practices. More than one-third of all men and a majority of all women are married polygynously. Although the number of men with four or more wives has decreased since the precolonial and early colonial period, it is possible that the total number of people married polygynously is increasing in the rural areas, as in many other Kenyan societies. The amount of bride-wealth has remained the since the mid-twentieth century, but the time taken to hand over the ten to fifteen head of cattle has changed, from almost immediately after the birth of the first child to an extensive period of more than twenty years. Postmarital residence tends to be virilocal for women and neopatrilocal for men, who soon move into a new home on family land. Divorce is rare; even marriages said to end in divorce are often reconciled when the estranged wife returns after an extended period of time. Bride-wealth helps constrain the incidence of divorce because a man who receives cattle through his sister's marriage would have to return the bride-wealth (on which his own marriage depends) if her divorce were finalized. The result is a series of disrupted marital exchanges.

Birth.There were three types of birth among the tribe: the single child, twins and the spiritual birth. The spiritual birth was said to be in the form of air or water. It was believed that such a child would often manifest itself in a home in the form of a cat or some other animal. There was no particular formal practice for the naming of children. A child could be named according to the circumstances in which it was born. The newborn baby would be initiated into the clan by conducting a ritual ceremony called etale. Another ceremony acquired a spiritual aspect because it was believed that failure to accomplish it would malign and weaken the child, thereby rendering it vulnerable to the wiles of evil deers. Among the Iteso a child belonged to the whole clan and not to a particular family.

Domestic Unit. Domestic groups are established among the Iteso when a man marries a woman for the first time. Shortly thereafter they set up a spatially independent household, but under normal conditions, the husband's mother supervises her daughter-in-law. Most Iteso men strive for more than one wife; polygynous unions are frequent, but in the late twentieth century they have been opposed by women. Households are composed of separate "houses" composed of mothers and their children. Cattle from bride-wealth are supposed to belong to this "house." Relations between full siblings are the most solidary in Iteso society. Children leave their natal household at marriage, and women most often go to live with their youngest son when he has married, effectively separating husband and wife at the end of their married life. As a result, Iteso households are complex but not generationally extended. Scarcity of land may change this pattern in areas where population is especially dense.

Married women used to wear barkcloth (bark from the tree – mutuba). They were responsible for the daily objects of utility in the household such as baskets, gourds, calabashes, winnowing trays, grinding stones, pots, brooms, pestles and mortars, ekigo (ladle for stirring millet) and eitereria (the fishing basket). The men were in charge of weapons and tools like spears, shields, arrows, bows, axes for cultivating the fields and the music instruments.

Inheritance. Men leave three kinds of property: land, cattle, and personal property such as shops and cash. Sons assume the right to family land when they marry; when an elder dies, any remaining land is divided among his unmarried sons. Cattle are inherited by the sons of each mother. Men may control the cattle that come into "houses" through their daughters' marriages, but at death only the full brothers of the married daughter have inheritance rights to these cattle and to cattle assigned to their mother from their father's residual herd. Male children without the cattle they must have before they can marry may be given excess cattle belonging to another "house." Other property is divided equally among all the sons. Women do not inherit male property, only female personal property such as clothing and household effects.

Socialization. Socialization is not elaborately ritualized among the Iteso. Weaning occurs at about 1 to 2 years of age. Children are indulgently treated until they go to school or begin to take up work tasks. Marriage is the most abrupt transition for women; it is somewhat traumatic—especially if it is with a much older man. Men's status transitions are easier because they do not move far away from their natal households. Attending boarding school, which is common in Kenya for the children who manage to get to a secondary school, may likewise be a traumatic experience. The primary context for local cultural learning was the grandmother's hut, where many children used to spend considerable time learning folklore and customs, enjoying storytelling and the expressive arts. The expansion of schooling has severely attenuated this significant setting for socialization. As a result, many young people currently grow up with very limited knowledge of their culture. Formal schooling will probably bring about extensive changes in the body of Iteso knowledge.



The social system was centred around the clan, and they shared similar cultural elements with neighbouring tribes like the Langi and the Karimojong. They were also influenced by their neighbours, the Bantu, particularly the Basoga people.

The clan forms the basis of the social and political unit (commune). It controls administrative and judicial matters. Originally, there were nine clans, with each clan having a leader called Aplon ka Ateker. These were usually elected by other elders at a merry cermony know as airukorin. The leaders had to present magnificent leader characteristics in order to being able to assume the function of a leader of the people. The leader acted as an arbitrator in the event of disputes and was greatly respected. These titles, however, were not hereditary. The leader of the clan was assissted by a council of elders known as Airabis or Aurianet. They sat court for cases like murder and debts. After setting a dispute, a ceremony known as epucit or aijuk was performed, whereby a bull was offered and killed, roasted and eaten. This was intended to act as a gesture of renewed co-operation between the two parties. The appropriate compensation in form of a cow or a girl would then be handed over.



Toto idwe (mother of many).
Whenever a mother gave birth to twins, a special type of drum was beaten and the people would gather and dance, accompanied by a lot of eating and drinking.

Akembe - Organised by boys who would invite girls to join their future spouses.

Special dances to invoke the ancestors - In the process, some people would become possessed and start to communicate in the voice of the ancestors. This dance involved the shaking of rattles.

Other dances were, in general, performed at marriage ceremonies (airukorin), beer parties, meetings and other merry occasions. In this dance more instruments are used, including emudiri, entongoli (endongo - bowl lyre), adigirgi (endingidi - tube fiddle), akogo (thumb piano), amagarit and akaduumi (small drums).


Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The Iteso live in territorial units of increasing scale: the household; the neighborhood; government-defined units (the headman's area and the sublocation); the location (headed by a government-appointed chief); and the division, which also tends to correspond to the constituency for the Iteso member of parliament. In addition, the Iteso of Kenya recognize three dialect groups, which have had different external cultural influences.

The precolonial Iteso were organized into territorial units called itemwan ("fireplaces"—called "sections" in the anthropological literature; sing. item ), which were the largest-scale political units and were organized for defense and political expansion. An itemwan may have been led by a successful war leader. The age system appears to have been extremely different from one part of the Iteso territory to another. One constant element was the rituals associated with retirement from the status of elder. After performing them, retired men could no longer marry and were believed to have privileged access to the divinity.

Women's forms of social organization include special, ritually defined friendships, labor cooperatives, groups formed to heal illness caused by spirit possession, and, since the mid1980s, church groups.

Social Control. The feud functioned as a significant mechanism for social control among the Iteso during the precolonial period. All members of a lineage were held responsible for the actions of their fellow lineage members. Witches and deviants, such as persons who committed incest, were either expelled or punished. Since the advent of colonial rule, neighborhood disputes have been adjudicated by a council of male elders and the headman. Disputes that cannot be settled at this level can be taken to the chiefs meeting or to the district court. Values associated with ideals of male and female achievement, particularly those connected with childbearing, are very significant for the Iteso. Even the words for "adult male" and "husband" and "adult female" and "wife" are the same. All adult Iteso strive to become successful parents, and their sense of efficacy is tied to their reproductive status. Women are closely supervised from marriage through the end of their fertile period. One of the consequences of joining a cult of spirit possession is to provide contexts in which male supervision of female activities is not appropriate.

Conflict. The Iteso are a very egalitarian people and have a quite justified reputation for independent action. They tend to settle conflicts before they reach the formal legal system. There are a number of sources of conflict. The first is interethnic: the Iteso still see themselves as disputing with their traditional enemies. Territorial disputes occur pertaining to the number of seats the Iteso should have in parliament and to the boundaries of the location in which they live. During the 1970s, when land was first registered, land disputes were a major source of conflict—especially between sets of half-siblings or the descendants of in-laws who had chosen to live together. Disputes between neighbors (over cattle grazing) and between husbands and wives (over the allocation of labor) are now frequent. These are the product of land scarcity and changing patterns of cash cropping, which now conflict with the labor demands of subsistence.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Iteso believe in a divinity with different aspects, variously called akuj, "high," or edeke, "illness." Other entities in their pantheon included the Ajokin, little spirits of the bush, who invited people who met them to feast, providing they kept the invitation a secret. Under missionary influence, the Ajokin have come to be identified with the devil. Ipara, spirits of the dead, figure prominently in their lives, but there are no special shrines for propitiation. The Ipara are selfish and do not enforce good behavior so much as demand propitiation. When they possess people, the Ipara bring with them exotic spirits from other cultures who harm or make ill the people possessed. Catholic missionaries have had considerable influence among the Iteso, and almost all of them had been baptized by 1990. Women are especially involved in the church. The African priests at the missions have successfully advocated the organization of local cooperative groups called "Christian communities."

Religious Practitioners. Most Iteso religious practices are either associated with transitions in the life cycle or are ways of managing misfortune and illness. Women are the primary religious practitioners. The performance of domestic rituals is defined as part of their "work." In addition to domestic ritual, women predominate in cults of spirit possession. Men serve as diviners and healers, and some specialize in "blocking" the effects of the spirits of the dead. In the precolonial period, men who had been retired through the age system acted as intermediaries between the divinity and the people.

Ceremonies. Domestic ceremonies take place in the household and include naming rituals, the complex rites associated with marriage and birth, and rituals held to heal ill children. Mortuary rituals also take place within the household and involve a series of ceremonies that invoke the entire complex of social relations of the dead person. The rituals of the age system took place outside the home in the "bush" and were organized in terms of the symbolic attributes of various animals. Domestic rituals and healing rituals such as those associated with spirit possession draw on much the same symbolic repertoire, a good deal of which involves the ritual dramatization of female agricultural and child-rearing tasks.

Arts. The plastic arts include pottery making by women and musical-instrument making by men, some house decoration, and, traditionally, cicatrization for women. These are all purely aesthetic and have no religious significance. The verbal arts—which include a cycle of trickster tales, proverbs, female storytelling, and male rhetoric—are far more developed.

Medicine. Iteso medical practices are derived from multiple sources and include a range of Western medicines purchased at stores or obtained at government clinics; locally known herbal cures; and resort to religious practitioners, such as curers of illnesses caused by spirits of the dead.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the body is separated from its eparait (spirit), which goes to live in the bush. The spirit ideally moves deeper and deeper into the bush, but in practice many spirits return to bother the living. Spirits of the dead are greedy: they require offerings of food and drink. As a result of mission influence, spirits of the dead have come to be associated by some Iteso with the Ajokin, little creatures of the bush, and both of these have come to be associated with the devil. The skeletons of dead people are exhumed after a number of years so rituals can be performed to "cool" them and make them more kindly disposed to the living. Older Iteso are very concerned that their children will bury them in coffins and prevent this practice, thus suffocating the dead in the earth. Funeral rituals are a major focus of Iteso ritual life, and many Iteso point out that they are a primary reason for having children: "Without children, who will sacrifice at the head of your grave?"

They did not regard death as a normal consequence. Death was attributed to ancestral spirits and witchcraft. As soon as a person had died, a witch doctor would be consulted to diagnose the cause of the death. The corpse was washed in the courtyard and wrapped in abangut (barkcloth), and then it was buried. It was customary to bury corpses with certain objects such as needles or razor blades to protect them against cannibals who might use their black magic to extract the corpes from the graves. If the corpse had been furnished with a needle, for example, it would reply that it was still busy mending its clothes and thus refuse to come out of the grave when invoked by a cannibal.