No ‘true leader’

In 1919, the British rounded up all members of the Talai – Koitalel’s clan and the longstanding leaders of the Nandi – and banished them to an isolated island-like village called Kapsisiywo in the heart of Nandi territory. Situated between two rivers, which encircle the whole area of Kapsisiywo, about 30 Talai families, consisting of at least 150 people, were separated from the rest of their tribe for decades.

“Along the edges of the river, the British made sure to place the homesteads of colonial chiefs [Nandi who were loyal to the British],” Chomu told Al Jazeera. “This prevented any Talai from leaving Kapsisiywo.” More than a century later, most Talai still live there.

The British missionaries moved on to instil fear about the Talai into the rest of the Nandi population. Once revered for their supernatural and prophetic abilities, the missionaries spent decades convincing the Nandi that the Talai were evil witch doctors who were responsible for their state of misery under colonialism.

Before the arrival of the British, the Talai were considered royalty. But once Koitalel took his last breath, their lives would transform into a never-ending nightmare. Immediately after Koitalel’s murder, the British hunted down the slain leader’s relatives; all of them were either killed, detained, or banished to Kapsisiywo.

There was also a practical problem facing the Talai: the sacred leadership staffs, passed down for generations among the Talai that symbolised the transfer of leadership from one orkoiyot to the next, were missing. “Whoever Koitalel would have given those staffs to would have been our next leader,” explained Machii. “But without those staffs, we were left without any true leader, and we don’t know to whom Koitalel would have given them.”

The British colonial administration appointed a known collaborator as the new Nandi leader, but he died just three years later, in 1912. Nandi elders were subsequently able to convince the colonial government to recognise Lelimo araap Samoei, Koitalel’s first-born son and Machii’s father, as leader of the tribe. But after only a few years, Lelimo was forced into hiding after killing one of his Nandi bodyguards who was spying for the British.

“My father took over the leadership, but the British were so brutal and controlling he could not actually lead anything,” said Machii. “I remember my father being so bitter. He hated the white men. He never forgave them for killing his father – that’s why his leadership didn’t last long.”

Koitalel’s second-born son Barsirian Manyei was chosen as leader of the Nandi in 1919, secretly and without the knowledge of the British. But in 1923, when colonial authorities caught wind of Manyei’s plans to restore a sacred Nandi ceremony in which power is handed over to successive age sets, he was arrested. For four decades, Manyei would be transferred between prisons and house arrests, making him Kenya’s longest-serving political prisoner.

At the time, the especially rowdy Talai leaders were banished to Mfangano Island, in the eastern part of Lake Victoria. Manyei would also end up there.

Cheruiyot Barsirian, 76, was just eight years old when he was detained with Manyei, his father, on Mfangano Island. “We were always sick from malaria because of the mosquitoes,” Cheruiyot recounted, cradling a portrait of a computer-generated image of what his grandfather Koitalel was believed to have looked like. “And there were so many snakes. I remember never being able to sleep because of the snakes and insects.”

“Life was very hard there,” he continued. “We used to get food rations from the British. They monitored our every move to make sure no Talai escaped from the island.” The Talai were made to live in mud homes built in straight lines, making their movement easily observable to colonial officers. “The [colonial officers] would come each morning and count us to know that no one had fled.”

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