News / Africa

Kenya’s ‘Forest People’ in Bitter Fight for their Ancestral Homes

Ogiek say they’re under attack for trying to maintain their culture and traditions

Darren Taylor

This is Part 2 of a 5-part series: Africa's Endangered Peoples
Parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

For centuries, the Ogiek have made their homes deep in the Mau and Mount Elgon forests of western Kenya.

Ogiek warriors gather in a forest in western Kenya
Ogiek warriors gather in a forest in western Kenya


“The Ogiek look at forests in a different way. To them, there’s no better home. Forests have always provided the Ogiek with livelihoods, like they are some of the best beekeepers and honey harvesters in the world,” says Peter Kitelo, an Ogiek community leader who was born in the Mount Elgon forest.

Kiplangat Cheruyot, an Ogiek from the Mau forest and spokesman for the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program [OPDP] says, “Without the Mau forest, I believe that there could not be the existence of the Ogiek community. That’s where they get their clothing, that’s where they get their shelter. And without the Mau forest, it’s like a fish without being in the water.”

The Ogiek were once purely hunters and gatherers, dressing in the skins of the animals they killed for meat with bows and arrows, but they now also keep cattle and goats and grow vegetables.

The Ogiek want to continue living in the Mau and Mount Elgon forests, but the Kenyan government says they must 'modernize'.
The Ogiek want to continue living in the Mau and Mount Elgon forests, but the Kenyan government says they must 'modernize'.

“They also have a fantastic medicinal knowledge of a lot of forest plants,” says Fiona Watson, a researcher with Survival International, an organization advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples all over the world.

“So there’s this wonderful identification with the forests [but] much of that now is being stripped away and stolen from them,” says Watson, who’s spent a lot of time with the Ogiek.

Successive post-colonial governments in Kenya have tried to expel the Ogiek from their lands. Kitelo explains, “It was like, the Ogieks were destroying the forests and they had to get out of the forests. The government just doesn’t seem to understand Ogiek culture. For the state, a forest is for animals, not people, and anyone living in a forest is illegally there to poach wild animals.”

‘Fatal raids’

Kitelo says the Ogiek suffer regular “destructive and fatal raids” on their villages by “politically instigated criminals demanding land, the army, the police, and cattle rustlers.”

He’s survived a few of these attacks. He remembers one incident when “soldiers poured down” on his settlement, accusing the locals of stealing farmers’ cattle.

An Ogiek man in traditional dress
An Ogiek man in traditional dress

“It was a field day for them. Unfortunately they were not only going for cows, they were also killing [people] because the Ogiek were trying to defend themselves with bows and arrows and you could not go with a bow and arrow [against an automatic rifle],” Kitelo recalls.

In another attack, he says, “The government…came and burnt down houses, killed animals. They were saying, ‘This is a forest; you have to get out.’”

The Kenyan authorities confirm that state-sponsored “operations” have taken place in the forests but insist it’s to clear the areas of “criminal thugs” and not to “eliminate” the Ogiek.

In the latest incident in the Mau forest, Cheruyot says “assailants tried to kill” Ogiek land rights activist James Rana. “He was attacked at night by people with machetes and swords and knives. They destroyed his house and left him injured seriously,” says Cheruyot.

OPDP director Daniel Kobei says the “attempted murder was aimed in keeping Ogiek activists silent…. James has been at the forefront of fighting against injustices perpetrated against the Ogiek.”

Watson says “violent evictions” of Ogiek from their forests are sometimes caused by “neighboring, more powerful tribes, who are settled agriculturalists, who want to cut down the forests for [farm] land.”

The Ogiek ‘destroying’ the environment

The Kenyan government has repeatedly justified its attempts to evict the Ogiek from the forests on the grounds that the indigenous people are destroying “fragile ecosystems.”

An Ogiek paints his fellow warrior's face
An Ogiek paints his fellow warrior's face

Watson responds, “The Ogiek are the people who’ve conserved the forest by and large for centuries. So the very people whose forest it is, and who have looked after that forest as good guardians and stewards, are now being accused of destroying the forest and this is simply not true.”

Kitelo says his father, for example, was one of many tribal elders dedicated to planting indigenous trees. “It’s very strange because where they were going to plant trees [was] where the Kenya forest [department] was actually cutting down the indigenous trees and planting the exotic trees. This really tells you – the government has been more destructive than the Ogiek.”

Watson adds, “[Ogiek] lands have been progressively invaded, and the forests cut down, and this is now creating massive social problems and economic problems for the Ogiek and in fact for Kenya as a whole, because there are a number of rivers that have their source up in the Mau forest and they’re drying up because of this massive deforestation.”

In the recent past, says Watson, forest land confiscated from the Ogiek has not been conserved but rather turned into tea plantations and logging businesses by some “relatively high up” state officials.

Ogiek land rights activists James Rana, recovering from wounds suffered in a recent attack on his home. Activists say it was an assassination attempt
Ogiek land rights activists James Rana, recovering from wounds suffered in a recent attack on his home. Activists say it was an assassination attempt
Cheruyot says, “Some politicians and big businessmen have taken Ogiek land and the government will not act against them. We have complained many times.”

Kenyan anti-corruption officials confirm they’re investigating a number of “illegal land grabs” in the forests, but Ogiek activists argue such cases have been “dragging” for years without any conclusions reached.

In the “absence of justice,” says Cheruyot, organizations representing the Ogiek have filed an urgent application at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for protection of themselves and their traditional territory.

The Kenyan government acknowledges that “mistakes” have been made in the past with regard to its environmental policies.

Watson indeed credits the Kenyan authorities with finally “waking up” to the fact that the forests represent a very important natural resource that they “simply have to save.”

Survival International has appealed to Kenya’s government to involve the Ogiek in efforts to conserve the forests. “Who better to do this than the people whose ancestral home it is, in whose interest it is to save this environment?” Watson asks.

Ogiek land ownership dilemma

Kitelo remains concerned that all Ogiek will eventually be driven from the forests because they don’t have official title deeds for the lands on which they’ve always lived.

“There’s really nothing they can stand with and say, ‘This is our ancestral land,’ because as far as the government records are concerned, it’s a forest and they must get out – not recognizing really that this is their land,” he says.

Cheruyot says “outsiders” now have official ownership of Ogiek land.

“So these people have the land, they have the title deeds. But the Ogiek is someone who is in the fields down there, in his ancestral home – he doesn’t know even what a title deed is, and then he’s…displaced from where he stays, so he becomes a squatter or a landless [person].”

The Ogiek are, however, encouraged by Kenya’s new constitution, promulgated last year.

“Our new constitution recognizes the rights of hunter gatherers. It recognizes the existence of ancestral lands; it recognizes the rights of minorities,” says Cheruyot. “The new constitution recognizes the need for Kenya to have a clean judiciary. We believe that if this happens, we Ogiek will finally get justice.”

Kitelo adds, “All we hope for now is that the authorities actually implement what’s written on the paper of the new constitution.”

Watson says, “The Kenyan government has been saying the right things, but it needs to be translated into action and they have to tackle the issue of indigenous land rights.… This is something that is recognized under international law. It’s also recognized by the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights.”

She says “time is of the essence, because unless the forest is protected, and unless the Ogiek have their land rights recognized, I can’t see how Kenya is going to tackle this massive issue of deforestation and illegal logging.”

You May Like

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Transferred to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine Could Be in Use by January

Assistant director says that clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, United States, Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid