The hidden class system within Maasai community special groups

By Lemomo Ole Kulet

Among the Maasai there exist some distinctive groups which play a very important role in ensuring Maasai culture is upheld. They exist outside the sections and territorial divisions of the Maasai and hence more often referred to as occupational groups. They include three special groups namely; the ilkunono, Iltorobo and the iloibonok.  The ilkunono are feared a lot due to their secretive nature and their way of life, the iltorobo are scorned due to their poverty and the iloibonok are respected and revered due to their ritual expertise and herbal medicine knowledge.

Ilkunono, the blacksmith forms large part of this group. They are treated as a dejected caste or underclass within the pastoral communities.  In fact, to some sections of the Maasai such as the Purko marriage with the ilkunono was traditionally strictly prohibited but due to education things are now changing as it’s now possible to find a Purko man marrying a daughter of the ilkunono.

Ilkunono are the blacksmith who are mostly found in Suswa, some parts of Morijo Loita and also in Narok town. You probably have seen them in our towns and local centres merchandizing their products which they have made. Occasionally you will find a Maasai man moving from place to place with cow bells, belts, bangles, arrow heads, spears, and ornamental earrings for both men and women, every kind of swords that you may think of and also bracelets. These are the ilkunono.

Kiranto Maasinta notes; “They are feared among the Maasai community as they were seen as merchants of death by the mere fact that they made things like arrows, spears, sword and may other warfare equipment and weapons that could be used to kill.”

He continues; “The activities of this group meant that other Maasai’s treated them as “polluted”. There was generally an impression of pollution attached to blacksmiths; their food and welcome was in most cases avoided. They were considered unclean and were positioned at the lowest stratum of the Maasai society.”

Mzee Lesiamon Turanta says: “It is an extremely gifted section of the Maasai and they have a business acumen that no other group of the Maasai community could come close to.  Unfortunately, most of the other groups of the Maasai do not recognize them at all with some like the Purko who did not even allow their kids to either marry or be married to the ilkunono. It was a taboo to marry from them majorly due to stereotyping.”

Mzee Lemein observes that if this part of the Maa community would have been accorded necessary attention given their ability to innovate and their entrepreneurial spirit then the Maasai community would have undergone a kind of industrial revolution and ending up achieving financial independence which has been so elusive to date.

Ilkunono are a very secretive community and would not disclose their plans or schemes unlike other groups of the Maasai who rarely keep any secrets. They were also involved with black magic which made other groups to fear them even more. They were looked down upon since they did not have as many cows as the other sections of the Maasai, their major preoccupation being their blacksmith activities.

Among the Maasai a rich man was considered one with many cows and many wives to which the ilkunono could not fit. These preoccupation with rearing of cattle has become very difficult and unsustainable due to erratic weather pattern, decimated grazing areas, diseases and many more environmental issues. But to the ilkunono there is no day that their products would not be required. They would always be in demand. Their business brings in a lot of money to them and it is ironical that in Suswa they are the most successive in all spheres of life.

The iltorobo are the other category that the Maasai looked down upon. The word Iltorobo is translated to mean poor people without cattle. They were not Maasai but lived close to them and spoke their language. They were actually hunters and gatherers. They occupied parts of the Loita forest and also the Mau forest. They lived on fruits, insects, honey and hunting. Among the Maasai it was traditionally a taboo to used wildlife as food. So, whoever hunted wildlife for food was equated to an oltoroboni.

Kiranto Lemein tells me; “They did the work that the Maasai abhorred doing. Such jobs like male circumcision and running errands was done by them. They also sold honey and ceremonial skins made of Hyrax and Columbus to the Maasai.”

The iltorobo no longer roam in the forest have been largely been assimilated in to the Maasai and those in the Mau forest have been mostly assimilated among the Kipsigis while most have remained as Ogiek but they still retain their way of life.

The last group is the iloibonok the medicine men who are also ritual experts. They are a from a sub-clan known as Inkidong’i who are renowned as ritual experts and diviners. They are mostly found in Liota area of Narok County. Unlike the first two groups the iloibonok command great respect in the community. They are seers and are thought to have the power to predict calamities and also prescribe remedies. They have a huge social and spiritual responsibility.

Mzee Robert Ole Masikonte tells me; “They were always consulted during major ceremonies and events taking place among the Maa community; such as wars, promotions of age sets, cleansing ceremonies and other important ceremonies.”

Due to their vast knowledge on medicinal plants they also did the preparation of medicine for the treatment of various ailments. Their tools of trade are comprised of; a collection of paraphernalia for healing, a gourd known as enkidong’ which is normally used by the Laibons for predictions and herbs.

There are many Laibons but there is only one Chief Laibon a prestigious position. He presides over all important social events and ceremonies among the Maasai community. This position is normally inherited as not just anyone can be a Laibon.  Once the Chief Laibon felt it was time to hand over the mantle he would select one of his sons to be his successor.

The greatest threat to this group so far is Christianity which has always condemned the activities of this group and they have managed to convert a few to Christianity.

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