The Ogiek Community of Kenya

The beekeepers and preservers of Mau Forest

By National Museums of Kenya

Beer Strainer (1968)National Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Ogiek community. 

Ndorobo honey collector by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Ogiek community

Ogiek are southern Nilotic speakers who live in Kenya’s Mau and Elgon forests. Today they are mainly farmers and beekeepers, and have a unique way of life well adapted to the forest.

Bees by Eric SchaalLIFE Photo Collection

Traditional beekeeping, honey gathering, and harvesting

The Ogieks have practiced beekeeping as an economic activity for thousands of years. The building of beehives, harvesting, and collecting of honey was traditionally considered a man’s activity. Honey is a staple food and has great symbolic value to the Ogieks. Honey was eaten, used to brew traditional beer (rotikap gomek), and traded with neighboring communities. 

Albizia gumifera by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Nectar source

The flowers of the Peacock plant (Albizia gumifera.) are an important nectar source for bees. The Peacock plant is native to most of the botanical regions in Kenya excluding the arid Northern region.

Bee Hive (1959)National Museums of Kenya

Traditional beehives

Traditionally beehives were mainly made from the soquiet tree, covered with cut bark of the teet (cedar) tree, bound on both ends using tree vines. These were placed high on a tree in the forest and tied using leather ropes.

SticksNational Museums of Kenya

Honey harvesting

This bundle of sticks, Sasiat (cedar bark), was used to smoke out the bees during honey harvesting. The bundle would be lit and placed at the mouth of the hive, forcing the bees to move to one end of the hive before the farmer harvests honey.

Honey bagNational Museums of Kenya

Collection of honey

Honey and honeycombs were collected through the opening on the beehive and then put in honey bags.

Traditionally men would present animal hide to women, who scraped off the hair and stitched the bag, using an awl and tenons from the forest log, for the men to use.

Honey Baskets (1960)National Museums of Kenya

Honey storage

After extraction, honey would be stored in pots or baskets, ready for use. These two flat bottomed and closely woven baskets with leather lids were made by women from the inner barks of the silibuet tree.

Wrapping thread would be sourced from the tabororiet tree to weave the baskets. Honey was traditionally used for feeding small children and during ceremonies such as marriage.

By John DominisLIFE Photo Collection

Hunting, beekeeping, and agriculture

Traditionally, meat was the main source of food for the Ogieks. They hunted and trapped wild animals. Various tools were used, including: clubs, spears, bows and arrows. Today, hunting is illegal in Kenya, thus the majority of Ogieks practice small scale agriculture and keep livestock such as cows, sheep and goats. They grow vegetables, maize, beans, and potatoes. 

Ndorobo honey collector by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Depicted is an Ogiek man carrying hunting and honey harvesting equipment.

ArrowsNational Museums of Kenya

Arrow-heads

Arrows had detachable heads that were poisoned before use, fitted to a wooden shaft and carried in quivers. There were different types of arrow heads used for specific purposes. There were sharp-pointed arrow heads used for bleeding cattle, blunt heads for killing birds, and barbed heads used as a weapon, for protection against attacks by other people.

These six arrows were made and used by Ogiek men for hunting. The shaft is made from cedar wood and the end fitted with vulture feathers using a string obtained from the sinews of a monkey's tail. The sinew was popularly used for sewing.

Neck TrapNational Museums of Kenya

Animal trapping

This object is a neck trap made from vine, and was used to trap animals. Animal trapping was done using a simple trip-lever platform trap, or a noose type of trap laid over a game trail. Animals stepped unknowingly on the covered platform, setting off a trigger. This would release a bent sapling attached to a vine, which tightened round the animal’s foot or neck.

Ndorobo by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Socio-political affairs: the family, circumcision, and marriage

The Ogiek political structure was based on the lineage family system. Two or more related families with a common ancestor make a lineage. The lineage was responsible for enforcing traditional laws and order. The oldest male in the lineage acted as an informal spokesperson for his lineage. However, decision making was collectively done by all the men of the lineage. If a matter affected more than one lineage, it was handled jointly by men of those lineages.

HornNational Museums of Kenya

The importance of family and traditional gender roles

Traditionally the father was the head of the family and involved in all major decisions on matters concerning his family. In the absence of the father, the mother assumed authority. The eldest son was often accorded the same respect as the father once he was an adult. A woman's place among the Ogiek was within the home. Her duty was to bear children and look after her home, which meant collecting firewood, fetching water, and cooking food that her husband brings home. On the other hand, the man's duty was to provide food, leadership and protect his family. The children helped with household chores, agricultural activities, artisanship, etc.

Ndorobo Boy Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Circumcision: from childhood to adulthood

The Ogiek circumcised both boys and girls at puberty, though separately. The boys’ ceremony was called ''tumdo op werit'' while the girls' was ''tumdo op tiipiik''. Men had to acquire the skills necessary to be able to provide for their families, fight, and protect their people as warriors before considering marriage. Initiates of the same age, circumcised at the same time, were given a rank grouping referred to as the age-set ( ''Ipinda''- a name borrowed from the Kipsigis).

A Joy Adamson painting of an Ogiek boy in circumcision attire. This attire was worn by young initiates as they wandered through the forest during the seclusion stage, in the company of one or two other initiates.

CloakNational Museums of Kenya

Marriage

The Ogieks were polygamous and wives had their own separate houses and fields. Families arranged marriages and visited the bride and groom's home severally with gifts of honey (honey beer or raw honey) to discuss the union and bride wealth. Bride wealth constituted bags of honey, skin capes and blankets. The bride's father and other men of his lineage gave her to her new family during the marriage ceremony. At her husband's home she would be welcomed with her own house and fields.

Ndorobo Bride by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Ogiek bride

During wedding ceremonies, people dressed in their finest clothes and jewelery. This is a painting of an Ogiek bride adorned with bead work.

Honey potNational Museums of Kenya

The Ogiek's spiritual tradition

The Ogiek believed in one Supreme being (Tororet) and offered prayers seeking help and good fortune from Him. They also believed in the existence of ancestral spirits (oiik). Ancestral spirits were believed to offer protection to the community but also caused misfortune when offended. To appease the spirits, expiatory rituals were performed. 

Divination ballNational Museums of Kenya

Divination ball

The practice of divination was done by the Ogieks to foresee or foretell the future using supernatural powers. This divination ball is a seed obtained from lawisto tree, and was traditionally used by the Ogiek women for divination.

MedicineNational Museums of Kenya

Plant root for healing stomach ailments

Traditionally herbs obtained from the forests were used for treating illnesses. An example of a common herb is this squat shaped root, obtained from a tuberous sumeto plant, which grows in the forest. The root would be boiled in water and drunk for its medicinal value. It was used for curing most abdominal ailments by inducing vomit.

CapeNational Museums of Kenya

A look into Ogieks artistry

The Ogiek are known as skilled artists who make clothing and ornaments. This was traditionally a women's recreational activity, while the men made and dressed themselves in prestigious wild animal skins, and adorned themselves with plumes.

CoatNational Museums of Kenya

Coat made from monkey skin and cow hide

This beautifully designed coat (aguriek top poinik) was made and worn by men while hunting and gathering in the forest and during traditional ceremonies.

HEADDRESSNational Museums of Kenya

Headdress made from monkey skin

This headdress was stitched and worn by men.

Lake NakuruNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Ogiek are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Ogiek community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. pnyamanga@museums.or.ke

Bibliography and research
1. Blackburn, R.H. Kenya’s people-Okiek. 1982.
2. Stiles, D. The Past and Present of hunters and gatherers in Kenya. Kenya Past and Present, Issue No. 25, pp. 45. Kenya Museum Society, 2006.
3. Ng’ang’a, W. Kenya’s Ethnic Communities; Foundation of the Nation. 2006.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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