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The Watta waiting to be ‘discovered’

By | April 13th 2010

By Patrick Beja

The Watta community, whose culture and identity is said to be on the brink of extinction, stole the show at the inaugural Malindi cultural festival over Easter season.

They exhibited wild animal traps, wild fruits, tubers and demonstrated the art of making fire from especially dry wood that identify them with their past history.

They also built unique roundhouses, staged a traditional wedding ceremony and sang their hearts out all in the name of culture.

All smiles: Women seated outside a traditional Watta hut during the recent cultural fete in Malindi.

Best foot forward: Watta elders demonstrate the dances that kept the community going over the years. Photos: Maarufu Mohamed/Standard

The members also showcased their culture in song to express their determination in seeking recognition following serious threats of being swallowed by larger communities living around them.

To community elders, the festival presented a golden opportunity for them to reassert their place in the nations that make up Kenya.

The festival was organised by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and Malindi Municipal Council to promote traditional culture in the coast resort town.

"Since 2001, we refused to be identified with such groups as Wasanye, Awer, Walangulo, Wadegere and Boni. We are crusading to be identified correctly as Watta," says community elder Jillo Onotto.

Minority groups such as the Wasanye (Swahili for gather them) are estimated to be about 350 and the Boni in Lamu district number about 2,500.

The Walangulo in Kinango, Kilifi and parts of Taita, and the Wadegere in South Coast are also said to number a few hundreds.

The exact population of the Watta living in Coast province is unknown although elders estimated the number to be over 10,000. Many members of the Watta have been assimilated into the larger communities around them.

Pushed to periphery

Chief curator at Fort Jesus Philip Jimbi Katana says little research has been done on the Watta people.

However, Katana explains that the Mijikenda found some people believed to be Watta when they moved into the Coast during the 16th century.

He says Watta were friendly people and were pushed to the periphery and assimilated by the Giriama and other Coastal communities over the years.

"They appear have been the first people to settle at the Coast. They are recognised by the NMK but there is little information about them at the museums," Katana admitted.

According to Katana, names like Arabuko, a world famous forest in Malindi and Kilifi, originates from the Watta language, which is close to Orma and Borana.

Watta members are believed live in North Eastern provinces as well as in parts of Tanzanian although has been no official data to verify that.

They entered Kenya through Ethiopia and roamed the Coastal plains and forests in search of game for meat and trophies.

Onotto, who is also the chairman of the Friends of the Watta Association (FOWA) wants the Government to fully recognise the community and disband vetting panels for Watta members seeking national identity cards.

Hunters and gatherers

"As a community we feel deprived of our human right of being correctly identified and more so being subjected to vetting while we are the oldest at the Coast province," says the man who is also former Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Malindi executive secretary.

Other elders say the community has been isolated by other groups owing to its background as hunters and gatherers.

"In the past it was regarded a curse by other communities to marry from the Watta. It is only recently that this mentality has started being discarded by our neighbours," says another elder, Julius Dullo, who is a retired health worker.

Dullo, who sits in the Watta vetting committee says because of their past lifestyle as hunters and gathers, Watta community members were scattered, leading to negative perceptions about them.

Dullo says like the Ndorobo in the Rift Valley, who adopted new identities as the Ogiek, the Sengwer or the Yaaku, his community now wants to unite under the Watta umbrella.

They want Government to build schools and offer special bursaries in locations where the community members are found to boost their educational standards since they have lagged behind for many years.

Tourism proceeds

They want the establishment of settlement schemes at Soso Chamari in Magarini district, Pendanguo, Milimani, Mangai, Mararani in Lamu district, Hola, Bilisa, Tarasaa and Sala, among others, which should be connected with piped water for irrigation.

"Since we are no longer hunters and gathers, we need to be facilitated in agriculture and other economic activities," Bashora says.

Farmers Barisa Abajila and Hezron Guyo say they have been involved in subsistence farming of maize and pineapples but their land has been threatened since the land is not demarcated.

Guyo says since the Watta were prohibited from hunting they should be considered for proceeds from tourism.

"We have not been selling land yet our developers and other people want to take away the little that we have," Onotto lamented, adding that the community should be issued with title deeds.

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