Preferred Citation: Fadiman, Jeffrey A. When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mount Kenya. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Chapter III Mount Kenya Traditions: Fragmentation and War

Kalenjin Speakers: Umpua, Agumba

The expulsion of peoples from the regions near Mount Kenya's base was repeated higher up the slopes. The victims, who lived either in the





South Imenti

North Imenti

Agumba (hunters)

Umpua (herders)

Umpua (herders)

Umbua, Mbumbua

Umbua, Lumbua


Northeast Imenti



Agumba (hunters)

Umpua (herders)


star-grass zone or lower forest ranges, are remembered in traditions either as Agumba or Umpua. The Agumba form a segment of the folklore told by every tribe on Mount Kenya. They appear in tales of the Gikuyu, Embu, and Cuka peoples, as well as the chronicles of Meru. Among other tribes Agumba are described as "little people" (tuuji tukuru: old children) or shy, hairy dwarfs, who lived in the forests above the Bantu (Gikuyu, Embu, Cuka, etc.) settlements. Routledge, Kenyatta, Leakey, Lambert, Orde-Browne and, more recently, Mwaniki and Muriuki, have all collected "Gumba" (i.e., Agumba) oral traditions that describe them as Pygmy hunter-gatherers, who lived in "caves" into which they fled at the approach of Bantu migrant bands.[18]

The Meru also share traditions with the Cuka, Embu, and sections of Gikuyu that describe the "Agumba pits," large or squarish depressions, within which the Agumba (or Gumba) once lived. Within Meru the pits are located along a line that runs roughly along the zone at 7,000–7,500 feet which delineates the lowest edge of the forest from the highest point in the star-grass (populated) zone. Today they form an irregular line that can be followed from ridge to ridge, along a region that is largely farmland, but which two hundred years ago must have been thickly forested. The largest pits average 16 to 24 feet across.[19] Traditions from every area describe the pits as having "holes" into which the "little Gumba" would flee. The Agumba traditions, however, are shared by primarily two of the Meru subtribes, those closest to the Cuku-Embu-Gikuyu region, and who reside on Mount Kenya itself. Elders of Muthambi and Mwimbi recall peoples living in the forest as their respective ancestors arrived (table 6).


Igoji and Imenti informants, however, provide accounts of these groups that differ sharply from the traditions of their two southern neighbors. The majority of their narrations speak neither of dwarfs nor Agumba. Rather, they describe a tall, slender, cattle-keeping people recalled (with variations) as Umpua. The Umpua wore shoulder-length hair, plaited into braids. In contrast with Agumba traditions, they are not recalled as hairy or as having any of the physical traits attributed to either Pygmoid or Khoisan (Bushmen) cultures. Rather, they are said to have looked like the Meru themselves.

The Umpua are also remembered in tradition as herders, not hunters, guarding small numbers of cattle and goats and living solely from the milk and meat of their herds. At night, livestock were kept in pits, dug by the herders themselves, which were gradually deepened as mud was removed after the rains. The earth and dung were heaped next to the pit to form a mound, within which the Umpua are recalled as having placed their dead.

Only the Muthambi and Mwimbi differentiate between Umpua and Agumba. Their descriptions of the Umpua correspond with those of other Meru subtribes. Narrations of the Agumba, however, describe hunters. Beyond that, the physical descriptions of both groups are identical, as are descriptions of their weapons (triangular iron spears, arrowheads with barbs on both sides), their dwelling places ("pits," "holes," "caves"), and their flight at each Mwimbi or Muthambi approach. The puzzle may be resolved, however, by suggesting the prior occupation of both Mwimbi and Muthambi by two separate sections of one tribe, sharing portions of an iron-age material culture but diverging in their economic base in much the fashion suggested for the forest Mokogodo-and plains Oromo-speaking peoples. The barbed weapons, for example, are similar (identical?) to spear-and arrowheads used by related groups of forest hunters and grassland cattle herders among the Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek who now live west of Mount Kenya.[20]

Both of the names recalled by tradition also suggest Ogiek origins. Certainly, "Agumba," "Umpua," "Umbua," "Mbumbua," and "Lumbua" all sound like reasonable variations of the Maasai "Il Lumbua." The term, which means simply "cultivator" in the Maasai language, was once used by pastoral Maasai to denote those Maa-speaking peoples who had adopted agriculture.

Certain of these cultivators, however, were once Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek. In the course of their own history they had come so deeply under Maasai influence that they accepted the language and traditions of that


people as their own. One relevant example of this cultural transition can be found in the contemporary Il Mosiro, originally a Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek community, which has adopted both the language and material culture of Tanzania's pastoral Maasai. "Il Mosiro" is their name for themselves. Among their Maasai and Bantu neighbors, however, they are known as the Il Lumbua (in Maasai dialects) and Wahumbua (in Bantu dialects).[21] The similarity to Meru oral variants (i.e., Lumbua, Umbua, Umpua, Agumba), although not conclusive, certainly illustrates how Kalenjin-speaking peoples could once have been known as the Umpua or Agumba, the designation stemming from an era when at least one section cultivated and was in contact with Maasai.

Descriptions of the Umpua and Agumba "dwellings" (i.e., pits, caves) also suggest Ogiek origins, as well as the presence of two coexisting groups. Like the Gikuyu Gumba, both Umpua and Agumba are alleged to have lived in either pits, holes, or caves. More detailed investigations, however, have elicited two sharply different descriptions of the dwellings in which each people lived. One group is said to have lived in caves scooped from under the roots of trees. The second inhabited circular pits over which cow skins were laid to make roofs. Both patterns recur throughout Mwimbi-Muthambi. The association of cow hides in the second description suggests one possible function for each of the two types of Gumba pit. The large, square depressions may have been used to contain Umpua-Agumba herds, the smaller round ones to shelter herders.

Both dwelling patterns have, in fact, been found among Kalenjin speakers. Among the previously mentioned Il Mosiro (the Il Lumbua or Wahumbua of Tanzania), research completed in the 1940s described them as divided into two sections, each with its own ecology. One group lived within shallow depressions covered "by a rude shelter of skins," and the other section of the same community lived in "dugouts . . . scooped out beneath the roots of a suitable tree."[22] If this pattern of dual habitation was once typical for other Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek, it would seem possible to place Mount Kenya's Umpua and Agumba among their ancestors.

The most interesting evidence, however, comes through examination of what may be the last recorded fragment of the Umpua-Agumba language. No oral narrative in all Meru speaks of the Agumba dialect in any form. In Mwimbi, however, a single aged informant claimed to remember four "Umpua words" (for one and two , and two separate




(Mwimbi Oral Tradition, 1969)

Il Mosiro (Maguire,Tanzania, 1948)

(Lambert, Mount Kenya, 1939)









(first variant)




(second variant)




words for man ), which had been sung in songs about (the Umpua) when he was a child. These can be compared with independently collected word lists for two widely separated groups of Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek (table 7).[23]

The existing evidence suggests, therefore, that the Umpua (and Agumba?) of the mid-1700s may well have been ancestral to the Kalenjin-speaking Ogiek of today. At some time in their past, groups of them may have adopted the title of Il Lumbua (in Meru: Umbua) from pastoral Maasai. They may also have adopted Maasai military methods, to the extent required to seize the herds of cattle they are said to have possessed. In consequence they may have decided to abandon agriculture, moving instead to an economy based both on herding and a partial symbiosis with related groups of hunter-gatherers within Mount Kenya's forests.

Meru traditions barely suggest the existence of hunter-herder symbiosis between the two communities, merely noting that they "waged no war and . . . gave honey for milk." If true, the trading pattern is supported by Blackburn's investigation into the Ogiek honey culture.[24] Among Mau Ogiek, for example, he reported that the average hunter could collect two hundred pounds of surplus honey per year, above the two pounds per day gathered for personal consumption.

Traditionally, that surplus was exchanged with cattle peoples at the (Mau) forest's lower fringe. They would ferment it (as do the Ogiek) to create an intoxicating honey wine as well as a honeyed water that forms the essential ingredient of every ritual requiring contact with ancestral spirits. Without honey, no rituals could be performed. Without


ritual, no ancestral contact could be made. Without ancestral blessing, no actions could be taken, and human society would cease to function.

In consequence Ogiek hunters and those herders in Blackburn's research zone formed an interdependent relationship, based both on exchanging produce and intermarrying, in much the same manner suggested by Meru tradition for the Umpua and Agumba in the 1700s. Aside from economic benefit, both groups may have become psychologically dependent, seeking each other out to ritually, and therefore spiritually, survive.

If so, that pattern was shattered after the 1730s by the appearance of pre-Meru raiders on every section of the mountain. In Mwimbi, where traditions are representative of the whole, forest hunters from the ascending clans are said to have met peacefully with the Agumba, from whom they claim to have learned the use of magic. The Umpua, however, found their herds the targets of constant raids, as Mwimbi men of the mainstream sought both glory and cows.

A pattern of mutual warfare developed that lasted well over a decade, since warriors from at least two age-sets are recalled as having taken part. During that time, Umpua in every region were gradually forced up the mountain. Initially they attempted to shelter their herds in pits dug deep in the forests. When this no longer proved possible, they fled ("around the mountain, like birds") and disappeared.

The dates and directions of expulsion vary slightly among Meru regions. The Umbua of Imenti, for instance, are said to have been pushed northeast, onto Mount Kenya's northern plains, where they held out until scattered years later by raiding Maasai. The Umbua of Mwimbi are said to have fled south. Nonetheless, the pattern of conflict described in every region is identical: the Umpua fighting to preserve their herds, the migrants battling to seize them. In every case victory came through Meru numerical superiority, and by the end of the 1700s—except for children and captives adopted into Meru clans—the Agumba and Umpua were gone.

Chapter III Mount Kenya Traditions: Fragmentation and War

Preferred Citation: Fadiman, Jeffrey A. When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mount Kenya. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.