What is happening to the Ogiek?

One of the first communities to be affected by Kenya’s post-election violence were the Ogiek. They have valiantly put up a struggle against enforced evictions from their ancestral lands by the government but this latest debacle saw them being chased from their homes by government forces. They have reported police killing and raping their people and death threats against their leaders and all because they supported Raila Odinga, the opposition leader.

Timsales, a Kenyan timber company in which the Kenyatta family have a substantial stake, immediately tried to take advantage of the situation.
Mau loggersMau Loggers

…two lorries with timber-trailers, which rumbled through the area, carried not only the chainsaw wielding lumber-crew, but also 20 policemen with automatic weapons, who were hired to protect the alleged timber thieves.

Though Timsales, in which the Kenyatta Family and their most famous heir Uhuru Kenyatta have substantial stakes, had earlier – together with two other companies – been exempted by the former government from the general ban on hardwood felling, the Kenya Forest Service, a newly established parastatal entity, which has succeeded the corrupt governmental forest department, stated today, that since its takeover no licenses for hardwood harvesting had been issued. A representative of Timsales Ltd. could not be reached for comment.

Timsales, it is believed by the local people, just tried to utilize the present political turmoil and the general confusion to illegally cut hardwood trees from the forest.

But the swift response of the Ogiek guards stopped the operation and together with local elders and leaders the lorries and their team as well as the police-escort could be peacefully convinced to leave the area, whose people also are grievance-stricken due to most recent killings and atrocities committed by security personnel and invaders from neighboring communities.

Odinga has promised to make sure these people are not forced out of their land and was made an honorary leader by them recently. The Ogiek had wanted assurances that they would not be barred from living in the forests.

The Ogiek are hunter-gatherers who live in the Mau forests, their primary activity is keeping bees. Ogiek literally means “the caretaker of all plants and wild animals.” They are one of Kenya’s most marginalized people. The Ogiek lifestyle is intimately tied to the eco-system in which they live as they have done for centuries by gathering fruits, herbs and honey that they collect in the forests. These forests are being cut down by loggers for timber and forest is giving way to coffee growers and subsistence farmers who also destroy forest for charcoal. Much of the land is owned by government officials. Destruction of this eco-system will result in their way of life being destroyed too. The government claims that the Ogiek are responsible for environmental degradation of the forests which is not true. Their way of life makes them the most environmentally aware community in Kenya.

Conifers which are a poor substitute for Kenya’s diminishing forests are being planted but these are dead woodlands in which not much can exist, unlike Kenya’s original bio-diverse forests which are sadly disappearing at an alarming rate. The Mau forests play a central part in the ecology of the Rift Valley and are regarded by environmentalists as a major water tower. The deforestation of these forests is linked to the droughts Kenya has been experiencing. Some 2 million people live in this region and are dependent on the hills for water.

“Globally, something like 62 percent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapo-transpiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, in particular forests pumping water held in the soils, into the air. In comparison only around 38 percent of precipitation is generated over oceans and seas.”

The honey and fruit which afforded the Ogiek a life in which they enjoyed freedom and happiness is becoming scarcer. Kenya’s post-election violence has seen the Saboat Liberation Defence Force (SLDF) attack and chase this community of some 20,000 people away. Death threats have been sent to it’s leaders. The SLDF are a sub-group of the Kalenjin. They are a militia armed with automatic rifles and seek greater control of the land through force. They have attacked not only the Ogiek but other ethnic groups in the region. Militias have been formed to counter the SLDF these include ‘Janjaweed Militia’, the ‘Moorland Defence Forces’ and the ‘Progressive Defence Force’ which are apparently linked to rival politicians.

Some reports allege that the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), a shadowy militia group active in and around the Mt Elgon region of western Kenya, has joined with their Kalenjin cousins. It has been engaged in its own campaign against so-called non-indigenous tribes. Many Luhyas, Kikuyus and members of other tribes have been attacked, over 600 have died and 60,000 have reportedly been displaced in this two-year old conflict. The SLDF is now the most powerful and best-armed militia group operating in the west. Its hit-and-run attacks from the Mt Elgon forest are a major challenge for the authorities, who appear incapable of quelling the rebellion. The group is officially headed by a man called Wycliffe Matakwei Kirui Komon, but there is speculation the real leader is a newly elected ODM parliamentarian from the region, though he has denied any links.

The SLDF seeks to evict non-indigenous people because it considers the region belongs to them and the KAMATUSA (an abbreviation of the Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu tribes) – a coalition of largely pastoralist tribes of the Rift Valley that share a common linguistic and cultural heritage. The group is allegedly now arming and training the Kalenjin warriors and receives their support in an attempt to take control of the Luhya-dominated district of Trans Nzoia, which produces the bulk of Kenya’s maize. Sabaot militants believe a future Rift Valley state within federal Kenya is incomplete without Trans Nzoia. The SLDF’s main ambition is to carve the agriculturally important Trans Nzoia away from Western Province and annex it to the Rift Valley. Their violent campaign seeks to cause mass displacement of non-Sabaots and non-Kalenjins, in the hope that a friendly central government will eventually legitimise facts on the ground. Crisis Group interview, Kitale residents, January 2008 – pdf


This pattern of displacement from the soil through violence is repeated across Africa and the so-called third world. Something like 80% of the worlds urban population now exist in urban slums. It would be a great tragedy if the Ogiek who have lived in the Mau Forests for over 20,000 years and have maintained this lifestyle as radical ecologists were forced to give up the immense knowledge of Kenya’s forests for life in Kenya’s slums.

What use are they as factory operatives, should they be so lucky to find such work, when their knowledge and wisdom is something that no other has?

An enlightened leadership would pick the brains of the Ogiek on what can be done to save Kenya’s forests. In fact any ecological measures taken to save the Mau forests must work with local people. Instead Kenya’s leadership turn a blind eye to their plight as the Ogiek flee the only life they have ever known. Kenyan elites see such disruptions to the social fabric of communities with roots to the land as merely a land buying opportunity.

We need to recognise the value of people like the Ogiek, they are Kenya’s medicine men with an intimate knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants and trees of the Mau Forest, a knowledge that should not be lost for the sake of future generations and we need to treasure them. They can teach us so much in a world where environmental damage in pursuit of profit is carried out with no head to those it affects. Why are we we just bowing to a tiny elite throwing away finite resources forever?

Truly how many middle-class families can we create from a lifestyle based on the damage of the environment, community and families? Such limited aspirations have led to 80% of the world’s urban poor living in slums – is this really a price worth paying?

Support the Ogiek

If you would like to express your support for the Ogiek, here is a prepared letter you can use to do so. Send it to ogiek@ecoterra.net — in turn, it will be sent off to a number of Kenyan and International officials. If you’d rather send it to the officials yourself, here is a list of addresses.


Your Excellency:

I am writing to express my concern about the continued harassment of the Ogiek, an indigenous plant- and honey-gathering and hunting people that have lived in Kenya’s Mau Forest for hundreds of years.

For decades, the Ogiek have fought with first the British colonial and then the Kenyan government over their rights to inhabit their traditional homelands (e.g. in East and South West Mau Forest, Mount Elgon Forest etc.). They have all along sought the recognition of this area as their ancestral land.

After years of dispute, authorities have continuously refused to recognize this heritage as Ogiek land and instead ordered the Ogiek to leave the forest, saying that they had been allocated separate land years ago but had abandoned it. The Ogiek know that they have a right to live in their ancestral homeland and that the former government wanted to give the land to private individuals rather than to conserve it for the benefit of the Ogiek and the entire nation. On February 16, 2001, the former government announced through the official Kenya gazette that some 147,000 acres of Mau Forest would be excised to settle the landless. This move effectively would remove approximately 70 percent of Mau Forest from the legal control of the Forest Act and leaves the Ogiek land vulnerable to invasion by land speculators and grabbers.

I am particularly concerned about the latest, brutal evictions in Feb./March 2005, which were only stopped by a court injunction on 02 March 2005 and the atrocities and eviction committed against the Ogiek by your armed forces in June 2005 despite two High Court injuctions. We ask that you do everything in your power to ensure that the parliamentary order is refined, spare the Ogiek and that similar intrusions into their traditional lives as conservators of the forests never can take place any more under your governance. The Ogiek are also concerned about the ongoing illegal logging by outsiders in the Mau Forest which is destroying their cultural and hunting grounds.

The Ogiek community does not pose an environmental threat to the forest or the wildlife. The real environmental threat to the Mau Forest came from the former Kenyan government, which was allowing logging companies to cut down trees in the Mau Forest. Still many of Kenya’s protected forests have been illegally sold or given to developers. The former government imposed a partial logging ban which exempts three big logging companies: Pan African Paper Mills, Raiply Timber, and Timsales Ltd. The three firms were exempted because Raiply and Timsales claim to employ over 30,000 Kenyans, while Pan African Paper Mills (a 50% Worldbank owned entity) was exempted because “the government has shares in it and it was said to be important to the economy.”

Thus, while the government allows powerful logging companies to cut down trees in the forest, it is persecuting an indigenous people who pose no environmental threat and lack political power. However, we are pleased that your government said on July 6, 2001 that it had banned logging in the forest, and we ask that you ensure that illegal logging in the Mau Forest stops.

Please do everything in Your Excellency’s power to guarantee that your government will respect the rights of this minority people by allowing them to retain their natural habitats and halting the de-gazettement and allocation of land in Mau Forest to outsiders in perpetuum. Also a suit the community has filed in the High Court still has not rendered a final decision, which under wise judges only can come out pro Ogiek.

In addition, I respectfully ask that you do all that is necessary to stop the wanton destruction of Mau and Mount Elgon Forests. Thank you for your time. I look forward to your response. Please keep me informed.

[your name, affiliation, and country]

More on the Ogiek Land Question

Survival is currently helping the Ogiek fight for their land.


2 Responses to “What is happening to the Ogiek?”

  1. 1 road2zion March 5, 2008 at 2:49 am

    interesting you mention about the ogiek, a friend of mine was involved in highlighting their plight. this was in the early 2000s. if you are interested, i can provide you his contact info via email.
    catch me on nehandadreams@yahoo.com

    peace and light.

  2. 2 Osas May 16, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Which friend do you mean, Nehanda? John Kamau and his excellent report in several parts?


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