District Commissioner, Narok to Officer in Charge, Masai Reserve, July 16, 1935 [Letter]
British colonialism in what became Kenya began officially in 1895 and lasted until 1963, but the Maasai themselves were not effectively under British rule until just before the First World War. This letter is one of a series concerning a riot at Rotian on the Masai Reserve in 1935. The letters were exchanged between Buxton, the District Commissioner at Narok (one of the two districts into which the Maasai Reserve was divided), and his immediate superior, Fazan. Fazan was the Officer in Charge of the Reserve as a whole.
Buxton and Fazan were at odds over policy. Buxton had recruited murran to work on a road project and Fazan was concerned that this might provoke resistance, for young men generally regarded manual labour as beneath their dignity. In this unusually detailed report, therefore, Buxton is in part attempting to defend himself by denying that road work had itself caused the riot. Buxton was a flamboyant character whose disregard for bureaucracy and outspoken opinions did not endear him to his superiors. Buxton had previous experience serving in the Reserve, however. He understood the language, and had a good relationship with the Maasai whom he admired and whose interests (as he saw them) he defended. He is one of the few British administrators that Maasai remember by name.
Buxton, Clarence to Fazan. 16 July 1935. Public Record Office, London. File CO 533/459/12.
Primary Source Text
[referring to previous reports of a disturbance at Rotian on June 25th ]
. . .
5. The rioters were all between the ages of 16 and 19 years with the exception of two of the Salash age who were accused by all the Kishun of having caused the trouble. This accusation was brought against the Salash by the Kishun at the [meeting] I held just after the incident and again at the [meeting] held by you the following morning and yet again that evening when I asked for the names of the ring leaders.
6. The manner in which the Salash are alleged to have caused the riot is as follows: Two Salash on seeing a cedar which they erroneously supposed had to be removed set up a shout calling the Kishun to fight with the Europeans. There is uncertainty about the words used in calling to arms, but it is quite beyond doubt that all the Kishun without more ado or a word of discussion threw their [hoes] away and rushed to the manyatta to arm for war. 3 They were joined by other Kishun in the manyatta and by some who had never been to work and were not going to work on the road.
7. The only explanation given by the Masai themselves of this conduct is that it arose from 'folly' or 'sin.' It is attributed to Satan. 4 They are particularly impressed at the suddenness of it. Those who were present of other [age sets] were too paralysed by astonishment to give any warning or take any active steps to prevent it.
8. The events of the previous day have been examined. . . in the hope that some light might be thrown on the origin of this ebullition. There has been nothing except the reference to the cedar to suggest that there was any discontent in regard to the road work which they had agreed to do for wages.
9. The conditions of the work (feeding, pay, and organisation) had been fully explained at a [meeting] attended by at least 300 on the afternoon of the 24th [June] for the benefit of some newcomers. No one said anything to indicate that there was the slightest disagreement or discontent. Nearly all returned. . . to the [camp] where there was dancing and general enjoyment. . . .
11. There is not only ample evidence to show that there had been no sign of discontent during the night but no one of the many whom I have questioned has suggested that any of the 300 who went to work that morning had shown the slightest reluctance to do so. No one seems to have taken arms. . . .
14. The most significant feature of the whole affair is that it was not preceded by any discussion and was strenuously opposed by the Olburuogeni [OloburuNkeene], two of the l'aigwenak [ilaiguanak] 5 and three influential leaders of the Kishun who had been selected by themselves as assistants to Headman Oimeru Ole Masikonde who was in charge of the work on the road. These six. . . were the only people present at the road work or in the manyatta who did not either remain flabbergasted or join in the riot.
15. There is only one explanation for this incident, which completely surprised everyone concerned even the rioters themselves. It is that in some way the shout raised by the two Salash amounted to a challenge to the Kishun to prove their virility by defying authority. The response was an immediate decision to attack Europeans and those who wear [western] clothes. There was no other motive - nothing in the nature of a protest against the work to which they had all agreed and do still agree, or of personal antipathy to myself.
16. The only thought was death or glory. . . . When I looked into their faces. . ., I saw no. . . light of sense or reason. Each had an expression of demoniacal insensate savagery. The mysterious and interesting point to be considered is how it can happen that a lad - for they were all under nineteen - who starts the day in a reasonably happy frame of mind can, in a flash, without premeditation be plunged into an ecstasy of ferocity, and behave without considered purpose or regard for consequences. . . .
18. The Masai moran are undoubtedly very emotional and even, as moran, glory in the uncontrolability of their emotions. The epileptic fits 6 which they throw as moran are never repeated after they cease to be moran. They are in certain moods utterly illogical unbalanced savages capable of committing any act of violence for they do not regard human life with any sense of awe.
19. A survey of the events preceding this outburst will not in point of fact explain it but will show how it came about that these Kishun were collected together.
20. When I took over the District in March I read the following extract from Mr. Jennings Annual Report:
"The position with the moran is far from satisfactory. Experienced officers are divided upon the question as to the advisability of allowing the moran to follow the Tribal Custom of having manyattas. From my short experience with the Masai, I am of the opinion that the recognition of the 'Moran System' is tantamount to recognising organised crime which includes murder, assaults, theft, disobedience of orders of administration and elders and general indiscipline. As instances I quote the following:
Five Masai of Kenya were implicated in a stock raid in [Tanganyika] when 89 head of cattle were stolen, and one native killed. In this case the Masai were arrested. . ., only 8 head of cattle were recovered but there is every reason to believe that a large proportion of the stolen cattle were brought to Kenya but it is impossible to get further evidence.
[A] considerable number of assaults by marauding gangs of moran have been made on old men and small boys herding stock. The former are usually stoned when coming out of their [camps] to investigate noises made by the thieves, owing to darkness identification of the assailants is impossible.
Disobedience of Orders:
The elders wished to hold a [meeting] with the moran, who flatly refused to attend. It took two months to arrest the ring leaders who were eventually sentenced to 2 months imprisonment.
The other school of thought on the 'Moran System' holds the view that by allowing manyattas you have the moran under control. I entirely disagree with this theory. The position as I see it is purely "bluff" and once the moran 'call that bluff' . . . one cannot deal with the situation. In this connection if one is successful in getting sufficient evidence, which is extremely doubtful, to warrant the imposition of a fine on the manyatta, it simply amounts to the relatives paying the fine as by Custom the moran do not hold property until. . . [they have] settled down as elders.
The whole position is more complicated by the fact that individually the elders are getting tired of the behaviour of the moran but collectively they are too frightened to take any firm action."
. . .
22. . . .The Kishun moran would, in the normal course of events, be passing through their Eunoto Ceremony in the near future. 7 . . . It then occurred to me that a remarkable opportunity presented itself of combining a piece of development work with the concentration of moran which would take place for the Eunoto. . . .
23. The Kishun represent the left hand circumcision age and are therefore the younger and somewhat despised brothers of the Salash with whom they will form one age [set] after passing through the Eunoto. . .
24. The decision as to time and place for the Eunoto would lie with the elders, particularly the Olotuno of the Ol Piron age, in this case the Il Twati [age set]. 8 I held a [meeting] with them and had a long conversation with the Olotuno who promised to consider the matter and move the moran manyattas. . . to [near Rotian] if the circumstances were propitious. Shortly after this he informed me that the manyattas would be so moved by the end of April. . . .
25. A large gathering of moran then came to Narok, probably 200 of them and said that their laibon Kimoruai had decided to postpone the Eunoto to the end of the year when it would be held in the Mau forest. . .where the [army] attacked the Laitteti [murran] in 1922 and where the previous age, the Meruturut, had collected to defy authority. 9
26. Kimoruai lives mostly in the Kajiado district though he also has a village in this district. He is the Purko laibon and his prestige with the Purko moran is immense. . .
27. While it is not normally the business of the laibon to fix the time and place of the Eunoto, his presence at it as a high priest dispensing charms and blessings is essential and I decided to send for him so as to discuss the proposals with him, realizing of course that he cannot be whole heartedly on the side of Government and that he would be more concerned with his prestige and emoluments in cattle than with any hopes or fears which Government can inspire. . . . I fully realized that in sending for Kimoruai I ran certain risks as there is always the danger of being double-crossed by him. . . .
29. When Kimoruai arrived, the manyattas had already assembled at Rotian. . . . At that time there was no doubt that the Ol Piron elders had decided to hold the Eunoto at Rotian and that it only remained to decide on the date. Kimoruai was in favour of holding the Eunoto early, while Chief Masikonde was inclined to postpone the date. The ultimate decision seemed to rest with. . . [the spokesman of the Ol Piron age].
30. [Kimoruai then became ill. He believed that he had been bewitched, but was diagnosed with pleurisy. He was sent home to recover.]
31. On his recovery I brought him back to the manyatta as he wished to finish certain ceremonies which could be completed in a day. The following day I went in to the manyatta and found about 200 moran gathered round Kimoruai in a squatting attitude surrounding a small pile of cattle dung in which a faded darkish blue flag had been stuck. There was something distinctly sinister about the chanting accompaniment and the expression on the faces of those taking part. . . . I was with headman Oimeru Ole Masikonde who told me that the ntalingoi Orrkirembe 10 was being administered and that it had been responsible for all the trouble in the past as it keeps alive the defiant spirit and perverted racial pride and acted like a trumpet on the minds of the moran. . . .
32. I decided to. . . [return Kimoruai] immediately to Kajiado as I was certain that his influence, which had been helpful up till that day, had turned to the old appeal which had made for trouble in the past.
33. Kimuruai did not wish to leave and asked to be allowed to stay another month. He had just begun to collect cattle off the moran, 12 head having been sent that day as his fees for Ntalingoi. . . .
34. [Kimoruai eventually leaves]
35. It will now be appropriate to say something about Ntalingoi in general and about the uses of Ntalingoi at the Eunoto. . . .
36. The name Ntalingoi is used by Masai to refer to "charms" and medicines which have their origin with a [laibon] and can be dispensed only by him. When a ceremony is to be held such as the Eunoto or a charm to bring good fortune, or to prevent sickness, or to ensure the success of a raid, or to prevent a murderer from being hanged, is sought, either the person most concerned or, more commonly, a deputation of those concerned visits the [laibon]. The instructions he gives them and the charge he makes depends upon the importance of the charms sought. In some cases, he first instructs the deputation to bring him certain ingredients for the preparation of the charm. In connection with this Eunoto, 8 of the Kishum age who had been working on the road were given leave several days before the Eunoto to collect certain ingredients. . . .
38. [There are many different charms] Some charms may be prescribed once only for a special occasion, others may be used time and time again for a special purpose. It is probable that certain ceremonies are not complete unless the prescribed charm or charms for that ceremony are used. If for instance the Orrkirembe or Nanga Narok ["black cloth"] Ntalingoi or charms have been used in previous Purko Eunoto ceremonies then they are probably essential to the ceremony which would not be binding in their absence. . . . If the use of the charm is believed to be contrary to the interests of the tribe, the [laibon] might be made to vouch for its safety or he could be held responsible for its effects. He might even be advised by the Ol Piron age to prescribe something less potent.
39. The foregoing general remarks are necessary in considering two aspects of this affair namely the attitude of the Masai elders and authorities to Kimuruai and the reactions of the moran to the incident. . .
40. There is no doubt that Kimoruai though respected, feared, and revered by many Purko is not [popular] with the [chiefs]. Oimeru Ole Masikonde has been very outspoken in censuring the unwisdom of inviting him to the district or even allowing him to attend the Eunoto in view of his load of past guilt in every disturbance for the last twenty years. This jealously, for that is partly responsible for this consideration, has made it difficult to sift the truth. It is not certain who will succeed Kimoruai as the Purko laibon but during his lifetime I doubt very much if ceremonies such as the Eunoto could be held without his "charms."
41. Since the disturbance I have informed [the chiefs] and [the leaders] of the Kishun age that if the disturbance arose as a result of Kimoruai's charms, it is their duty to inform me of the actual facts. [The chiefs]. . . accuse Kimoruai of having initiated the moran in such away as to make them susceptible to war mania. . . . It is impossible to know what Kimoruai does teach the moran as he takes the moran by themselves when no elders are there. The moran are not prepared to divulge anything which throws any light. . . .
42. There was one particularly curious incident on the night after the disturbance. The Olotuno came to my hut at Rotian just before dark and just after the [meeting] at which there had been a flat refusal to give the names of ringleaders. It was the first occasion on which we had met since the disturbance and in view of his position as chief councillor to the Kishun [age] I was most anxious to secure his cooperation. He was in a very agitated state. . . . Five minutes later I called for him as I intended to. . . discuss the situation with him, as a report had just been received of a concentration of moran ready to attack the camp. . . . To my astonishment he had disappeared. . . . No one had seen him leave. . . . He was there when I returned but neither that night nor the following morning would he tell me anything though he must by virtue of his position have known what was going on. The following morning. . . I had him remanded to gaol on a charge of inciting a riot and showed him a similar warrant which would be executed in the case of Kimoruai. That afternoon after his flight it seemed to me that he realized the futility of resistance to the tremendous power of Government and during the night he convinced me that he would cooperate and that I could safely entrust myself to his keeping in dealing with the moran even if they had collected for battle.
43. Subsequently events have shown that this confidence in the Olotuno's good intentions and power was not misplaced but it is still too early to expect him to explain what happened after the disturbance and whether in fact the moran were collected in the bush awaiting his instructions or even prepared to act without them. His sudden appearance in camp may have been to warn me. . . . His equally sudden disappearance may have been due to natural causes of no significance. He is a pivotal man and though he has only been in office for a month he has shown that he possesses real authority. . . .
44. In considering the reactions of the moran to Kimuruai's instructions and initiating charms it will be worth commenting on the general relationship between laibons and moran. The system is not peculiar to the Masai but is found in all tribes where the training of a warrior class is the central feature of tribal organization. . . .
45. . . . A great deal has been written on this subject in connection with the Masai in 1918 and 1922. . . . It is not my intention at this stage to do more than observe that a vacillating attitude has probably encouraged both the laibons and moran in their disregard of the Pax Britanica, and a contempt for constituted authority whether European or tribal. . . .
47. The mental background of the Purko moran is extraordinarily narrow. . . . [While] his knowledge of modern affairs even of developments in the areas adjoining his own reserve is so limited as to amount to nothing, his mind is steeped in stories of the prowess of his ancestors as warriors. . . .
48. If in administering the Nanga Narok and Orrkirembe Kimoruai prepared the minds of the Kishun to respond to a call to arms as a proof that they were worthy sons of their fathers he did them a disservice. He knows well enough that the glories of the Masai race which began a hundred years ago and lasted till the middle of last century cannot return.Their name cannot again inspire terror as in the days when they barred the way between the Coast and [Lake Victoria]. . . .
50. This mental condition must in some way explain the red hot response to some insult which was contained in the words used by the two Salash.
51. I had foreseen the possibility of some such insult which would be particularly galling and therefore dangerous if the Kishun were in the neighbourhood of their manyatta. Each age of moran tries to prove its superiority to the preceding one and as it were wrests its laurels and prestige from the elder brothers. Their emotional nature is intensely sensitised at the time of the Eunoto. . . . It occurred to me that it would be preferable to divide the Kishun and Salash, keeping the Kishun at the north end of the road, while the Salash worked on the necessary diversions between Rotian and Narok. . . .
53. I therefore visited Chief Masikonde and. . . discussed this point. He was emphatic in saying that the Salash would have a steadying influence on the Kishun and that he would prefer them to work together for that very reason. . . .
54. It now remains to give some account of the work on the road from Narok to Njoro. . . .
[report concludes with details of the organisation of the work and the purpose of the road]
[signed] C.E.V Buxton
1The inquest was into the deaths of two murran killed when police opened fire on the rioters.
2Il Kishun was the junior (left hand) circumcision group of murran; ISalaash the senior (right hand). After retirement, the two groups would merge as a single age-set, Il Terito.
3manyatta – a murran camp.
4Satan – probably "shaitani", a Swahili word for evil spirit.
5OloboruNkeene – the assistant to the Olotuno, the ritual leader of the age set. Ilaigwanak – the murran spokesmen.
6At moments of extreme emotional tension, murran "shake" and sometimes faint.
7Eunoto – the major ceremony that marks the passage from junior to senior murran status. Under British rule in the 1930s, the ceremony effectively marked the beginning of the end of murranhood.
8Ol Piron [firestick] – the elders who "sponsor" the murran and are responsible for their passage to maturity. The sponsoring age-set is next but one above the age-set of murran. Il Dwati had been murran in the 1890s-1900s and had gained renown fighting for the British. They themselves been sponsored by IlAimer, an age-set famous for its exploits as murran and probably the murran that Thomson encountered.
9Il Meruturut and IlAitteti had been the right and lefthand circumcisions of Il Tareto, the predecessors of the present murran age-set. In 1918, the former had risen against the British and their own elders and formed a rebel encampment in the forest which had been stormed by the army with many casualties. In 1922, the latter did much the same.
10Orrkirembe – usually a murran song/dance, associated with raiding.
How to Cite This Source
Clarence Buxton, "District Commissioner, Narok to Officer in Charge, Masai Reserve, July 16, 1935 [Letter]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #55, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/55 (accessed December 3, 2016). Annotated by Richard Waller