Rendille - Introduction
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Facts & Figures
The 30,000-strong Rendille call themselves the "Holders of the Stick of God", and traditionally live in one of Kenya's most arid and unforgiving regions: the Kaisut Desert. Once known for their implacable resistance to change, their way of life is now in real danger of disappearing as the rains fail ever more frequently, leaving them weakened and unable to resist the constant harassment and livestock raiding of their larger and more powerful Borana and Somali neighbours, despite the government having armed sections of the Rendille with rifles. Their original grazing areas extended well beyond where they are at present. Security has become a major factor in reducing the boundaries of the Rendille area. Stock losses to armed raiders to the north and east of them compounded by a severe drought in the 1970s and another in the 1980s resulted in large sections of the Rendille population being deprived of their only means of subsistence, their herds.
As a result, they have attracted the attention of a variety of NGOs, missionary societies and the government, but unfortunately the distribution of aid depends on the Rendille abandoning their nomadic ways - there is no way to reach them otherwise. In fact, the Kenyan government and others have repeatedly encouraged the nomadic Rendille to settle in order to 'get an education' - yet it would be environmentally devastating for all the Rendille to remain settled in one area, as overgrazing and the need for firewood have already turned the settlements into wasteland. Nonetheless, under these various outside pressures the Rendille are gradually abandoning their nomadic way of life in favour of permanent settlements, where many have become dependant on hand-outs from aid agencies.
This ignominious fate should be a tale of caution to all those who wish to help what they see as impoverished African tribes, without for a moment considering the cultural and social effects of their efforts.
The following is extracted from Wade Davis' article in the August 1999 issue of National Geographic. It concerns the Ariaal, who are part of the cattle-herding 'southern Rendille', as opposed to the camel-herding 'northern Rendille'. There's more information on National Geographic's Vanishing Cultures pages.
In the wake of the 1970s and 1980s droughts, along with famine... international organisations arrived by the score to distribute relief. Mission posts with clinics, churches, schools and free food drew the people from the parched land. At the same time and despite evidence to the contrary, it became accepted in Western development circles that the nomads were to blame for degrading their environment through overgrazing. In 1976 the United Nations launched a multimillion-dollar effort in the Marsabit District to encourage two of the tribes in particular, the closely related Ariaal and Rendille, to settle and enter a cash economy. This dovetailed with the interests of those Kenyans who considered nomads a thing of the past and saw education and modernization as the keys to the country's future.
For the 10,000 Ariaal herders, circumstances for the most part weren't so dire that they were forced to settle. On the western flanks of Marsabit and in the Ndoto foothills, where water could almost always be found, they kept cattle, while on the plains far below their camels foraged in the shade of frail acacias. In contrast, the 30,000 Rendille, camel herders of the vast Kaisut Desert, suffered terrible losses in the droughts and drifted by the thousands towards the relief camps. By 1985, more than half of them lived in destitution around the lowland towns of Korr and Kargi, their well-being inextricably linked to mission handouts.
Meanwhile, aid agencies noted the "new economic opportunities" available from the sale of dairy products, agricultural production, and labour opportunities. But the reality was more mundane: unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and dependence. Again, in the words of Wade Davis:
As recently as 1975 Korr was a seasonal watering hole visited by small bands of Rendille camel herders. That year Italian missionaries set up a few buildings to distribute relief. Within a decade a town existed, with shops, schools, and a large stone Roman Catholic church. Today there are some 2,500 houses within walking distance of the mission, a local population of 16,000, and 170 hand-dug wells. Missing are the trees that once gave shelter in a windswept desert. Most have been cut to produce charcoal to cook maize gruel, the staple subsidy. Those Rendille who still own camels and goats must herd them far from town, in distant rangelands. Fresh milk is hard to find, and many children go without. In place of sisal, the houses are roofed in cardboard, burlap, and metal sheets bearing the names of relief agencies. A walk around town reveals that almost every Western nation has helped create this oasis of dependency.
Also known as: Rendillé, Randille, Randile, Randali, Reendille, Rendilli. Various subgroups, including the Ilturia and Ariaal (or Ariall).
Ethnic group: Eastern Cushites (Rendille-Boni). The Rendille have been mixing with the Nilotic Samburu for many generations, thus rendering the classification somewhat irrelevant. There are also Gabbra and Somali elements, which come from their shared ancestry, and from continued contacts - not always friendly - with them. The Rendille are divided by scholars into two distinct groups, although there's a good deal of confusion about this: the 'true' or northern Rendille, who herd camels, and the southern Rendille, comprising the Ilturia and Ariaal, who also herd cattle, and are closely related to the Samburu.
Neighbouring tribes: Borana, Gabbra, Samburu, Somali, Turkana
Language: The original Rendille language is related to the Somali languages in the Eastern Cushite family of the Afro-Asiatic languages, but many Rendille now speak Samburu, to whom they are allied. The Ariaal section speak only Samburu, follow Samburu clan groupings and initiation rites. 5-15% of the population are literate, though efforts are being made to increase this.
Population: As ever with nomadic groups, exact population figures are impossible to obtain. The most recent estimate (1994) puts the population at 32,000 (up from 22,000 in the late 1970s). An older figures puts the Ariaal population at around 10,000.
Location: Laisamis Division of Marsabit District, primarily in the Kaisut Desert (22,000 square kilometres) which lies east of Lake Turkana and west of Marsabit town. The desert is bounded by the Chalbi Desert, Mount Marsabit, and the Ndoto Mountains. The mountains - or at least their foothills - are mainly inhabited by the cattle-herding Ariaal section. There are apparently small numbers of Rendille in neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia, though this report may be an error based on historical confusion. Many Rendille have now settled, especially around the mission posts of Korr and Kargi.
Way of life: A dwindling majority (now the minority?) of Rendille remain nomadic pastoralists in an extremely harsh and arid land, herding camels, sheep and goats. The 'southern Rendille' also herd cattle, which have gained more importance than cattle. The camel-herders are under constant pressure from the much larger and more powerful Borana and Somali, and recent droughts have forced many to settle. Rendille society is very much in transition, and ultimately risks destruction if nomadism as a viable way of life cannot be sustained.
Religion: The majority of Rendille have kept their traditional religion, although a number are Muslim, and a small but growing minority (5-6% at best) are Christian.
References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.