Dorobo People

The people of Africa's vast savanna are united by their strong identity with the sprawling plains that surround them. Originally, these pastoral groups came to the savanna looking for food, scavenging after leftover game killed by large predators. Today, these original hunter-gatherers exist in the form of the Dorobo tribes of the eastern Serengeti, who survive by hunting small game and collecting honey and wild fruits and vegetables. Long ago, the Dorobo were joined by herdsmen and pastoralists from northern Africa. Among these, the Maasai have held the most tenaciously to their wanderlust. These tall, dark skinned herdsmen in striking red cloaks and beadwork have come to symbolize the face of Africa's savanna people to the outside world. The Maasai share the plains with the Kikuyu, traditionally a nation of farmers, who now form the backbone of Kenyan society.

The Dorobo did not name themselves. Their name stems from a Maasai expression “il torobo,” which means “a poor person who has no cattle and has to live by hunting and gathering.” To the Maasai, this is a lowly occupation. To the multiple hunter-gatherer groups that fall under the heading “Dorobo,” this is survival. Believed to be the descendants of ancient San people, the Dorobo may have lived in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania longer than any of the other tribes who now inhabit these savanna lands. But over time, their communities have slowly been absorbed into those of more powerful newcomers, like the Maasai and Kikuyu. Many Dorobo tribes can no longer claim to truly live on their ancestral lands. Among the few who can are the Ogiek, who live in the Mau Forest northwest of Nairobi. But outside property developers are pressuring the Ogiek to move out of the area, meaning that even here, the Dorobo legacy is not safe.

The Dorobo people are known for their linguistic skills. An ethnic minority, they have been so successful in adopting other groups’ languages that it is difficult to say what is the original Dorobo language. Many Dorobo speak Maa, the language of the Maasai, as well as Swahili or Kipsigis. A few still speak languages derived from ancient Cushite tongues. The Ogiek tribes however, speak several dialects that derive from southern Nilotic languages.

Various Dorobo tribes believe in one god called Torooret, which means "very high." Others also refer to the god as Asiista, which is believed to derive from the great Egyptian gods Isis or Osiris. Spirits, however, play a large role in everyday occurrences, especially when there is trouble. There are a variety of spirit diviners who are consulted to appease vengeful spirits who inflict ill health or other misfortunes. Many Dorobo, however, have also converted to Christianity.

The Dorobo are often isolated and live in tightly knit communal groups. They place male children in age sets that form lifelong ties. Ceremonies to mark various transitions in life – naming, adulthood initation rites and marriage – are commonplace. Often, Dorobo groups do not have a defined leader, and instead use meetings as a way to resolve problems and conflicts. In addition to being master beekeepers, many Dorobo are accomplished in basket weaving, pottery and beadwork. All are well known for their story telling and singing skills.

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Thirteen / WNET PBS