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Of body marks that tell a tale

By Fred Kibor | May 18th 2016

Jacob Kirop Mendi displays some of the 'kill mark' tattoos on his body. The marks are cut on the arms, back and stomach of a warrior after a war. Those given the marks are those that have killed their enemies. The higher the number of the marks, the higher the number of enemies killed. Those with most marks were held in high esteem in the community and allowed to marry the most beautiful women in the community. 30-03-2016. PHOTOS BY: KEVIN TUNOI

The traditional Kalejin community had a unique way of honoring its war heroes — through body marks referred to as Golek.

These were deep incision marks curved into the warrior’s body in a particular pattern. This was usually on the arms, chest, on the back or even on the stomach mainly among men from the pastoralist communities in the North Rift region.

These marks of honour were used to decorate gallant warriors as soon as they returned home from battle having vanquished the enemy. The more the marks a man had, the higher his rank as a warrior.

The marks were, however, only given to men who killed in battle. A warrior who killed a man would get a set of parallel marks cut on his right forearm and if he killed a woman, similar marks would be cut into his left arm. The same procedure would be repeated whenever a warrior executed an enemy during subsequent battles.

According to Jacob Kirop, a Marakwet elder and police reservist in the Kerio valley region, if a warrior came home bearing a piece of goat skin in his spear, the elders knew he had killed one person and he would undergo a ceremony that climaxed with the inscription of these marks.

“This ceremony acted as an elevation to the next rank of heroism, since it was believed that the warrior sacrificed his life for the benefit of the whole community,” he says.

Further, the warriors who had killed were not supposed to enter the homestead until the ceremony was conducted and had to stay secluded in the forest.

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“They were to stay in the forest for more than six months with each of them chanting war prowess songs. Those who already had golek (other war heroes) were the ones who would feed them and conduct the rituals,” he says.

He also notes that these men were not supposed to cross any river or spring before the rituals had been performed since it was believed they would dry it up or contaminate it.

Kirop says after the seclusion period was over, a white he-goat without blemish was to be slaughtered and the undigested stomach food (eiyat) smeared on the warriors face and body to signify blessings.

He says this golek tradition had deep attachments in the community and warriors who had not killed their enemies in battle fields were treated with less regard in the community.

“It was considered a sign of courage and of a war champion who would leave nothing to chance to defend his community from intruders and wild animals,” Kirop says.

The marks also acted as an attraction to women and a warrior with the most inscriptions had many beautiful girls in the land at his pleasure.

“This is the reason why many war veterans had large families because women would come to them in droves and also they were very wealthy due to war plunders,” he says.

Keiyo elder Fredrick Chesang says although the tradition ended decades ago among his community, warriors who had numerous marks on their bodies where the envy of many and they commanded a lot of respect.

He, however, says these marks should not be mistaken with those which were used to administer drugs to the sick.

“Golek are formidable prominent signs which once incised cannot be erased since a special knife was used to make these deep cuts,” the elderly man says.

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