Rendille - Society

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Settlements: Gob & Fora


Before drought and lost herds intervened to turn life upside down, Rendille settlements, albeit semi-permanent, were very large and traditionally consisted of an entire clan, or about one tenth of the entire population.

For those who have survived with their herds, the rhythm of life is dictated by the needs of their camels, and thus by the search for foraging and water. To avoid upping camp every day, they have evolved an elaborate system in which unmarried men and older boys take care of the day-to-day herding and watering of the camels, whilst the married men, women and children stay in semi-permanent settlements. Nonetheless, these settlements shift two or three times a year (sometimes even five), depending on the season and how the rains have fared. The Rendille have evidently been living like this for an extremely long time, as their seasonal migrations follow an almost unchanged pattern year after the year (see the migratory map), and always remain within the same territorial limits: the Rendille are not territorial expansionists, which in part explains their current plight.

Given their tightly woven society, the many aspects of social life such as clan structure, family relations, homesteads, and spirituality, are intricately bound together for the Rendille, which in part has helped preserve their traditional beliefs and identity, but now hastens their destruction, for there are proportionally so many more Rendille in each settlement: any change will affect them all.


The clan is the basic social unit, of which historically there were ten. These were divided into two groups, the Belisi Bahai and the Belisi Beri (some sources state nine clans were called 'white Rendille', and the tenth was known as Odoola - I'm not sure whether this is correct). Each clan had between two and seven sub-clans, though originally each clan lived together in one settlement. Nowadays, however, as survival becomes more difficult and large group sizes impractical, the reverse is becoming true, as each surviving settlement becomes a clan in its own right. In any case, large numbers of Rendille have been forced to settle in permanent villages around mission and aid-supply outposts, and Rendille society as a whole is in a period of great transition.

Settlements: Gob & Fora

The main 'clan villages' are semi-permanent settlements called gob, and are extended family units in which each male acknowledges a common forefather. A gob typically consists of around 150 people and forty homesteads of portable houses, which effectively makes them mobile villages.

The older boys and unmarried men live out with the camels in livestock camps (fora), which are much more mobile than the gob. The camps can be up to eighty kilometres from the gob, and shift with great frequency as the herds are moved from forage to forage and from water source to water source.

A settlement's centre is the naapo (or nabo), a sacred enclosure constructed by men that contains a fire which is kept burning day and night, and around which the elders (ie. married men) meet to discuss the events and affairs of the settlement, pray to God or for rain, and debate the settlement's next relocation. In short, the naapo combines ritual, social, practical and sacred functions, and thus serves as the unifying focus of the clan: the politics of the Rendille are based on consensus, and their saying that "peace is more important than food" has become famous.
   After each relocation (the houses and their contents are carried on the backs of male camels), the men kindle a new fire in the new naapo, from which the women come to draw brands for the hearths of their reassembled houses.

The houses themselves are dismantled and reassembled by the women on the same day that the settlement move takes place. The houses are roundish and higher than the ones constructed by the Ariaal and other southern Rendille, and are made of curved poles covered with matting and skins, rather than the mud (ochre), cow dung and skin covering used by the Ariaal. Of course, nowadays you're much more likely to see hessian sacking and plastic sheets printed with the names of aid agencies than skins. Men construct the surrounding stockade and the small inner livestock enclosures.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

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