Possibilities for studying Marakwet material culture

Freda Nkirote M’Mbogori (National Museums of Kenya)

Material culture images

Unlike many Kenyan Communities, the Marakwet have maintained aspects of their traditional way of life.  This may be partly attributable to politics and bad road networks which have played a role in buffering the community from external influence.  Moreover, the hilly and rocky terrain, coupled with low rainfall regimes have contributed to protection of the Marakwet land from other Kenyan farming communities. While far from isolated the Marakwet have maintained a partially indigenous way of life.

The wealth of the Marakwet tangible and intangible cultural heritage can be experienced in the midst of Western/Christianized Ceremonies, as we witnessed during the installation of a new Catholic priest at Tot Parish.  During the ceremony, one could not help noticing how the Marakwet are mixing traditional values with Christian values in their dressing, dancing and even language. During this installation, while all the (18) priests in attendance were dressed in white robes, they still found space for a band of beads around their heads.  Similarly, the women had to dress up in their traditional attires to attend the Christian ceremony.  The dancing styles, rhythms and tones were a mixture of Christian and traditional influences.  The language on the other hand was a mixture of Marakweeta, Kiswahili and English.  Although the latter two languages are not alien among the Marakwet community, their use is not as widespread as in many other Kenyan societies.  However use of these languages indicates that the Marakwet community is no longer isolated and the priests recognize this fact.  In essence, this the traditional values and knowledge are on the verge of being eroded.

As one might notice from the above narrative, the possibilities of studying the Marakwet material and non material culture are immense.  The Marakwet material culture is rich and available for study both in the field and the National Museums of Kenya. It includes everything from pottery, to agricultural implements to bead work and personal adonement. A short visit to the Tot cultural centre during the workshop, presented us with an assemblage of tangible culture which included items of traditional value made from different materials which are loaded with different meanings and ceremonial significance.  Trade beads and cowry shells for example found their way into the Marakwet material culture early enough to be completely integrated into many ceremonial attires.  Some of the issues I found interesting is the fact that cowry shells are found only along the East African coast, which about 900kms away from Marakwet but today, these and beads form an important part of the Marakwet material culture.  Meanings can be derived from the amount of beads/cowry shells, number of strands in a skirt or necklace etc.  Research into why the Marakwet have continued to practice traditional values while confessing to Christian faith could make an interesting read. Working in Marakwet at the earliest opportunity to find answers to some of these research questions provides a great opportunity because one is likely to get first hand information from the practitioners.  Anthropological work by Prof. Henirietta Moore would be the first place to start.  Her experience and high level research projects which she has conducted over the years among the Marakwet, opens a window into the Marakwet way of life and provides food for thought to an inquisitive mind.

In 2010, Kenya passed a new constitution which allowed for devolution of central government into 47 County governments.  In 2013, Kenyans voted a new government has now devolved most of their activities to the County governments.  The County governments are now busy opening up for economic and social developments through creation of roads and infrastructure, and inviting investors for job creation.  While these developments are healthy and commendable for the Counties, it will be a delicate balance to reach the heights of economic development and to keep the cultural traditions afloat.  Therefore, this calls for anthropologists to come up with projects to answer pending questions and to fill in any research gaps that may have been left by the previous researchers while there is still time. I look forward to contributing to such work in Marakwet and thank the African Farming network initiative for instigating this research program and realising the benefits of studying African Farming communities in their entirety, including with regard to ceremonies and material culture.

Freda is a research scientist and Head of cultural Heritage at the National Museums of Kenya as well as co-investigator in the African Farming Network. 


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