The Sebei of Uganda


The Sebei – commonly known as the Sabiny are an ethnic group of Uganda and Sudan who speak Sebei, a Nilotic Language. They occupy three districts in Eatsern Uganda i.e., Kapchorwa, Bukwa and Kween. The Sebei belongs to the Kalenjin – a large territory of over five million. These are found at Uganda’s borders with the Republic of Kenya. In addition, the Sebei speak Kupsabiny, a Kalanjin language that is spoken other smaller Kalenjin tribes around Mount Elgon. These, altogether are known as the Saboat. Like all the other Kalenjin, the Sabiny circumcise teenage girls and boys as a rite of passage.

History of the Sabiny/Sebei

The modern Sebei include three formerly independent but closely related tribes that live on the Northern and Northwestern slopes of Mt. Elgon. these tribes include the Sebei (originally called Sapin), the Mbai and the Sor.  The territory of the Sebei was cut after the Kenya-Uganda border was formed. Some of the Sapin previously stretched into Kenya on the Eastern slopes of Mount Elgon, on the Uasin-Gisho Plateau. The siter tribes in Kenya include; the Kony, Bonom and the Bok. These are in close association with those who live on the southern slopes of the mountain especially in terms of language and culture.

However, this close association was interrupted by modern politics. Never the less, some cases of various intermarriages and movements between these regions are still observed.

Clan, Age-set and Lineage of the Sebei  

The Sebei community is designed with elements that is organizational units, clan and lineage and interpersonal relationships built on the grounds of consanguinity, age-set structure and marriage. Every Sebei belongs to a clan (Aret). Belonging to a clan is the most important connection in a man’s life for instance, it is the first thing a person wants to know about an outsider. These clans possess a strong spiritual embrace on their members. More to that, they are portrayed as having a certain genetic inheritance or qualities.  One cannot change one’s clan connection except in cases where a clans may fall apart.

There are about two hundred distinctive clans among the Sebei. Each clan is comprised of the descendants of a single founder. Its name is usually formed by fixing a syllable ‘Kap’ which means ‘descendant of’ at the founder’s name. However, some clans’ names are derived from the basis of myths, certain behaviors or practices in relation to the founders. 

“Sebei Prayer to the god and evil spirits” oh, here is a drink for all of us; even our grandfathers, fathers, all the old women and old men, even our uncles who have gone below. Drink ye! Watch over us that we may love and that the people be in peace. Even the cows and goats should increase and have a long life. You who are evil should drink and go away; do not return to this house. Away!

The Ritual Transformation of the Sebei from Childhood to Adulthood

The Sebei ceremonial activities that mark the transition of boys and girls into adults are the most dramatic and significant events. These ceremonies are and have always been very important in the Sebei community. The ceremonial cycle often takes one to six months to be completed. Here, the boys undergo the initiation process between the age of 18 to 20 years. For the girls, they undergo the process a few years younger.

The initiation cycle involves two major ceremonies and numerous minor ceremonies. The first ceremony involves the central ritual that is the circumcision of the boys and the girls. The circumcision of the girls involves cutting of the whole labia minora for the girls. The minor ceremonies include; shaving, partial release from isolation restrictions and painting.

“Mother’s circumcision song” My stomach is roiling; mother is very worried, I do not think, my child, that you will be brave tomorrow.

The second major ceremonies include; assigning the newly initiates to their respective age-sets and signaling their re-entry into the usual activities of the society. Never the less, the circumcision of girls has often been condemned by various other tribes in the country. The practice has been pronounced as “cruel”   

Tourist Attractions in the Sebei Community

  • Mount Elgon National Park
  • Sipi Falls
  • Pian Upe Game reserve

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