Landless: Ogiek women recount the nightmare of living outside Mau

Anna Sulunye in her homestead at Nkaroni in Narok County on July 28, 2023.

Photo credit: Moraaa Obiria I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Among them are widows who face tougher times trying to pull out all the stops to singly meet their families' needs.
  • They want the government to comply with court decisions that directed that they be resettled and compensated.

This is the first instalment of a two-part series on indigenous communities’ struggle to remain climate-resilient amid landlessness.

Thirty years have passed since Teresa Chemutai last drank water from the palm of her hands, directly scooped from Lare stream in Kiptungo forest, in the eastern part of the Mau Forest complex.

Teresa is an Ogiek, a community that, for centuries, lived in 12 of 22 blocks of the complex. They are traditionally known for their hunting and gathering skills.

Animals such as dik-dik, hyrax, bushbuck, and antelopes were commonly hunted by the community. They also collected honey from log hives erected in indigenous trees as high as 100 metres. Women, too, feed their families with wild fruits similar to contemporary strawberries, guavas, grapes and loquats.

Joseph Towett, an author who has written books about Ogiek’s history and their land rights struggles, says the community had the freedom to hunt their preferred animals up until 1976 when Chapter 376 of the Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act was introduced.

The law criminalised game hunting without a licence.  The restriction came 35 years after the Forest Ordinance of 1941 paved the way for the gazettement of Mau as a forest area to be protected, exposing the Ogiek to eviction, explains Towett.

Teresa was born in Kiptungo in 1967 and her childhood was exciting, walking under a canopy of trees, with clean streams of water everywhere. Animals were in plenty and she relished the fresh air filled with the sweet aroma of ripe yellow, blue, purple, and orange fruits staring at her at every turn.

Teresa Chemutai outside a timber room she has rented at Marishooni centre in Nakuru County on July 26, 2023. 

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria I Nation Media Group

Back then, she says, only about 1,000 Ogiek lived in the 12 blocks found in the current Nakuru and Narok counties. Five blocks – Marishooni, Nesuit, Saino, Sururu and Kiptungo (referred to as Kiptunga by Kenya Forest Service) – fall in Nakuru County. Seven, namely Sogoo, Nkaroni, Tinet, Sasimwani, Oltpirik, Nkareta and Olmekenyu, lie in Narok County.

“It used to be cold, but we never felt it. The smell of herbs in the thickets kept us warm. And we used to drink a lot of honey. That was what kept us warm,” she chuckles.

“Life was good. There was nothing to worry about. We didn’t even have clothes. We had hides and skins that only covered the essential parts of the body. Children and parents lived in separate houses built from sticks and grass. The doors faced the opposite direction to avoid bumping into your parents. The young respected the old. You’d run if you saw someone the age of your father or mother.”

Then in the late 1970s, she witnessed a change to her environment. Irish potato and maize farms propped up in the forest. It became easier to look up to the sky as open patches suddenly appeared in the forest. And mooing cows, bleating goats and bleating sheep forced their bucks to flee for their lives.

What she didn't know is that soon she would be in a similar race, running into a world of so many things to worry about, three of them being how to get clean water, eat, and keep warm.

In 1987, the government evicted them from the forest for encroachment and destruction. Her family escaped to Marishooni block, but the subsequent evictions split them. Some remained here. Others fled back to Kiptungo, while some sought refuge in Sasimwani and Koibatek in Baringo County. 

With a disrupted lifestyle, they adopted farming but would lose their harvests from time to time because of evictions. The government also opened schools in the blocks, but frequent evictions led to their closure. Teresa dropped out of school in Class Four, never to return. She got married in Marishooni, where her husband farmed.

She and her husband live with physical disabilities. Her left leg is paralysed as a result of an injury caused by her father's extreme beating. She says her husband’s legs are also paralysed, but his is congenital. As the evictions were happening, then President Daniel arap Moi's administration went out to look for persons living with disabilities to rehabilitate at a centre in Kabarnet, Baringo County.

They both got enrolled. She trained in tailoring for two years as her husband went through a welding course. Her husband got a job at the facility, but the pay was so little to sustain both of them. To supplement his income, she had to return home to farm or start a business. When she returned, there was no place to call home.

“There was no farm. There was no house. There was nothing. I just returned to nowhere,” she says.

“I squatted at a local school for months. I got tired and went to live with my husband. I tried to start a tailoring business but failed. Again, I came back to nowhere.”

Landless: The nightmare of living outside Mau

Some new settlers had, however, found a home around their former settlement. And gradually, millions of trees have since been cleared for more settlements. One such settlement is Marishooni trading centre, Teresa's new home.

Land is not just a constitutional right guaranteed in Article 40 (1) of the Kenyan Constitution or the Community Land Act (2016). Its loss through forced eviction, as in Teresa’s case, affects how the people enjoy other rights, including freedom to make reproductive health decisions, and access to education, high-quality food and water or the highest attainable standard of health. Land dispossession equally denies children the right to inherit their parents' property just as it makes them unable to educate and provide for them.

“In a country where agriculture is the backbone of the economy, it means without land, parents are unable to educate their children. And without formal education, they miss out on economic opportunities, and that means it will affect many choices in their lives like marriage, fertility, and when to have a child," says Dr Abdhalah Ziraba, the head of Health and Systems for Health at the African Population and Health Research Centre.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, land ownership, education for all and employment opportunities are central to the effort to build climate-resilient communities with households that can adopt mitigation measures and prevent further occurrence of climate extremes.

The Ogiek are among the nine hunter-gatherer communities recognised in Kenya, going by Article 260 of the Constitution, which defines marginalised communities as those that have “retained and maintained a traditional lifestyle and livelihood based on a hunter or gatherer economy”.

The others are Sengwer, Yaaku, Waata, El Molo, Boni (Bajuni), Malakote, Wagoshi and Sanya. They, too, have also lost the right to their ancestral lands following forced evictions. Their lifestyle has been disrupted and the ability to be resilient against climatic shocks weakened.

For centuries, the Ogiek lived in Mau forest enjoying hunting and collecting wild fruits and animals. Then in 1977, government forces, through the then Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner, evicted them, alongside new settlers, on the grounds of illegally occupying the forest.

Fake beneficiaries

The community sought President Moi’s intervention, who assured them of protection that never lasted. In 2001, his administration excised 70,000 hectares of the forestland to resettle the Ogiek. Instead, non-Ogieks benefitted, as a 2008 Mau conservation taskforce formed under the then Prime Minister's office came to establish.

While the Ogiek suffered for years, their issues attracted little media attention, until 2009 when the government launched massive eviction of Mau settlers after the taskforce recommended repossession and restoration of all biodiversity hotspots. But it did also recommend the settlement of the landless Ogiek in areas “outside the critical catchments and biodiversity hotspots,” something that has never happened to date.

Then, about 15,000 Ogieks were landless, out of the estimated population of 20,000. The taskforce reported that in only 15 years, the complex had lost 25 per cent of its forest cover, equivalent to 107,000 hectares. Of this, 46,122 hectares had indigenous cover. Before the disputed 2001 excisions, the Mau forests covered some 420,851 hectares, an area as large as Mt Kenya and Aberdares forests combined.

“I'm a poor squatter in our own land," Teresa says as she welcomes me into her tiny, cold timber-walled house.

It's the first house in a compound of three rows of the low standard houses. She has a charcoal stove on to keep her warm, yet that comes with the danger of carbon dioxide poisoning, a complication that prevents free flow of oxygenated blood – a death risk.

She has rented the room for Sh2,500 ($17.71). On the front side is the salon and tailoring shop she opened in January with money she earned from treating women with fertility issues with herbal medicine. Each month, she has to pay Sh2,000($14.17) to continue using the shop.

She says her grandmother passed down the herbal medicine knowledge to her. Sadly, her ability to continue using her indigenous knowledge for economic benefits is at risk following the recent opening up of public forests for logging by the government.

“Did you not see trucks loaded with heavy logs making their way out of the forest on your way here? Loggers used to hide. Now they are brave. I get my herbs from the forest. At this rate, will there be any forests remaining? I neither have the land to grow the crops,” she cries out.

“Is that not a brutal way of taking away my right to earn an income through my indigenous knowledge and right to live a better life?”

I gaze at her with stoic eyes to avoid making her feel worse. My ears are already foggy from the cold. As we continue with the interview, her daughter in a college in Kakamega County calls. I allow her to receive it. The daughter, pursuing an information technology course, asks her mother to send Sh9,200 ($651.89) to clear fee arrears, lest she be sent home. The owner of the hostel is also demanding Sh6,000 ($42.51) rent for the past month. Her room is yawning from lack of food. Neither does she have any money on her.

“My dear daughter, I don’t have even a single coin on me. How am I going to help you, my child?” she wonders.

Her business has yet to pick up. She says on a good day she makes Sh200 ($1.42), which is swallowed by her daily expenses – water at Sh30 ($0. 0.21) for a 20-litre jerrycan and two-kilogramme charcoal at Sh80 ($0.56). The daily income is short of the cost of buying two kilos of dry maize, currently going for Sh200 and milling it at Sh10 ($0.071) a kilo.

“In the dry season, the price hikes to Sh250 ($1.77) for the two kilogrammes of dry maize. If I had savings, I'd buy in bulk to last me through the dry season. But if I had the land, I'd be the one selling and educating my children; life wouldn't be much of a struggle," she says as tears dance in her eyes.

Because of her disability, she can't trek to fetch water from the Mau River. The river is also polluted with toxic chemicals from the surrounding farms, she says.

Her husband, she adds, is now an employee of Baringo County, but she can't even remember the last time she received money from him. She says they haven't been paid for months. Employees in Kenya's 47 counties have recently been in the news demanding accrued salaries. Meanwhile, the governors accuse the national government of delaying disbursements from the Consolidated Fund, resulting in delayed salaries.

They have seven children, including four sons. Only four of her children managed to reach Form Four and two proceeded to college, one of whom is the girl who has just called. She says they were unable to educate the rest.

One of her sons was doing menial jobs to pay for his college education and acquire related expenses. Two years ago, he became a police officer and now, she says, everyone in the family wants his help. “I feel bad for him. He's overburdened with our needs. I'm afraid he may end up depressed because of the heavy family load on his shoulder,” she mutters.

“When will he help himself? What if he marries? Where will he take his family now that we have no land?”

Down the slopes of Marishooni is Ndoswa, still in Nakuru County, some 13km east of Teresa's temporary home. Here, Javan Kimisoi is on edge. His voice is shaky. Something is bothering him.

A settlement section in Ndoswa within Mau Forest Complex on July 26, 2023.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria I Nation Media Group

“I have developed high blood pressure because I spend days and nights wondering how I'll get to educate my children without land. There are people claiming ownership of this land, soon they will evict us. Where will we go?" he says as he gets lost in his thoughts.

Meanwhile, around his homestead, a wooden granary faces a kitchen constructed from old rusty corrugated iron sheets adjacent to the main mud house. Behind the kitchen is a small portion of land. He says they harvest at least one sack of 90 kilogrammes.

Javan and his wife, Sarah Osasi, are forest evictees. They first settled in Olpusimoru in Narok County after being pushed away from Marishooni where they were both born. Then in 1992, they shifted to Ngongongeri in Nakuru County after former Moi allowed them to occupy the land. They occupied 40 acres where they grew maize, Irish potatoes, and beans to feed their nine children and sell the surplus.

Sarah Osasi during the interview on July 26, 2023, at her temporary home in Ndoswa, Nakuru County.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria I Nation Media Group

But in 2016, some goons evicted them. They claim they were hired by influential politicians who wanted their land. One person died in the process and 20 people were later arrested for causing chaos. Some of the young men who attacked them later met the community, confessed to the crimes and sought forgiveness, Sarah says. But the damage was already done. They had lost everything.

Javan and Sarah started life afresh at Ndoswa along the road. Well-wishers helped them set up a retail shop, an eatery and a butchery. The business thrived to a point where the locals named the area Ndoswa Centre.

Two years later, inter-community clashes erupted and their investments were all set on fire. “That's how we got to shift here. I'm now told the same people who burnt my hotel, shop and butchery want to evict me again. I've reached my end,” she says.

“I don't know what will happen to me or my family should they evict us. I don't know where else to go. It will be the end of us," says Sarah, throwing her hands in the air, a sign of despair. "We've become slaves in our own land. We are forced to do casual work on farms owned by the wealthy for a meagre Sh250 ($1.77) a day.”

"Life becomes tougher during the dry season. You're forced to go to the forest to collect dry firewood for sale. This is risky. The forest rangers can arrest you for lack of a permit to harvest firewood. You have to sneak to the forest with a woven sack like a thief. Then sell a bundle for Sh100 ($0.71), an income that can't even buy 2kg maize flour.”

Thousands of other indigenous people in Kenya face similar tribulations, unlike in Tanzania, where the government has allowed their equals, the Hadzabe, to continue living in the Yaeda Valley forests.

In Nkaroni, an area with an agonising terrain of bumpy and dusty murram roads meandering up and down steep hills, the Ogiek just see darkness in the future. For a stranger, the clamber and descent feels like a punishment. But for the natives, like Anna Sulunye, it’s an easy walk.

Anna, lives on 1.4-acre land she bought after was evicted from a 60-acre parcel she had inherited from her husband who died in 1987.  The vast land was part of the Sogoo group ranch, formed by the Ogiek in 1973, alongside two others: Enkaroni and Enakishomi.

Anna Sulunye at Nkaroni in Narok County on July 28, 2023.

Photo credit: Moraaa Obiria I Nation Media Group

“In 1998, the group ranches were dissolved to pave the way for individual titling. In 2005, the government sent surveyors to establish the forest boundaries. The boundaries split our lands. Some were found to be in the forest like mine in Sogoo ranch and others outside the boundaries,” explains Nelson Kobei, the chief of Sogoo location that covers Nkaroni.

In 2019, the government evicted more than 500 people who had settled in the areas beyond the boundaries, including the Ogiek, like Anna and Kobei, and non-Ogieks.

“I never faced difficulties in raising my children after the death of my husband. I sold the maize, beans and Irish potato harvests from my 60 acres. I also had more than 50 cows,” Anna says. “Now, it's a nightmare that is stuck with me. I sold my cows to pay their fees. I have only one remaining. He left me with four children, but I later added five more. I have five girls and four sons.”

She says her firstborn finished university but hasn't secured a job. Of the five daughters, one is on campus and her fees are paid by her brother. The rest dropped out of school because of lack of fees and got married, she says.

She has two others in college whose education is likely to end. She says she needs Sh50,000 ($354.29) to cover their tuition fees for the next semester. The youngest son wants to join college too. By the time of the interview, the college had not implemented a new government funding model for university and college students.

With the new model, each student receives a scholarship and a loan depending on many factors, including level of need, type of school one attended for primary and secondary education, and whether they learned through scholarship.

Her farm is squeezed. Part of her land has Napier grass for her dairy cow. A small portion has maize. And her youngest son has built a timber house a few yards away from hers. She has a small kitchen garden behind raised chicken coops next to her kitchen.

As the three brown and black chickens cluck outside, Anna sits pensively in a wooden armchair inside her smoky kitchen, perhaps wondering what to do. She breaks the silence with a call to action in her native language. I'm lost. I pardon her.

“Do my sons have a future? What will they inherit? No land, no education. The girls can get married and have their own homes, but what about my sons?”

This is the same question Nelson asks. He also lost 25 acres. He had to sell 17 of his 20 cows to buy a plot. He has nine children, two of whom have finished university. One recently got a job. Nelson is worried that their community would be extinct as a result of landlessness. The 2019 Census shows the Ogiek numbers have since grown to 52,000 from a handful, six decades ago.

And now, they are found in five more counties, namely Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Kericho, Baringo and Bungoma County (particularly in Mt Elgon).

“My sons have no land to inherit from me. We struggle to educate our children, but there are no jobs to enable them to buy land of their own. It is even harder for those unable to attend or complete school – and they are many. What happens to them? They go looking for jobs as farmhands never to return," Sogoo chief Kobei puts the matter into perspective.

The 10 Ogieks – six women and four men – I interviewed were worried that their  future generation would be condemned to horrifying poverty, unless the government came to their aid.

Nelson Kobei, Sogoo chief, at his home in Nkaroni, Narok County, on July 28, 2023.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria I Nation Media Group

There is hope.

The Ogiek have resiliently fought for their land rights, starting with a 1996 memorandum to Parliament that ended with no results and a 1999 case at the High Court whose ruling supported their eviction.

In 2012, they proceeded to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. In May 26, 2017, the Court made a historic ruling by upholding the Ogiek' s absolute right over their ancestral land in the Mau, the first of its kind touching on an indigenous community. It, however, deferred judgment on reparations.

The court awarded the community financial reparations of Sh57.8 million ($492,000) for material damages and Sh100 million ($850,000) for moral damages, to be paid into a community development fund, which was to be established within 12 months from the date of judgment. It also directed the government to issue the community with a collective title.

Ogiek Peoples' Development Programme (OPDP) was the organisation that took the case to the African Court on behalf of and with the support of the Ogiek. Daniel Kobei, OPDP executive director, says there is hope of finally reclaiming their ancestral lands.

“There is a small move by the government to accept that the Ogiek won the case and they plan to start implementation,” he says.

“On August 2–3, the ombudsman (Commission on Administrative Justice) will be visiting the Ogiek of East Mau on a fact-finding mission…. We are happy that something is being discussed positively. But what's so stressful is the long wait. The community is tired of waiting.”

But in the long wait, they had women encouraging them to push on when the struggle was weighing them down financially, physically and emotionally. “Women were the main drivers of the Ogiek case,” he says. “They are the ones who motivated OPDP to push on.”

In return, it has trained them in the power of political participation and their work has yielded fruit. Sarah was one of the women who benefitted. In 2017, she unsuccessfully vied for Marishooni ward representative to the county assembly. She had hoped to use her political position to push for quick action on her community's concerns.

Now, government officials in the county know her as Mama Ogiek and whenever there is a meeting, it never ends without her speech. “I've retold our story until I have forgotten some things. I started this struggle to reclaim our land when I was a girl. Now I am a mother and a grandmother. Our grandchildren are going through the same struggle,” she says.

“As it is, we are going to die before we get back our land. Why can't the government implement the African Court ruling? We are tired of waiting. We are tired of suffering.”

The waiting may be over soon. On August 2, 2023, Commission on Administrative Justice chairperson Florence Kajuju said she was visiting the Ogiek in Nakuru County “for a fact-finding mission for us to be able to advise the government on what next in terms of ensuring implementation of the African Court judgments”.

And what Teresa is looking forward to is the day the government "will come tell us 'this one here is your land and this one is protected.’ Land will save us from so many problems.”

Follow-up on the visit

Daniel said: “Four  groups visited the Ogiek. There are those who went to Mt Elgon. In Mau, some visited the Ogiek in South-West Mau and East Mau. Then there are those who went to Koibatek, Londiani, Uasin Gishu and Nandi. They appreciated that they met the Ogiek on the ground.

He went on: “For the two days, the Office of the Ombudsman was here, they  visited  Kiptunga (Kiptungo) Forest and our rehabilitation centre in Sigaon. They also spoke to our members and they acknowledged the fact that a lot of community members are in support of having community land.”

Florence, in a short message reply to an enquiry about the outcome of the visits, said: “It’s an ongoing consultative process with all stakeholders.”

This story was produced with the support of the Voice for Women and Girls' Rights - Kenya, a Journalists for Human Rights project.