How the British tricked Maasai families out of Laikipia land

Maasai morans dance with tourists, 1975.

No bullets could stop the outraged warriors. Although outgunned, they had superior knowledge of their country and the honour of their age group, Iltuati,  was at stake.

This was their first battle and they were trying to redeem their name after their first military mission began disastrously. Up to 200 of their cows had been seized by an enemy with superior firepower under the command of Andrew Dick.

During the raid, Dick, leading a trade caravan of 1,400 men, also left 100 Maasai morans dead. It is against this background that a retaliatory ambush was laid at Kedong Valley by the scandalised fighters.

When the rematch occurred on November 1895, the morans were not in a mood to take any prisoners. They overran their enemy and killed 450 members of the caravan. When Dick, a former Accountant General of British East African Company, tried to pursue the attackers against the advise of his colleagues, a warrior, Ole Lekutet killed him with a spear.

An inquiry into the debacle by the British government absolved the Maasai from any blame, concluding that Dick was the author of his own misfortune. The commission paid special tribute to the spokesperson of the Iltuati age group, Parsaloi ole Gilisho, over the way his men had behaved after the provocation.

Sironka Ole Masharen expounds in his book, The Maasai Pioneers, that after the Kedong massacre, the British carried out an inquiry which exonerated the morans, concluding that they had been provoked by Dick.

It is such acts of ‘diplomacy’ and ‘impartiality’ which awed Lenana Mbatian, who was the chief Laibon (prophet) of the Maasai, into seeking the colonialists’ hand in 1895. At the time, Lenana was embroiled in a protracted duel with his half-brother, Sendeyo, who was after his kingdom. He was also dealing with a series of epidemics and droughts which had decimated his people and their livestock

Some prophets, Lotte Hughes argues in his doctorate thesis Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure, forged alliances, and singles out Lenana who was made paramount chief by the British.

It is against this background that Lenana and his council of 19 elders ratified an agreement on August 10, 1904 by affixing their thumbprints. Ironically, one of the signatories of the Maasai Agreement was Ole Gilisho. The British administrators were led by the Commissioner General of the East African Protectorate, Donald Stewart and witnessed by Deputy Commissioner CB Hobley, who sealed the treaty with the royal seal.

If the elders had refused to sign, they would have been brutalised for the colonialists were hell-bent on acquiring the land. The Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) Commissioner General Charles Eliot had warned Foreign Office in London that “if the Maasai were allowed to retain the best land along the railway line, the Europeans would very soon organise a raid to seize it” as had happened in South Africa. As a result of the treaty, the Maasai agreed to be split into two, the Northern and Southern Reserves situated in Laikipia and Kajiado and Narok areas respectively. In return, the colonial administrators pledged that “as long as the Maasai existed as a tribe, Laikipia would belong to them”.

Sixteen years after the Kedong Massacre, Ole Gilisho would try to undo the first agreement of 1904 and a subsequent one which had been signed in 1911, which among other things decreed that his people had to move out of Laikipia into the Southern Reserve. In the ensuing movement, the Maasai lost 50 per cent of their livestock. But Ole Gilisho was unwittingly walking into an intricately woven trap which had been set for him and all the influential individuals in Maasai land by the colonialists.Although his suit was simply seeking £200,000 (about Sh26 million) as reparation for the livestock which had died and the return of the stolen land, he was a ticking time bomb.

Taboo and curse

It was difficult to quantify the number of people who had died because, according to the Maasai custom, it was a taboo and a curse to count people. Former Cabinet Minister William Ole Ntimama would later put the figure at 200,000.

The task of connecting Ole Gilisho with his lawyer lawyer Alexander Morison, who was based in Mombasa, fell on a teenage student, Stephano Ole Nongop, who was at the time at Buxton High School in Mombasa. He was traveling from Mombasa with the permission of his boss, Rev George Wright, who had loaned him to Morison.

The youngster had been employed as a temporally interpreter so that he could act as an intermediary between the litigant and his counsel. At the time, Morison was staying in a nearby farm owned by AS Flemmer. In an affidavit he signed on June 25, 1912, Ole Gilisho swore that he and other Maasai were being kicked out of Laikipia against their will. He vowed to hire lawyers in Kenya and London to sue on his behalf.

In the course of his discussions with Stephano, Ole Gilisho said he was ready to to pay £500 or 2000 bullocks as legal fees. The animals were to be contributed by other Maasai and would be sold and the proceeds paid in court as deposit.

When the government learnt that Ole Gilisho was serious, it hatched a plan to ground him. According to Hughes, Gilisho was denied a pass to travel to a nearby farm where he was to sign the court papers. He was also prevented from depositing 40 bulls at Flemmer’s farm which were to be sold to raise the legal fee. He was also prevented from going to Mombasa and instruct his lawyer, who was indisposed. Even after recovering, Morison too was banned from traveling to Rift Valley to consult his client. Ole Gilisho was threatened with flogging and deportation if he attempted to travel to Mombasa against government orders. The missionaries too piled pressure on Stephano. The acting Director of Kijabe Mission, which ‘owned’ Stephano who had been employed as a ‘boy’, wrote to  the High Court in Mombasa. He was outraged that there was a Maasai boy trying to sue the government on behalf of his community and could not understand why he had not been informed he was his custodian for the last eight years.

“He told us that Morrison had influenced him to proceed against the government. He felt very sorry for allowing himself to be influenced and now wishes I do all I can to prevent the attorneys doing anything more in his name,” Wright said.

He appealed to the High Court judge to free the boy from the obligations of the court. Thereafter, Stephano was taken before the Attorney General where he swore an affidavit that he thought that Morrison was a government man. To frustrate the case, the government prevented the Maasai from selling their cattle to raise the legal fees they were supposed to pay while filing the case. Predictably, the court was unsympathetic to the litigants, even after they pleaded for time to raise the money.

Morison, protested to the Colonial Office retorting: “If my clients were criminals, I should have readier access to them than I have in present.”

Ultimately, Andrea Muroki and Karumba Maasai were given passes in December to travel to Mombasa after the intervention of the Colonial Office. However, by the time the High Court granted an injunction on April 10, 1912 halting the eviction of the herders from Laikipia, it was too late as all the Maasai had been moved.

On May 26, 1913, the main suit was dismissed by the High Court in Mombasa which curiously ruled that since the two agreements were treaties signed by sovereign states, the case could not be handled by a local court. The Maasai agreements, the court concluded, were Acts of States which could not be challenged and the appellants could not enforce the provisions of the treaty. As for compensation, none could be provided as the case had been dismissed on a technicality.

More than a century later, the effects of the forced movement is still evident in Laikipia. Some of the descendants of the colonialists are at times targeted by herdsmen who believe they have a right to the pastures.

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