Colonial Legacy in Maasai Land

Laikipia county, north of the Rift Valley, Kenya

May-June 2022

A young Maasai warrior towers over a goat, as blood pours out of its jugular, filling an empty water bottle that is passed among the men at the slaughter to share. I stand among the carcasses watching in awe the speed and accuracy by which each warrior completes the act of skinning, gutting and chopping. As the men share the raw kidneys while they’re working, the livers are chopped and passed to the cook to fry with onions. The meaty smell of the freshly cooked goat liver fills the air of the lush Mukogodo forest. I receive a few of the pieces on a wooden stick, while some elders supervise the preparation of the rest of the meal.

About 100 community members and two chiefs with their assistants gather to discuss an armed theft at the local boarding school in one of their villages. It's a critical meeting; the bandits remain at large. In traditional fashion, the Maasai come together to discuss and deliberate incidents that affect their community. The chiefs take turns in giving their opening remarks, the meeting proceeds for four hours, during with both men and women giving their opinions on how to address the matter at hand. A collective agreement is made: seven elders will cast a curse on the unknown bandits. Harsh sun rays are filtered through tall African olive trees. Afterwards, the attendees make their way through the community-managed forest to enjoy lunch.

Chief Harrison Kisio asks if I had my share of the communal meal. Appointed chief at 34 years of age, Harrison stands out in a community that traditionally places elders on a pedestal. He is the grandson of Kurito Ole Kisio, the infamous Mau Mau General, who fought the against the British colonialism of Kenya. With natural charisma, a deep voice and quiet demeanor, Harrison is one of the most respected members of the community.

The dislocation of the Maasai from the Rift Valley and Laikipia by the British colonial administration was a generational trauma for the tribe. The tribe’s strength and influence peeked during the 18th century, when they ruled over lands from Kenya to Tanzania, the empire started to dwindle even before the colonization of Kenya in 1895. Then, the 1904 and 1911 agreements known as the “Anglo-Maasai treaties”, paved the way to push the Maasai into southern and northern reserves. This uprooting resulted in significant loss of livestock and human lives. The Maasai were disenfranchised, dispossessed and fragmented.

A sea of thorny bush, cacti, and petrified trees fill the Dol Dol landscape, the merciless sun beating down as I descend a hill through the dry scenery and walk towards the harmony of female voices. As I get closer, I spot a group of twenty five Maasai women making their way slowly up the hill from the empty riverbed. Dressed in black capes or shukas, the women sing with one voice, their eyes closed in devotion, their heads moving from side to side in the unity of prayer. Some double their black capes with blue ones to signify the sky, while others choose red in homage to the red soil of the Rift Valley. With their necks painted in red ochre, they carry sticks to symbolize the defense of their land, green grass as a symbol of peace, and don their best handmade beaded necklaces. There is an ongoing drought. The super-heroines are praying for rain.

As the clock hits midday, the women’s prayer group takes a break under the shade of scattered spiny trees overlooking the rolling hills of the Llolldaiga ranch. Some women unwrap their children off their backs and tend to them while others stretch their legs and chitchat. I am greeted and welcomed into the group with three spots of red ochre painted on my forehead and cheeks. Forty four year old Jacinta Legei explains that “Before the British arrived, we had so many water points. After they came and put up those fences, we lost our access to water”. The women will continue praying for three consecutive days, hoping that their calls are answered sooner rather than later.

After gaining independence in 1963, attempts to address the historical injustice that affected the Maasai failed. Expropriated lands in Laikipia county continued to be traded, sold off and combined to create government settlement schemes, military bases, small-scale farms, large-scale ranches and wildlife conservancies to attract tourism. The Maasai and other pastoral tribes confronted the harsh realities of limited land and water. Emerging fences led to shrinking land mass. In fact, 53% of Laikipia county’s total area, equivalent to the size of Puerto Rico, is fenced off and reserved for large-scale ranches or conservancies by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Coupled with population growth in a limited space, traditional coping mechanisms to avoid land overuse, movement is almost non-existent. The increasingly frequent drought have exacerbated the situation. The only remaining route to cope during the dry season is towards Mount Kenya, where Maasai, Samburu and other pastoralists now head. The land size is decreasing while the people are increasing. The pressure is building.

The parched Oloisukut riverbed where the women start their prayer ceremony is growing deeper every day. A source of sand for construction works in big cities like Nairobi, the roots of decades old trees are exposed as the river is dug out. Many Maasai men from the community that shares the land around it resort to working as sand excavators, digging up large piles to fill truck loads ranging between twelve to fifteen tonnes. With the demand for additional urban spaces regularly increasing , the Maasai in remote rural areas slowly abandon their traditional ways of life for work that earns them $3.5 per truck load, and contributes even more to land degradation and increased flood risk. But what choice do they have? Pastoralism is becoming a burden. Grazing grounds are reduced. Waters sources are drying. Encroaching plant species are killing livestock.

While some Maasai women attempt to earn a living through their collective work in traditional cultural manyattas or homesteads, the youth hope to pursue a different path. Mary Lekuye (37) who I met during the women’s prayer ceremony was kind enough to help by holding up my voice recorder, and has a son, Dennis (20), who attends the technical college in neighboring Meru county to study catering. Although he is also a warrior who supports his family by taking care of their livestock, he is unwilling to continue with the same lifestyle.

Traditionally, Maasai youth between the ages of 16 to 20 become warriors through large circumcision ceremonies. Seen as a right of passage, the young men are circumcised and sent off to live with the cattle in the forest. Topping their long red ochre covered hair with Roman styled headpieces made of cow bones and feathers, Maasai warriors survive on milk, mixed with cow’s blood. They also learn how to heal illnesses with wild edible plants available in their environment. The newly inaugurated warriors walk around proudly, in their sandals stitched from car tires, displaying their muscular physic. They learn how to use traditional weapons, such as spears with poisoned tips, bows and arrows. Historically, warriors used to hunt lions to demonstrate their strength and fight in tribal wars to defend their lands and people.

Nowadays, lion hunting is prohibited. Warriors still carry their traditional weapons, but arming themselves with modern AK-47s and M-16s is not unusual. Circumcision, growing long hair and donning the intricate beaded jewellery and head pieces are still characteristic of Maasai warriors. Yet, their role is limited to cattle grazing and circumcision ceremonies are held during school holidays. Sports shoes have replaced traditional sandals, and mobile phones, are commonly seen among them.

Inadequate grazing grounds force the warriors to resort to late night grazing inside the fenced off large-scale ranches,. This can result in capture by armed rangers or government police and confiscated cattle. It is a dangerous way of life. “Land here is a symbol of poverty not wealth. "There is no more space, the cactus is invading the land and the animals are dying”, Mary says. “My grandparents were Laikipiaks with very strong connection to the land. They were never after money. These days, the younger generation would easily sell the cattle in order to leave and settle somewhere else”.

Prominent Maasai elders tend to understand the position of the younger generation, even if they don’t agree with it. Harrison’s uncles, Sioya and John Kisio, huddle in the smokey kitchen to drink some sweet chai, paired with warm chapatis for breakfast. It's a cold and foggy morning around Mukogodo forest. Firewood used to boil the milky tea keeps the space warm. The older members of the Kisio family, in their late and early 80s, are significant members of the community. Sioya is a traditional circumciser and John used to be a chief in the 1970s. “Some young Maasai men and women don’t learn our way of life. They go to the city to get a job, and if they loose that, they return but are unable to live our ways anymore”, he says. The older generation, however, cannot abandon their traditions, despite intermittent bouts of conflicts.

Pushed by extreme dry conditions, Samburu tribe warriors increasingly frequent the hills and lands of neighboring Laikipia to herd their cows. Confronting the endless fences surrounding ranches and conservancies, some warriors resort to breaking down those fences to access some grass for their animals. Others settle in community managed forests, such as the Mukogodo, for months. The forest has been reserved by the Maasai for decades. Despite that, longer dry seasons and sudden rain showers, coupled with a drop in temperatures, result in massive losses of cattle every year. The maggot-filled carcasses of Samburu cows dot the landscape around John’s home. “This happens every year and soon they will raid our communities to steal our cows to replace their losses”, he says.

Although older community members recount that cattle rustling is a common problem among pastoralist tribes, political manipulation of these communities’ grievances, climaxed in 2017-2018. A few private ranches were broken into, with some ranchers killed or injured. With a few exceptions, various media reports rushed to paint a picture of African herder versus white rancher, that vilified indigenous pastoralists as invaders and a threat to wildlife conservation. Maasai, Samburu, Pokot, Turkana and Borana were all placed in one pile and collectively blamed. The direct impact of this conflict on the Maasai people in northern Laikipia is ignored. Wild bushes, some flowering with the changing seasons, penetrate the walls and roofs of destroyed Maasai homesteads around the Mukogodo forest. Many families were forcefully displaced and ended up squatting in other community lands where they found joint support from host families. The Maasai are displaced again to find themselves constantly attempting to rebuild the walls of their traditional homesteads.

John recalls how he was shot three times in the arm, hip and leg in 2018, as he protected his cattle an armed group of Samburu warriors in Nadumoro. Four other elders died trying to protect their property. “This was the worst pain in my life”, John remembers as he shows me the x-rays. John was lucky. One of the attackers saved his life by calling for help from a lodge manager he knew. He waited with John for almost six hours, as he bled by the side of the road. “I’m still searching for that one warrior whose intervention saved my life. I want to thank him”. John was transported to Nanyuki General Hospital where he remained for a few weeks after several surgeries. He still uses a cane to walk.

Since 2021, the national government responded by deploying its armed forces to quell the pastoralists and protect the ranchers. This is “the state of negative peace”, chief Harrison referred to, while discussing the situation in Laikipia with me. “When the Maasai were moved into confined reserves created by the colonialists, this compressed the community in terms of resources and freedom of movement”.

Prejudice towards pastoralist communities, like the Maasai, is an underlying factor in ignoring their present day struggles. Historical injustices still affect those tribes. Consecutive post-independence governments never confronted or addressed those issues. A truth and reconciliation process never happened. Politicians at all levels of government exploit such grievances and historical events every election cycle. This does not exclude local Maasai politicians, who should in principal be the closest to understanding their own communities’ needs. Reflecting on this, John claims “Many of this generation of politicians and government appointed chiefs are not real leaders. They only care about consumption, alcohol and their own benefits. We the elders come together on our own to address any arising problems. It should be them leading community members to find solutions”. With upcoming elections due to take place in August 2022, there does not seem to be any change in sight.

Back in Mukogodo forest with John’s nephew, David Kisio, I trek down a small hill towards a water well. We meet Sioya who is resting on a fallen tree log. He explains that he has been busy building a little fence of trees around the water point to prevent elephants from emptying it. Using bee hives and controlled fires to generate smoke, the Maasai attempt to keep the elephants away from such important resources for domestic animals. We wait by the well until three Maasai warriors with around 200 cows appear in the distance. They signal to us that there is an elephant between us and them. I’m instructed to keep quiet and follow everyone back up the hill to avoid crossing paths with a lone wild animal that could be dangerous. We wait for it to make its way across the forest and up the opposite hill. Once it is out of sight, we descend back to the water well and the warriors lead the cows over. One of eight intact forests in Laikipia, Mukogodo is a true example of how indigenous community-led management can preserve biodiversity and co-existence with wildlife. It is the site of the rare and blessed Orititi tree where the Maasai would traditionally come together to slaughter and pray for peace, rain and other hopes.

In recent months though, news about a neighboring conservancy’s intentions to fence off Mukogodo have been floating around. Seeking a UNESCO World Heritage title, the conservancy is reportedly eyeing the forest to expand its “protected” territory. The impact on the surrounding community would be devastating. They would loose access to even more land, grazing grounds, water and freedom of movement. According to IMPACT, a civil society organization that has a program in the region to support communities’ rights to lands, this move has been challenged with a petition submitted to the National Museum of Kenya and copied the Ministry of Culture.

Injustice and inequality are the two words that repeatedly cross my mind as I drive between the never ending fences of Borana conservancy and Ole Naisho ranch. One side of the fence is approximately twenty eight kilometers long stretching from one conservancy to another, through two large-scale ranches in Laikipia north. With armed rangers, who receive military-like training, the “fortress conservation” model is perfectly exemplified in Laikipia. Despite the many local and international organizations that condemn this model as a colonial tool to suppress indigenous populations and violate their human rights, it is still the adopted way of conservation in Kenya. Supported by the government, conservancies seek international donor support to enhance their fortresses, while benefiting from wildlife tourism that markets their territories empty of people. Flyers and posters portray an exotic image of the Maasai. Dressed in their colorful red shukas and beaded jewellery, they perform a traditional dance, or guard foreign tourists while they sip their champagne in the “wilderness”.

The Maasai are viewed through the foreign binoculars of wildlife tourism, while the full story about a host indigenous population is washed away with a few colorful minutes. Their way of life is reduced to a quick “tour” of a prepped village. They are not the priority attraction.

It is a pleasant evening in March and I’m sitting with Harrison in his Uncle John’s living room. We are enjoying some sugary chai with John and Sioya. The elders exchange updates with their younger chief. The suspects in the school heist are still at large. Harrison looks up from his cup and tells me “Conservation is a tool to continue suppressing people. We have a conservation related conflict not a human-wildlife conflict”. His opinion falls in line with the recent actions of powerful conservation agencies, such as the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), have been described: a “stealth game”. Through the establishment of so-called “community conservancies” the NRT disguises the “fortress conservation” model that displaces indigenous populations, fences off lands and results in numerous human rights abuses by armed para-military rangers. Nevertheless, Harrison, the majority of the Kisio family, along with another 1,600 individuals are active members of the shared and now registered community land in Il Negwesi. In addition to being the first ever community land to be registered under the Community Land Act (CLA), which was introduced in 2016, Il Negwesi also has a small wildlife conservancy and an active tourism lodge. Despite COVID19 cutting the community lodge’s profits by 50% in 2020, the conservancy introduced two rhinos to its land to be in a better position to attract more tourism and funding for its rhino program.

Some see getting into the wildlife conservation business as the only way to have full autonomy over their land. A new coping mechanism emerges.

Settling under some trees and tents, the community land members come together in the Annual General Meeting (AGM). The meeting hasn’t been held for the last two years due to COVID19. Community land members from all over the county come together to endorse the elected board of directors for their lodge, get an idea of the lodge’s annual profits and any debts; and discuss other arising issues. The county government’s representatives are present, along with organisations that partner with the lodge including NRT and Borana conservancy. The “political game”, as Harrison calls it, is on.

Groups of people are shuttled to the meeting venue using rented minibuses and jeeps offered by the neighbors. I offer to take Chief Harrison and a few community members in my car. We arrive to a group of women singing and dancing to traditional Maa songs played by a DJ with an impressive sound system. The generator is placed far away so as not to disrupt the crowd. After some more dancing, a trio of young warriors take the microphones to demonstrate rapping skills in their local language. They combine traditional beaded accessories and wrapped shukas with Nike, funky sunglasses and sports jerseys.

After the hip hop warriors finish, two pastors take center stage to pray. Speeches by each stakeholder present are given, thanking everyone else. Big players like the conservancies in attendance, remind the participants how much they have done to support the communities with education, health and water installations. It is clear that the registration of Il Negwesi as a community land is a game changer: it has given the members more agency and control over their resources, even if the latter is limited. Actually, towards the end of the meeting, an announcement is made by the community lodge manager that an education program for 9.1 million Kenyan Shillings (approx. USD 78,500) is launched, while stating “Pastoralism is no longer sustainable for our members. Education is key to have alternative livelihoods and to connect locally and globally. The population is increasing while the land is the same”.

“Right now, the most powerful land grabbing tool in Africa is a rhino. If you have a rhino, you place it any place, you get a license to fence off thousands of acres ”, Dr. Mordecai Ogada, an ecologist and the author of "The Big Conservation Lie". The communities of Laikipia north agree with this.

The Maasai lived for centuries on expansive lands the size of Thailand, and co-existed peacefully with wildlife. Their pastoralism and seasonal movements helped preserve biodiversity. Although many have dangerous encounters with wildlife, costing the community precious loved ones, they do not actively hunt wildlife for sport. This concept was brought to the continent by colonialism, resulting in the commodification of wildlife. As trophy hunting became illegal, the contemporary name of the game became fortress conservation.

Where does this leave the indigenous population? The original owners of a land that has now been broken up into pieces, fenced and traded off. Will they continue to watch from the sidelines as more and more of their lands are grabbed, increasingly threatening their way of life? Or will they continue to engage with the big conservation players and their government allies in order to survive? Will they be able to adapt yet again and continue with some forms of their traditional lifestyle? Or will the next generation totally abandon their families’ traditions to create new ways of life? Will this facade of “peace”, in the absence of meaningful justice, be sustained? Or will the Maasai join forces and make another attempt to reclaim their ancestral lands?

So many unanswered questions remain and only time will reveal the answers. What I know for certain though, is that the Maasai are here, holding us witness to their story: one of perseverance, adaptability and courage, in the face of historical and recurrent injustices.

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