7 February 2017

East Africa: Kenyan Indigenous Minorities Adapt to Changing Environment

Photo: Robert Sturman
A Masai tribesman does yoga in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro (file photo).

Before 1992, Zakayo Lesingo had no knowledge on what it involved to prepare land, grow maize, harvest and make food out of it.

As an Ogiek, an indigenous minority ethnic community in Kenya, his food was either honey, wild meat or berries.

When he was born in Logoman forest within the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya's Rift Valley region some forty years ago, his life revolved around the bushes; chasing after a deer, collecting honey or gathering ripe berries from indigenous trees.

"It was an exciting life with little of struggles in obtaining food or water," Lesingo said told Xinhua on Saturday.

But it's no longer an exciting life for him and his community; the core hunter and gathering practice has faded away for a new dawn of farming.

The Mau Forest Complex, an expansive forest area of 400,000 hectares is under rehabilitation and government had to evict the community from inside the forest, automatically breaking their cultural chain of activities.

The complex forest is a significant ecosystem not only to Kenya but also its neighbouring East African countries due to a multiplicity of its benefits ranging from agriculture to tourism.

It's a water tower that supports the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, the cradle of remarkable tourism adventures, particularly wildebeest migration from the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

By 2011, more than 100,000 hectares had been lost as estimated by United Nations environment agency, UNEP.

Following a spotlight on the state of environment at the forest, the government has been relentless on executing rehabilitation activities overseen by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS).

On this development, Lesingo's community has been on the losing end since it can no longer be allowed to live in the forest and continue with their way of life.

It is through the evictions from the forest and disruption of their hunter and gathering survival mechanism that Lesingo and his fellow community members approximated to be 40,000 in total came to know the definition of farming.

"We did not know what a plow was, it's work and how it was used. But now we do," he said.

"It was very challenging at the beginning since we did not know what to do but we have now come to terms to it since we have no other option," Lesingo said.

Just like his other community members, Lesingo grows maize and potatoes which he sells to wholesale traders.

Nevertheless, climate fluctuations have not spared them.

"We never experienced drought before but it has now become a common phenomenon. It leaves us in desperation when it lasts for too long since we deplete our food stocks before a next harvest," he said.

"There are some diseases which also affect the crops. You cannot be so sure you will harvest what you have planted. It is a challenging situation but we are adapting."

He said the community is also struggling to keep up with their traditional bee keeping practices.

"We still have a few traditional bee hives but the harvesting seasons are not as reliable as they used to be. There are very few indigenous trees where bees can get nectar from to make honey. It's impossible to depend on honey as a main source of food as used to be," he said.

Lesingo said honey served not only as food but also medicine that their treated their children with.

He said the community is a conservationist in nature from their historical connection with the environment. They highly valued every aspect of their surroundings, Lesingo said.

"Cutting a tree for any member of our community was totally unthinkable. That was our life. We reared bees on trees and they provided bees with nectar to make honey for us to feed on. It was our role to protect every tree," he said.

"We love protecting the forest because we know its value. We totally discourage indiscriminate felling of trees," Lesingo said.

Although the community is adapting to new life out of the forest, it is still living under one major fear; lack of title deeds to pieces of land where they currently live on.

The forest evictees are yet to receive formal state resettlement and Lesingo hopes the government would do so soonest to bestow their hearts and mind with peace of mind.


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