tribes kenya

The Honey-Hunters of Kenya

tribes kenya

By Rose Taylor

Some tribes are well known; think of the Maasai and Samburu, Australian Aborigines, First Nation and Inuit groups. There are an outstanding number of tribes however who are ‘invisible’ to those who perhaps are not anthropologists, conservationists, developers, government employees and so on. What is even more astonishing however, is the violation of their rights inflicted upon them by powerful, controlling and authoritative institutions such as their governments, and large development, conservation, mining and logging organisations, and the fact that most people have no idea these violations are occurring.

As the world becomes more densely populated, more gluttonous, and more connected, the question of land and resources comes into focus. As governments seek to increase their revenues through tourist attractions, or resource development projects for example, many indigenous groups find themselves at the battlefront, consequently marginalized, and often evicted from their ancestral lands which they have inhabited since time immemorial. This abuse is happening globally, yet is hidden from most people’s everyday lives and media coverage.

The Penan in Malaysian Borneo are currently losing their land to make way for deforestation, logging, palm oil plantations and dam constructions, which have either destroyed their forest or flooded what remained. The land once roamed by the Baka of Cameroon has been stripped away from them and is now designated as national parks or granted to safari hunting businesses. The Yanomami tribe of Brazil has thrived in their rainforest for thousands of years. Yet, today, they themselves, their health, food, water, subsistence, and land are threatened by the invasion of mining companies and cattle ranchers who collectively are deforesting the land, polluting the rivers and forest with mercury and spreading deadly diseases such as malaria. These are just three examples in a (deep) pool of countless more occurring all over the world.

A very recent and historic case is that of the Ogiek of Kenya. On November 27th and 28th 2014, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, heard the Ogiek’s appeal against the Kenyan government for reasons pertaining to violation and denial of their indigenous rights, cultural rights, religious rights and land rights. This was the first indigenous rights case to come before the court since it commenced in 2006. The Ogiek, numbering an estimated 20,000 live predominantly in Mau Forest, in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. They traditionally subside from hunting and gathering and bee keeping, yet in the last half-decade some have adopted agriculture, wage-labour, and pastoralism due to colonialism, government relations and the encroachment of the ‘modern’ world and economy.

The Ogiek are nomadic with their mobility partially dictated by the honey seasons. Once they are at a new camp, they will hunt whatever game is available, thus their movements are dictated by honey rather than game abundance. Depending on the honey season and honey-producing species, they move between open bush forest to high, dense bamboo forests and construct their hives from logs and vines. Not only do they consume the honey themselves, but they can also sell it, trade it, brew it into beer, and use it for medicinal purposes. Though traditionally hunting is seen as men’s work, and gathering as women’s, i.e. Man the Hunter, Women the Gatherer, for the Ogiek, making beehives and gathering the honey is also deemed men’s work.

Before colonialism, their diet mainly consisted of honey, meat and traded grains, with plant food making up just a minor proportion of their diet. One can argue that without honey the Ogiek would live very different lives, and thus the importance of the forest to them is crystal clear. Not only do they need the forest for food, they also have a cultural, spiritual, economic and emotional attachment to it, and plus, without the forest, they have no medicinal plants or honey and consequently no way of curing the ill. Through a primarily non-participation in the cash economy, how can they afford the cost of getting to a hospital or medical bills?

The importance of the forest for the Ogiek and their way of life is not acknowledged by the Kenyan government which has routinely forced Ogiek peoples from their land whilst purportedly trying to protect the environment with conservation plans. What the government seems to not realize is that not only is it possible for humans and wildlife to live together, but also that the Ogiek have protected and conserved the environment for thousands of years. This act of stewardship is true for other forest dwelling groups throughout the world. They know the forest/their ancestral land better than anyone else. Whilst we may know the colour of our kitchen tiles, bathroom curtains, or stain in the hallway better than our neighbours, because after all it is our home, the same analogy can be made for these groups – the forest is their home, and they have acted as its guardian enduringly.

Despite government claims that they are harming the environment, the Ogiek in contrast, like many other indigenous groups, protect it and sustain it by only hunting and gathering what is necessary, ensuring plants and trees are only harvested to a certain degree so that they can still supply fruit and vegetables in the future, and take care not to over hunt certain species, or hunt young or pregnant female animals. They must protect the environment because they depend so much upon it.

The first half of the 1900’s saw Ogiek land being seized by colonialists for game and forest reserves as well as European settlements. More recently, the 1990s development of the Southwest Mau Nature Reserve saw many Ogiek being removed from their land and accused of using it illegally, squatting, and killing the wildlife. Despite 2013’s court order to halt evictions, the Ogiek continue to be subjected to dehumanizing removals off their land. A persisting issue is that the neither the government nor the courts recognize the Ogiek’s ancestral and indigenous habitat as the forest, something that needs to be confronted, as well as the essential, and arguably most knowledgeable role that indigenous peoples can play in conservation and protection of land and natural resources.

Twenty-six Ogiek elders travelled to Addis Ababa to attend the court hearing. The arguments put forward to the court from the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights were:

The violation of the enjoyment of the Ogiek’s cultural rights and protection of their traditional values –

  • Article 2: Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.
  • Article 17(2): Every individual may freely take part in cultural life of his community.
  • Article 17(3): The promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognized by the community shall be the duty of the State.

The Ogiek’s protection before the law –

  • Article 3(1): Every individual shall be equal before the law.
  • Article 3(2): Every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law.

The integrity of their persons –

  • Article 4: Human beings are inviolable. Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person. No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right.

The Ogiek’s right to property –

  • Article 14: The right to property shall be guaranteed. It may only be encroached upon in the interest of public need or in the general interest of the community and in accordance with the provisions of appropriate laws.

The Ogiek’s right to economic, social and cultural development –

  • Article 22: All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.

Though these arguments are greatly in the Ogiek’s favour, there are many other declarations and conventions in practice which would significantly enhance the Ogiek’s case. These include the 1989 ILO C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which for example states, The Rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognised…’, Article 14(1), and the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Right of everyone to take part in cultural life, in particular.

Kenya, and many other countries with indigenous groups however have not signed or ratified the ILO C169 and so its articles cannot be applied. These people cannot even depend on, or hope that influential countries such as America, Canada, Russia or China can intervene and help them, as they have not even ratified the ILO C169 to defend their indigenous people at home. The judgment of the Ogiek court case is still pending, but whatever the outcome, it is imperative that news of indigenous rights violations reach mainstream media coverage and those who would not otherwise be informed about it.

We need to see these people as a collective group who are struggling beneath the control of commanding authorities who apparently know what is best for them. We also need to see indigenous people as individuals and recognize that they are each unique, each having different cultural, spiritual and emotional attachments to their land…their home. We would not like it if someone seized our home, and moved us off to an inadequate resettlement site without insufficient compensation, if at all any. We would not like it if our children were forced to learn a different way of life and be told that their culture and way of living at home is wrong and ‘backward’.

We would not like it if the gravesite of our relatives and friends were bulldozed; yet this is happening to so many indigenous people. We would even grumble if our closest or most convenient supermarkets were closed down. Governments and institutions such as powerful development, conservation and mining agencies are dominating these groups globally, forcing them to be victims of structural violence and surely, subjects of a new kind of colonialism.


Rose Taylor is currently working on a Masters degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at University College London. She has lived a half and half life between the Cotswolds and Los Angeles and has a passion for culture, travel, writing and of course, food. Her main interests are women’s empowerment and equality, indigenous rights and humanitarian aid.

Feature photo, Samburu chief via Shutterstock

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