The sheer bulk and height of Mount Elgon is enough to create its own rainfall. Such power has drawn men to its forested slopes, its myriad of mountain streams and its fertile plains from time immemorial. Here cattle-herders from the arid north, forest hunters from the Congo basin, wandering tribes displaced by aggressive Maasai and migrating peoples escaping from starvation or war, have converged fought and traded and exchanged skills and ideas. Some settled and farmed the land; others, after recovering their strength and courage, moved on to other places.
Currently the main communities in the region are the Ogiek, Sabaot and Abaluhya; but many others have Elgon rooted in their traditional tales, folklore and tribal history.
The Ogiek are a small and ancient group of forest hunter-gatherers for whom honey is a vital part of the economy and social system. In the past they would trade honey and other forest produce with the people of the plains in exchange for iron-ware and grain. Deforestation and capitalism have contributed to their demise; they are now a very small community struggling to survive in a fast-changing world.
The Sabaot occupy the north and eastern parts of Elgon. Like their fellow Kalenjins of the north-west Cherangany, the Pokot, they were “cattle people”, with beliefs, traditions and ambitions steeped in pastoralism, but have greatly reduced livestock-keeping and turned more and more to the plough in recent times. Their main crops are maize, beans, bananas and vegetables. In fact this is one of Kenya’s main maize producing areas.
The Abaluhya Clans, of which there are many, each with its distinct dialect and cultural practices, occupy the southern slopes of Mount Elgon and parts of the Trans Nzoia plains. They were attracted here by the well-watered fertile soils. They are mainly agriculturalists and skilled artisans, but livestock has always had a social value above its economic worth and is commonly exchanged as bride-wealth.