Yaaku: The Language of a Small Forest Tribe in Kenya

Posted on May 5, 2012 in GlobeScope

By Carrie Williams:

In Kenya, there is a group of nomadic herders well known to many scholars, called the Maasai. But there is a lesser-known group of people called Mukogodo, who used to dwell in caves, keep bees, and hunt wild game, and have incorporated themselves into Maasai culture. The old language used by the Mukogodo is called Yaaku, which very few people today can speak.

There is a theory that the name Mukogodo literally means “people who live in rocks”. From Mukugodo to Maasai , a book written by an Anthropologist, Lee Cronk describes how the Mukogodo developed their language from the Cushite ethno-linguistic group, the first of many language groups to arrive in Kenya as far back as 9000 years ago. Cronk went to Kenya with a group of students to study the Mukogodo, realizing they are a very rare ethnic group of people worth. However, the Maasai, a more populous group that lives alongside the Mukogodo have taught them their language called Maa. Maasai call the Mukogodo, ‘il dorrobo,’ ‘dorobo,’ or ‘torobo.’ Literally translated in Maasai language of Maa, into a derogatory term that combines many words that mean “short,” “tsetse fly,” “cattle,” or “forest,” but some argue that it simply means “the people without cattle.”

There is a theory that the Torrobo lived to the West of Mt. Kenya but were driven away by a group of Bantu invaders, a group of highland people. Torrobo once spoke a language called Yakku but as they phased into the Maasai culture they picked up the clothes, behavior and language of the Maasai. Today, the Mukogodo have been mostly entirely absorbed into Maasai life and culture. Some Mukogodo speak Maasai, and some speak a dialect called Mukogodo-Maasai. Cultures do not always stay the same.

The Mukogodo were people who had interests in botany. Their name for plant was the same as the word for medicine. Sitting just north of Mt. Kenya where they lived are some of the oldest rocks in the world that date to the Precambrian era, about half a billion years ago. They’ve protected the forest for hundreds of years.

In 2006, a few linguists from the Netherlands visited the town of Doldol in Central Kenya by the request of Yaaku people to revive the language. They discovered that several people can understand the language but only to a certain extent. One of the older women is about a hundred. Her name is Yaponay and she takes care of her grandchildren because both the parents passed away. There isn’t enough knowledge to completely revive the language.

The Yaaku look up to the Maasai as superior, allow them to determine trade agreements and some even feel ashamed they are of Torrobo origin. Current battles over land rights conflict because some lands are Yaaku and Maasai both, while the government of Kenya tries to fight for land rights for Yaaku. They are a small group of only hundreds, while there are about 50,000 that speak Maa.