For centuries, the aboriginal Sengwer people have lived, hunted and gathered in Embobut Forest, Elgeyo/Marakwet and parts of West Pokot counties. The forest and its surrounding offered them a perfect home. However, the Government recently evicted them in efforts to restore the Cherenganyi water tower that is under threat following massive destruction of the forest. Already, most rivers that source water from the forest have dried up. Among them is Kerion, which feeds Lake Turkana while Lake Kamanorok in Kerio Valley has been reduced to a grazing field. The Sengwer claim the forest is their permanent home and some have defied Government’s order to relocate. Their defiance stems from the fear that if completely uprooted from the forest, the community might cease to exist, as it is known know. Their cousins, the Ogiek, were flashed out of Mau forest in 2008 as the Government embarked on a mission to reclaim the water tower. The Sengwer fear their survival and culture could be wiped out by the larger Kalenjin tribes.
They have been assimilated by the Marakwets while Ogiek have been ‘swallowed up’ by Maasai and Kipsigis. Both communities were purely hunters and gatherers spending all their time in the forest picking wild berries and other fruits as well as harvesting honey and hunting animals. But this was reversed forcing them to grow crops and keep cattle like other communities, which joined them in the forest thereby influencing their culture and lifestyle. Mzee Antony Chemengich, a member of the Sengwer community, says Embobut forest is the only home knows. He has found food, shelter and clothing in the habitat since he was born 73 years ago. “Where do we go if the Government wants us to get out of our homes,” asked the elderly man, who now lives under a tree after his house was burnt down by forest rangers. He says his forefathers were brought up and buried in the forest and if they are moved out, they would turn out to be refugees. Inhumane conditions
Since the 1970s, authorities have made repeated efforts to forcibly evict the Sengwer from the forest for resettlement in other areas. Mzee Chemengich notes that their history was being eroded and subsequent governments have failed to protect their rights and have subjected to inhumane conditions. “Our houses are being torched and property destroyed leaving us without any means of survival,” he says, and adds, “The Government found us living here. We have no other home…we will die here.” He alleges that those who were given money by the Government were outsiders. Chemengich notes that invasion of other communities in Embobut forest was the reason the Government evicted them. Benjamin Kemboi, Chemengich’s son, says their generosity has spelled doom to their survival. “We accommodated our neighbours but little did we know that one day we would be evicted from our homes,” he says. He adds the community has for a long time requested the Government to recognize Sengwer as one of the ethnic groups in Kenya.
“We are a distinct group. The Government has denied us identity as Sengwer. When carrying out population census, we are either counted as Kalenjin, Pokot, Marakwet, Keiyo, Sabaot,” says Kemboi. Away from the Sengwer, In Marioshoni, some 350km South of Embobut forest, Joseph Towett, an Ogiek, says Mau forest reminds him of honey he used to enjoy when he was young. Census Towett says: “The forest reminds me of honey. We used to be fed on bush honey but it is unfortunate our children are no longer enjoying it.” Towett, who has been leading efforts for the recognition of Ogiek, says it was painful that they had suffered because of other communities. He says the Ogiek, who according to a recent census number up to 20,000, were forced into the forest during the colonial period.
The Ogiek were only few and scattered and could not wage a resistance like the Nandi’s, who fought back the colonialists. “They had a small population and they could not resist or mount a defence,” says Towett, who is a leading figure in fighting for the community’s rights. The author of Ogiek Land Cases and Historical Injustices says since the Ogiek’s lifestyle was favored by the forest, which was rich in honey and wild animals, they settled in comfortably in the late 1800s. According to the book, the Ogiek subdivided the forest among their clans in 1856. The Ogiek Obom settled at Western Mau, Kapsangany were allocated land in Tindiret, Maasai Mau was occupied by Kaplelach and Eastern Mau went to Ipkerere and Muresionik. Kipchorgonik took parts of Western and Maasai Mau. The clans used physical features like trees, rivers and rocks to mark boundaries. Each clan lived and worked on a strip of land in the mountainous forest that was once their home. Indigenous people The Ogiek are often mistaken for the Maasai but they have no relationship other than being Nilotes. The Maasai refer to them as Dorobo, which is a derogatory term that means ‘sinful’ and ‘men without cattle’.
The United Nations has urged the Government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous people.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya expressed deep concern about reports that police are poised to forcibly evict Sengwer from Embobut forest. “Indigenous people shall not be forcibly relocated from their lands or territories,” Anaya said, quoting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “No relocation shall take place without free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people concerned.”
Source standard newspaper 31/01/2014