The Maasai and the Mercedes Men

A fraudulent privatisation project is reducing the Maasai to little more than tourist dancers

By George Monbiot. Published in the Financial Times 19th November 1994.

Samson was tottering. As a senior elder, he was one of the men responsible for blessing the community, and the more honey beer he drank, the stronger his blessing was deemed to be. He had gone beyond the call of duty. Gaunt as a scarecrow, with mad red eyes, he staggered into my hut, demanded for the third time that day to know who I was, announced that he was a polygamist and a blaspheming heathen and collapsed onto my bed. A few minutes later he sat up.

“This is the end for us and the end for everyone. The Maasai are finished.” He fell back and immediately began to snore.

Samson was right on all counts. He is both a polygamist and a blaspheming heathen and, as such, is the last in his line. The ceremony over which he had just presided had, in effect, brought his own community to an end. Throughout Maasailand, traditional life is closing down so swiftly that, some researchers claim, Africa’s most famous surviving nomads will be reduced to little more than tourist dancers within the next two years. The Maasai, who once made their living by driving their cattle great distances across the savannahs, are suffering a land privatization so flawed and so fraudulent that it has brought most of their 400,000 people to the brink of destitution.

Their catastrophe began, as most African catastrophes begin, with good intentions. Running down lions and killing them with spears, fighting other tribes and other sections of their own tribe, stealing cattle and wives, refusing to till the ground, the Maasai, who had overrun half of what is now Kenya, were regarded by the first British officials as the antithesis of all they sought to implant.

The administrators believed that East Africa would not become a God-fearing and productive land until the Maasai were settled. At the beginning of this century they confined them to just ten per cent of the savannahs they once occupied, then set to work to change the way they lived.

To the Maasai, the land was not theirs but God’s. Elders would claim rights to use certain places, but there was no outright ownership. The British saw this as a prescription for disaster. They argued that if no one owned the land, everyone would exploit it as heavily as he could. Only by making every herder responsible for his own patch could they prevent it from being destroyed.

The British left Kenya before they managed to settle the Maasai. But, though the tribe was no longer a threat to other peoples, the Independent Kenyan government upheld the policy, reasoning that nomadism was primitive and unproductive. Recognizing that the Maasai would not accept the outright privatization of their lands it started, in 1968, with an intermediate stage, putting every community in charge of what it called a group ranch. A small committee of elders was selected to manage each one.

Wherever external appointments have been imposed on self-governing people, the newly powerful exploit their own communities, and the group ranch committees were not slow to discover that they could do just as they wished. They started to grab the best land for themselves, excluding the rest of the Maasai. Soon the ordinary people realized that if they too did not seize some land, the greedy committee members would take the lot. The chaotic and inequitable division of the savannahs that began in this way is now approaching completion. It is destroying everything that distinguished the Maasai as a people.

Over the last two years I have watched Samson’s community falling apart. In Enkaroni, close to the Kenyan border with Tanzania, I followed the passing-out ceremonies of the last warriors ever to be initiated. After six months of festivities, they were dancing in a huddle of red ochre and beads when Samson sent a man running towards them, carrying the horn of a kudu antelope. He brought it to his mouth and blew four loud blasts.

Screaming, the warriors scattered. Four or five lost consciousness and lay drumming their heels on the ground like the last spasms of the dead. They had, one of them later told me, been overcome with grief and anger. The sound, which traditionally brought their youth to an end, had also dissolved the community, for warriors are the axis of Maasai life.

But the fury that all the young men felt was unfocussed: they told me they were not angry with anyone in particular, simply with the situation. This was scarcely surprising, as the men who had sold them down the river were some of the elders they had always been required to respect.

When the committee members had awarded themselves the best land, the other people of Enkaroni had complained to the government. They were told that the only option was to divide their ranch formally into inalienable private farms.

But when, in 1987, the subdivision began, the villagers found that the government recognized only the decisions of the committee members. Instead of splitting the land equally, these people took even more for themselves. One member bribed the others to let him have 4000 acres; some ordinary Maasai received as little as ten, and hundreds were left out altogether.

Travelling around Enkaroni, it is not hard to discover where the committee members live. Red-tiled ranch houses have sprung from the savannahs, with new Landcruisers or Mercedes parked beside them.

Traditionally the richest Maasai would distribute some of their wealth to the poor, knowing that if, in this volatile environment, the tables were turned, they could depend on the same generosity themselves. But these Mercedes men, the wabenzi as they are known in Kenya, no longer need the old support networks, and feel they owe nothing to anyone. The rich people of Enkaroni are becoming permanently rich and the poor permanently poor.

The division of the land has forced the Maasai to split into hitherto unknown nuclear families. In a wind-stricken patch of thorn scrub Tepeney, the mother of one of the warriors, complained that no one came to visit her. Before subdivision, people had arrived throughout the day, to exchange news, take a cup of tea or ask for a loan. Now, she told me, it was every family for itself, and she felt so lonely she sometimes believed she was the last person left on earth. Yet she is among the more fortunate smallholders for, seven years after the land was privatized, she still owns a dozen cows.

Nomadism evolved in East Africa because, during the dry seasons, the customary pastures shrivel up, and the animals can only survive by migrating to wetter places. Trapped on one plot, the cattle on many of the private farms of Enkaroni died soon after the rains moved on. Their owners had to sell up and look for work.

They were woefully unprepared. Most were illiterate and spoke only Maasai. The wabenzi needed little labour, so the dispossessed moved to the towns.

In Kajiado, a small town fifteen miles from Enkaroni, I found a handful of Maasai who had used the money from the sale of their land to buy small businesses, and hundreds who had no idea what to do with it. Every bar was filled with men in red cloaks, with hoarse voices and shining eyes. Young men, deprived of their role as guardians of the livestock, wandered the streets at night, mugging people and breaking into shops. Government ministers sent lorries, ferrying them to political rallies to beat up their opponents.

When their money runs out, many of the Maasai of Kajiado move north, seeking work in Nairobi. They sink into slums like Kibera, where as many people live in two square miles as in all of Maasailand, and one in forty has a formal job.

Looking back over the history of the Maasai, it appears that the British administrators misunderstood how they used their land. The lack of outright ownership did not mean that the savannahs were uncontrolled. Every group of elders regulated the areas they grazed: they decided who should be allowed in and for how long. If people abused the land they were punished, for the elders knew that anyone over-exploiting it was exploiting them. Widespread destruction began only when the Maasai were settled.

That there will never be sufficient employment even for those already living in the cities is now axiomatic in Kenya. As the approaching completion of privatization coincides with a population boom, the effects of destitution will be catastrophic. In 1994, for the first time in thirty years, Maasai herders starved to death in southern Kenya.

Yet, as the Maasai wobble, the government continues to shove. In a quiet grove of fever trees beneath the Ngong Hills, I began to find out why.

I met “Amos” crouching between two trees. He told me he did not know who he had offended, but every time he showed his face he was arrested on public order charges. He was one of 2700 people in the community of Loodariak who had been left off the registry when the land was divided. Their places had been taken by 200 outsiders, registered as members of the community even though many of them had never set foot there.

The people of Loodariak had petitioned officials at every level of government, even waiting outside State House to waylay the President, but no one would listen. They pooled all their money and hired a lawyer, but the High Court refused to hear their case. Now, Amos told me, they were left with just one option.

“Let these people come. Let them come and say ‘this is our land.’ We are ready for them. We are going to kill people here.”

The failure of the authorities even to acknowledge what was happening began to make sense when, with the help of certain inducements, I was able to extract the lands registry from a dusty office in Kajiado. Among the new owners of Loodariak’s territory I found the associates of some of Kenya’s most powerful people. Alongside the Vice-President’s personal assistant and Richard Leakey’s brother Philip, was the maiden name of the wife of the Minister of Land, Mr Darius Mbela.

Mysterious manifestations of his wife’s name had already caused problems for Mr Mbela. In 1991 he had almost been forced to resign when it was found on the neighbouring community’s registry. Mr Mbela had claimed that she bought the land, but lawyers uncovered memoranda he had signed naming people he wanted included on the list.

I visited Mr Mbela – now Minister of Water – in a weather-stained block in Nairobi. He answered my general questions about privatization with affability, but when I turned to the case of Loodariak he became strangely terse. He told me that his ministry was not responsible for the allocations, that he knew nothing about his wife’s registration, and the situation of Loodariak was sub-judice and he did not wish to discuss it.

In Loodariak the new owners appear to be waiting for the price of their land to rise before selling it on, but in the Rift Valley in western Maasailand they have set to work to make it pay. Here the rainfall is just sufficient, in good years, to allow them to plant wheat.

Beside the road from Nairobi to Narok I watched a tractor towing a plough through the grass sward. The savannah flowers, the many hundreds of grass species, rolled over to expose clean slabs of earth. For twenty miles I saw neither a house nor a human being, simply a sea of churned soil. Some of the wabenzi here had seized as much as 30,000 acres. The ordinary Maasai were each left with insufficient land to graze one cow. They could do nothing with these plots but lease them for a pittance to the people who had taken the rest.

The soils here are shallow and fragile. After three or years the farmers abandon them. Recovery, if it happens at all, will take forty or fifty years. Scanning the bleak horizon, I wondered where all the people had gone. The answer came sooner and louder than I could have guessed.

Driving into Narok I saw a crowd leaning over the bridge, staring across the basin of the river. The houses below them appeared to have exploded. Cars were tangled in the branches of the bankside trees. A tree trunk transfixed two walls of a shop.

The storm the evening before had been no worse than many that fell on Narok, but soon after it broke the people heard a rumble in the surrounding hills, and a wall of filthy water roared into town. Everything in its path was swept away. Thirty-two bodies were found hanging from the branches of the trees or rammed into the riverbank.

The Maasai pushed out of their pastures by the wheat farms had nowhere to turn to but land too steep for the tractors to plough. With their livestock and the displaced wildlife they crowded into the hilltop forests, consuming the vegetation and compacting the soil. The rain had flashed off the indurated ground. It brought to the people of Narok a final roar of despair, as the nomads reached the end of their migrations.