The death of an elderly woman last week may have gone unnoticed to many, but to those fighting to preserve the culture of the Yaaku community, it was a big blow. Not many Kenyans have heard of the Yaaku community in Laikipia North district, or the fact that their total population is just 6,000.
The Yaaku have been struggling to keep their culture, language and tradition alive, and the death of their matriach, Ms Naruato Matunge, aged 105, could not have come at a worse time. Until two weeks ago, Ms Matunge was among the only remaining eight people who could speak pure Yaaku language — Yakunte — fluently without using words borrowed from the Maasai community, which is dominant in their region.
In fact, her grandson, Manasseh Rux Ole Matunge, himself a Yaaku and a Yakunte speaker, is now struggling to revive the language. All the seven people left alive who speak the language are aged over 70. Yakunte speakers occupy two administrative areas; Mukogondo and Sieku locations, and are represented in Parliament by Mwangi Kiunjuri of Laikipia East.
“There are only about 30 whom I can call semi-speakers because they can communicate in Yakunte only to a certain extent. The rest can only respond to a word or two,” says Mr Matunge. According to an official of Yaaku People Association, Gabriel Sipuko, the Yaaku have four clans spread in Laikipia North district. The four clans are Orondi, Sihalo, Losos and Luno, which is the smallest.
According to Mr Sipuko, said there are about 4,000 people with Yaaku genes but pure Yaaku people are slightly over 1,000 in number. “We are about 1,500 pure Yaaku but we still cannot communicate in our Yakunte language,” said Mr Sipuko, adding: “We still consider our language inferior to the Maasai and I am sure even if the language was to be taught in schools, many would still prefer to speak Kimaasai and Kiswahili.”
Evidently, Yakunte is among the languages which have since been declared endangered by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The Yaaku people resemble the Cushites of northern Kenya but in the last one century, they have been assimilated into the Maasai culture and lifestyle that they have discarded the language of their forefathers.
They are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia and settled in Mukogodo forest over 100 years ago. In terms of physical appearance, including the hair texture, there is a noticeable resemblance between the Yaaku, Rendile and Borana, who are cushites unlike the Maasai who are nilotes.
“My father and mother are both Yaaku but I only know a few words from this language. I am very fluent in Maasai language and in the past few years, I have been struggling to learn my mother tongue with little success,” says Ms Eunice Sirankasio. Ironically, Ms Sirankasio heads the campaign to have pupils at local schools learn the language of their ancestors together with her husband, Mr Matunge.
The mother of five has been distributing what she calls a Yakunte dictionary where words are translated to Maasai language. The dictionary was produced three years ago by a Dutch researcher, Fleur Wensveen, through assistance of one of the three remaining women who could speak the Yakunte language fluently led by Ms Yapanoi Moraati.
Sadly, Ms Moraati died in 2008 aged over 100 years and today; only one woman, Ms Riano Leitiko, can speak the language among the seven remaining Yakunte speakers. The remaining Yaaku elderly men and women are convinced that after their demise, the language will die since children and youth are not interested in learning it.
“We have been teaching children of Kuri Kuri Primary Schools located near Dol Dol town the language but, honestly speaking, many do not seem interested,” confesses Ms Sirankasio. Though she knows the meaning of several Yaaku words, she cannot construct a sentence in the language of her parents who live about five kilometers from Dol Dol town, the headquarters of Laikipia North.
But her father, Leteyon Leitiko, speaks the language fluently and is among the elders who have been visiting pupils in neighbouring schools to encourage them to learn the language. “Our language and culture are considered inferior to the Maasai and that is why many children are not willing to learn it because they think it is of no use,” says the 70-year old elder.
He adds that the launch of the “Yakunte dictionary” was aimed at encouraging youngsters to learn the language but no strides have been made towards that direction. “My own grandchildren do not show any enthusiasm whenever I try to teach them the language,” says the elder who speaks Swahili, Kimaaasai and Yakunte languages fluently. But why did the Yaaku abandon their culture and traditions?
According to documented research carried out by various local and international researchers, the Yaaku people were hunters and gatherers who lived in Mukogodo forest located about 10 kilometers from Dol Dol town. When the Maasai, who are pastoralists, were pushed out of their vast grazing lands by white farmers at the beginning of last century, they drove their animals to Mukogodo forest in search of pasture. It is here they came into contact with the hunters and gatherers, their staple food being honey.
The Maasai people derogatorily referred to them as Ntorobo, meaning poor people who do not own livestock. The Maasai could ask men from the Yaaku to herd their livestock and this way, the forest dwellers came to admire the language of the intruders. According to documents compiled by Mr Maarten Mous, linguistic researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Hans Stoks, pastoral worker with the Maasai in Kenya, and Matthijs Blonk, a filmmaker, the Maasai traded in milk and meat for honey.
But in this trade, the Maasai were the ones who stated the terms because of their military superiority and eventually, the Yaaku people started copying the lifestyle of the pastoralists. Eventually, when they were fully assimilated to the Maasai culture, they moved out of Mukogodo forests and some started keeping cattle.
However, they still value honey as their staple food and consider Mukogodo forest as their rightful home. Among the seven people who speak fluent Yakunte is Stephen Leriman Leitiko, who was, however, not co-operative when the Saturday Nation sought to speak to him. “I have vowed that anyone who wants me to speak the language must pay me first,” Mr Leitiko said as he dismissed efforts to have an interview with him.
Other elders still alive are spread across Dol Dol and Nandung’oro areas of Laikipia North district. They include Kitarpei Matunge, Roteti, Legunia, Jomo Lelendola and Kitime. Over the years, they have watched their children and grandchildren abandon their culture to become fully adapted to the Maasai.
According to Mzee Leitiko, the young generation is ashamed of their Dorobo origin and struggle to hide anything that might disclose their historical origin. The name Dorobo has gained the meaning and now refers to people who live in the in the forest. According to the research documented by Mr Mous, the Yaaku are not the only Dorobo in East Africa.
In Kenya there are the Ogiek, Akiek and Aasax or l’Aramanik, and other small marginal peoples who try to live off the land, like the Dahalo. Over the years, the Yaaku have not taken education seriously and only a few have gone past primary education.
One of the prominent people from the community is the Ms Jennifer Koinante, who was a teacher before she founded Yaaku Peoples Association seven years ago.
She also vied for a parliamentary seat in 2007 but lost. Another prominent person from the community is Mr Peter Matunge, who was a district officer in Kirinyaga district before he moved to a state corporation. Ms Koinante has been articulating the rights of minority groups in international fora, her main concern being the preservation of the Yakunte language and Mukogodo forest.