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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
The Maasai's century-old grievance
By Gray Phombeah
BBC, Nairobi

Maasai tribes in Kenya's district of Laikipia are demanding the return of their ancestral territory - 100 years after being driven from the land by British colonialists in 1904.

Maasai
The Maasai land grievance has become violent
Their campaign pits them against a handful of white farmers whose families created vast ranches on the land after the expulsion of the tribes.

"We have resolved to fight this to the bitter end," says Simon ole Kaparo, a local NGO official in Laikipia, who is one of the young Maasai men leading the campaign for the return of Laikipia.

"We will fight to the last man. Our land must come back to us. We are going to fight for our land."

He says their campaign is based on a treaty signed with the British colonial government in 1904 which gave the colonial power a 100-year lease on their ancestral lands. That treaty expired on 15 August, he says.

The treaty which was later replaced with another one in 1911 took the Maasai's best land and confined them to reserves and banned from leaving them.

'Righting wrongs'

"The Maasai were conned into signing these treaties," says Mr Kaparo.

Michael Dyer
Even white settlers accept there is a genuine grievance
"We have an obligation to correct this wrong."

The land in question is the vast Laikipia plateau stretching across 2 million acres of mountain, savannah and forest, from Mount Kenya in the east to the Rift valley in the west.

On it, the lush ranches - with vast herds of elephants, giraffe and antelope roaming behind electric fences - belong to the descendants of white settlers.

The ranches have become popular destinations for the West's rich and famous, where owners now operate luxury safari lodges in what is known as eco-tourism.

In the reserves, where Maasai cows and goats graze, the soil is bare and brown, the grass bright yellow in the current dry season, and there is little sign of wildlife.

"Everyone knows there is a land issue here," says 43-year-old Michael Dyer, as he gives me a guided tour of his 32,000-acre Borana Ranch, 200 km north of the capital, Nairobi.

"It is causing quite a lot of distress now to the local community and commercial ranch owners."

His grandfather came out here around 1914, fell in love with Africa and stayed. Michael Dyer is proud to say he was born and raised here and knows the Maasai plains as much as his neighbours, the Maasai.

"We have lived here peacefully, side by side, after all we are neighbours. Until now."

Violence

Matters came to a head 11 days ago when police shot and killed a 70-year-old man and wounded four other Maasai grazing cattle on private land they say is theirs.

Maasai with their cattle
Many believe the Maasai 's sense of betrayal is justified
A few days later, in the capital Nairobi, police fired teargas to disperse about 100 Maasai tribesmen marching to the British High Commission to demand the return of their land.

At the Nanyuki hospital in Laikipia, 65-year-old Lanasi Mureye sits under a tree nursing gun shot wounds.

"We were just grazing our livestock to show them this land belongs to us and we want them to leave," he says.

"Then the police came and started beating us and shooting at us. One bullet went through my back and came out through my stomach."

Dialogue

The Kenya government, which inherited the Anglo-Maasai treaties at independence in 1963, says the land claim is a Maasai myth. The lease, say the government, was for 999 years and not 100 years. The government has also been accused of using excessive force in dealing with Maasai protesters and siding with the white farmers.

"There is no way we can reverse history and go to 1904," says Kenya's Lands Minister Amos Kimunya.

"I think these are matters that were overtaken by events in 1963 when we created a new independent Kenya, with a new constitution, and with a new way of doing things."

Michael Dyer, and other descendants of white settlers, say they fear that attempts to reclaim the territory will spell doom for its wildlife and ruin a lucrative tourist trade.

But they agree that the Maasai claim and the scramble for grass could fuel a conflict that would pit them against 40,000 Maasai in Laikipia alone.

Michael Dyer says white farmers want dialogue and reconciliation.

"My feeling would be let's get everyone around the table and let's get some proper interpretation of the Maasai agreements, and let's start the process of reconciliation."

But Simon ole Kaparo says the time for dialogue is gone and the Maasai will not accept any deal short of the return of all their land.

"There will be no dialogue," he says.

"We didn't have any dialogue for 100 years, why should we have one now. We can't have any dialogue now because the leases have expired. We want our land back."

And so the century-old scramble for land and grass continues on Kenya's lush plains.

But perhaps all is not lost.

There is a strong feeling here - even among the white farmers - that the Maasai's sense of betrayal is justified.

So too is the feeling that if the land claims lead to more violence, both sides stand to lose a lot.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Maasai tribesmen tell of their land grievance



SEE ALSO:
Nairobi police disperse Maasai
24 Aug 04  |  Africa
From herds to hairdressing
24 Jun 03  |  Africa
Maasai strike animal balance
15 Jan 04  |  Africa
Cattle invade Kenya's capital
15 Aug 00  |  Africa


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