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The life and times of paramount chief Lenana

By Amos Kareithi | August 12th 2012

By Amos Kareithi

In life, the British employed all tricks in the books to control his influence. They did nothing as a simple case of dysentery drained him, reducing his body to a shell similar to that of an old shaky man.

This was a man who had for years been regarded as the Government’s most trusted ally, a man who provided reinforcements when needed to subdue rebellious communities. They even paid him a salary and treated his signature, an illiterate mark, as priceless asset. But as he lay dying, the Government simply monitored his worsening condition from afar, never providing transport to a health facility or medication.

Morans perform a traditional dance.

[Photo: File/Standard]

After all, the paramount chief, Lenana son of Mbatian did not qualify for the medical scheme and so no vehicle could be availed to fetch him from his home, a mere 16 kilometres from Kiserian to Nairobi. Inevitably, when Lenana finally succumbed to the disease on March 7, 1911, senior Government officials rushed to view his body, including Girouard Percy, the then governor of the East African Protectorate.

They were now paying glowing tribute to the fallen chief, a man who had prematurely aged due to hard living: at 40 years, he looked weak and ancient. The British beseeched the grieving community to respect the Laibon’s death wish.

The Government officials claimed that Lenana’s last wish had been for the Maasai to move away from Laikipia so as to pave way for the establishment of the White Highlands, exclusively occupied by the white settlers.

No ordinary herdsman

The intriguing life of Lenana, (corrupted from Olonana) started in 1870, when one of the 100 wives of Mbatian gave birth to a baby boy at Ngoshua, near Monduli at the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest snow peaked mountain. Although Lenana was born in a home with many children, he was an only son to his mother, in a community where sons were held in high esteem.

Mbatian was not an ordinary Maasai herdsman as he occupied a central place in the life of the community. He was a Laibon, upon whom the prosperity of the community depended with precise predictions.

Mbatian was a descendant of the famous Inkindongi, the man with prophetic powers who had wandered into Maasai land by chance. Inkindongi is believed to have wandered into Ngong in 1640 where he got lost and was rescued by a herdsman who handed him over to Ilaiser clan. Other prominent descendants of Inkindongi included Supet, Sitonik, Kerika, Kipepeti, Parinyombi, Mweiya and Lesigereishi.

Traditions and customs allowed an Inkindongi (Laiboin) to marry without paying bride price and accumulate a lot of wealth in form of cattle. This explains the theatrics that were employed by the various sons of the reigning Laibon to succeed their father when he was too old.

Lenana was circumcised in 1882 and initiated into the Il Talala age group although these rites had been delayed by his father because of the Iloikop wars that were fought between 1830 and 1880 among different factions of the Maasai. Historian Peter Ndege in his book Olonana Ole Mbatian says that Lenana was apprenticed prophet as he like other sons of his father had prophetic powers that were hereditary.

“He was however disadvantaged as Mbatian preferred to teach his favourite son, Senteu how to discharge the duties of a Laibon. He would allow Senteu to deal with his clients to get practical knowledge. He was preparing Senteu to succeed him,” Ndege observes. Lenana perfected the Laibon’s skills by watching his father at work whenever he had an opportunity and gradually developed his own client base and following.

During his youth the Ilkipiak war, pitting the Ilkipiak clan of Uasin Gishu and the Ilpurko clan of Naivasha and Nakuru intensified, exacerbated by Mbatian’s cousin Koikot who challenged his leadership as the Laibon and ultimately saw Koikot defeated and driven to Loroki plateau in Samburu.

Power struggle

So devastating was the defeat that some of Koikoti’s followers were deprived of their livestock and forced to live as hunters and gathers, ultimately becoming Iltorobo (Ndorobo). This was around 1874 and although Lenana was too young to participate he experienced the effects at a time everybody lived in perpetual fear of attacks.

When calm prevailed in his homeland, Lenana was initiated into manhood when he was about 19 years old. Even as the IlPurko clan celebrated the defeat of Koikot and his followers, the conflict also marked the beginning of the end of Mbatian whose health was rapidly deteriorating.

“Towards the end of the 1880s, the prophet had become blind and sickly and senile. There was talk that one of his cousins, Makoo had bewitched him. This was normal among the Maasai prophets as none had died of natural causes,” Ndege says. Mbatian’s predicament generated anxiety as he had not named his successor and his people feared there would be a power vacuum when he eventually died.

In the meantime, Senteu and Lenana were engaged in subtle power struggle as each tried to strategically place himself to inherit their father’s powers when he died. Although Senteu was the favourite son, Lenana outwitted him and finally inherited his father by presenting himself to the blind man as the favourite son to secure the old man’s blessings at his deathbed.

By the time the preferred heir discovered he had been outfoxed, it was too late for his father told him what had been done could not be reversed and that Lenana was now the legitimate Laibon.

Mbatian’s death in 1890 coincided with the arrival of the white man in Kenya, and opened a new phase of rivalry between his two sons, which would pit them and their followers against each other. This rivalry and the resultant wars were further compounded by drought and other natural calamities such as cattle and human diseases that the white colonialists exploited to subdue the Maasai.

Barely four years into his reign, Lenana suffered a major blow in 1894 when Senteu who had migrated to Loita Hills attacked the Ilmatapato, Ilkaptutiei and other clans living around Nairobi and took away large numbers of cattle. As he was trying to ward off these attacks, the Kikuyu also attacked Lenana, whose people had been weakened and impoverished by war and disease.

Between 1884 and 1897, Maasai land was plagued by severe droughts that were christened emutai and enkidaaroto. The famine killed thousands of livestock, with Lenana himself losing about 1,000 cattle in 1897 to pleura-pneumonia.


Series of wars

Two years later, he lost more to rinderpest epidemic as people succumbed to small pox (entindiae) in 1892, 1898 and 1899. The situation was so bad that it reduced the livestock population of the community by half.

This, coupled with the ensuing power struggle between Lenana and his brother Senteu triggered a series of wars locally known as, Morijo, aimed at restocking, which at times spilled over to Tanganyika, to the horror of London.

It is against this background that Lenana, incessantly pleaded with Francis Hall, an agent of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) who had already established a fort at Kabete for support.

At the time, Hall too was looking for allies to help him vanquish the Kikuyu and other neighbouring communities who stood in the way of IBEA’s territorial expansion. This marked the coming together of the two sides to confront a common enemy and establishment of ties that blossomed with trade and ultimately saw Lenana being enthroned a chief by the British Government in December 1898.

Three years earlier the IBEA had relinquished its territory in East Africa to the British Government, although most of the company’s agents continued serving as civil servants under direct control of the colonial office in London.

When in 1898, Senteu’s warriors crossed over from Tanganyika, then under the control of Germans and attacked Loita; the British foreign office in London had enough and ordered that the scuffles be stopped. It is under these circumstances that Lenana was elevated to position of chief so that he could be closely supervised and restrained from causing diplomatic row by pursuing his brother into Tanganyika.

Sydney Langford Hinde was appointed Resident to the Maasai Chief and Political Agent for the Maasai Agency to exercise friendly supervision.

 In the ensuing years the British would exploit their control of the Maasai through Lenana to extract concessions that deprived the community much of its land through a series of bogus agreements, even as they played Lenana and Senteu against each other.

When Senteu was driven out of Tanganyika by a string of disasters in 1902 into the welcoming hands of the authorities, the final phase of the takeover of Maasai land began. Lenana would outlive his usefulness as a chief and ally.

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