Ogiek's battle to preserve culture, protect ancestral land from abuse

Ogiek Council of Elders chairman Cosmus Murunga points to an area in Chepkitale on the slopes of Mount Elgon where his community lives. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

One must be cautious when interacting with a noisy hornbill perched in a tree among the Ogiek community, for your reaction will determine future relations with fellow clansmen.

Harming or killing this bird conveys a negative message to the Kaabchesuuben, one of the 32 Ogiek sub-clans found within the Mau and Mount Elgon forests.

“The bird or its noise could be nonsensical to you, but we draw deep historical meaning with its sound and form that identifies my clan,” explains Godfrey Naibei. “Hurting it is hurting my feelings, and it’s disrespecting my clan.”

Among this forest community, there is a legend that the patriarch of the Kaabchesuuben clan was searching for his cow, which had been missing in the forest for days after giving birth. Above him, perched in the treetops, a hornbill followed him throughout his frantic search, as if trying to convey a vital message.

Initially, he disregarded the bird’s growling, distinctive ‘gok’ sound, until it settled on a tree near his hut as he sat on a chair after another fruitless day of searching.

The following morning, he followed the bird as it moved from tree to tree deep within the forest until it stopped under a tree where the cow had given birth. In gratitude, the Kaabchesuuben community adopted the hornbill as their totem.

“We don’t harm birds and wildlife. It is taboo. Killing or wounding a lion would mean I despise the Kiptieromu clan, whose totem is the lion (Ngetuindo). You will have nowhere to run if you do the same to the elephant, which is the totem for the Kimeitos,” says Cosmus Murunga, the chairman of the Ogiek Council of Elders.

“To us, the clans are close-knit brothers, and you will be shunned for despising your brother by killing or destroying his totem. In today’s context, it’s like robbing one of his citizenship.”

If you were to harm a random plant or tree on Ogiek land, you would face the wrath of community elders, and at worst, you could be excommunicated.

The community of approximately 18,000 people relies heavily on trees for their livelihoods. These trees house traditional beehives, which provide honey for their traditional brew.

“We brew lakweet (traditional brew) from honey and mix it with herbs from trees and not molasses as many people do today. We then serve it in goat horn during special occasions like naming, circumcision, marriage and even funerals,” says Godfrey Naibei, an Ogiek from the slopes of Mount Elgon.

He adds: “During such festivals, we are adorned in traditional attire made from goat skin and necklaces and headdresses made of beads and indigenous plants. The latter is the reason self-respecting Ogieks don’t want to mess with plants, including those that produce nectar for bees.”

Curses from gods

One particularly revered tree is the ‘koroshoonceet’, where women who give birth to twins receive two weeks of care before reintegrating into society, as the birth of twins involves special rituals.

Tampering with these indigenous trees is seen as an invitation for curses from the gods. This belief has preserved the Chepkitale area of Mount Elgon, despite widespread logging in the forest.

But these traditional beliefs hardly matter to their neighbours and modern-day conservationists who have been pushing for their relocation from the forest.

An examination of the Mount Elgon vegetation map reveals that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) oversees a 73,705-hectare forest reserve, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) manages a 16,916-hectare national park, and the Ogiek inhabit 17,200 hectares of community land. This stark contrast speaks volumes.

The Ogiek’s homeland exhibits more lush greenery compared to areas under KFS and KWS, which appear mostly pale and desolate.

This is despite the fact that the ecosystem is one of the country’s five primary water sources, serving as a crucial watershed for River Nzoia, flowing into Lake Victoria, and River Turkwel, which drains into Lake Turkana.

Data from the Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) reveals that forest cover within this ecosystem has decreased by one-third over the past four decades, while the area used for crop cultivation within the forest has grown from zero to 9,582 hectares.

The Ogiek say that the introduction of plantations in the ecosystem under the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme by conservators has led to the degradation of this vital water source.

“They (KFS and KWS) have the guns, but we have the ancestral knowledge from our great-grandparents to preserve nature. Unfortunately, they are doing little to keep the water tower intact. The area under their jurisdiction and that under us (Ogiek) tell the story,” says Murunga as he points to the vast moorland and forests in Chepkitale.

However, the Ogiek’s traditional methods of preserving their land have been disrupted by repeated evictions from their ancestral territory by successive administrations, beginning with the colonial era, as the modern conservation movement gained ground.

“We are primarily pastoralists who also gather honey, mushrooms, and vegetables. During the dry season, we graze our cattle on the Chepkitale moorland and in the forests below the moorland. This way, no one would harm the forest since it is essential for our sustenance and that of our future generations,” Murunga adds.

Last year, the slightly over 3,000 Ogiek of Mount Elgon won a 14-year legal battle against their eviction from Chepkitale, which they claim has a “historical and spiritual attachment.” They believe they are better positioned to protect it in the face of the global climate crisis.

Cherotwei Simotwo, an elder, laments the disregard for indigenous knowledge in modern conservation efforts aimed at mitigating climate change.

“The imposition of the much-hyped adaptive solutions to mitigating against climate change that majorly front western-scientific worldviews on indigenous communities like ours hardly works and is not always helpful. Our ways of conserving the environment are spirituality-founded and hard to cheat compared to theirs.

“I feel it is high time to re-examine the sustainability–spirituality relationship from indigenous community’s point of view if we have to make climate change mitigation function,” says Mr Simotwo.

According to the International Union for Conservation, African governments are giving minimal attention to indigenous or traditional knowledge in their National Determined Contributions (NDCs) for addressing climate change, contrary to the Paris Agreement.

Out of the 44 NDCs submitted by African States, only nine mentioned traditional or indigenous knowledge during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in 2019 in Poland.

These countries include South Africa, Gambia, Ghana, Somalia, Namibia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the Central African Republic.