The Yaaku are a people who are said to have lived in regions of southern Ethiopia and central Kenya, possibly through to the 18th century. The language they spoke is today called Yaakunte. The Yaaku assimilated a hunter-gathering population, whom they called Mukogodo, when they first settled in their place of origin and the Mukogodo adopted the Yaakunte language. However, the Yaaku were later assimilated by a food producing population and they lost their way of life.
The tribe has an estimated population of 4000 people, and there are only few surviving people of the tribe who can fluently speak Yaakunte, which is their cultural identity. The elderly are afraid that the new generation will not know how to speak their language.
The Yaakunte language was kept alive for sometime by the Mukogodo who maintained their own hunter-gathering way of life, but they were later immersed in Maasai culture and adopted the Maa language and way of life. The Yaakunte language is today facing extinction but is undergoing a revival movement. In the present time, the terms Yaaku and Mukogodo (sometimes Mukogodo Maasai), are used to refer to a population living in Mukogodo forest west of Mount Kenya.
The name Yaaku is said to be a Southern Nilotic term for hunting people while Mukogodo is a Yaakunte word meaning people who live in rocks.
According to Mukogodo traditions recorded by Mhando (2008), the Yaaku speakers moved into Kenya from southern Ethiopia. At this time they were herders and cultivators In this regard, the narratives are congruent with linguistic reconstruction of the history of the Yaakunte speakers. According to linguist Christopher Ehret (1982), the presumed movements of the Eastern Cushities begin with an entry into East Africa at a point in northeast Uganda. From here they moved "into northern and eastern Kenya as far south as Mt. Kenya. Their modern representatives are the Yaaku hunters who live on the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya". Other present day representatives of the Eastern Cushities that Ehret notes include, "the Arbore and Dasanech herders and cultivators in the Lake Turkana/Chew Bahir (Lake Stephanie) region; and the Elmolo fishermen of east Turkana".
In 2010, the Yaaku tribe managed to document their language in a dictionary. This happened after they registered a community-based organization that would follow up the process. The organization would help preserve the bits and bits of pieces left of their tradition. The Yaaku tribe is keen on holding on to what’s left of their culture. The tribe has documented their early life at the Yaaku Cultural Museum in Dol Dol, Laikipia.
The museum holds the weapons the people used to hunt and the storage devices they used to store honey and meat. The museum also has the tribe’s footwear, stools, and knives. The museum also illustrates the transition of Yaaku’s hunting and gathering to cattle rearing.
Having a museum to preserve their culture is among a few of things the Yaaku have done to save their traditions.
The Yaaku now live In Dol Dol Laikipia. At their local school, there are teachers devoted to teaching the young generation Yaakunte.
The educators teach the students the language once every two weeks. There are even charts that act as an aid to help the kids learn faster. The Yaaku has proposed to incorporate the Yaaku words into the Maasai language. The elders believe by doing this will help ensure that the language does not die completely.
In 2019, there was an annual cultural festival that helped rekindle the hope of the Yaaku Tribe. The ethnic minority and marginalized affairs department collaborated with the community to help the festival come to life.
The cultural festival helps bring together the people of the Yaaku community and their neighbors while showcasing their traditional regalia. The young generation is also taught about their culture at the festival.
When the Yaaku community first entered the territory they would occupy, they met a people who mostly lived by hunting and gathering. However they distinguished themselves from this population by means of residence. This community lived in caves and the Yaaku came to call them Mukogodo, a name which means people who live in rocks in Yaakunte.
Traditions recorded by Mhando portray the Yaaku as having been herders and cultivators when they first settled.
The Mukogodo in whose localities the Yaaku settled, adopted the language of the Yaaku, referred to as Yaakunte.
The broad Mukogodo understanding of the decline of Yaaku identity is that the speakers were assimilated by another food producing people, a process that happened over a long period of time. During this period, the Yaaku speaking Mukogodo maintained their way of life and the Yaakunte language.
Fadiman (1997) recorded Meru traditions that also give an account of this conflict, which they relate occurred with a community recalled as Muoko. According to the traditions, conflict with the Muoko community had been ongoing for "decades". However, a notable period of intense Tigania pressure brought the Muoko within raiding range of the Il Tikirri (recalled in Tigania as Ngiithi) and Mumunyot (recalled as Rimunyo) communities.
Fadiman postulates that the absorption of former foes may have therefore significantly modified Tigania institutions and, indirectly, those of adjacent Meru regions as well.
The Mukogodo assimilated to the pastoralist culture of the Maasai in the first half of the twentieth century (1920s and 1930s), although some still keep bees. The reason for this transition is mostly one of social prestige. The Maasai look down upon hunter-gatherer peoples, calling them Dorobo ('the ones without cattle'), and many Mukogodo consider the Maasai culture superior to their own.
As a result of the decision to transition to pastoralism, the Mukogodo largely gave up their Cushitic language Yaaku for the Eastern Nilotic Maasai language between 1925 and 1936.
In the present time, both the terms Yaaku and Mukogodo, sometimes Mukogodo Maasai are used to refer to a population living in Mukogodo forest west of Mount Kenya.