Ilion! Let’s learn Kalenjin

By Valtteri Nurminen, COCO volunteer

This is already the sixth blog of our series celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The earlier blogs have introduced the languages of Luhya, Luo, Maa, Luganda and Ngoni. If you haven’t read these blogs yet or would like to practice your language skills more, just follow the hyperlinks. This week it’s time to move back to Kenya and introduce the language and culture of Kalenjin.

The Kalenjin tribe is Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group with around 4.4 million people. Kalenjins primarily live in Kenya’s Rift Valley and in the western highlands. Kalenjin is at the same time a tribe and a language group. It is important to acknowledge that both the Kalenjin tribe and the language have various sub-groups and languages.

The various dialects of the Kalenjin language are linguistically similar even though in practice, many of these languages are incomprehensible with each other. For example, Nandi, Kipsigis and Keyio dialects are highly similar and understandable with each other, and Marakwet and Sabaot have some similarities but Pokot and Ndorobo dialects do not share almost any similarities.

While most Kalenjin people speak nowadays also English and Swahili, the Kalenjin language is highly important in preserving and passing down the Kalenjin culture. The Kalenjins have very rich folklore which is practised orally by telling stories and popular wisdom, singing songs and playing word games. Thus, preserving the Kalenjin language is also preserving the Kalenjin culture.

The Kalenjin are famous for producing some of the world’s best long-distance runners. As a result, they are known as “Kenya’s running tribe”. Undeniably most people who have watched long-distance running in the Olympics and World Championships have recognised Kenya’s dominance. However, most probably only a very few knew that almost all of these runners come from the same tribe. As a result, many have tried to research why the Kalenjins are so dominant and while multiple factors have been considered – e.g. genes, environment, endurance to resist pain and unique training methods – the researchers have not been able to reach an agreement.

As mentioned earlier, the Kalenjin language has multiple dialects. For this blog’s words and sayings section, the following translations are presented in the Nandi dialect.

Hello – Ilion

How are you? – Iamunei?

What is your name? – Kikurenin ngo?

My name is – Kikureno…

Yes – Woi