In the harsh, semi-arid lands of North-eastern Kenya live indigenous nomadic pastoralists.
Often seen migrating with their livestock of camels and cows, the Rendille tribe presently inhabits an area between the Marsabit hills and Lake Turkana. Once, they all lived in Ethiopia, but due to resource and land conflicts with other tribes in the area, they moved south into Kenya.
What greeted them on their arrival though is a rough, desert environment with unfavorable conditions that made life even tougher. On the bright side, the British colonists who then ruled Kenya found the area too unfavorable for living and therefore did not proceed to conquer the northern lands. And so, the Rendille people continue to live in relative isolation.
The Rendille Tribe Way of Life
Originally the Rendille tribe depended and lived off of camels, an animal very suited to the dry plains of Kenya. The milk and meat provided by camels made them essential for these people’s existence. Camels are also their main mode of transport as the Rendille people migrate from one place to another during certain times of the year. In an unforgiving desert where a diet of plants is difficult to come by due to unavailability the Rendille also also keep cattle, sheep, donkeys, and camels and survive off of a protein-rich diet.
Their villages are made of around two dozen houses, known as “mayattas,” which house about 120 tribes people. Their homes are semi-spherical huts made of branches and covered with leather hide and interesting it’s the women that are in charge of packing and rebuilding the houses. The men take care of the livestock and serve as warriors and the older age groups act as the leaders of the community.
Today however the Rendille Tribe live a slightly less nomadic lifestyle due to the construction of boreholes and longer-lasting water sources – so they just don’t need to roam around like they used to.
Rendille Roles and Rituals
Age sets comprise the Rendille community. Every 7 to 14 years, initiation rituals are done. Proceeding from one set to another, a person’s role in the community changes and develops over time as the individual ages. The men have more stages as they progress to become a warrior, and the first one is a celebrated circumcision event, as is the regular Kenyan practice. The women undergo circumcision only after marriage to a husband of their parent’s preference. They are expected to live at home and take care of the children. Once a woman becomes a mother, her status in the community is elevated.
Marriage is decided upon by the parents of the individual. They are actually banned from marrying within the clan, so the parents are in charge of finding a suitable partner from another clan and setting a bride price for their female child. The men cannot marry until they have reached their final warrior phase which is usually achieved in their late 20s. So it is quite common in their community to see an adult man marrying a child bride.
One interesting ritual is their consumption of a milk and blood mixture they call “Banjo” which is harvested blood by tapping a vein using a special arrow. This process is actually similar to the way you harvest maple syrup.
The original Rendille people speak Rendille/ Rendile or Randile as their mother tongue which is a language very much similar to Somali but is more slowly spoken. It is a Cushitic language and a part of the Afroasiatic language family. Some tribesmen also speak English or Swahili when conversing with outsiders. People of Nilotic and Cushitic descent tend to speak the Samburu language. This is also a concern of some conservationists as they believe that fewer and fewer people continue to speak pure Rendille, due to the threat of assimilation with the Samburu. We’ll get more into detail with this at the end of the article.
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Their religion is centered mainly on the worship of their god, Wakh and is comprised mainly of prayer and worship to the moon (which represents their god) and their ancestral spirits. They pray while looking heavenward and religious rituals are performed during naming, circumcision, marriage and death events. Animal sacrifices are often done by their future-tellers, the “oloiboni,” during special rituals for the death of a member and during drought seasons, as they pray for rain. They have a traditional witch doctor as well called the “lariboni” who heals the sick and the mad.
Interestingly, some of their oral history includes some traditions from the Israelites. They have a passover ceremony called “Sorio” which includes slaughtering sheep and smearing it on the front of their homes, similar to the passover offering story from the Bible. Blood is also smeared on their animals and their bodies to avoid bad omens. The meat of the sheep is put to use as a shared meal with other members of the family. An area of the village called the “nahapo” serves as a place of prayer and worship. Fire is continuously burned there, and every night the men congregate together to pray.
Even as the Muslims from the north tried to convert them, the majority of Rendille people resisted, as they believe that prayers must be done facing the heavens instead of downwards.
Colorful Rendille Tribe Culture
The women of the Rendille tribe are a colorful sight to behold. These women are often seen with their chins smudged with red ochre and large bracelets on their wrists and ankles. Their necks are surrounded by beads of different colors, and these decorations are similar in style with the ones seen from the Samburu tribe. The beads actually tell you a lot of information about the individual wearing them.
The fathers of the females give their children their first strings of beads. The first layer is red, which means that the girl is engaged and promised to a man from another tribe. Although similar to one another, the Rendille culture is more conservative compared to the neighboring Samburu. For example, some female Samburu members recount stories of being given hard-earned necklaces by their first lovers, which they have to stop wearing once they get married to their intended.
The community is predominantly male-led. Separation between sexes is important for all their religious practices. Women are prohibited from talking with men, and they are also prohibited from participating during religious events.
Possibility of Extinction?
Through the centuries, these people have developed a very close relationship with their neighbors, the Samburu. Intermarriage between partners from different tribes are common, and this led to the development of a “hybrid” culture. Some Rendille groups have assimilated many of the Samburu practices and traditions, and this fusion has led to a sort of “dilution” of the original Rendille culture.
Why the term dilution? You see, as intermarriages occur between members of the two different tribes, more often than not the children or the Rendille partner embrace the Samburu culture, leaving behind their Rendille roots. This may be due to fact that nowadays, the adolescent age set known as the “Limoli” prefer the more liberated Samburu culture over the strict and conservative Rendille ways. In urban communities, the last age group that predominantly speaks Rendille are people aged 25 years and above.
According to a study from 1973, out of the 15 Rendille clans, only 9 are considered authentic. The other six are counted as mixed or hybrid clans of both Rendille and Samburu descent.
Samburu and Rendille
If assimilation and integration into the Samburu culture continues, the current Rendille-speaking population may continue to dwindle. Important historical and cultural traditions of the Rendille must be preserved and carried to the next generation according to concerned activists. Traditional shrines visited for pilgrimage are rarely visited nowadays.
To address this issue, an organization named Kivulini Trust initiated programs conducted together with several groups of Rendille women. They aim to start the project in school communities, targeting the younger age sets. Kivulini Trust also aims to partner with the local government to create a curriculum for vernacular studies to establish the Rendille language in educational setting and to promote its use with the youngsters. Books have also been published for this objective.
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