The Nandi Community of Kenya

An exploration of the Nandi community's cultural heritage

AttireNational 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 Nandi community. 

ShieldNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Nandi community

The Nandi is a sub-community of the Kalenjin ethnic group. They referred to themselves as 'Chemwalindet' or 'Chemwal' before adopting the name Nandi in the mid 19th century. They speak Nandi, a Kalenjin dialect. The majority of the Nandi are found in Nandi County, a region with many tourist attractions and home to many world athletic champions. Some of the best renowned Nandi people are leader Koitalel arap Samoei, and athletes Pamela Jelimo, Janet Chepkosgei and Kipchoge Keino.

Migration and settlement

According to the Kalenjin myth of origin, the Nandi were initially part of the Kipsigis while living at Rongai near Nakuru. They migrated due to drought and Maasai invasion to the area. During migration, the group divided into two; the Kipsigis moved south to Kericho, while the Nandi settled at Aldai and are now farmers and cattle keepers in Nandi County.

EarringNational Museums of Kenya

Economic pursuits

Due to the fertile soils and abundant rainfall in Nandi County, the Nandi have traditionally practiced agriculture and livestock keeping. Their abundant forests also encouraged beekeeping, and planting crops like maize, millet, and cassava, as well as tea.

HoeNational Museums of Kenya

Farming

This farm tool was known as a Mokombet. It was made from an iron blade strung on a wooden handle, and was used for digging and cultivating the farm.

CowbellNational Museums of Kenya

Pastoralism

These cow bells (Twolio) were made from scrap metal by a local blacksmith. The metal was heated over burning charcoal and hammered into shape. They would have been hung around a bull's neck to enable the herdsmen to keep track and locate their herd.

Leather bag (1963)National Museums of Kenya

Honey harvesting

This large hairy skin bag (Lolet) was sewn from a heifer skin. It would have been used when fetching and carrying honey from the forest. Men often placed and carried this kind of bag on their backs while transporting honey home.

Head SpearNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting

This spear head was made by a blacksmith using scrap metal, which is heated and beaten into the desired shape. It was then fitted on a long wooden shaft and used by men during ceremonies, hunting wild animals and for defense in case of an attack on the community.

Sickle (1975)National Museums of Kenya

Working in the fields

This long handled sickle was made from hammered iron and whittled wood. A hole was cut at the top of the handle and the blade hammered in. It was used only by men for chopping wood, cutting grass, millet or any other plants.

Nandi SistersNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure of the Nandi

The family was the smallest social unit in the Nandi community, which was traditionally divided into seventeen clans. The community had a cyclic age set system to which all male members belonged from birth. They had seven age grades, covering 15 years. Men advanced to warriorhood after circumcision, then became elders, and were later incorporated into the council elders with political and judicial authority. Men provided food and protection for the family, while women took care of children and all household chores. Children, on the other hand, helped their parents until they were initiated into adulthood, when they took up more responsibilities. 

HatNational Museums of Kenya

The family

The family was the basic political unit among the Nandi. A collection of between 20 to 100 homesteads formed a koret. A dozen or more koret formed a pororiet, a larger political unit that produced men to join military camps.

The pororiet was regulated by the council of elders, where leaders from every koret attended. Leaders assumed these positions by virtue of their social status, wealth and personality, and settled disputes through consensus.

The Nandi also had a spiritual and military leader called Orkoiyot, who made security and war decisions.

Milk Gourd (1978)National Museums of Kenya

Taking care of the household

This is a milk gourd (Kimusarit) made and used by women to store milk in their houses, and also used to carry milk whenever a woman was moving around with her child.

Beer gourd (1968)National Museums of Kenya

Child-naming ceremonies

This beer gourd (Mwentet) was used by elders to serve traditional beer from clay pots during child naming and marriage ceremonies.

When a child was born, a 'spirit' name would be decided upon and given to it after four days. That name would be related to a particular ancestor. After three months, when weaning, the child would be given a personal name replacing that of their ancestor.

Ceremonial head ornament (1990)National Museums of Kenya

Circumcision

This ceremonial head ornament (Nariet) was made by women from leather, and sewn with beads and cowrie shells. It was worn by young initiates when coming out of seclusion.

The Nandi conducted a circumcision ceremony every seven and a half years for both boys and girls. Prior to the operation, boy initiates wore girls' garments and vice versa, in an interesting ritual inversion.

After circumcision all initiates went into seclusion, where they were taught their responsibilities. Girls in seclusion wore leather hoods while boys wore grass masks. Boys circumcised at the same time made an age set.

Female circumcision is no longer permitted in the country, hence alternative initiation practices are now encouraged.

Bracelet (1960)National Museums of Kenya

Marriage

This single coiled metal bracelet was worn by married women, round the wrist, to show their status. It would have been given to a bride at the time of marriage.

Traditionally, marriages were arranged and bride-wealth was paid to the bride's family. Once married, the man provided a house and a piece of land for his wife or wives to cultivate. Customarily, barrenness was the only reason for a divorce.

Kimnyole Arap Turukat: The Legend (Nandi community) (2019) by Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya

Kimnyole Arap Turukat

Kimnyole Arap Turukat was the fourth Nandi Orkoiyot in the early 1800s. The Orkoiyot was a spiritual and military leader who was consulted on decisions regarding security particularly the waging of war. Kimnyole is remembered for his powerful prophecies, which forever altered the lives of the Nandi.

His exact year of birth is unknown, but he was the son of Turukat and father of Koitalel Arap Samoei. At his prime, he stood regal, animal skin draped over one shoulder and a stick in hand. His earlobes extended from the weight of the metallic traditional earrings he wore. The colour of his skin was dark as ebony and the muscles underneath were still taut with youth.

He was both warrior and leader, commanding fear and respect alike. Kimnyole had two prophecies to his name, the coming of the “white tribe” (the whites) and “the Iron Snake” (the construction of the Kenya Uganda railway).

Shield ShieldNational Museums of Kenya

During his reign, the Nandi were a formidable force, in spite of the many conflicts with the Maasai during the 1870s and 80s. As the Maasai fought against themselves, the Nandi under the leadership of this shrewd Orkoiyot were observant, eager to exploit the divisions among the Maasai.

With such a leader, nothing could stand in their way and they were about the wealthiest tribe around, with lots of cattle and captives from their victories.

Even then, Kimnyole’s reign was not without trouble. In the late 80s, rinderpest cattle disease struck the Nandi herds. His people were bitter with him because he had not warned Nandi warriors against capturing rinderpest infected cattle from their raids.

Only his cattle survived, and that only made the growing hostility against him worse. The salt to this injury was the loss of a large number of Nandi warriors, bororiosiek, when Kimnyole advised against a joint raid of more warriors.

It was unheard of for the Nandi to rise up against one of their own, but Kimnyole stood accused by his people. In 1890, Kimnyole was stoned to death because of his prophecies that had caused the Nandi strife. However, some say it is because his prophecy on the Nandi being subdued by the white man upset powerful tribal elders.

After his death, his son Koitalel arap Samoei succeeded him, while his brother Kipchomber Arap Koilege became the first Orkoiyot of the Kipsigis division of the Nandi.

Koitalel Arap Samoei: The Mighty Prophet (Nandi community) (2019) by Shujaa StoriesNational Museums of Kenya

Koitalel arap Samoei

Koitalel arap Samoei was born to Kimnyole arap Turukat around 1860. As the last born he was closest to his father, and had a greater ability to understand prophetic signs compared to his three older brothers.

At the age of 25 he succeeded his father as the Orkoiyot. Samoei prophesied about a black snake passing through the land of Nandi. Not long after that, the Kenya-Uganda railway came along with the British.

Samoei led a 12-year rebellion against the British for encroaching on their land. Through trickery, he killed by the British Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, and had his head cut off and taken to Britain.

He is remembered to date for his great leadership and a monument has been erected in his name.

Earring (1971)National Museums of Kenya

Religion, beliefs, and medicine

The Nandi believed in a supernatural being, Asis (sun), to whom they presented prayers every morning and evening. They also had special prayers conducted under sacred trees, especially after harvesting to offer thanksgiving. They would slaughter a white sheep whose intestines were read by the elders to establish if there were any impending calamities. They also wore charms on their bodies for protection against evil spirits and sicknesses. 

Neck Ring (1956)National Museums of Kenya

Protecting initiates

This is a metal neck ring made by a blacksmith and worn round the neck by the new initiates. It was kept in a special place in the house awaiting use by the next initiates. It was seen as a charm for to protect the initiates protection against any evil shortcomings.

Nandi warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Dancing and recreation

An illustration of a Nandi warrior in his dancing outfit.

SnuffboxNational Museums of Kenya

Snuff

This is an ivory snuffbox (Kibraut), made and used by old men for keeping snuff.

Straw (1988)National Museums of Kenya

Straws for drinking beer

These drinking straws with fibre sieves were made by old men from a plant's branch, and used by elders to drink traditional beer. A pot containing beer would often be placed in the middle, and the elders would sit around it, each sipping from the pot using these straws.

This communal way of drinking brought people together and encouraged peace. It was said a witch and the elders could not drink from the same pot.

Assorted attire (1969)National Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Nandi are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Nandi 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. philenyamanga@gmail.com

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

Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga and Barnabas Ngei.

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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