Losing Indigenous Cultural Practices Has Dire Consequences for Ecosystems in Kenya

members of the Kipsigis community
Kongasis FM
Mara Basin, Kenya
Losing Indigenous Cultural Practices Has Dire Consequences for Ecosystems in Kenya

These three stories, shared here as English transcripts, were originally aired in Kalenjin, the local language, on Kenyan radio station Kongasis FM in June 2021. They have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How the Indigenous Kipsigis community uses cultural practices to conserve the environment

Wesley Lang'at (WL): For many years, the Kipsigis people, a sub-tribe of the Kalenjin community living in the Rift Valley, have coexisted with the environment and wild animals. They were largely dependent on cattle rearing as their main economic activity, a source of livelihood that is largely rely on weather, and therefore have rich cultural values and practices that help to safeguard the environment.

Join me, Wesley Lang'at in a series of feature radio programs as we discuss some of these cultural practices and how the Kipsigis community works to conserve the environment in the Mara Basin in the southern part of the Rift Valley.

Mr. Chebunyo arap Maineek (CM), a Kipsigis leader: In the olden days, when the Kipsigis elders were there, all these areas were forested. Trees were not  allowed to be cut particularly those that act as a cowshed.

Saraha, tribe member: Deforestation in this region started when locals started planting maize, so they cut down trees to get more land for farming, that is what led to massive deforestation.

WL: In the pre-colonial period, Indigenous Kipsigis migrated in search of a conducive environment for their survival, particularly territorial expansions, which increased their livestock grazing fields and watering points. This displaced the Maasai community, forcing them to migrate to the Southern part of the Rift valley. 

Mr.Chebunyo arap Maineek from Sugumerca village in Sigor Sub-County Bomet County welcomes me into his compound and takes me around as he shows me how land used to be forested with many herds of cattle and wild animals. 

CM: When we arrived in this area many years ago, it was forested with big trees and wild animals. Our livestock were wealthy and many because the grazing field was very expansive with a lot of pasture and water. There were many wild animals such as monkeys and hyenas. Kipsigis people were rearing cattle as the only source of livelihood and no farming. There was even a clear and proper arrangement of watering livestock so that water is clean. Rain was so frequent and we didn't lack anything. 

WL: Several years ago, the community migrated from the highlands to the lower regions of Bomet and Masai, currently known as Narok County. Some were displaced by the whites to pave way for the white settlement schemes currently under the tea farms. 

CM: My name is Chebunyo Arap Maineek from Cheptuyet village. We came from the upper highlands of Bomet to this area because it was warm and favourable for our livestocks.

WL: Like many other Kalenjin sub-tribes, Kipsigis were therefore organised in tune with the environments they lived in. There are taboos associated with some rivers and forests to safeguard them from pollution, abuse and exploitation. 

WL: What are some of the cultural practices and rules that the Kipsigis community follows to conserve the environment? 

CM: There were some structures in the community responsible for the conservation of resources such as water sources. These were cultural rules and practices that were culturally established and followed by the Kipsigis people. 

WL: Why was it not allowed to clear trees in the grazing lands? 

CM: It was not allowed as it was the most respected area and also a taboo to cut trees where the cattle are grazing. 

WL: What were the roles of these trees in the homesteads? 

CM: During extreme droughts, these trees provide shade and also act as a source of fodder. 

WL: What are some of the rules that protect sources of water like rivers? 

CM: It was well known among the community that when you cut trees along the rivers and springs, it dries up. It was a rule that no one was allowed to cut trees around the rivers and was followed by everyone in the community. 

WL: Were there any specific trees which were not allowed? 

CM: Yes, there were specific trees like  the one for performing cultural ceremonies, medicinal trees and plants were not allowed to be destroyed. Other trees which grow in protected areas like rivers and holy grounds were also protected. 

WL: Mr. Chebunyo narrated that the reason as to why the environment like rivers, forest were well conserved is because of strict observation of moral order amongst traditional societies. This includes ecological ethics such as not to defecate near streams where drinking water is fetched. Contempt to this prohibition attracts severe punishment or eviction from the village. 

CM: When someone invades or misuses trees and protected areas like animals, watering points, rivers or trees in strategic grazing fields or shelter, he or she is summoned by the elders to explain why, and if he continues doing the same he is evicted from the village. That was the Kipsigis rules and no one dared to break it because of its consequences. It was universally accepted in the community and everyone obeyed. 

WL: Thus, the conservation of water courses, streams, water pans and wells as well as the associated vegetation was protected through rules that ensured their sustainability. More important were the shrines, caves and the forests covering the springs which were never interfered with because of the belief that they helped maintain and sustain the lives of these important water points.

Aired June 10, 2021

a river bank that has been cleared and replaced with blue gum trees
This riverbank has been cleared of Indigenous trees and planted with blue gums / Credit: Wesley Lang'at

How the Kipsigis' cultural practices hold the key to environmental conservation

WL: In our second series of today’s program, we get to know some of the Kipsigis‘s cultural practices that have played a key role in the conservation and protection of biodiversity.  

Evidently, there has been a direct link between resource management and traditional societies with the continuous interaction and dependency of communities on natural resources in the Mara River Basin where the Kipsigis people finally settled..  

Obot Sarah, one of the oldest women in Nyakichiwa village, explains some of these cultural practices as she witnessed. 

Obot Sarah (OS): The Kipsigis people were offering sacrifices in the holy and protected places. It was done to appease their gods to give rains, protect the community from diseases and droughts. It was done by our grandfathers and grandmothers. Young people were not allow to perform them and truly it was saving the community from different calamities. But in the modern days, no one is doing it. 

WL: The livelihoods of indigenous Kipsigis peoples, custodians of the environment since time immemorial, upheld their traditions which favour and strongly support cattle rearing as this was the only source of their livelihood. 

CM: We used to farm millet, after harvesting, the land was left to fallow and we moved to another place while the previous area regenerated to grow pasture and become grazing land. 

WL: The Kipsigis cultural practices has been vital for sustainability of natural resources including forests, water, and agroecosystems across the landscape, spanning from households through farms, village, commons and wilderness. Obot Sarah explains some of the cultural practices that were performed with the help of specific  trees species . 

OS: Indigenous trees play a very important role. A particular species of tree were used to treat certain diseases that affect livestock. Some of these traditional herbs were given to the livestock as a liquid, while others were fed to livestock as fodder. As a result, cattle were many and healthy. It was safe to take milk without boiling, unlike modern days where animals are treated using different drugs which later affect the livestock production. There were no diseases like mastitis, inflammation of the udder, swine and cattle. 

WL: They have dependencies on natural resources in the form of various ecosystem services like food, fodder, fuelwood, fresh air, water, medicinal plants and herbs. Therefore,most of the forest, water points and other sacred places were conserved by traditional societies with their socio-cultural and religious practices.  

OS: A particular tree was used to decorate the holy places especially during the rituals and offerings. A place where these trees were grown in the bushes were not allowed to be cut or removed. 

WL: The indigenous knowledge is a significant resource which contributes to the increased efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability in environmental conservation among the Kipsigis community. They form the basis for community-level decision making in areas pertaining to food security, human and animal health more important in natural resource management.  

OS: Cutting trees along the rivers and springs was not allowed, those were critical places and it was well taken care of by the community. Any other activity like washing in the rivers was not allowed. There was also medicinal plants, some of the roots were extracted very carefully. One was required to only removed two roots from these plants and return back the soils to allow it to regrow. 

WL: The fact remains that the conservation and protection of the natural resources has been significant since ages.  

This dependency reflects in terms of ecosystem services such as food, fodder, fuelwood, fresh air, water, medicinal plants and herbs. But in the present day, this has completely changed with the civilization and the coming of Europeans, leading to alternative sources of livelihood such as intensive agriculture. 

OS: You see nowadays, many parts of Kipsigis cultural practices has been abandoned to adopt a foreign culture. That is why you see massive destructions in the environment. 

WL: The community’s rapidly changing modern lifestyle has largely contributed to the disintegration of these traditional cultural practices. In our next series, we will find out how these activities have resulted in destruction of much of the protected areas, including those forests along the rivers and wetlands that get converted for other activities such as farming that interfere with the proper functioning of the environment. 

Aired on June 16, 2021

an open field area where locals used to water animals
The Ngeny area, where locals used to water their livestock / Credit: Wesley Lang'at

The disintegration of Kipsigis' cultural practices and the consequences for the Mara River Basin

WL: In today’s program, we are discussing how the modern lifestyle has led to disintegration of Kipsigis culture and practices. Also, how the modern ways of living are contributing to loss of biodiversity which include deforestation, invading protected areas and farming along the rivers, activities that are leading to pollution of the Mara river. I'm your presenter Wesley Lang’at. 

Voice 1: In this area there is a machine called a power saw, cutting down trees and no one is replacing them. 

Voice 2: If this river called Cheptuyet dries up, I don't know if people will survive because their livelihood relies in that river. Domestic water comes from this river. 

WL: The indigenous Kipsigis community, a sub-tribe of the Kalenjin people, finally settled in Mara River Basin, an area that covers four counties: Bomet, Nakuru, Narok and Kericho. According to the Kipsigis community, cultural activities complement environmental conservation efforts. But the rapidly changing modern lifestyle is contributing to the disintegration of these traditional cultural practices. This is leading to the loss of biodiversity. 

Cheptuiyet village, in Bomet County, was previously forested with several streams, springs and rivers forming tributaries of the Mara river. In this village, rampant unsustainable human activities such as farming along the rivers and climate change is destroying available sources of water. 

I speak to some of the residents who decried the alarming rate of deforestation and farming activities. They are worried that most of the rivers and springs are at the risk of drying up. Therefore, in the near future, they will be forced to go a long distance in search of drinking water. 

David Turgut (DT): If you start from the river source, residents have destroyed the river Cheptuyet. They have planted blue gums and are doing farming along this river. Blue gums were supposedly planted in the swampy places and not along the sources of water. There is no other river from the Mara and even the whole lower part of Bomet County that is very important like this river. If this river called Cheptuyet dries up, I don't know if people will survive because their livelihood relies in that river. Domestic water comes from this river so this river is the most important. 

WL: Some of the older members of the community, like Sarah, are blaming the current generation for disregarding the community's cultural practices. It is the major cause of rampant destruction particularly in the protected areas that have cultural importance, including those along the rivers and wetlands which have been converted for other activities such as farming. 

OS: Deforestation started because locals wanted to get spaces for their farm lands to plant maize. This is the reason why people cut trees because of farming. By then they didn't know that this was destroying the environment and driving away rain.

WL: Like many other villagers, locals are rapidly loosening their grip on traditional and cultural practices. For example, “Ngeny” is a place with salty water and salt licks, where villagers used to water their livestock. It was regarded as an important area for livestock and performing cultural practices, but now has been converted into car and motorcycle washing bay by the youths. 

DT: People do their washing in the river yet it’s being fetched down stream, residents have farmed even along the rivers, some also have cut down indigenous trees and plant exotic trees like blue gums. You see this place”Ngeny”: It was not allowed to carry on any activity like farming but many have encroached with destructive activities which pollute this river. If it dries up, people will suffer a lot. 

WL: Mr. Chebunyo Maineek says that with the introduction of maize farming, much of the forest was cleared to pave way for cultivation of maize. In the late 70’s most of the members of the community moved to Masai land which was formerly  forested and inhabited by wildlife is search of arable land for their livestock and farming. 

CM: When farming started, especially maize planting, many people started cutting down trees to get space to plant maize. In addition, there came a charcoal burning business that caused a massive destruction, many forested areas were cleared to burn charcoal. 

WL: On the other hand, Wilson Langat, another resident at Cheptuiyet village, is raising a concern over rampant cutting of indigenous trees which were not allowed and are being replaced with water thirsty, exotic trees such as blue gums.  

Wilson Langat: When most places have been exposed, indigenous trees cut down are replaced with blue gum. Even the sources of rivers, locals are no longer caring they are farming close to these rivers and because of that, when it rains there is massive soil erosion. 

WL: The WWF report for the year 2019, titled, “The Importance of a Healthy, Free-flowing Mara River to the Society and Economy of Kenya and Tanzania" says that in Bomet and Narok counties, for example, the natural capital benefits from the Mara River is estimated to be KES 102 and KES 129 billion per year respectively. David Turgut says unsustainable land use practices is putting all these benefits at risk if Mara River dries up. 

DT: These rivers are forming the bigger Mara river which supports wildlife in Masai Mara national park, which attracts tourists. 

WL: Uncontrolled farming and other activities: That's where many people are employed and earning their livelihoods. Now supposedly this river dries up, many many people will be rendered jobless because there will be no animals that generate employment opportunities. 

WL: According to Peter Minang, Director, Africa Leader, Greening Tree Crop Landscapes, local communities are the main cause of land degradation. They are engaging in very destructive survival activities like charcoal burning which is responsible for the disappearance of a larger percentage of forest. 

Peter Minang: What are the main things that are causing land degradation? It's largely agriculture as the direct cause, a lot of the people are dependent on agriculture. As people intensify it, then what happens? You find that a lot of flora and ecosystem services from land are actually reducing and the only one that is growing many times is food and agriculture, then we have infrastructure extension and then we have wood extraction and related activities. 

WL: Indeed, the unsustainable land use and other resource extraction are threatening ecosystems in the Mara River Basin, also home to over a million people across Kenya and Tanzania, supporting wildlife populations in Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Aired on June 26, 2021 

These are translated transcripts of several radio features originally aired in June 2021 by Kenyan radio station Kongasis FM in Kalenjin, a local language. These stories were produced by journalist Wesley Lang'at with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. The transcripts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Members of Kenya's Kipsigis community practice traditional forest management in their community / Credit: Wesley Lang'at.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories