Laboot: The center where the Ogiek seek divine counsel from their gods

Olive Chebet plasters her hut in Laboot center in Mt Elgon, Bungoma County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

"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.

Cherotwei Simotwo (Col Rtd) at Mt Elgon forest in Chepkitale, Bungoma County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

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.