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Ogiek Land Cases
Historical Injustices

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Chapter 2: Background


     The Ogiek is a community of approximately 10, 000 to 20, 000 people scattered in various parts of East Africa. The majority of whom live in Nakuru district. Others reside in Mt Elgon, Koibatek, Nandi, Samburu and Narok in Western and Rift Valley provinces of Kenya, while another group lives in Tanzania.

     The Ogiek community has a culture and is an entity. They speak the Ogiek language and practice a unique lifestyle common to the forest-dwelling communities. They survive by hunting wild game and gathering fruits and honey. Although most of their ancestral names are similar to those of the Maasai, they strongly disassociate themselves from the Maasai and Kalenjin communities. A good number keep livestock, while others practice peasant farming. Bee keeping and farming form a common factor. Some are good herbalists, while others are skilled in iron making and pottery.

     They have been ethnologically nicknamed “Dorobo,” a term adopted from the Maasai word “Iltorobo,” meaning poor. This is because the Ogiek had no cattle, which to the Maasai is a measure of wealth. The word “Ogiek” literally means the caretaker of all animals and plants.

     They have rejected the cruel name “Dorobo” and accepted the correct one, Ogiek (singular, Ogiot). Other communities have similarly rejected such demeaning names. Notables, are the Kipsigis who refused to be called “Lumbwa,” Tugen - “Kamasia,” Luo - “Kavirondo,” Pokot - “Suk,” Kuria, - “Watende” and the Sengwer - “Cherangany”

     It is believed by the Ogiek and surrounding communities that hunters were the first people to settle in the East African forests. They are regarded as the aborigines together with the Sanye and Wata of Ethiopia as there is no evidence of them having migrated from elsewhere has so far been adduced. Their great affinity with forests has made them successful foresters and environmentalists in the past. Trees, birds and wild animals provide them with the psychological comfort that other people attain by being members of larger communities. Thus, the Ogiek have always lived in areas where there are forests adjacent to plains. During the dry season, they would live in the forests, moving out to the plains during the rainy periods. Guy Yeoman captured the Ogiek uniqueness as follows:

The Dorobo also known as the Ogiek are unique people intimately related to a particular ecosystem. They are incapable of retaining their essential characteristics if that ecosystem is destroyed.
               — Guy Yeoman, "Swara" magazine, 1979

     The Ogiek community is believed to have occupied the coastal regions of East Africa as early as 1000 AD. They moved from these areas following attacks by slave traders and other migrating communities. This was the Ogiek first dispersal. It saw one group moving to Tanzania where they settled among the Hadzabe and Maasai tribes. This first group has been partially assimilated by the Maasai and now speaks a dialect that is very close to Maa and are locally known as Akie. A second group moved to the plains of Laikipia bordering Mt. Kenya forest from where they dispersed to various locations in northern, central and western Kenya.

     By the turn of the century, the Ogiek were to be found in Mt Elgon, Cherangany, Koibatek and Nandi, as well as the Mau forest region, which straddles Nakuru, Narok, Kericho and Bomet districts in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. One group moved from Laikipia and settled in Samburu in northern Kenya.

     The wide dispersal of the Ogiek split them into small defenceless groups prone to attack by other stronger close-knit tribes. In 1856, during the Ilpeles age set, conflict between the Maasai and the Ogiek over land rights in Laikipia and Mau resulted in serious loss of life on both sides causing further depletion of the Ogiek population. Further reduction in the Ogiek population took place in 1876 when a cholera outbreak wiped out sections of the population. The cholera affected man and wild animals.

     Due to their small numbers, the Ogiek have been an easy target for those seeking land on which to farm or graze. They have not been able to speak up and be heard. Everyone has ignored the fact that they too have a right to life. When the British carved areas of Kenya into tribal reserves to be occupied by various tribes, the Ogiek were excluded as they lived in small, scattered groups over a large geographical area and did not appear to have any property.

     The Ogiek’s dominion over his home fell under threat fairly early in time. The colonial government itself orchestrated a systematic campaign of oppression, suppression and brutality. It sent members of the Ogiek community, the aboriginal occupants, away from forestlands. It declared the forestlands crown land, gazetted a notice of this declaration and in effect messed the Ogiek person’s dominion over his land. It went on to pursue them in their newly found places of refuge and hounded them with policies aimed at their marginalisation, ostracism, impoverishment, decimation and ultimate assimilation. Those policies were taking the Ogiek the route of the dinosaur.

     It was during the purported saviour reign that the Ogiek noticed the grave threat to his beloved home. Frequently, there were arbitrary and irregular degazettements without his permission of inexplicably large portions of his God given home. State authorized deforestation escalated as did commercial logging. State sanctioned, crude, wasteful, charcoal burning. Allocation of huge chunks of the forest to politically correct persons for uses for purposes consistent only with its shrinkage.

     The announcement of further degazzettment of huge chunks of the Mau forest ostensibly to settle squatters, but in reality to reward and entice politically important persons, prompted legal action by the Ogiek people against that decision.

     The forest is the hand that feeds the indigenous forest dweller; why would he ever want to bite it. Instead he requires the tree not for logging, slash and burn or wanton felling but to pitch his beehives. To get his medications, his shade, his condiments, and his climate regulator.


     Forty years after independence, the state has not seen the need to come up with educational policies to suit the needs of minority communities. Marginalisation and constant evictions of the Ogiek by the state machinery has disoriented the community, such that they lack access to information on their right to education. The few with little education remain marginalized in all spheres of life. The political establishment has constantly suppressed the voice of the few elites in an effort to instil fear and stop them from championing the community cause. This situation is exacerbated by lack of constitutional recognition of indigenous minority communities. The natural foresters are self-sufficient in their wisdom and knowledge of the environmental utilisation as pharmacies and laboratories.


     For many years, the Ogiek have relied on their traditional medicine for treatment. They have little access to primary health care and the high mortality rate explains why they are few. HIV/AIDS was alien to the Ogiek, but it has now become common among the Ogiek. It was introduced to them during the scramble for their ancestral land. Forests were and still are Ogiek pharmacies and laboratories despite the high magnitudes of destruction. Tuberculosis, highland malaria and typhoid are common diseases.

Socio-Political Rights

     The past and the present governments have institutionalised marginalisation. This creates special problems in the democratic processes because no one is responsible for indigenous minority issues. The present constitution does not recognise indigenous constituencies as distinct. State officials tend to be ignorant of the needs, cultures and conditions of minority communities. For instance, the Ogiek have been marginalised in their own land and have no political representation, hence, they do not participate in decision-making on issues affecting their lives.

     Besides belonging to a particular household, an individual belonged to an extended family, a sub lineage (Kot), a lineage (Kurget), a clan (Oret) and an age set (Ipinta) and an age grade (Ipin). His/her rights, duties, responsibilities and obligations went hand in hand with one’s intelligence, skills, age and gender. These cross cutting relations existed in a constitutional framework, which has come to be known as kinship.

     It was within this kinship structure that one’s rights and duties were defined and articulated. Kinship was not a suffocating ideology that hindered individual progress or excellence. Rather, it was a constitutional framework within which personal, social, economic, marital and political issues and matters were raised and tackled. To a stranger, such as the provincial administrator, it was and still is a bewildering concoction of relationships that ensnared an individual.

     For a long time, our indigenous institutions enabled us to co-exist peacefully. Any wrong doing was seen from a wider perspective and the justice delivery system ensured that, at the end of a dispute resolution, both parties walked away as friends. A possible future revenge was always the guiding principle in our indigenous justice delivery systems.

     For instance, a victim may not want the state imprisoning the son of a neighbour he has seen grow up, just because he stole his cow. He would rather have the clan of the offender give him another cow. Others may want reconciliation and not drawn-out courts battles that destroy enduring social relations.

     This borrowed administrative idea, is what has been hindering the Ogiek collective democracies.

     The origin of the Ogiek is centred on a leader called Parusworm whose three sons were Morisiek, Kurereg and Chorngiwonig, the ancestors of present day Ogiek. They were organisaed in clan leadership of a council of elders whose mandate was the community’s welfare, land and security.

     This council did all the governance including policy formulation, order enformcement and dispute resolution. This was voluntary work, where the leaders worked for the community, besides their private work. The notable leaders are Kopiro who led the last part of the nineteenth century followed by Tiwas, who was assisted by Kererug and Esageri. After him there was Kitango A.Teresit who was confirmed by the colonial authorities on 16/3/1953. He was succeeded by Kurosoi and Sururu Tarimbo Ole Kiwanja and Matingo. This group had the interim youthful elders of Kugo Korented, Staron Meitubuny, Parsaloi Saitoti Orop Monoso and Chumo Mebarne. The other leaders have been discussed separately in this book.

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Copyright © 2004, Ogiek Welfare Council and Towett J. Kimaiyo.
Reproduced with permission of Towett Kimaiyo.
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