To the Ogiek mountain tribe, the Laboot centre is what Mecca is to a Muslim or Jerusalem to a Jew. No self-respecting member of the minority tribe fails to set foot in the center to identify with his roots before death.
Perched in the moorland of Mount Elgon in the Chepkitale area, the center, size of two to three football pitches, prides itself as the cultural haven of one of the country’s oldest yet often forgotten tribes who live in Mau and Elgon forests.
However learned, traveled, or civilized, the Nilotic speakers from the Ogiek ensure to have a date to Laboot to identify with their heritage and lately their fight for land justice and self-determination.
“Where Laboot stands is the exact point our ancestors used to gather under a canopy of trees (Kamotuui) to share notes on our cultural developments and play judge to our people. Today we have replaced the trees with huts and a mega hall made of wooden walls where our children visit to learn about their heritage and life in general,” says Cosmus Murunga, the Ogiek Council of Elders chair.
“It’s particularly fantastic to receive our kin who travel the world because of education and those born out of our native forest habitat returning home to identify with their 32 sub-clan among our tribe.”
The centre has 32 grass-thatched houses to signify the Ogiek sub-tribes with each clam bearing a totem and a clan head to initiate the new generation of his clan to the Ogiek traditions.
The Kiptieromu clan’s totem for example was the lion (Ngetuindo) while for the Kimeito’s was the elephant.
“We even have clans whose totem is the leopard, hyena, and all the major wildlife that lives in Mount Elgon and Mau forests. No Ogiek will allow you to kill an animal that represents them, this partly explains why we don’t eat wild meat,” says Murunga. ”Eating the meat of an elephant is as good as despising the Kimeito your fellow kinsman. It’s an abomination.”
The average Ogiek member according to Murunga is taken through the history and taboos of the tribe which originated from the highlands north of Lake Turkana at least 1,000 years ago.
They are equally taught life skills like grazing, beekeeping, and making traditional herbs and given important tips on naming, circumcision, marriage, and funeral ceremonies.
“These lessons may sound primitive to the outsiders but we hold that a people without identity is a lost lot. We’ve refused to lose our way of life since the colonists came and we are not doing so any soon,” says Cherotwei Simotwo (Col Rtd) who since his retirement last year has been actively involved with preserving the ways of his tribe and a common face at Laboot.
“Women are trained on vital skills including that of nursing their children, caring for their husbands, cooking traditional foods, herbs and building traditional items like baskets, mats, and even houses.”
The women are experts in constructing the Ogiek huts which are made of barks of trees and the covers of bamboo trees (teleg) as the men’s place was primarily in caves (tororet) from where they had a vintage look at their huts that housed women and children.
With a Masters degree and having served in the Kenya Defence Forces for three decades to an enviable hierarchy, it is hard to separate Simotwo from the Ogiek’s ways of eating, cooking, and dressing. Away from wild honey, he also feeds on bamboo shoots and has even opened a hotel in Kapsowar that specialises in Ogiek cuisines as a way of registering his community’s existence among the other Elgon slopes tribes like the Sabaot, Bukusus, and Nandis.
This way, he feels, they will also remain distinct and not lose their culture even as historians note many Ogiek speakers have shifted to the languages of surrounding peoples.
The Ogiek in northern Tanzania for instance now speak Maasai and those of Kinare, Kenya are quickly adopting the Gikuyu language, a thing that the Mount Elgon Ogieks are working against.
“The Ogiek love to meet at the hotel and speak in our native language which ensures its continuity of our heritage at large,” says Simotwo.
The tribe also has a radio station that broadcasts in Ogiek language (Tulwoob Koony FM) and covers Chepkitale, Kapsokwony, and environs that are largely occupied by the Ogiek.
This is also a strategy to help build and reserve their language that has been at the centre of mutilation and extinction.
Of the about 18,000 Ogieks in the country, there are about 3,000 Ogieks around Mount Elgon who form the sub-tribes of ohmomo, chepkuy, rimrim, somoinen, ntatwa, muchungu, korongoro, kwaimet, kaplelach, nyonngi, and sawe.
Having survived evictions from their land since the colonial days, the Laboot has lately become a nerve centre for celebrating landmark victories the community has had in reclaiming back their land from the government.