The Kipsigis Community of Kenya

The great warriors and exceptional farmers of the Kalenjin

By National Museums of Kenya

Shield Shield (1902)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 Kipsigis community. 

ModelNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Kipsigis community

The Kipsigis are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting Kenya. They are the most populous sub-group of the Kalenjin, and speak the Kipsigis as their native language.

Lake NakuruNational Museums of Kenya

From Sudan to the Rift Valley

The Kipsigis originated from the South Sudan region, and by the 19th century, they had settled in the Rift Valley.

Traditionally they lived in Bomet and Kericho Counties. This terrain is known for its steep ridges, numerous rivers and streams, with hills and grasslands.

Milk Gourd Container (1969)National Museums of Kenya

Economic pursuits

The Kipsigis traditionally kept cattle, as well as growing a variety crops like maize, beans, vegetables, millet, and cash crops like tea and coffee.

Axe HeadNational Museums of Kenya

Farming tool

This blade (morut) is made of iron and was used to cultivate the fields.

Bleeding strapNational Museums of Kenya

Cattle are kept for food

This strap (kotiek) is made from dried cow hide and used when bleeding cattle.

ArmletNational Museums of Kenya

Political structure

Traditionally the Kipsigis were governed by elders who made decisions and settled local disputes. Extreme cases were forwarded to the local chief who heads a sub-location. Older men guided young people concerning the ways of living.

Club (1978)National Museums of Kenya

A symbolic club

A black wooden club (rungut) carved by men, who used it as a hand stick. It was used for walking around, when addressing a meeting, and as a symbol of authority.

HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure

The fundamental basis of Kipsigis social structure was the family, and also based on the age-set system known as 'ipinda', which young people joined after initiation (tumdo). The age-sets were Maina, Nyongi, Chumiot,  Saweiyiek, Korongoro, Kipkoimet  Kaplelach and Kipnyiige, which are cyclic from the oldest to the youngest.

HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

Childhood to adulthood

This is a special ceremonial headdress (nariet) with cowries stitched onto cowhide. It is topped with a circle of bead-decorated leather fringed with goat hair. It was made by a specialist and would have been worn by girls when they emerged from seclusion, following circumcision.

Circumcision was an important rite of passage in the Kipsigis community, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood.

HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya

Exogamous marriages

This headband is made of four strings of beads with aluminium spacers, the beads on the aluminium pendant are suspended by six lengths of brass chains. The headband was made and worn by women and girls, particularly for marriage ceremonies.

Marriage was an important custom in Kipsigis society, and they practiced exogamous marriages (marriage outside the social group).

Food Basket (1972)National Museums of Kenya

Roles of men and women

These three baskets (kerebet) were made by women and used for storage of flour and porridge, and to keep food ready for their husbands. Flour was poured into the baskets to conserve it from spoiling.

Kipsigis men traditionally built houses, repaired fences, cleared land for cultivation, hunted and took care of livestock, while the women prepared meals, collected water and firewood, tended the gardens, grew small millet and sorghum, and took care of children.

HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

Religion, beliefs, and health

The Kipsigis believe in a supreme being, Asis (sun) who was also known as 'Ingolo' or 'Ngolo', and 'Cheptabel'.

Lake BogoriaNational Museums of Kenya

Belief in magic

The Kipsigis revered their ancestral spirits (oik) and magic. They believed the spirits of the deceased, may either become hyenas or go underground, from where they would re-emerge to torment the living.

Thus, when a man was ill, the oik were usually accused of tricking him into leaving his body. Eleusine grain would be scattered from the man’s bed to the door, through chanting. The oik were then believed to follow the grain and depart from the body.

If the spirit was wicked, the services of a magician had to be solicited. The magician was meant to discover the cause of the illness – whether it was a spirit, black magic or a curse cast upon the man.

Bleeding HornNational Museums of Kenya

Bad blood caused sickness

This bleeding horn lalek was made by medicine man and used by all members of the community to cure aches, faintness and sickness.

A cut would be made on the aching part, the horn placed over the cut, and sucked to drain blood until the horn was full. The drained blood (considered bad and the cause of sickness) was then poured on the ground.

Tobacco container (1956)National Museums of Kenya

Myths, stories, and songs     

The Kipsigis' myths were usually told during beer-parties. The stories were usually delightfully told and contained moral teachings. Songs were accompanied with a four or five-stringed lute (kipugandet) and were usually sung by men, who praised the beauty and gallantries of love, the great deeds of Kipsigis warriors, the peace of the countryside, and the beauties of their village. One of the most prominent myths relates to the adventures of the Kipsigis when they left Tot, their place of origin. It is narrated often in the exact same fashion.

HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya

Folklore: the origin of the Kipsigis people

The Kalenjin were collectively known as Mnyoot before they separated. They traveled from Tot, their area of origin, and reached Kipsigis hill, where they settled for many years.

Three groups were travelling from the country of Tot around the same time: the Nandi, the Elgeyo and the Kipsigis. When they arrived, they went to Saltlick of Sowe and separated. The Nandi reached Kapkeben, while the Kipsigis reached the Mountain of Kipsigis, and lived there for some years.

One day the Kipsigis moved to Mosore. They stayed for a while, then later moved to Chelemey. They continued to the mountain of Pureti, and lived there for years before moving again to Suswot.

Others joined them – the Maasai, the Kisii and the Luo. These communities were considered a threat, and enemies to the Kipsigis people. The Kipsigis fought them and won. Eventually, they all moved away and took all their cattle. This was a great achievement for the Kipsigis people.

This popular myth was told to every Kipsigis in the past, as part of the tribe’s history, in an attempt to explain the origin of the Kipsigis. Traditionally, folktales and riddles were combined with myths to provide young people with a strong sense of Kipsigis values.

Flute (1988)National Museums of Kenya

Pleasant flute tunes

This flute is constructed out of a thick hollow wood, curved into shape using a knife. It consists of five carefully crafted holes, shaped to help direct the passage of air. The shape and design of the flute must accommodate the sound waves moving through air in order to produce notes.

Young men in the community played the flute to create pleasing sounds.

LyreNational Museums of Kenya

A traditional lyre

This eight wire stringed lyre is covered with cow skin. The resonator is made of an old tin, wood from leldongeiyett tree and the stings of twisted sinews obtained from the cow's back.

This musical instrument was used by the community to accompany singing and dance during marriage or circumcision ceremony (named ketuba chaburecha).

KangaNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Kipsigis are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Kipsigis 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. 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.

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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