East Africa: Displacing the Maasai – Tanzania Repeats Kenya’s Colonial Past
Images of distressed members of the Maasai community forcibly displaced from their homes, beaten and harassed by police and military in northern Tanzania in June caused concern on social media. Activists have since expressed their anger against land and human rights, and they have good reason to do so.
The Maasai live in Kenya and Tanzania. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, many have now settled down and diversified their livelihoods.
But they have long been on a collision course with the government. This has been the case with colonial and postcolonial governments. And that’s largely because they live in areas sought by the administration for other uses. One of them is wildlife conservation – because there is a (mistaken) belief that people cannot co-exist with wildlife.
In northern Tanzania, the government is trying to evict thousands of Maasai from the Ngorongoro and Loliondo region to make way for tourists, wildlife and big game hunting. These are lands where people live alongside wildlife and which border protected wildlife areas.
It is a situation that is all too familiar.
Just over 100 years ago, in what was then the British East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya), similar scenes were unfolding, as described in my book, Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure. Two forced removals followed treaties, or “agreements”, signed in 1904 and 1911, between Maasai leaders and British administrators.
The Maasai were moved to reservations where they could be more easily taxed and controlled, and to make way for white settlement. Other ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu, were also placed on reservations at a later date.
It is an opportune time to remind people of this history because of the continuities and implications for the community, which – being displaced from their ancestral lands – faces an uncertain future.
Maasai and British East Africa
My book was based on Maasai oral testimonies and information from archival sources. I found elders in the late 90s, some over 100, who were moved between 1912 and 1913 as children. Despite their age, they spoke lucidly about these events and the Maasai’s understanding of them as if they had happened yesterday.
Eyewitness Thomas Ole Mootian remembered it clearly:
We were pushed by force, by a white man named Bilownee [British official E.D. Browne], accompanied by African soldiers. Roundworms [soldiers] were holding guns, they were beating people. When you stopped, they hit you with the butt of a rifle. And if the women cracked a joke or got lazy, they were caned. And when the sheep or the cows got weak, they were killed.
In 1895, Britain established a protectorate over the territory that became the colony of Kenya in 1920. Areas used seasonally by the Maasai (there was no private land ownership at that time) were coveted by European and South African settlers for their rich pastures, fertile soils and abundant water sources. This is why first the Rift Valley and then Laikipia in the highlands were targeted for white settlement.
Seven years after the first move, although they had promised the Maasai that they could keep the northern Laikipia reservation “as long as the Masai as a race exist” (under the terms of the 1911 Masai agreement with the British), they broke off their engagement and moved them again, at gunpoint, to an extended southern reservation on the border with German East Africa.
The southern reserve was far inferior to Laikipia, not least because animals and humans were killed by diseases to which they had no immunity. Today, this region is known as Narok County, which includes the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
It is estimated that the Maasai have lost up to 50% of their land, possibly as much as 70%.
A legal action
The forced displacements were supposed to be sanctioned by the treaties or “Masai agreements” of 1904 and 1911. The Maasai chiefs put their fingerprints on both documents and may not have known what they were signing.
These leaders quickly realized the reality of their loss. According to the information I found in the archives, the Maasai took legal action. This was done with the help of European sympathisers, including Norman Leys, a Scottish doctor who worked for the administration in British East Africa.
Leys sent a series of explosive letters to British MPs who denounced what was happening. This raised a storm in parliament and temporarily halted Laikipia’s move. But Leys was later fired for his disloyalty.
Supported by British lawyers based in the Protectorate, the Maasai took their case to the High Court of British East Africa in 1913 and challenged the legality of the 1911 agreement. They lost on a technicality.
But it was a landmark case for its time – the first time, to my knowledge, that an indigenous people in Africa had taken such legal action against a colonial power.
Subsequently, the Maasai were heavily controlled in the reservation. They faced high taxes, forced schooling, quarantine restrictions and other livestock controls, while the warriors were forced to build roads. This led to riots, in which a number of warriors were killed.
The Kenyan Maasai were forced to accept their life on the new reservations. For a community that traditionally survived by moving their herds from place to place seasonally, they were restricted, forced to compete for resources with other Maasai groups, and had to adapt to their new environment. On the positive side, the creation of the Maasai Mara National Reserve (in the area where they settled) has long been a cash cow. Indeed, it is run by the Maasai-dominated Narok County Council, and revenues are shared with the community.
Nevertheless, some Maasai activists continue to seek compensation or land restitution from the British and Kenyan governments.
By expelling the Maasai from the Rift Valley and Laikipia, the British clearly committed a great injustice that has repercussions to this day. It is shameful that, more than 100 years after colonizers forcibly displaced Kenyan Maasai to make way for settlers, independent Tanzania is doing something very similar.
Lotte Hughes, Honorary Fellow, The Open University