Maasai leaders used a recent Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rally in Narok County to demand “the return of community land grabbed during the colonial era”, the Saturday Nation reported on February 22, describing how they submitted a memorandum to former prime minister Raila Odinga and the BBI task force.
These lands include Naivasha, Molo, Nakuru, Mau Narok, Kedong, Kitet, Laikipia and Ndabibi. The memorandum also lists other lands, including that occupied by the Magadi Soda Company, which must be “reverted back (sic) to the community’s ownership”.
I studied the colonial British alienation of Maasailand, the forced moves and the 1904 and 1911 Masai (sic) Treaties for my 2002 Oxford doctorate. (No, their proper name is not the Anglo-Maasai Treaties or Agreements, though Maasai and local media usually call them that.)
As I say in Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure, that constituted a major injustice. The Maasai lost at least half of their land, probably the highest among any other ethnic group, which they have demanded since a landmark 1913 court case.
They’ve missed several opportunities to bring a land claim case against Britain but maybe too much time has passed for this to stand up in court. Besides, unlike the successful Mau Mau reparations case, all the potential witnesses are dead.
But in doing so now, and domesticating the issue, they risk opening a Pandora’s box that could lead to ethnic strife — the very opposite of building bridges — yet the memorandum says they hope BBI will “transform Kenya from a geographical patch-up of antagonizing (sic) indigenous nationalities to a symphony of a thriving nationhood”.
‘Returning’ the land would involve throwing millions of Kenyans off land they believe is theirs, and for which they may well hold title. Other ethnic groups could then follow suit.
This smacks, ironically, of the colonial policy of ‘native reserves’. Moreover, “going back to where you come from” makes no sense in a multicultural society such as Kenya. Most citizens are too thoroughly mixed up, intermarried and inter-settled to want to return to mono-ethnic enclaves. The richness of Kenya lies in its diversity — enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution.
The Maasai wrongly believe they were promised that the land would be returned to them once the British left. But to whom?
There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ Maasai or pure anyone. The very notion of racial purity is nonsense; part of the nativist, far-right racist narrative poisoning societies — including in the UK, where deluded Little Englanders are calling, post-Brexit, for everyone else to be expelled.
Protest your historical land losses and seek compensation but please avoid trampling on the rights of fellow Kenyans. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Lotte Hughes, academic historian of Kenya and author. [email protected]