The Nation (Nairobi)

14 December 2006

Kenya: King's Crusade to Revive Dying Iteso Customs

Nairobi — The excitement and joy was palpable. From Kisumu to Eldoret and finally in Nairobi, members of the Iteso community came out in their hundreds. The ululations and celebrations told it all: The community's king had come calling.

And when a king arrives among his people, men, women and children leave their economic, domestic and other chores to cheer their leader.

For the Iteso, His Highness Emormor Papa (king) had arrived in the country on a five day tour from Uganda and they had to accord him a welcome fit for a monarch. For Augustine Osuban (that is the king's real name) is, after all, their highest ranked leader.

There was a carnival mood as the leader and his entourage made stop-overs in Nakuru and Eldoret on his way to Nairobi where first Teso cultural night was held at Bomas of Kenya on Saturday.

And their excitement was understandable. Kingdoms are non-existent in Kenya as they died decades ago. But the Iteso, whose community straddles the Kenya-Uganda border, have a kingdom based in Soroti district, Uganda.

The entourage had four Ugandan MPs and the council of ministers in the kingdom.

On his last stopover in Kisumu on his way back to Uganda, the community members waited for a record 10 hours before the King finally arrived at midnight.

And Papa, as they fondly refer to him, did not disappoint - he brought a message of hope and unity for the community in Kenya whose culture is under threat.

He urged them to stick to the community's values as culture was a way of life explaining his mission was to revive its dying traditions.

"Not only are we seeking to get back to our roots for social reasons but also for our economic and political survival," said the king while addressing Kisumu members at the YMCA Social Hall.

"We need to stamp our foot on the ground and stand out to be recognised as a powerful group when the EAC comes to realisation," he urged the members.

Historical facts

East Africa, he said, is a region of one people bound by historical facts and a natural umbilical cord, Lake Victoria.

"The Iteso live on both sides of the Kenya-Uganda border and have crossed over, buried their dead and celebrated their marriages and births without asking the authorities for permission," he said.

He called for youth to be brought to the forefront as they fight to regain identity.

The community's cultural traditions in Kenya have been under threat from strong influence of her populous neighbours, the Luo and Luhya.

Amagoro MP Sospeter Ojaamong told this writer that is the reason why the King's visit to the country was significant.

"We are on the brink of losing our identity in the spoken language and other traditions," he said.

He continued, "Our language here in Kenya has been greatly influenced by Luo and Luhya and that is why most us cannot speak it well."

The king's visit was the first in the country since his election in 2000.

Papa is the first holder of the seat whose reign shall run till death. The seat cannot be inherited.

For one to be eligible for election by the governing council, he has to be literate, aged over 60 years and own a traditional homestead.

The king is elected by representatives from the districts.

He appoints a prime minister, to serve as the head of the government, assisted by three deputy prime ministers.

Uganda has two deputies while Kenya has one, Mr George Ochokolo, covering the southern region of Busia and Teso districts.

The governing council has eight ministers and deputies in charge of ministries mainly dealing with culture, history, legal affairs, finance, international relations and diaspora issues.

The Uganda government has given two vehicles to each of the tribal kings.

President Yoweri Museveni first recognised the kingdoms in 2000 as a way of dealing with inter-tribal conflicts.

President Museveni consulted the Iteso king on regular basis during Government war with Joseph Kony's Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

In May 2003, the community suffered the wrath of the rebels when 15 people were hacked to death and hundreds of families fled to refugee camps in Northern Uganda. The king is now a major player in brokering peace between the two warring parties.

Finance minister Martin Owako said the community plans to set up a Sh22 million Royal Palace in Soroti district with donations from members.

Cultural centres will also be set up by the community's cultural union in eight districts, including one in Teso district in Kenya.

Papa Emormor is considered the father of 5 million Iteso, most of who live in Uganda forming the second largest tribe in the country after the Baganda.

In Kenya, the population is estimated at 700,000 most of them living in Teso district.

According to anthropologists, the Iteso (also referred to as Teso or Itesot) are part of a group that migrated from Southern Sudan around 1600 A.D. and split into two branches, with one branch moving to present day Kenya to form the Kalenjin group and Maasai cluster.

The other branch, called Ateker migrated westwards and split into several groups, including Jie, Akoret, Turkana in present day Kenya, and Iteso, Karamojong and Kumam in present day Uganda.

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