Since the doctors’ strike took a break, nothing has brought my heart such sorrow as the violence in Laikipia. My interest was sparked by a bus ride with a student who showed me pictures of tortured children and of animals shot dead, and who narrated, sometimes in tears, the agony of Kenyans suffering there. He is the one who challenged me to seek John Mbaria and Mordechai Ogada’s book The Big Conservation Lie, which has in turn led me to articles and lectures on conservation and pastoralism (which I shall list at the end of this post).
The second upsetting dimension, which is related to the first, is that we accept the single narrative of human-wildlife conflict because of the racist narrative that has accompanied the Maasai for the longest time. We Africans, who should know better, accept the narrative because we have internalized stereotypes about the Maasai that are essentially racist stereotypes about all of us. We have believed that Africans are the worst enemy of wildlife, and so we need Europeans - the ones who decimated our wildlife during colonial rule - to save wildlife from us. But as Rasnah Warah asked, would Europeans have found wildlife to conserve if we were so destructive?
The third, and for me the most upsetting dimension for me, is our archaic, colonial values that have exploded since a son of Kenya’s richest landowning family became president. That dimension hit a raw nerve a few days ago, when I saw an advert by Diamond Property Merchants. The ad essentially invited Kenyans to buy land as an investment.
We would be naïve as Kenyans if we did not see the connection between this celebration of buying land and making money from renting it to a company, and what is happening in Laikipia and much of northern Kenya. The problem of Laikipia is essentially one of land use. How can one justify less than 50 families owning almost half a county, and enjoying such rights that indigenous people cannot graze on the land without the owners’ permission? Of course, the response has traditionally been that the white landowners are so generous to allow access to pastoralists to graze on that land. But there is something inherently wrong with local people so alienated from determining how land must be used, that they need to seek permission to graze their animals.
But the other issue with this conservancy economy is that the richest are those who earn from what they did not create, namely from nature. The pastoralists, on the other hand, work year in, year out, looking for pasture and selling their herds, but their work results in no schools, no hospitals, no infrastructure, no security, no butcheries or any other industries close to home that would naturally accrue from societal growth. Instead of having access to social services by the mere fact that they are citizens of Kenya, they receive social services as gifts from conservancies, gifts which are hopelessly inadequate for the community. In the place of social services, the government provides insurance.
The conservancies, on the other hand, receive nothing less than KDF (not even the police) as security. To cap it all, they also get a visit from the British Foreign Secretary, as well as publicity from a battalion of local and foreign press.
Fifty years plus after independence, with population growth, climate change and yes, democracy, we cannot afford this unjust land economic structure any more. With all the money we have invested in education by now, communities and experts could have invented ways of making pastoralism economically rewarding without necessarily giving up our heritage and culture. We should have had a properly funded, African-environmentalist heading a KWS that would take care of wildlife on behalf of the people of Kenya; not on behalf of tourists.
But that’s the thing – when a country is ruled by landowners, there is no incentive to run an economy that is not based on natural resources. And that is because those landowners are wealthy and powerful from selling what they did not create, and therefore from producing nothing. Yet, as Frantz Fanon warned us in The Wretched of the Earth, African nations can grow and have equity only if they invest in "the brains and muscles" of their people, meaning that we can only develop on our ideas and our work. Land, on the other hand, is God's work, not ours.
Having wealthy landlords who have created nothing also means that the primary commodity they have to sell is patronage. And as we see in Laikipia, and from decades of battles on land, including 1992 in Molo and 2007-2008 post-election violence, having bought land or being indigenous to an area is no guarantee that your claim to a right to live in and use a physical space will be respected. Your survival depends on patronage and on the hope that minerals will never be discovered near where you live, or that a city will not emerge near you, or that a politician will be suspicious that you will not vote for him.
And in the unfortunate, but very likely event that that a politician covets your land, you will become Naboth accused by the king of anything from being the pawns of incitement, lacking business values, or engaged in human-wildlife conflict. And when your communities are killed and chased off the land as is happening to pastoralists, there will be no Elijah to admonish the king on your behalf. As we know, Elijahs are practically non-existent in the Kenyan church.
Therefore, and not surprisingly, tribalism has become even more vicious. After all, if you can become so valueless that the very space you occupy must belong to someone who can make money from it, you might as well pledge loyalty to a landlord from your tribe, since he at least owes loyalty to your common ancestors.
Feudal patronage has also meant a government that increasingly punishes any rise in social status independent of patronage, like professionalism, invention, and education, because such a rise is a threat to power. And so we see the increasing ridicule of education as mere papers that get you nowhere, which is directly related to the pandemic of academic cheating which has now become a Kenyan export. Meanwhile, the government proposes censorship bills to punish anything creative, and slaps VAT on books. If you invent anything mechanical, your prototype is welcomed with a visit from KRA and threats from a politician. The government employs Chinese engineers while Kenyan ones are forced to hustle. Public services undergo privatization, and as we see with Bridge Academies and the long doctors’ strike, the opinions and skills of professionals are treated like trash. The professionals who try to move the country forward are tortured, detained or frustrated enough to work in the West, which our government celebrates every year as revenue from remittances.
The most important thing for Kenyans to do in this election is to vote out leaders whose rise to power is an accident of birth and the reward of wealth and power attached to land. But more than that, we need the original, biblical Jubilee. We need all land and the wildlife living in it to be returned to the people of Kenya. We also want a system that values the work of pastoralists and the ecological knowledge of the local communities. Apart from protecting the environment, pastoralists are providing food to their families, but instead of getting recognized and thanked for their service to humanity, they are treated even worse than the wildlife in whose name the government and its foreign masters speak.
As long as Kenya is ruled by people who value the land on which pastoralists graze their animals more than they value the pastoralists and animals themselves, the pastoralists and their animals will always be subjected to cycles of the humiliation that are now being suffered in Laikipia.
And nowhere in history do people accept to suffer forever.
*My gratitude goes to Lemanyishoe Lemaa Abraham, Mordechai Ogada, Parselelo Kantai and John Mbaria for patiently answering my questions as I drafted this post.
Webliography on conservation
Discussion of the racist dimensions of conservation economy and knowledge production:
John Mbaria, A Conspiracy in the wild (the reception of this article in the New African was polarized on both sides)
Dr. Mordechai Ogada, lecture on The Big conservation lie
Dr Mordechai Ogada, "Conservation colonialism"
Facebook page on The Big conservation lie
Parselelo Kantai, "In the grip of the Vampire State: Maasai land struggles in Kenyan Politics," an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Eastern African Studies
Gloria Kendi Borona, “Saving Africa from Africans”: A conversation about conservation in Africa 2.0," [Blog]
M.L. van den Akker, "Monument of nature? An ethnography of the world heritage of Mt. Kenya." (PhD Dissertation, University of Leiden)
Following the money: Articles in the press which reveal the profit and political interests in conservation:
Muchiri Gitonga, Laikipia crisis slows efforts to reclaim European beef market (Daily Nation)
Kenyan farmers to benefit from innovative insurance program (World Bank)
Successful Kenya Livestock Insurance Program scheme scales up (Swiss Re)
Security forces shoot 500 cows in Laikipia as herders protest (Standard Media)