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Kenya Honey-Gathering Forest Tribe Caught in Violence

Nicholas Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
February 5, 2008
 
The violence that has swept across Kenya since December's presidential election has hit the tiny forest-dwelling Ogiek tribe, bringing to the fore grievances that have been simmering for years.

The Ogiek, best known for their traditional methods of beekeeping, have become caught up in ethnic clashes following the vote, resulting in the deaths of nine tribal members at the hands of police, according to leaders.

The killings may have been retribution for the tribe's support for opposition candidate Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), in the recent election, tribal officials say.

"I am not allowed to enter town because people say they are hunting for my life," said Daniel Kobei, chairman of the Ogiek People's Development Program.

"Being a strong supporter of ODM, I am one of the people who has been affected. Right now I can't go to work because they say they are looking for me, so I am waiting for the situation to calm down."

All across the country, regional ethnic majorities have driven out minorities in recent weeks, and there is perhaps no minority more vulnerable than the Ogiek, who have no militia, no government representative, and only bows and arrows to defend themselves.

On February 4, the Ogiek issued a statement saying they were being hunted "like rabbits" by a militia group dominated by the larger Kalenjin tribe.

"The situation for the Ogiek is very, very bad. They don't have any security at the moment," said Kanyinke Sena, of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, a network of indigenous groups across the continent.

"People are taking advantage of the insecurity in the country right now to commit all sorts of atrocities."

Bee Cultivators

Living in the Mau Forest northwest of Nairobi, the Ogiek are one of the few remaining forest-dwelling tribes in Kenya (see map).

For centuries they made their living collecting herbs and cultivating bees, hanging hollowed-out sections of logs from trees where bees could nest and produce honey.

They also became known for training hunting dogs, which have become so important to the culture that dogs are sometimes included in bridal dowry prices.

Like many of Kenya's smaller ethnic groups, most of the 20,000 Ogiek backed Odinga, who had promised to reverse what some see as years of favoritism toward the dominant Kikuyu tribe.

To the Ogiek, such promises included the assurance that profits from logging on land traditionally seen as theirs would no longer go to the government in Nairobi but would instead be given to the tribe.

Odinga also pledged to address the tribe's long-standing grievances over land and to bar members from being expelled from their territory. Shortly before the election, Odinga was made an honorary Ogiek elder and was presented with a list of goals the Ogiek hoped he would achieve.

In December's election, Kenya's incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, won a second five-year term in what international observers said was a highly flawed vote.

That sparked a burst of violence initially described as a spontaneous surge of frustration that many say reopened old fault lines between ethnic groups competing for land.

(See a photo of the clash's aftermath in early January.)

According to the February 4 statement issued by the Ogiek, militias dominated by the Kalenjin, rivals of the Kikuyu, killed an Ogiek man in the western region of the tribe's traditional territory.

"The militias represent themselves as a local group defending its own land rights, but in practice, what they have done is focus on some of the most marginalized groups to push them off the land," said Mark Lattimer, director of the London-based Minority Rights Group International.

Threatened for Decades

The Ogiek's existence has been threatened for decades. Since the early 20th century they have resisted government efforts to remove them from the Mau Forest.

The government has also logged parts of Mau, destroying the tribe's traditional terrain and replanting the land with fast-growing conifers that are useless for honey production.

Now the Ogiek say they are being targeted by Kenyans who simply want their land. When many people fled the violence after the election, Kikuyus came and either burned their homes or seized the land, tribe members say.

"So far, there is an increase [in] hunger because there is no trading, businesses are still closed, people cannot access the markets, and police are being perceived as siding with the Kikuyu," said Ogiek leader Kiplangat Cheruyot.

"We are appealing for urgent assistance, medicine, food, clothing, and blankets."

Some food has been delivered to the tribe, but the Kenya Red Cross, whose resources have been stretched by the crisis, says it has far bigger problems on its hands. Some 300,000 people are displaced around the country, and at least a thousand have been killed in the ongoing violence.

"If we're going to assist all the impoverished communities, then we'd have to do the whole of Turkana, all of Northeastern, and many other places," Kenya Red Cross chair Abbas Gulet said, referring to two of Kenya's poorest regions.

"Unless they are being displaced by the violence, we can't just give free food to everyone."

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