The Southern Nilotes were early arrivals in East Africa from a homeland in the Sudan. Indeed, some linguistic reconstructions place them in the area as far back as the fourth century BCE, although other scenarios have them arriving considerably later. Some suggest they were linked to the Elmenteitan cultural tradition that persisted in southwestern Kenya until the seventh century, and that they practiced a mixed economy of pas-toralism and cultivation, augmented by hunting. Others argue that they were specialized pastoralists from an early date.
There is more general agreement that by the beginning of the second millennium, Iron Age Southern
Nilotes had established themselves well into East Africa, where they interacted with earlier Stone Age Southern Cushites, and from them adopted initiation rites involving circumcision, food taboos, and certain sociopolitical structures. Gradually, the Nilotes assimilated or displaced these earlier populations until only a few small pockets of Cushites remained. The Southern Nilotes also appear to have interacted with Kuliak-speakers in eastern Uganda, and, in various places, with Bantu agriculturalists who may have facilitated the emergence of a pastoral focus among Nilotes within broad systems of regional interaction.
By the early part of the millennium, if not before, Southern Nilotes had split into three distinct sub-groups. In the south were Dadog, a vanguard of southern penetration, who eventually pushed down into the grasslands of northern Tanzania. Behind them, in the uplands of western Kenya, emerged the Kalenjin, and, developing separately from them to the north, the Pokot. At this point, all seem to have had decentralized political structures based on similar cycling age-set systems.
By at least the middle of the second millennium, the early Kalenjin inhabited a region from Mt. Elgon and the Cherangany Hills in the north, down across the Uasin Gishn Plateau, to the Kericho-Lake Nakuru area in the south. Their origin traditions often picture a rather mysterious people, the “Sirikwa,” as the earlier inhabitants of this area, and link them with the remains of “Sirikwa Holes,” semisubterranean structures, found throughout much of it. Deep wells, dams, agricultural terraces, and irrigation systems are sometimes associated with the Sirikwa, as well, although traditions of Maa-speakers attribute them to another ancient people called Il Lumbwa.
Some observers identify the Sirikwa with the early Kalenjin themselves and argue that they were specialized pastoralists for whom milking was especially important. Certainly there are indications that some ancestral Kalenjin and Dadog (who also have Sirikwa traditions) had a strong pastoral focus. Other scholars believe the Sirikwa are better seen as multilingual confederacies of mixed farmers, the products of long interaction between Cushitic and Southern Nilotic elements, and, later, Maa-speaking Eastern Nilotes as well. As such, they may be perhaps better regarded as a cultural “phenomenon” than as an actual ethnic group. Certainly this seems to have been the case with Sirikwa-like groups such as the Oropom and Siger who inhabited the Karamoja-Turkana borderlands northeast of Mount Elgon.
In any case, it is clear that not all early Southern Nilotes were pastoralists. The Pokot branch, for instance, most probably had a decidedly agricultural economy, as apparently did some of irrigation-using Kalenjin of the Cherangany Hills. In addition, an important feature of this “Sirikwa era” were hunter-gatherers from whom were descended Southern Nilotic-speaking Okiek populations.
Many scholars believe that from about the seventeenth century the Southern Nilotes underwent profound transformations. The agents of these changes were in many cases Maa-speakers who began a series of significant expansions into areas previously held by Southern Nilotes and/or “Sirikwa.” These advancing Maasai apparently practiced a “new,” more vigorously mobile form of pastoralism, which combined with sophisticated military practices and the leadership of powerful prophets (laibons), led to the rapid assimilation or dispersal of Southern Nilotes. Sirikwa holes, which had provided defense against earlier raiding, were easily overwhelmed. Some Southern Nilotic traditions dramatically depict the cataclysm as a mountain falling from the sky to scatter earlier population. From this welter of activity, new Southern Nilotic communities were born; “Sirikwa” came to denote old-fashioned ways of earlier times.
By the mid-eighteenth century, agricultural Nandi and Kipsigis societies had been formed from Kalenjin elements to the southwest of Uasin Gishu, though excluded from the plateau itself by Maasai neighbors. To the west, closer to the shores of Lake Victoria, other Kalenjin interacted with Luo - and Bantu-speakers, sometimes adopting their languages while imparting Southern Nilotic cultural forms. In the Mount Elgon area, Kalenjin were forced from the grasslands below to the slopes of the mountain itself where some became plantain-cultivating Sebei. In the Cherangany uplands, Kalenjin-speaking Marakwet, Tuken, Endo, and Keyo agriculturalists, together with neighboring Pokot, were kept from the surrounding grasslands by pastoral neighbors.
To the south, Maasai displaced Dadog (known to them as Il Tatua) and their Cushitic allies from Lolindo, the Serengeti, and the Crater Highlands. Disintegrating into separate fragments, Dadog in small groups of migrating coevals gradually retreated throughout the nineteenth century into less desirable areas deeper into Tanzania, where they adapted themselves to a broad range of new environments. In recognition of their stubborn resistance, the Maasai gave them the nickname Il Mangat, “Respected Enemies.” Meanwhile, in the Turkana-Karamoja borderlands to the north, the last of the old “Sirikwa” confederations were defeated and absorbed by other expanding Eastern Nilotes, the Ateker group, by the early nineteenth century.
From about that same time, however, the Maa-speakers began a series of devastating internecine quarrels. In the process, Maasai groups, especially those which contained “Sirikwa” elements such as the Segellai and Uasin Gishu, were crushed and eliminated as competitors with Southern Nilotes. This allowed the dramatic expansion of some Southern Nilotes into grassland environments, where, often absorbing remnant populations, they turned (or perhaps returned) to specialized pastoralism. By the later nineteenth century, for instance, both Nandi and Pokot had evolved strong pastoral sections that were competing successfully with their neighbors for control of pastoral resources.
Attending this reinvigoration, the sociopolitical structures of some Southern Nilotic communities underwent substantial changes. Nandi and Kipsigis borrowed the notion of powerful prophets, whom they termed orkoiyots, from defeated Maasai. The Sebei and Pokot developed similar prophets, apparently borrowing the idea from the Sirikwa-like Siger. In all cases, these functionaries became emergent centralizing figures who provided a stronger sense of community integration, and often more effective military leadership, as well. Nandi and Kipsigis also refined their pororiet territorial systems, and the Pokot altered their age-class system to an Ateker-like model, in each case to promote military efficiency.
By the eve of the colonial era, therefore, Southern Nilotic societies were among some of the most vigorous in all of East Africa. Over many centuries, they had displayed a remarkable resilience and the capacity to adjust to changing circumstances. As a result, their role in shaping the course of East African history had been profound.
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