The road to Lake Bogoria is littered with…..goats, sheep and cows…

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Emma Eastwood, Trouble in Paradise Campaign manager is in Kenya to visit the Endorois community. After travelling through the mighty Rift Valley, she ends up in the Lake Bogoria National Reserve – the Endorois ancestral land from which they have been expelled.

Women in colourful headscarves, children without shoes, men pulling impossible loads taking the place of the donkey they can’t afford, alpine highland scenery and suddenly, on the road about 50km north of Nairobi, the Rift Valley falls away as far as the eye can see below us. Kipkazi, from the Endorois Welfare Council, who is acting as our guide for this trip, Neil, MRG Programmes Assistant, and I, marvel at the view of hazy, distant lakes, extinct volcanic craters and dry flat plains which stretch away to the horizon.

View of the Rift Valley
View of the Rift Valley

We see zebras grazing on the outskirts of Naivasha and baboons dodging traffic with tiny babies hanging off their backs. I can’t resist the temptation to text home (O praise the African obsession with mobile phones) I seem to have a network in even the most remote spots. I receive a reply – London is grey and workmen are drilling concrete on the building site next door…

The Endorois are semi-nomadic pastoralists, people who earn their livelihood through the rearing of livestock. Some say that pastoralists occupy over 70% of the land in Kenya, and this is borne out by what we see on our road trip from Nairobi to Lake Bogoria. As we travel northwards we see hundreds of goats, sheep and cows grazing on sparse patches of grass by the roadside. On entering Endorois territory, just north of the Equator, the animals disregard traffic rules altogether and wander absent-mindedly all over the road, forcing our Kenyan driver John, who seems very used to this behaviour, to respectfully manoeuvre at a crawling pace around the distracted beasts.

Endorois man herding his cows
Endorois man herding his cows

You wouldn’t want to injure one; these animals are of an almost sacred importance to pastoralist communities and according to Kipkazi a fully-grown cow can fetch around 35, 000 Ksh (about US$500). As Dr Wako, Chairman of the Regional Elders Council, an MRG-backed forum of pastoralist leaders from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, said to me last week at MRG’s African Commission seminar in Kampala, “For pastoralists, sheep and goats are like a current account, they provide us with ready cash, whilst cattle and camels are a savings account, they provide for our future and our children’s future.”

After five hours of driving we reach Lake Bogoria National Reserve, a game park created in 1973 by the Kenyan government, the object of the Endorois’ struggle. The Endorois were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for the Reserve, depriving them not only of prime pasture for cattle and goats during the harsh dry season but also of sites important for cultural activities such as naming or initiation ceremonies and the only available salt licks for cows in the area. MRG’s Trouble in Paradise campaign is aimed at helping the Endorois get redress for the loss of their lands.

Entrance to Lake Bogoria National Reserve
Entrance to Lake Bogoria National Reserve

As we drive around the lake as the sun begins to set behind the dark escarpment overlooking the Reserve, we see the pink blur of thousands of flamingos gathering by the water’s edge, zebras and warthogs, gazelles, impalas, ostriches and giant tortoises – a veritable wildlife haven and overwhelmingly beautiful. Yet somehow it all seems too empty – there are no humans. Unlike elsewhere, there are no small boys tending their flocks of sheep, or herds of cows here. My appreciation of the wildlife and scenery is tinged by sadness.

Flamingos on the shores of Lake Bogoria
Flamingos on the shores of Lake Bogoria

Despite being originally promised 25% of revenue from the Reserve and 80% of the jobs in the park – today only a handful of Endorois work as wardens and the community only began to receive a paltry 4% of money raised at the gates in 2006 (33 years after the creation of the Reserve). Improved roads were also promised by the government when they gazetted the land for the park in 1973. Yet those roads have never materialised – even the road through the Reserve is a match for our 4 wheel drive.

Kipkazi is visibly excited by being back in his homeland – as he reminisces about the fertile grazing and plentiful fresh water supply in the area I picture how it must have been in those happier, more prosperous times.

He points out the hot springs and geysers representing sacred sites for the Endorois, which, together with the flamingos, are one of the main reasons tourists now visit the park. He says that legend has it that ghosts inhabit the geysers and call out your name, enticing you into the afterlife – community elders used to offer tobacco and milk in the old days to appease the spirits. When he was a boy it was forbidden to even mention someone’s name when you were near this place, in case that person was taken away by the ghosts.

We press on and visit other traditional sites. Many of the Endorois’ ancestors are buried around the park – the community would normally come and visit their graves for children’s naming ceremonies, but are now prevented from doing so by the authorities. At the southern, isolated end of the lake Kipkazi shows us the place where young boys (aged around 12) used to come for initiation ceremonies – they would stay for 1 month in the bush. The area is wooded to provide shade for those undergoing the hardships of the ritual and a small river flows nearby which would allow the boys to quench their thirst.

Ancient fig trees at Endorois initiation site, Lake Bogoria
Ancient fig trees at Endorois initiation site, Lake Bogoria

As the light fades we decide to call it a day and head out of the Reserve. Miniature antelopes called dikdiks dodge our headlights along the way.

If you haven’t done already, I urge you to sign up to our online petition supporting the Endorois (and get as many of your friends, family and colleagues to do so too). We’ll be handing the petition over to the Kenyan government at the end of 2008. By adding your voice you can help right the wrongs of the past and allow this unique community to fully benefit from the lucrative tourism conducted upon their homeland.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.

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