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"Big Five" and Family Totems in Kenya

Guest Post by Gloria Teimuge

Gloria is a public health practitioner and consultant, photojournalist and writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. This is part of our series highlighting the geography and culture of Kenya.

About a month ago, I was chilling in Nairobi, watching news on TV with my friend Julie. I got a call from my brother telling me to watch out and be cautious when walking the dogs at night or jogging. A mama leopard and its cubs were spotted in the neighborhood. I was surprised and kidogo (a little) scared. But my friend was completely unbothered! In the cities and large towns, such sightings are rare. The Kenya Wildlife Services will act fast to make sure there is no contact between humans and animals, and that the animals can get back to their reserves.

Leopards are more common in places like Kapcheblanget, a small, beautiful village in rural Trans-Nzoia. The name Kapcheblanget means ‘home of the leopard’ in Kalenjin. Going back centuries, these lands were exclusively home to wildlife, so the current inhabitants do their part in ensuring peaceful coexistence with leopards and other game.

The Big five animals in Kenya’s tourism are: the Leopard, Lion, Buffalo, Rhinoceros and the African Elephant. They are named so because of the difficulty and danger posed during their hunting in the past. Now, they are an iconic quintet in safaris. (PSA- we do not tolerate poaching, it’s against the law.)

Top photos by Kigan Teimuge. Bottom photos by Tanya Cothran.

Totems and Clans

In our sub-tribes and clans, we have totems that are meant to symbolize the characters of its members. Totems can be animals, nature, or and seasons. We follow and respect our clans and clan totems very much.


The terik, which I come from, is the clan of the elephant. My paternal lineage is terik and my maternal lineage is talai (toad). Our ancestors believe that we are connected to the elephant and the toads. We are expected to value and respect that connection.

There are also rules and conditions which we adhere to; for instance when it comes to marriage. Certain clans cannot inter-marry, it’s against customs set ages ago. So during a ‘show up’- a traditional sit down before the engagement- both families have to go through the family tree and ensure there’s no relation or clash of clans. If there’s no issue, they proceed to the engagement. If there’s a problem, the engagement is annulled.

I remember a story my Dad (Samuel Teimuge) told me about elephants being the superior animal of the savanna. Whenever the elephant passes, all the other animals bow and make way as a show of respect. People too!

Annually, they make their way through the forest during their migration to Kerio valley. They go there to lick salt, to satisfy a craving perhaps. Salt is an essential in their diet, so they make the 50km trek once a year.

Elephants never forget their path. They mark their paths and cover them with broken branches in the forest. They can smell and detect from kilometers away and are excellent trackers. They maneuver if they have to but they get back using the same route. When my Dad mentioned that, I was surprised. So intelligent!

Elephants pass across my Dad's farm, so he puts out a huge barrel of water for them to drink. They pause for a while, drink and go on their way. In Rimoi national reserve, that pack of elephants is known as the largest single herd in Africa, and the world. They move together, stay together and feed together. Such a community.

Until next time, take care!

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