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 Marakwet community.
A look into the history and culture of the Marakwet community
The Marakwet are a sub-community of the Kalenjin, who are highland Nilotes. They speak the Markweta language and mainly lived in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Trans Nzoia, and Uasin Gishu counties. Notable personalities from this community include the Kenyan-American runner Edward Cheserek.
Waist BeltNational Museums of Kenya
Religion and belief
The Marakwet traditionally believed in a number of supernatural beings. The most important one was 'Asis' (the sun), referred to as 'Chebetip chemataw', who was associated with blessings and good will. Another god was 'Ilat' (god of thunder), who causesd misfortunes like lightning and drought.
Magic FluteNational Museums of Kenya
This magic flute (ses) is made of bamboo from tekan by a special group of old men. The magic flute would be blown only after a misfortune.
The Diviner (Kipseon) would blow the flute during sunset to blow away curses of misfortune, believed to be brought about by hyenas and owls.
Farming, cattle keeping, and honey harvesting
The Marakwet were known for growing sorghum, millet, maize, cassava, beans and vegetables in the highlands. They kept small herds of cattle and sheep, and also reared chicken.
Fire stickNational Museums of Kenya
Bee keeping and honey harvesting
These sticks, about two feet long, are tied together with a rope obtained from the bark of the Ses plant. They were used by men when extracting honey from beehives.
The sticks would be lit to produce smoke, which chased the bees away so the honey could be extracted.
Honey BarrelNational Museums of Kenya
Honey barrel for honey storage
This honey barrel tundi with a lid was made and used by men for storing honey after harvesting.
Social and political organisation
In the Marakwet community, all male adults traditionally belonged to an assembly called Asiswo. It had the highest control over political and administrative matters, and every clan had one. The Marakwet also participated in significant ceremonies such as child naming, marriage and circumcision ceremonies.
CloakNational Museums of Kenya
The Marakwet clan system
The Marakwet community is composed of seven clans. Members of the community identify themselves with the name of their clan first, then their personal name follows.
Leather apronNational Museums of Kenya
The Moi ceremony
This is a leather apron (siramoi) made of goat skin, softened by smearing it with goat fat. It is decorated with reeds, beetle wing (chebosal) and siran (dik dik) hooves.
This apron would have been used specially for a ceremony called Moi, undertaken by girls who were about to be circumcised. The aprons were made by grown women who had already undergone the moi ceremony. They were handed down from mother to daughter.
In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and the communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation rites.
Hand Ring (1952)National Museums of Kenya
Ceremonial marriage ring
This is a hand ring (mukurio) made by a blacksmith from steel iron at Kabelio village (Marakwet).
The iron was heated red hot and beaten on a metal with a hammer. These would be made on request, and given to women at marriage ceremonies. They would wear them on the hand as a ceremonial ring.
ShieldNational Museums of Kenya
In Marakwet, the people particularly used shields like this one for protection in times of war.
They were also used during marriage traditions, where the bridegroom would carry the shield from the bride's father back to his home. The well dressed bridegroom would lead the way, holding the shield in his right hand while the bride would follow him.
Ritual Calabash (1930)National Museums of Kenya
Child naming ceremony
This is a ritual calabash (sotob kot kotoa) made from a gourd plant. The calabash is cut and water is poured into it. The water is left for one week, after which the contents are removed and cleaned before use.
It was traditionally used during children's naming ceremonies. The calabash would be placed on top of a big awl or burning iron (kolomei), which was used by the whole clan to name their children.
Once it was balanced, names would be called out. If the calabash stood balanced on the awl, the child would be named. If not, the names continued to be called out until the calabash stood balanced, responding to the real name of the child.
Health matters and local brew
The Marakwet traditionally had witch doctors who treated the ailing community members using several methods, including sacrificing animals. Preventive charms were used to protect against witches and people with 'evil eyes'. Disease-causing pollutants were treated by herbalists.
MedicineNational Museums of Kenya
This is a medicinal root of the Leketetwa tree, said to be effective for treating infertility in women. It was administered together with other medicine by a Kipses (Diviner).
Strainer (1930)National Museums of Kenya
This is a strainer used to filter local brew. It was made by women by splitting and interweaving the fibres of the Tega (bamboo).
The Marakwet elders customarily drank the brew, made of honey, during wedding and child naming ceremonies.
Fruits of kigelia treeNational Museums of Kenya
These are fruits of the kigelia tree, used for fermenting beer.
Celebrating Kenya's communities today
Many of the cultural practices of the Marakwet are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Marakwet 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.
Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.
Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. email@example.com
Bibliography and research
1. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.
Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography
Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.