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

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, No voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve and do not want to take a risk by endorsing independence More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country 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.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid