Wednesday, October 20, 2010

90. The Outsiders: The Maasai of Kenya

By Khadija Sharife, Harvard International Review, October 19, 2010

Several years ago at the local Pick N Pay grocery store in Durban, South Africa, I met a Kenyan Maasai, who had walked on foot, he said, from Kenya to Cape Town. The mall was located in an up market urban area where most can shop but scarce few can afford to live. Towering there above all others in his flowing red robe and carrying a copy of the local newspaper (the Sowetan), he told me that back in Kenya, the Maasai were made to stand in the queue too. 'They tell us there is only one door, one way of living.' 

Briefly mentioning the effects - alcoholism, prostitution, menial jobs, destitution, he said the Maasai were fighting to protect the right to choose how to live. This way of life allowed for the Maasai - pastoralists, raising cattle - to accommodate drought, by structuring grazing patterns with the climate. But in the name of the 'national interest', Maasais, given no more than a cursory glance by the modern Kenyan states, and dismissed as primitive, were politically and socio-economically marginalized following the privatization of communal land. 

'It is a question of rights, of land, and freedom,' he said. 

In Kenya, the living politics of the Maasai has changed little from the days of colonialism, when 90% of Maasailand was 'signed' over by an indigenous medicine man Laibon Leinana to corporate entities representing the British Crown, such as the East Africa Syndicate. No matter that he was not vested with the legitimate power to represent the Maasai. Such royal elders are a dime a dozen on the continent where elites at the helm of regimes, (chiefly financed by external resource revenue) are relevant and powerful only insofar as they 'represent the people', through the captured political vehicle of the sovereign state. 

In Kenya, the biggest industries are tourism and horticulture. Much of the tourism industry, where Maasais have been reduced to low-paid jobs 'celebrating' their culture (usually in the form exotic teaboys), is owned by foreign investors. The result? Massive GDP growth, coupled with considerable capital outflow, and a little bit on the side to the politics that keeps the wheels greased. 

According to Transparency International, Kenya's police rank as the most corrupt institution in East Africa, in addition to the Ministry of Defense, Labor, Public Works, Judiciary and crucially, Ministry of Land. 

Maasais evicted from 325 000 hectares by 'investors' in 1904 and onward, were herded into annexed lands termed protection areas. This was not dissimilar to the policies of the Kenyan government in collaboration with the UK Department for International Development (DFIF) when 40% of allocated lands, decades after independence, were turned into 'private ranches'. 

As a people, the Maasai constitute the face of Kenya's famines, deprived of equitable access to critical grazing areas and water resources such as Lake Naivasha, now roughly half its original size (10 700 hectares) because of overuse. 

To what extent is this hunger caused by politically manufactured destitution? 

On the surface, their hunger appears puzzling in a country hosting some of the world's best and most fertile farmland thanks to fertile volcanic soils and near perfect climatic conditions. The country exports 450 000 tons of food annually - green beans, baby corn, you name it, mainly to Europe. But agro-industry's biggest buddy in this equation is floriculture. These companies export 97% of fresh cut flowers to Europe and command 25% of the world's global market, a decade-old trend in the country's four-decade industry. 

Water-intensive flower corporations are allowed self-regulated access to Lake Naivasha's resources. Often, dumped back into the Lake are toxic pesticides, fertilizers, fumigants and other chemicals, cause eutrophication. Some, like DDT and dieldrin, flown out in the 88 million ton floriculture cargo, are no longer allowed for use in export-destinations. 

The lake is also bearing the weight of a city: from a population of 7000 
(1970s) to 300 000 (2008), and the ecosystem, previously one of the world's top ten bird sites, is buckling. 

One decade ago, just 10% of fertile farmland was utilized. The government of Kenya has pledged to tackle the issue of idle land. But this is easier said than done - many of those who hold the reigns of the political economy, also own the land. This was the product of a study 
(2004) identifying 300 000 illegal land titles. Former President Daniel Arap-Moi held 100 000 hectares. 

During colonialism, Maasai were deplored as 'wanderers', and expropriated land deemed 'a treaty' between 'two states' by British courts. The ever-corrupt Moi killed the issue of land reform when he came to power. But the impact of climate change, intensifying drought, renders the decision of the Kenyan government - endorsing the same policy, an intentional death sentence. 

Sadly, the 'save Maasai culture' mantra has not only hijacked and distorted the exotically caricatured Maasai, but has also reinforced exploitation in game farms and reserves where 'you too can meet a real live Maasai - and have him serve your whiskey all dressed up'. A greater indignity is hard to imagine. 

At question, of course, are not property rights but the way in which such rights have been used as weapons, packaged as solutions, and transformed to represent the interest of a small corrupt elite. 

What happens when the issue of land in Africa is left for too long, breeding resentment, structural inequality, and mad mullahs of 'liberation on behalf of the people'? 

Two words - Robert Mugabe.

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