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“Taking the Ogiek out of the Mau is like taking a fish out of water”

15 September 2009

Chris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention meets with Kenya’s hunter-gatherer Ogiek community who, in the face of a possible eviction, are fighting to stay back on their traditional lands.

In the Mau Forest Complex, which is home to the Ogiek community, we met Rose, the headmistress of the primary school in Mboroti village. According to the government-determined pupil-teacher ratio, there should be 14 teachers – in fact there are 8. Only 5 are Ogiek. As a result, class sizes vary from 70 to over 90. The school is located in idyllic surroundings among the pine-covered hills, but Rose tells us about her constant struggle to keep classes going in the face of government neglect; the classrooms, with their blackboards covered in trigonometry, broken windows and dilapidated wooden benches, are a vivid testimony to that struggle. Last winter, after heavy rains, the toilets sunk into the ground; she applied to an emergency government fund to rebuild them but has heard nothing since then.

Loggers in the Mau Forest
Loggers in the Mau Forest

I had come to Mau to talk to the people about their future; they are under threat of eviction from the forest, their ancestral homeland. The Mau Forest is an important water catchment area and the government of Kenya is concerned that the residents of the forest are committing irreparable environmental damage and must be relocated. But the Ogiek are not the only current residents of Mau; in recent decades the forest complex has seen an influx of loggers, tea planters and other agricultural settlers.

The government accepts that the Ogiek are the rightful residents of the forest; however its latest proposal is to evict everyone from the forest, and then allow the Ogiek to return; this proposal, understandably, makes the Ogiek very nervous. They claim that they have lived in the forest for hundreds of years, in harmony with their surroundings. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which does not involve either farming or livestock grazing, has a very low impact on their environment. They also practice bee-keeping, which actually aids the propagation of wild flowers and trees.

At an elevation of around 2,000-2,500 feet, the climate in the forest is very different from the low-lying plains; the heat is less intense and the air pleasant and cool. “If we are evicted we may not survive. We do not know what the climate will be like wherever they resettle us. Removing the Ogiek from Mau is like taking fish out of water.” They talk of two previous displacements, one in 1989 and one during the 1930’s, during the British colonial period; the Ogiek who were displaced lost all of their animals; some died of diseases such as jiggers, and some returned, destitute. The Ogiek have a very strong attachment to their land, it is part of their identity. As a small community – they number about 20,000 – they fear for the loss of their culture, and assimilation by more numerous neighbouring ethnic groups; in fact, the 1930’s displacement was a result of the Carter Land Commission, which recommended that the Ogiek be absorbed by neighbouring communities because of its small size.

As I was talking to the villagers, I saw a large cloud of dust rising up in the distance. It was the third lorry, stacked up with logs, that I had seen that day. I quickly whipped out my camera and took a snap, it was a flat-bed affair with a second flat-bed hooked up behind, carrying what must have been 50-60 fully grown trunks, being shipped out of the forest by commercial loggers. As the NGO Survival International points out, the destruction of the Mau Forest has escalated in recent decades in direct correlation with the invasion by outsiders, whether loggers, tea planters or agricultural settlers, as demonstrated by satellite imagery.

The Kenyan government is using environmental arguments to support its push to clear out the residents of Mau. But when lorries are trundling out of the forest everyday loaded up with logs, in full view of everyone, it is possible to cast doubts on the seriousness of the government’s intentions. Community members confided to me that they suspect the government itself of selling franchises to the loggers. The Ogiek Peoples Development Programme (OPDP) a partner organisation of MRG, whose staff accompanied me to the Mau, is working to fight the eviction of the Ogiek; they say the loggers and other recent settlers should be evicted, but claim that they as original inhabitants and stewards of the forest, have the right to remain.

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