Is the Kalenjin’s age-old tradition under trial at the International Criminal Court?


When violence erupted across the country after former President Kibaki was declared the winner of the bitterly contested 2007 General Election, Mike Kibet and seven others were tucked in a bush by a river in Kapkoros, Nandi County.

Kibet, 21, was then a Form One student at a local secondary school. He was among hundreds of initiates undergoing an age-old rite of passage within the Kalenjin sub- tribes.

“While in the bush, our minders told us that Kenya was burning. We were so scared, but men from the village took turns to protect us just in case we would come under attack. Being initiates we were not supposed to carry any weapons,” said Kibet.

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Kibet, now a university student, was among a group of initiates who went through the age-old traditional circumcision rites in 2007. These rites are now part of the evidence by the Office of the Prosecutor in the cases facing Deputy President William Ruto and former radio presenter Joshua Sang at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A clip of the traditional ceremony played by ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda at the opening of the trials at The Hague has caused ripples and elicited sharp reactions from the Kalenjin community.

Community elders are calling for firm action against those who presented the clips to ICC investigators, saying they contravened community customs.

The prosecution played the clips as evidence that Kalenjin warriors were involved in the 2007-08 post-election violence.

Community on trial

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Kalenjin council of elders chairman Major (rtd) John Seii criticised the ICC prosecutor for displaying images of initiates from what he said is a secret community affair.

Major Seii told The Standard on Sunday the initiation ceremony has been practiced by the Kalenjin sub tribes of Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Sabaot, Terik and the Kipsigis since time immemorial and that it is not about war but a respected traditional rite of passage to manhood.

“This is an age-old tradition that is sacred and treasured among the Kalenjin sub-tribes and has no connection at all with politics,” said Major Seii.

According to Dr Chelulei Cheison, a visiting professor at Technical University in Munich, the Kalenjin have been holding traditional circumcision rites from when they were in Egypt.

The ceremonies, he said, have never been a precursor to attacks on other communities.

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He said the use of the footage at the ICC as evidence of the existence of an organised command and control structure among Kalenjin youth against other communities was an assault and a mockery of the Kalenjin norms and values.

According to Dr Cheison, this is no longer about Sang and Ruto but the entire culture of the Kalenjin community on trial.

“Our culture is being used for the wrong purpose. The use of circumcision ceremony footage was very wrong and against Kalenjin culture. The community has been circumcising its youth in December and that has been the culture,” said Dr Cheison.

“We need local and international court systems to redeem the community’s name and restore our punctured pride as a people,” he said.

Shadrack Moimet, the proprietor of Koibatek Herbal Clinic and a cultural practitioner in Eldoret, said initiates are supposed to stay in the menjo (a temporary house in the bush) during the circumcision process.

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Secretly guarded

Moimet said it was laughable to imply that the initiates participated in the post-election violence when traditionally, they were not allowed to shed blood or contaminate themselves with any evil because they are supposed to be pure.

“It is taboo for the initiates who cannot be more than 20 in one seclusion, to be involved in any evil act because they are supposed to be pure during the period,” Moimet said.

Dr Cheison said Deputy President Ruto and Mr Sang were both initiated into manhood through the modern rites of passage, which was started in the 1960s by the initial converts to Christianity.

“Those who did not go through the traditional rites would stand out in a crowd. It is simply not easy to pretend to be one; it is very heavy on symbolism, nobody who went through it talks about it,” said the visiting professor.

He affirmed the circumcision rites are so elaborate and secretly guarded, that if anyone who did not go  through the rite would not know beyond what women know.

“Essentially, it is a system that has no respect for status, social or otherwise. It does not matter who it is, nobody wields influence over the process, except those who belong to the relevant categories — the mentors and the elders,” stated Dr Cheison.

“I hold the view that since Ruto and Sang did not go through the rites, they are strangers to the process, hold no sway at all over the rites and would not get close to it for fear of the consequences, including curses.”

Dr Cheison agrees. “Claiming that the two, who are strangers to the ceremonies, hijacked the process is tantamount to claiming that boys and women would walk into a Nandi circumcision ceremony and play a role or even direct the process.” he said.

“That is simply unthinkable and disrespectful to the Kalenjin culture and tradition. It is an insult to the community and it is unacceptable,” he said.

Moimet noted that the Kalenjin people initiated their boys annually around end of November and early December because the timing coincides with the longest school holidays.

“Depending on when schools close, the initiation dates vary around end of November to early December. During the period between initiation and graduation they live in seclusion,” said Moimet.

“The reputation, honour and international standing of what a Nandi, or a Kalenjin by extension, believes in is under assault. I consider it right that the community must seek court redress to protect the community’s name and restore our pride of place,” said Dr Cheison.

Already, a lobby group calling itself Kalenjin Young Professionals Forum has moved to the High Court in Eldoret and filed a case seeking to block the office of the prosecutor at the ICC from using video and other material showing Kalenjin traditional rites claiming that the use of the clip was an assault on age-old community traditions.

The group’s patron and a senior lecturer at Moi University, Dr Julius Bitok, told The Standard on Sunday that their lawyers had also written to the Pan African Court of Justice in Addis Ababa and the International Court of Justice in Geneva expressing displeasure with what they see as a condemnation of a community’s culture by the ICC.

He said the use of the clips and videos by the prosecution at the ICC would rob the Kalenjin of their rich culture and was an abomination. “The community is in great shock since the news broke out that our tradition has been unmasked, publicised and abused in this court,” said Dr Bitok.

Dr Bitok emphasised that it was mere coincidence that the post-poll violence broke out at the same time the Kalenjin youth were undergoing their annual rite of passage in secluded places.

“The clips, first of all, are an abomination. It is quite unethical to record and deliver reports that unmask what happens there and that brings us to the question of who recorded them,” he said.

There are two Facebook and Twitter accounts dubbed: Tell the prosecutor to leaveMyTumdoAlone; and, don’t even dare put the #KalenjinCultureOnTrial at the#ICC

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