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African Pre-Colonial Democracies: The Ibinda System of the Kalenji

Democracy has been flourishing under different systems in parts of Africa since ancient times. One example of a pre-colonial political and social system devised within Africa is the Kalenji’s Ibinda system practiced by the Kalenji in Kenya. It is an ancient system that is democratic in nature.

The Kalenjin People

The Kalenjin are a group of people in Kenya that share the same ethnicity and the same language (Kalenjin). The current number of the Kalenji is about 4.9 million people. One of the striking features about the Kalenjin is their social system of the Ibinda age sets. It’s a system that has gone on since generations, and is still in vogue among the Kalenjin, and started in the Western Highlands.

The History of the Ibinda Age Sets

The Ibinda Age Sets came into being in the period between 300 to 1000 AD, and it was a new cycling age-set system. The Ibinda Age Sets had its origins in The Southern Nilotic system of the first millennium BCE. This system had originally consisted of a cycle of eight age-set names, but they were divided into two generational groupings. These groupings were comprised of four age-sets each.

The son’s age-set had to belong to the opposite generational group of sets from that of his father, in a way of equality. However, this generational component was dropped entirely in the period between 300 and 1000 AD. Along with this, another change was undertaken, and the period of each age set was raised to about 15 years. This meant that each cycle of eight age set names would run for about 120 years.

Structure of the Age Sets

According to the Ibinda Age Sets, the males are divided into eight sets. There is always at least a set between a father and a son, that is a son cannot be part of an age set which is just after the one his father is from. Other than these sets, each male has three stages in life, the time of boyhood, which is before he is initiated into a set, a time when he is considered a warrior, and a time in which he retires from war, and becomes an elder of the tribe.

All community elders consequently are given a rounded experience of not only a test environment to put their community first as a warrior, but all elders are forced to contribute to leadership decisions in a more pro-active way than merely voting.

An Ibinda comprises of all the boys of a tribe who are circumcised together. Once these boys would come of age, they would be initiated into their Ibinda. There were eight age sets, however this varied, as some tribes like the Nandi dropped an age set, if some calamitous event would happen during the time of a certain age.

The eight age sets were:

• Maina

• Chumo

• Sawe

• Kipkoimet

• Korongoro

• Kaplelach

• Kipnyigei

• Nyongi

Of these eight age sets, the Nandi, one of the Kalenji tribes, has retired the one known as Korongoro. This is allegedly due to an even that wiped out all the members of this age set, and thus to avoid its repetition, the age set was completely removed.

Impact of the Ibinda Age Sets

While the age sets had been an important part of Southern Nilotic history, the true consequences and advantages of having an age set came from the dropping of the generational component of the system. This meant that the Kalenjin as a whole came to recognize just two adult life stages for males, the muren, or young man age-grade, and the payyan, or elder grade, to which men belonged for the remainder of their lives.

This had a profound impact on the Kalenji because it took around fifteen years until the initiation of the next age-set into the muren state of life, instead of the usual ten. Due to this, the young men remained together for a decade and a half in the muren grade.

At this age, they had many responsibilities, one of the major ones of which were to defend the community and raid other communities for cattle. The change from ten years to fifteen years meant that this was a much longer period of membership in the “warrior” age-grade. This increased the ability of the Kalenjin to exert military pressure on their neighbors and strengthened their capacities for de-fending themselves in case of attack.

It is due to this that the Kalenjin would expand between 800 and 1000 AD, moving from their home in the Western highlands into the plains and the mountain grasslands of central East Africa. Some moved towards Mount Kenya while others would form the Massai.

Female Age Sets

One of the tribes of the Kalenji, the Marakawet had similar age sets for females as well as for males. This was because the Marakawet would circumcise both the males and the females together, and thus give them roles at the same time as well. The names of the female age sets are not fixed and change due to varying circumstances.

Subsets of the Age Sets

Each of the age sets also comprised of different teams. The Kalenji had a total of four teams in each subset of the age set. The teams were also known as siritoik. For the Kalenji, the subsets in an age-set were the Chongin, Kiptaito, Tetagaat and Kiptoinik.

Conclusion

The system of age sets was very useful in helping the Kalenji grow as a tribe. It gave them troops that were harmonized with each other, improving their defensive ability, while also giving them a structure to organize their lives around. It is a system that is still practiced by the Kalenji and has withstood the test of time. It’s one of the oldest democratic systems still in existence in the world of today.

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