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How Maasai warriors, lion tales scared Jewish settlers



 Maasai warriors. [Courtesy, David Macharia]


It was Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for colonies who first suggested that Jews facing persecution in Russia be resettled in Kenya. In 1902, Chamberlain had visited East Africa and, viewing the fertility of the land, offered 5,000 square miles of land in Uasin Gishu to the Zionists.

The move was however, received with dismay by the settlers led by Lord Delamere who “objected to the poverty of the Jews and their supposed lack of agricultural skills.” Despite the opposition, Jewish leader, Theodor Herzl was willing to consider the offer, and in 1904, arranged for a party of three to investigate the land. Then the obstacles began.

“From Londiani on the railways they had to walk. It was a stiff climb over the escarpment and the [Jewish] commissioners were not used to walking. They learnt that blisters could be a painful affliction,” states the book, White Man’s Country by Elspeth Huxley. On the first night, a herd of elephants caused so much commotion that the Jews hardly slept.

The following day, as they marched to view the land that would lay the foundation for "new Zion", they were confronted by Maasai warriors dressed in war kits; “tall ostrich feather plumes waving in the wing above their curiously painted faces, bare limbs glistening with castor oil and red ochre, and naked spear blades glittering in the sun, Huxley writes. The Maasai warriors had every intention to wipe off the newcomers had the settlers not calmed them down. The warriors retreated, only to perform another war dance that, once again, made the second night unbearable for the Jews.

While no attacks from the Maasai occurred, lions kept grunting around a fire lit around the camp to keep such brutes at bay. In a game that the British settlers seemed to relish, the Jews became even more afraid as they were shown some pug-marks of lions that had made close approaches to their tents. Their nerves were unsettled as they were told of the now famous story of the man-eaters of Tsavo — the two savage lions that preyed upon Indian railway workers.

Despite the foreign office's determination to settle the Jews in Kenya, the larger Jewish community was not enthralled by the offer that would halt their march to Palestine. They “preferred to continue to risk massacre and mutilation rather than to endanger the attainment of their ideal by permitting the movement to be shunted into a siding. Zion, and Zion alone, was their goal.” In 1905, the offer of land by the British was “with sincere thanks, rejected.”

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