“The Yaaku used the hind leg of a giraffe as crucial part of bride price and outlawing giraffe hunting meant that young men could not marry”
Former hunter-gatherers and beekeepers, the Yaaku people were assimilated by their neighbours’ Maasai people who practised pastoralist culture.
The Yaaku people, of Kenya’s Rift Valley, number only around 4,000. Only seven people, of around 70 years of age can speak the ethnic group’s native language Yakunte, fluently. The seven people in Kenya who speak Yakunte language are now trying to save it.
The Yaaku are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia to Kenya, where they settled in the Mukogodo forest, west of Mount Kenya, more than 100 years ago. The name “Mukogodo” is a Yakunte language term meaning people who live in rocks. Yaaku people have been believed to be living in rocks and caves.
The Yaaku people derived their name Yaaku “hunting people” from their hunting lifestyle. they also kept bees before they began trading with the Maasai.
The Yaaku’s existence has never been acknowledged in official documentation, including the national census because they are grouped with their more populous neighbours, the Maasai.
Only a few old people can speak Yakunte language. Many died before their children could learn it.
The beginning of the end of the Yaaku community and language is attributed to colonialism. The colonial administration disrupted the Yaaku way of life by banning Africans’ game hunting to stem competition with commercial sports hunters. The Yaaku, a hunter-gatherer community, was badly hit.
The Yaaku used the hind leg of a giraffe as crucial part of bride price and outlawing giraffe hunting meant that young men could not marry. Further, having the Maasai as neighbours only made matters worse for the Yaaku.
The Maasai were rich in livestock and used their livestock to entice the daughters of Yaaku. The Yaaku had no livestock to pay for dowry, so the Maasai girls were also out of their reach. Many of our men died without a family.
Many of the Yaaku men became herders for the Maasai. Gradually many of the Yaaku intermarried with the Maasai, were assimilated into Maasai culture, abandoned their language and started speaking Maa (the Maasai language).
Today the Yaaku are often considered a subgroup of the Masai and are not officially recognized as one of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups. Yakunte is one of six languages in Kenya that have been classified as extinct by UNESCO.
As the number of Yakunte speakers has dwindled, various efforts have been made to save the language.