Kenya: Encounter With the Forgotten Forest Tribe of North Eastern

Nairobi — Asked to comment on the forthcoming November 21 referendum on the Wako draft the Aweer community headman, Sani Hamesa, said: "We would like to vote for Moi's party but what will happen to Kibaki whose term has not yet expired. Will he hand over the presidency?"

If current affairs is far removed from the daily lives of the Aweer so is their habitat.

The rugged trail led us to a secluded eerie point deep in the dense forest. "An encounter with a pack of hyenas, a lone lion or a king cobra is never ruled out," the guide pointed out.

A herd of buffaloes and water backs grazing on the long savannah grass and baboons scratching their itchy backs are a common encounter, the guide added.

After eight hours of trekking from Ijara, a divisional headquarter 290km south of Garissa Town, we came face to face with the little known community that we had set out to find- the Aweer.

The neighbouring Somali community calls them the 43rd tribe of Kenyan.

"They are hunters and gatherers. They use skins and light clothes to cover the lower parts of their bodies," our guide Barre Muhummed had earlier said as we embarked on the long trek.

He had met them while grazing his cattle in the forest. "They come to our village (Bodhai) to get milk for free every morning," he said. "They neither rear animals nor till the land," he added.

And now we were in the land of the Aweer. Ten minutes passed as we waited to see the first of them. Muhummed's assurances that they were friendly people did not make matters any better.

Suddenly a group of bare-chested children crept out of tree branches gnawing at strange looking wild fruits.

They bowed their heads before Muhummed who rubbed them as a sign of greetings.

"Children don't greet using hands here," he informed us. One of the children requested us to follow him in faltering Kiswahili.

Soon a glance in the enclosures that served as homes revealed a state of despair. What passed for houses were tree branches bent to form hollow grooves. Creepers and tree leaves served as roofs.

Children, gazing with innocent awe, crouched in the dwellings. A mother breastfed an infant while huddled up elders spoke in low tones.

The word Aweer, we learned, means lower caste or the unlucky. "We cannot keep cattle nor farm," said Sani Hamesa the soft-spoken headman.

"The animals die from diseases and the crops fail. We are not lucky," he said with resigned finality.

Junction Aweer, as they call the settlement, is home to 327 persons in 50 families. The ethnic group has no known personality working in the Government. Not an assistant chief. Neither do they have a civic leader.

They are believed to be descendants of the Boni, a community estimated to be fewer than 50,000 people living in the neighbouring Lamu District.

However, their language has a Borana accent while they speak fairly well Kiswahili.

Their history dates back to the lucrative slavery trade along the coast of East Africa. To avoid being captured, brutalised and sold into slavery, the Aweer fled inland and settled in Boni forest that stretches from Lamu to the southern part of Ijara District.

Until the 1980s the families carried on with their traditional way of life, hunting and gathering.

But the banditry that has ravaged North Eastern forced them out of their forest homes.

"Three people were killed and we fled to Bargoan," Hamesa said.

Security personnel pursuing the bandits did not make matters any better. They burned down their dwellings to ostensibly deter bandits from establishing bases. The Aweer were then left to wander all over the land searching for food and secure homes.

"In February 2005 we returned here after experiencing harassment and discrimination from the Bajuni. They refused to share schools, health facilities and other social amenities with us," he explained with a tinge of bitterness.

Since then they have been living in forest groves. They usually light bonfires to ward off wild animals that roam the forests.

Then in August they started constructing grass-thatched houses using skills they acquired while in Lamu.

During their stay they were also introduced to modern clothes, donated by their hosts. The clothes were now tattered.

Government intervention through the Arid Lands Resource Management Project, they said, was enabling them to construct grass-thatched houses. However, the project to construct 50 houses may stall after some Sh450,000 was allegedly misappropriated.

The headman claimed that only Sh174,000 was spent on the project. He said programme officers intimidated them demanding that they pool resources to cover for misappropriated funds.

Efforts to verify the claims were fruitless as the project coordinator was reported to be away in Wajir for a workshop.

Before, the community never sent their children to school but following the introduction of free primary education in 2003 they had placed 27 children in school out of the more than 200 school age children. The highest educated pupil from the community is in class three at Bodhai Primary School, an hour's trek away.

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