The Sebei/Sabiny people of Uganda

Overview

The Sebei/Sabiny people of Uganda; The Sebei or Sabiny (Sapiny) are people of Kalenjin origin that are found on the slopes of Mountain Elgon in Uganda. These people speak a Kalenjin dialect known as Kubsapiny and like the rest of the Kalenjin, circumcise teenage boys and girls as a rite of passage into adulthood.

It is estimated that three-quarters of the Sabiny population live on the escarpment, an area that was originally characterized by thick forests and fast flowing rivers including the Sipi River.

Traditionally, the Sebei were pastoralists and thus reared animals such as goats, cattle and sheep. However, that has changed over the years due to the shortage of land for keeping large numbers of animals as well as constant cattle raids by neighbouring tribes such as the Pokot and Karamojong.

History of the Sabiny area

During the British colonial rule, Sebei was administered as a county in Bugisu district. However, on the eve of Uganda’s Independence in 1962, Sebei district with its headquarters in Kapchorwa was inaugurated.

In 1980, the government of Uganda decided to eliminate tribal names for its administrative units. Due to this change, Sebei district was renamed as Kapchorwa district which fused the district and its headquarters into one unit. Currently, that district is divided into three; Kween, Bukwo and Kapchorwa.

Ethnic background

The Sabiny are part of a larger ethnic group known as the Kalenjin, a term that means ‘I tell you’. This Kalenjin group consists of the Kipsigis, Nandi, Marakwet, Tuken, Pokot and Saboat. Furthermore, the Sabiny and a number of smaller tribes that inhabit the Eastern slopes of Mountain Elgon constitute the Saboat (people who use a common greeting ‘supai’).

Then, the Saboat consist of the Bok, Kony (who gave Mountain Elgon its name), the Sebei and Bongom. It is important to note that the term Saboat is credited to two prominent politicians of the 1960s namely; Daniel Moss of Kenya and Yovan Chemonges of Uganda.

Like the rest of the Kalenjin, the Sebei practice male and female circumcision as a rite of passage although female circumcision was banned in Uganda. Modern Sebei consists of three formerly independent but closely interrelated tribes living on the Northern and North-western slopes of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda. They include the Sebei, the Mbai and the Sor.

The political challenges concerning cattle keeping among the Sabiny

Traditionally, the Sabiny use the plains as grazing areas for their cattle. However, these plains are bordered by Amudat (where the Pokot live) and the Karamoja districts. Both these districts are homes to the cattle rustlers that made cattle keeping challenging to the Sabiny.

All this originated from a chaotic political situation in Uganda in the 1970s and 80s whereby guns fell into the wrong hands such as those of the cattle rustlers.

Previously, these cattle rustlers were more powerful but gotten even more dominant when they attained fire arms. Fortunately, the government of Uganda has done a significant job in disarming these rustlers and restoring peace in the affected areas.

Agriculture among the Sabiny

The Sebei people carry out agriculture activities on the escarpment where the soils are fertile and the major food crops grown here include maize, potatoes, beans and plantains. The main cash crop that is grown is Arabica coffee.

Clans among the Sebei people

Each Sebei belongs to a clan which is a patrilineal, strictly exogamous, named social entity. A clan is locally known as Aret and membership in this unit is the most important affiliation in a man’s life. Interestingly, it is the first detail that a person finds out about a stranger.

Clans have a strong spiritual hold on their members and are even seen as having some sort of genetic inheritance of traits.

Among the Sabiny, there are over two hundred clans and each clan is composed of the descendants of a single founder, and usually its name is formed by prefixing the syllable “kap” (meaning descendants of) to the founder’s name. Some, however, have names derived from mythic accounts or some habit or practice attributed to the founder.

The circumcision ceremony/rituals

Among the Sabiny, circumcision ceremonies/ “Meriket” (the ceremonial activities that mark the transition of Sebei boys and girls into adulthood), are the most important events in their community. The boys undergo the initiation between eighteen to twenty years while for the girls, it occurs when they are a couple of years younger.

The traditional background of circumcision

The Sabiny carried out female genital mutilation (FGM) and practiced circumcision for the boys. This ritual was done in an annual general celebration that brought people together from each clan, family and town.

For the girls

These people also believed that the initiation was amidst the guidance of their spirits. Apparently, the women would be attacked by a spirit the night before the ceremony. This would leave them confused and with a strong desire to be mutilated the next morning. At midnight, the elders would slaughter a cow, sing and dance.

At dawn, the women would be taken to the river side for the rituals. While there, it is believed that something would enter them and leave their private parts frozen.

During the act of mutilation, a knife was used by the trusted senior elders and yeast was poured in the girl’s private parts to ease the cutting of the clitoris. The girl had to lie down while naked for everyone to witness if she was a virgin.

If a girl cried during the ritual, her mother would stand by her with a mingling stick threatening to beat her. The father of the girl would stand beside her with a spear and would kill her if she cried. This was all due to fear of embarrassment before the clan elders.

For the boys

Boys were also witnessed during circumcision. Their foreskin would be cut off with a knife by the senior trusted elders. If a boy cried or expressed his pain during circumcision, he was considered to be a coward even after the ritual.

Marriage

Among the Sabiny, mutilation of the girls and circumcision of the boys proved marriage to the parents. The girls were married off early by their parents. One of the boys who had an intention of marriage would take bride wealth to the girl’s family and then marry her. Boys who were not married would be seen as men who were not ready for responsibilities. This would bring shame to their families since the elders wouldn’t respect them.

Means of survival for the Sabiny

The Sabiny are subsistence farmers; they grow crops and rear animals for home consumption and the surplus is sold. The crops that they grow include millet, potatoes, beans, sunflower, cotton, wheat, tomatoes, cabbages, onions, simsim, passion fruits and coffee. They also have livestock such sheep, goats, cows and chicken.

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Conclusion

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