For centuries, the little-known Ogiek people foraged wild honey and used bows and arrows to hunt gazelles in the Mau Forest of Kenya.
But recently, for the second time in 16 years, they were driven from their homes and are now living in makeshift bamboo-and-plastic tents at the side of the road in a valley that long ago was part of the forest.
Their plight casts a focus on Kenya’s endemic corruption and its potentially catastrophic effect on a small, powerless tribe, and the rest of the nation.
The Ogieks were first dispossessed in the 1930s by British colonists, who set aside small forest reserves for them, while taking away most of their ancestral lands. Things got worse, however, after the nation won its independence.
In 1993, the tribe, now about 36,000-strong, was forced to the edge of the forest by corrupt businessmen and politicians, who with government complicity, bulldozed trees and planted tea, raking in profits. In Kenya’s biggest rain catchment, rainfall declined sharply. Wetlands and lakes at the other end of the country also began dying, including the Nakuru Lake, famous for its flamingos.
In November, the Kenyan government finally acted to save the Mau Forest. The first step: Evict the Ogiek again -- this time from their villages near the edge of the forest.
According to the Kenyan government, there is no choice in the matter. To save the forest, everyone must move.
“If encroachment and unsustainable exploitation of the forest ecosystem continues, it will only be a matter of time before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged with significant socio-economic consequences and ramifications to internal security and conflict,” a Kenyan government report states.
It’s one thing, planting new trees. But undoing the decades of damage means untangling corrupt land deals made years ago and declawing one of Kenya’s most powerful political elites, taking back the land parceled out illegally. It means taking on former President Daniel Arap Moi, his family and cronies -- some of the biggest beneficiaries of the illicit land deals. Yet it also means more woes for Moi’s victims.
In Kiptagich, in the Rift Valley, a huge tea factory looms like a medieval fortress, on land that was once filled with trees. Iridescent green tea plantations carpet the surrounding hills. (Kenya’s Nation newspaper reports that the factory is owned by the Moi family.)
On a nearby hill there’s a stretch of forlorn bamboo-and-plastic tents: the latest home of the Ogiek.
An old woman stirs a pot of beans under the plastic roof. A malarial child hovers between life and death under a rough gray blanket. A girl rocks a toddler. The fire smokes. Rain drips in.
Chepkurui Mutai’s labor pains began the day police came to their home in Kurbanyat village, ordering them to leave. She and her husband, both members of the Ogiek tribe, did not resist.
“People didn’t complain. We just left.”
One Ogiek villager, Philip Ngeny, said police pushed the residents with the butts of their guns. People quietly packed up, gathered their children and left the same day.
As she struggled up the hill with her husband and four children, Mutai’s labor pains grew worse.
“It was so painful, I just thought if the baby comes on the way, I’ll have no choice. I’ll just have to accept it,” said the 29-year-old.
Her baby son was born the next day in the tent. A week later, her 3-year-old daughter fell ill with malaria.
“I’m feeling bad. You can see the way we’re living. I blame this government of ours, which has removed us from our village.”
Philip Ngeny grew up in the forest, surviving on the honey and gazelle meat. He explains how to dig up ground honey, from bees that live in the earth. He tells how the Ogiek built hives from hollow logs and smoked out the bees, warming the hive to draw out the honey.
He remembers the words of the tribal elders, who knew the boundaries of the Ogiek land as outlined by the British colonials.
“Our elders used to tell us this forest was left to us by the colonial whites. They even took us to the marker where the whites put the boundary. They told us, ‘These are the boundaries and nobody should cut down trees here,’ ” Ngeny, 44, says.
In 1993, in the Moi era, provincial officials burned the Ogieks’ homes and beat up anyone who resisted, Ngeny recalled. They were told it was done to preserve the forest.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who took office in 2008, has referred to the land seizures in the Moi era as illicit, and an independent government inquiry set up by President Mwai Kibaki in 2003 found that Mau Forest land transfers from the 1990s were illegal. Government officials and well-connected businessmen were the main beneficiaries. The Moi clan has, in the past, denied corruption charges.
“I felt so bad,” Ngeny said, “because I knew when they were subdividing that they would clear the forest and plant things. The government gave the land to people and they planted tea. Those were all government officials and powerful businessmen.
“I felt angry, because there was nothing I could do. It used to hurt my heart.”
He and other Ogieks were moved to Kurbanyat village, where they began to farm millet. When they wanted honey, they often had to buy it.
In recent months, the Kenyan government has evicted 5,000 people from the Mau Forest, including Ogiek tribesmen and small farmers who had been given land during election campaigns.
Odinga has earned praise from environmentalists in his push to reforest the Mau, and revive the rain catchment -- and has made powerful enemies in his political party, the Orange Democratic Movement.
A group that includes Agriculture Minister William Ruto has been critical of the inhumane treatment of those evicted. Some tried to plot a parliamentary rebellion and no-confidence vote.
Odinga, in return, accuses his opponents of defending their own illegally acquired land.
“I have personally never seen a group of Kenyan politicians so desperately trying to build their leaderships and hang on to their illicit landholdings through such grossly parochial and divisive campaigns as these Kalenjin MPs [members of parliament] are,” Odinga said in a newspaper column -- a reference to a tribe of some of his opponents.
“We all know that such leaders are fighting not for the squatters or settlers, but to protect their own illicit interests in the forest. They should leave their Mau holdings, like the settlers moving voluntarily are doing.”
The struggle will probably cost Odinga electoral support in the crucial Rift Valley, but he declares he’s willing to pay a political price.
Ngeny, meanwhile, sits in his tent, surrounded by sacks containing his belongings and memories of better times.
The Kenyan government has promised compensation -- but only to those with title deeds.
“They [government officials] said move there [in 1993]. We’ll give you a title deed. And that has never happened, ever.”
Ngeny fears the Ogiek people won’t get compensation -- nor a place to live -- and that their ancient way of life will be lost.
“Our tears and anger go directly to the government. The way we see things going, the way of life of the Ogiek will just be over. It’s like death.
“When I die, you don’t see me. It is the end of me.”