Unlike many little known minority communities in Kenya, the Ogiek have had the benefit of getting publicity due to their habitat, Mau Forest. The community is, however, endangered by many aspects of their lives, among them the depletion of their natural habitat, assimilation as well as changing social and economic trends, forcing them to change their way of life.
Although the Ogiek have been allowed to live within the Mau, they may not be able to co-exist with nature, as their fore-fathers did, because they have since learnt to farm and keep animals. But they are still referred to as the Dorobo by neighbouring pastoralists and farmers.
“Dorobo” means a people who do not own livestock or any other property, but relies entirely on wildlife and fruits for survival. In other words, they are hunters and gatherers. The current situation also compels their children to go to school. Their ancestors’ learning institutions were in the forest, where they were taught to hunt and gather food.
The Ogiek initially numbered between 12,000 and 16,000 and lived entirely on honey, game meat and wild fruits. They were found in parts of south-western and eastern Mau. Another group is settled in the Mt Elgon forest, with yet another scattered in the Koibatek forest and Samburu.
Lived entirely on honey
The Ogiek Welfare Council coordinator, Joseph Towett, says there are about 5,000 in Mt Elgon, 3,000 at the Tinet, 6,000 at the Ndoinet areas of south-western Mau and another 6,000 at the Marioshoni and Nessuit blocks of eastern Mau. The community, he adds, lived in the planes around the Mau before 1700 and would occasionally go into the forest to hunt and gather fruits, while the farming and pastoralist communities lived further away from the forested areas.
“As populations grew, the Ogiek were forced to move into the Mau, which extended all the way to Kiambu, Ukambani, Nandi and Uasin Gishu due to aggression from the growers and their pastoralist counterparts,” he points out.
Further encroachment by the two rivals forced the community to move deeper into the rain forest and the vital water catchment areas. According to Mr Towett, the communities preferred the Mau to Mt Elgon and Charangany because it was not prone to diseases.
Many of his community members died after eating game meat infected with anthrax and other diseases soon after going further into the Mau, he adds. He points out that a large chunk of the community was assimilated by the Kikuyu, the Maasai and the Kalenjin during the shift.
Some of the 872 Ogieks who were settled in the Kinale forest by the Kenyatta government in 1969, have now been absorbed by Kikuyus that surround them. “For a community to survive, it must be able to defend its territory where it practises its culture and tradition and is able to multiply,” says Mr Towett.
The Ogiek have resorted to farming and keeping animals after the depletion of the largest water tower in the country and the subsequent reduction of wildlife. Although there are still more than 10,000 beehives belonging to the community in the Mau Forest, they have diversified their diet to other foods since the forest can no longer produce enough to support the residents.
The introduction of man-made forests has caused a decline in honey production and bee populations since most exotic trees do not flower to attract bees. Laws against poaching have also affected the community’s way of life since they can no longer get game meat.
The Ogiek are among minority groups in Rift Valley province such as the Njemps and the Lembus of Baringo district, who have been fighting to be included in leadership and national decision-making forums, but in vain. For this and given their small number which cannot allow them to elect one of their own, they have no popular community members.
But among the Ogiek there are a few individuals who have had chances of representing them in different forums, both locally and internationally — among them Mr Towett, lawyer Siana Sena of the Ogiek Rural Integral Project, and Mr Peter Cheruiyot of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Programme.
Mr Cheruiyot was in the Mau task force, but resigned towards the end of last year over what he termed failure by the team to follow its mandate. The community, which depends on herbs for medicine, have traditional conservation knowledge and do not cut trees.
They uses tree parts such as barks, branches, leaves and roots as medicines, but have a way of harvesting them instead of destroying the whole tree. The elders who are mostly medicine men, know exactly how much of a tree bark one can remove without hurting the plant.
When they go hunting, they kill only old animals in the herd and just enough for their immediate needs to ensure continuity. The community is among those that have refused to let go of cultural practices such as female circumcision.