The Rendille of Kenya
Population: 60,432 (2009 Kenya Census)
Religion: Local Traditional, small Christian minority
Registry of Peoples code(s): Rendille: 108354
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue): Rendille: rel
The Rendille lead a peaceful nomadic life in north central Kenya. They now live their lives and raise their livestock in almost 9000 sq miles (14,500 sq km) of very arid semi-desert in southern Marsabit District, bordered on the north by the Chalbi Desert. In his doctoral thesis on the Rendille, A. Beaman comments that "Rendille-land constitutes one of the most forbidding human habitats in all of East Africa in terms of heat, climatic aridity, and the scarcity of water points" (Beaman, p 2). They cling to a nomadic life of herding camels, goats and cattle.
Over the years, the Rendille have been harassed constantly by the more powerful groups of Oromo and Turkana, adding to the harshness of their existence. Some sources also report problems with the Somali, but the Somali have had a relatively benevolent view of the Rendille as distant relatives.
The Rendille do not have a myth of creation, and a variety of stories exist regarding their origins. What all these stories have in common is that some individuals, who were wandering around, met others and they then joined forces against common threats; "…the various segments frequently suggest that they originally became members of the Samburu or Rendille through migrating from some other tribe" (Beaman 1981, 66). This is further supported by the fact that various sections claim links with different groups surrounding Rendille (Spencer 1973, 149).
Linguistic evidence shows a high degree of similarity between the Rendille and Somali languages. This evidence indicates that the ancestors of the Rendille were part of the same people and speaking the same "Somaloid" or Proto-Somali language with the ancestors of the Somali, Sakuye and Gabbra people. This people were already organized round a complex camel culture at that time. This included an extensive ritual calendar, based on dual lunar and solar calendars involving ceremonies for the well-being of camels and humans.
This leads to the conclusion that the roots of Rendille culture were brought to the region of Lake Turkana by people migrating westward from the homeland of the Proto-Somali before the Cushitic Rendille/Somali came into contact with Nilotes such as the Samburu. Fleming (1965:443-447) dates that contact to the late first millennium BC. This places the origins of the Rendille people as a linguistic and cultural group at the end of the first millennium BC, several hundred years before the advent of Islam.
Their long-standing alliance with the Samburu developed in this area of their ancient residence and unrelated to any alleged association with the Somali or Islam. They continue to resist Islam to this day, despite Somali legends that the Rendille abandoned Islam earlier.
The 16th century Oromo expansion brought great disruption to these Somaloid peoples causing migrations south and westward from their southern Ethiopia and Somalia homes. These peoples were further separated when some groups of them developed ritual kinship arrangements with Oromo (Borana) peoples for protection. The Rendille were the southernmost of these Somaloid peoples and maintained their own culture and language more intact.
Their first contact with outside world is not well known, but the following may be said:
On 25 March 1907, Charles Hurlburt and John Stauffacher embarked on a one-month round trip from Rumuruti and back to survey the Rendille and Samburu peoples. Hurlburt was the director of Africa Inland Mission, and Stauffacher was a missionary with the same mission. On a dangerous and eventful journey on foot, they finally made contact with the Rendille after six days and spent several more days surveying the country (Stauffacher 1977, 56-61). This event took place over one hundred years ago! It was to take many more years before Africa Inland Mission (and indeed any other mission, Protestant or Catholic) was able to start work amongst the Rendille.
The Rendille had superficial contact from time to time with the explorers and hunters who came to northern Kenya for ivory and adventure. With the colonisation of the country, the British colonial government obviously had dealings with Rendille, but according to their records they found them to be extremely uncooperative regarding any interference from outside.
Western specialists living and working amongst the Rendille have also experienced a similar standoffish reception. One couple of linguists report that their first attempts at approaching their villages were met by women throwing stones at them.
Visually the Rendille resemble other Cushitic groups with their fine facial features. As such they are quite distinct from the Nilotic and Bantu peoples of Africa. Linguistically the Rendille are most closely related to Somali and Aweer (formerly known as Boni). Culturally they are closest to the Gabbra, who have similar ceremonies to the Rendille. They are nomadic pastoralists, caring for goats, fat-tailed sheep and camels. Some families also now have cattle although the area is very harsh.
The Rendille proper, or "White" Rendille, consist of eight inter-related clans, plus one other clan called O'doola. The 8 clans are divided into two moieties, East and West. Related to their eclectic compositon, referred to above, Spencer reports that the clans claim descent from the following groups:
(Bold items indicate the Rendille clan, while bracketed items indicate clan or sub clan in neighboring group)
Somali: Saali (Fakhashiini), Dibshai (Rakhwen-Dafara), Matarpa (Ugaden), Nahagan (Ugaden), Nebei, Lekila (Saakh), Odoolah (Garri)
Boran: Dibshai (Furr), Tubsha (Deele)
Reshiat: Rongummo, Galdeelan (Spencer 1973, 147)
One's identity is strongly based on the clan. An unmarried girl therefore really only gains her proper clan identity when she gets married. These clans have from 2 to 7 subclans. Having adopted some Borana customs, the Rendille are culturally similar to the Gabbra. Their language is closely related to Somali, but their allies are the Samburu to the South.
One group of the Rendille, the Ariaal, are in reality a different people group. The Ariaal Rendille are a separate grouping from the Rendille proper, and have adopted some Samburu customs and some Rendille customs. The Ariaal follow Samburu clan groupings and initiation rites. The vast majority of the Ariaal are Samburu speakers, although those living in the lowlands closer to the Rendille speak Rendille.
The Ariaal readily adapt themselves to their surroundings. Those living in the highlands are indistinguishable from the Samburu settlements in terms of house structure and size, while those in the lowlands have large villages and Rendille style huts (Fratkin 1987, 53).
In addition, depending on what is most beneficial to them at that time, the Ariaal may call themselves Samburu or Rendille. Currently the vast majority of the Ariaal will claim to be Samburu since they see the much larger Samburu as more prestigious. (It should be noted that the Kenya census did not differentiate between Ariaal Rendille and Rendille proper.)
Rendille is the primary traditional language. Some speak Samburu too. A small minority speak some Borana. Everybody speaks the traditional language but the few educated sometimes use Swahili or English amongst themselves. As a member of the Lowland East Cushitic language family of the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Rendille language is most closely related to Somali and Aweer (previously known as Boni.)
The alphabet is based on the Roman alphabet but has to distinguish between two [d] sounds 'd and d; as well as between 'h and h. The symbol [kh] is used for the fricative as in Khartoum. In our schools Rendille is taught in nursery, then Swahili is the language of instruction for the first two Primary School years, followed by English from Standard Three. In other schools, Swahili is taught from Standard 1 to 2, followed by English.
Every married man is an elder and becomes part of the leadership of his clan. Each man has equal voice in the decisions made which are based on consensus. Someone continually going against the common wishes will be coerced to fall in with the majority. There is no democracy. In practice, those with leadership skills are recognized and will be called upon to help with critical decision making.
The traditional leadership is still very much in place. There is now also a 'Chief's committee' with a representative from each of the clans. The chief is strictly a Kenya government post and Rendille do not traditionally have a chief or overall leader.
Relationship to other Peoples:
1. Rendille - Samburu: A remarkable alliance exists between the Cushitic Rendille and their Nilotic Samburu neighbors to the south as detailed by Spencer (1973). The Rendille helped the Samburu survive when rinderpest wiped out their cattle herds at the end of the nineteenth century. Just after the Samburu recovered, the Rendille were decimated by smallpox. The Samburu, having already faced that affliction, were more resistant and so could help herd Rendille livestock (Brown 1989, 63-64).
2. Rendille - Gabbra: The Gabbra are the northern neighbours of the Rendille and they share some rituals such as Alma'do and Sooriyyo, as well as both being camel-keepers. Conflict has arisen from time to time due to mutual raiding. They then usually get together to make peace again, being "enemies we can talk to."
3. Rendille - Turkana: The numerically larger Turkana have frequently in the past mounted vicious raids on the Rendille, stealing large herds of livestock. The Turkana are "enemies we cannot talk to," so there is no mechanism to bring closure to the raids.
The Rendille are not active or influential in Kenya politics, although one Member of Parliament was made an Assistant Minister. The only time political activity really takes place is around election time. Most would then vote for the candidate who comes from their side of the moiety.
The Rendille are nomadic pastoralists keeping mainly camels, goats and sheep. They live in large semi-permanent villages of married men, women and children and move two to three times each year. Marriage patterns are exogamous, between sub-clans or major clans. The Rendille follow a 14-year generation initiation pattern.
The villages are based on the clan. Because it is based on the clan and not extended families like the Samburu and Maasai, the village can be very large, up to one hundred huts. The houses are made of a stick framework with mats made from wild sisal fastened to them. Two cow skins form the doorway. The whole hut is designed to be taken down and strapped onto a camel.
The huts are built in a circle. The thorn enclosures for the livestock are inside the circle, so that any marauders would have to pass the huts to get to the animals. Right in the centre is the naabo or gathering place where they meet to pray and to discuss village matters.
The Rendille follow an age-set system, with circumcision taking place every fourteen years for the males. They then become 'warriors' and fulfill this role of protecting the livestock and the tribe. Then the warriors will all marry within a two-year period before the end of their warriorhood, paving the way for the next group of warriors. (The long extension is no longer being strictly followed, resulting in earlier marriages.)
The idiom for marriage is 'to build a house for yourself.' The wedding takes place at the bride's village. Early in the morning, the bride would be circumcised (clitoridectomy).
In the meantime, the groom, his best man and a group of friends, move towards the mother-in-law's hut, singing a wedding song and driving a ewe and a very fat ram. At the edge of the village they stop and two women relatives of the bride remove their sandals. (They will walk for five days without sandals!)
The ewe is taken and placed in the mother-in-law's hut. The ram is taken to the entrance of the hut where the elders slaughter it. The fat strips on the back are carefully cut off. The groom and best man then carry the fat strips to the mother-in-law through the entrance to the hut. Much of the day is taken up with the elders drinking tea, while the women build the new hut for the bride, using the best of the mother's mats in the process.
A group of women from the groom's clan dressed with the ceremonial 'okko' - a skin with bells attached. In the evening, the groom, best man and bride move slowly to the new hut which will be in the centre of the village. An elder makes the first fire for the new hut by rubbing two sticks together.
Different clans have slight variations but with Dubsahay clan, the groom enters the hut through an opening left in the wall of the hut. He passes through on the girl's side to his side of the hut. She too enters through an opening on the opposite side from the groom. A baby is placed briefly in her arms.
The best man cuts the toenails of both groom and bride. These are then tied into a part of the groom's cloth and he will allow them to drop out at some stage. The bride's and groom's nails are indistinguishable, symbolising the unity of the new couple.
The groom and best man leave the hut at night. They will return every day but leave again until about the fifth day when the groom comes to stay and the bride is starting to heal up from the clitoridectomy.
Rendille have been largely monogamous, but we see an increasing number now taking a second wife. If the first wife has not had a son, this is one reason for having a second wife.
Children are raised by example. The smaller boys and girls help with chores around the house: caring for the lambs, fetching sticks for firewood and caring for siblings. As children get a bit older, their roles are determined by gender, with the girls fetching water from the wells, and the boys being more involved with the livestock, although girls will also herd and milk the small stock.
Teaching takes place by older boys and girls, as well as older men and women. The warriors will train the boys in camel care and how to milk a camel.
The learning style is repetitive, so a subject is taught and then repeated over and over. When a child is about ten years old, the front teeth are knocked out and the child is given a sheep or goat. The transition from boyhood to warriorhood is by means of circumcision. A warrior becomes an elder when he marries. A girl becomes a 'galtaam' with the onset of puberty. She wears a lot more beads and a headpiece made of little shiny metal pieces and beadwork. A girl becomes a woman by means of "circumcison" (clitoridectomy) at marriage.
A small herd of milk camels is maintained near the settlement, milked by the women for family use. The main herds of camels are herded by older boys and young men, moving frequently to find good grass and water.
Camels need to be watered only every 10-14 days but at that time drink enormous amounts. This is brought up from deep water holes by hand by the young men. Large flocks of sheep and goats are shepherded by the girls and unmarried women. Their animals are very closely identified with the life of each family. The days of the week and seasons of the year are named for the various aspects of caring for the camels.
The Sooriyyo ceremony that takes place four times a year is rather similar to the Passover. Every family chooses an animal without blemish. All the males in the family gather around, the animal is washed with milk and milk is poured on the cow skins forming the doorway of the hut. When they have slaughtered the goat or sheep, the blood is applied to the foreheads of all the males. If the camels are present, they also daub some blood on the hump.
The traditional religion is still very strongly followed. The traditional religion believes in a Creator God who is worshipped through ritual and regular prayers. Traditionally the Rendille are a very religious people, believing in one God, an omnipresent creator and provider who answers prayer and cares for the poor.
Their ceremonies are similar to Old Testament Jewish traditions. There are numerous sacrifices including a daily milk libation. Strict adherence to their rituals is critical in Rendille culture.
They practice many magical rituals, involving their camels or sheep. For example, the way a certain bull camel approaches a proposed new settlement area is taken as a good or bad omen. A propitious camel may be placed outside the camp facing the direction of an expected enemy attack in order to prevent the attack.
Various clans observe specific taboos (avoidance rituals).
Most of the traditional Rendille practice their Rendille Traditional Religion. There are a few Rendille who have become Muslims, but not many, due to the dietary restrictions of Islam. (Almost every other Cushitic group is Muslim.)
The Catholics and Africa Inland Church started work in northern Kenya in 1965, when the government for the first time lifted restrictions on their work in northern Kenya.
Currently AIM and the Catholics are the main missionary groups working amongst the Rendille. Kenyan church groups now involved with the Rendille include CITAM (or Nairobi Pentecostal Church), the Full Gospel, a Baptist group and a Presbyterian group.
AIM missionary Earl Anderson started working in Loglogo in 1965. From this base he and other AIM missionaries reached out to other Rendille areas. Lou Cameron was a nurse who was also very active in reaching out and training the dressers to be evangelists as well as medical workers.
Historically, the Rendille have been extremely resistant to outside influences of whatever nature. The British colonial government even noted their lack of cooperation. The initial converts were almost all young people who went to the mission schools. Initially when an evangelist would approach the elders for permission to preach, they would tell them to go and speak to the 'Nyaakhut' a term meaning 'children' that includes women and children. They clearly felt that this message had little relevance to them.
The literacy program in particular has resulted in a change of perception and a much greater openness. The evangelistic teams who used to encounter resistance from the men in particular are now widely welcomed. The men are much more open than they have ever been before, but we still are waiting for a breakthrough with them.
Christian workers report that there is currently a keen interest in the gospel and people are more open than at any time previously. About 70 evangelical believers are numbered among about 2000 professed Christians (cultural Christians or church members).
For more on The Rendille People
On This Site
Borana of Kenya
Gosha of Kenya
Samburu of Kenya
Somali of Kenya
Turkana of Kenya
On the Internet
Rendille Archive Blog - The Swanepoels
Rendille Introduction - Blue Gecko
Rendille Language - Ethnologue
Rendille Language - Summary Description, Ohio State Univ
Rendille of Kenya - Joshua Project
Rendille People - Wikipedia
Rendille Tribe - Enhols
The Rendille Tribe - Kenya Advisor
ACM FTT. Profiles of Kenya's Least Reached Peoples. Nairobi: Africserve, 2004.
Beaman, A. The Rendille Age-Set System in Ethnographic Context: Adaption and Integration in a Nomadic Society. Boston: Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, 1981.
Brown, Monty. Where Giants Trod - The saga of Kenya's desert lake. London: Quiller Press Ltd., 1989.
Collins, M & B. "The Rendille of Northern Kenya." A Culture Paper Presented for AIM Orientation, 1977, Unpublished, 1977.
-------. A Proposal for the Rendille Translation Project. Unpublished Manuscript, Fuller Seminary. June 1982.
Fratkin, E M. The Organization of Labour and Production among the Ariaal Rendile, Nomadic Pastoralists of Northern Kenya. Washington, DC: Unpublished Dissertation For the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America, 1987.
Grum, A. "Rendille Habitation - A Preliminary Report." Preliminary Report to summarise field research carried out among the Rendille camel nomads, Nairobi, 1976.
Hayward, D J. "Bibliography on Pastoral Nomads." International Journal of Frontier Missions, Volume 14:4, October to December 1997.
Heine, B. "Rendille," The Non-Bantu Languages of Kenya, Vol 2 of Language and Dialect Atlas of Kenya. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1980.
Phillips, D J. Peoples on the Move - Introducing the Nomads of the World. Carlisle, United Kingdom: Piquant, 2001.
Pillinger, S and L Galboran. A Rendille Dictionary - Including a Grammatical Outline and an English-Rendille Index. Cologne: Rudiger Koppe Verlag, 1999.
Schlee, Günther. "Interethnic Clan Identities Among Cushitic-Speaking Pastoralists," Africa, 55 (1), 1985.
-------. Identities on The Move: Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Gideon S Were Press, 1994.
Spencer, P. Nomads in Alliance - Symbiosis and growth among the Rendille and Samburu of Kenya. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Stauffacher, G. Faster Beats the Drum. Kijabe: Kesho Press, 1977.
Tablino, P. Christianity Among the Nomads - The Catholic Church in Northern Kenya. Limuru: Paulines Publications Africa, 2004.
-------. The Gabra - Camel Nomads of Northern Kenya. Limuru: Paulines, 1999.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Original profile written by Orville Boyd Jenkins and an Anonymous Contributor June 1996
Rewritten by Nick Swanepoel and Orville Boyd Jenkins 21 December 2011
Updated for SLRK 20 September 2012
Last edited 12 August 2015