Indigenous Peoples In Kenya - An Overview
A PAPER PREPARED FOR MS (Danish Volunteer Organisation)
By Dr. Naomi Kipuri
P.O. BOX 24517,
"Indigenous people" is a concept we now often encounter in discussions on human rights,
democracy, political development and civil society. This has followed from the continuing and
deepening crisis if human suffering on a larger scale I the political, social, economic and
cultural field as well as human rights abuses. At the same time, there have been political
responses to colonial and post colonial pressures and political alienation of indigenous
peoples. In many parts of Africa people are looking for new perceptions and new solutions to
old problems and difficulties and taking part in the global discussion on indigenous rights
has become one of the strategies in the struggle for a just development.
B. The concept of Indigenous Peoples
This brief overview on indigenous peoples of Kenya is supposed to serve as a guideline in
defining, planning and prioritizing assistance to the poor, marginalised indigenous peoples
of Kenya. It was requested as a further elaboration of MS's development assistance to Kenya.
It begins by recalling definitions used to identify indigenous peoples in the world and in
Africa, then it assesses the "indigenousness" of those groups of people who have been
identified as indigenous in Kenya and their struggle for recognition and demands for fairness
and justice. There is also a brief discussion on the relevance of MS's policy on indigenous
peoples and a few points on strategies to be followed by potential donors in order to
alleviate the suffering of indigenous peoples in the region.
In a literal senses, the term "indigenous people" refers to the original inhabitants
of a given territory. This definition has accurately and usefully been adapted to refer to
the original inhabitants of the United States of America and Australasia. Following processes
of enslavement and colonisation the indigenous populations in these regions have been
marginalised, oppressed and denied certain rights that are assumed by the dominant groups
in the same territories.
C. Indigenous Peoples of Kenya
This definition is however, not useful for the puropses of identifying poor, marginalised and
oppressed peoples in all parts of the world. For this reason, an additional and broader
meaning has been attached to the word "indigenous" to take account of the experiences
of other people whose lives reflect similar experiences with those who have been identified as
indigenous peoples and who regard themselves as such.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) in its convention 107 refers to "members of
tribal and semi tribal populations in independent countries whose social and economic conditions
are at a less advanced state than the stage reached by other sections of the national
community". The definition of the World Bank emphasizes the geographical isolation and
non-monetized aspect of Indigenous Peoples. It "aims to facilitate development of tribes".
The broadening of the concept "indigenous" was development by concensus at the Tune
conference in Denmark in 1993 where the meaning of "indigenous" implies people
with strong ties to their land, who have been in their region since before colonization and are
now dominated by other peoples whose cultures are markedly different and who identify themselves
Following the Tune conference, the UN (the ILO convention NO. 169 and the Draft declaration
on the rights of Indigenous peoples) as well as the World Bank's interpretation, the following
definitional elements have emerged and have provided useful guidelines and orientations
indicating how the term could be applied in other parts of the world including Africa.
1. Indigenous peoples have a special attachment to land and territories.
2. They have a sense of shared ancestry and a right to self determination.
3. they have their won languages, cultures, spirituality and knowledge.
4. They have their own political, social and cultural institutions. These include customary law, consensual decision-making processes, community life and collective sharing.
5. Their lands and territories as well as cultural institutions are violated by states and global forces through acts of domination (Indigenous Affairs, 1995:4).
Such an orientation is most useful since it limits the definition to a number of peoples (but not
all) in many parts of the world. It will contrast with the earlier connotations that classified
almost all African peoples as indigenous (in a literal sense) or only very few, mostly
gathering-hunting communities, to connote the very first people in any given territory following
The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) report 9:993-94 recognised as
indigenous in Africa the nomads of Eastern Africa, the Pygmies in Central Africa, the hunting
gathering San of Southern Africa and the Basarwa of Botswana.
D. What has been done
In Kenya, as in the rest of the Africa, the literal meaning of indigenous peoples has not been
useful in the identification of poor vulnerable communities, since most Africans are indigenous
to Africa. However, the additional connotations attached to the definition of "indigenous"
have been quite useful. Following the Declaration of the UN year and Decade of Indigenous Peoples,
the term has been used first by outsiders and later by people who consider themselves marginalised,
oppressed and dominated by other in their won territories.
The experience in Kenya is that, initially the term has been used to mock those who were referring
to themselves as such. Restricting themselves to the literal meaning, the mockers (mostly from
the dominant communities) were asking "and where did we come from?" This is why many
marginalised communities had not found it useful to identify themselves as "indigenous",
except when dealing with people form outside the continent who had transcended the literal meaning.
Even then, they agreed with the fact that the problems they are faced with are quite similar
to those encountered by other indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. However, over
the last several years, through identification with the situation of other marginalised peoples,
an increasing number of peoples who see themselves as oppressed have started calling themselves
"indigenous" as a label of self identification. The mockery has also lessened as the
focus shifted from definitional terms to the actual politico-economic and social situation of
certain communities in the region. There are also opportunists (from dominant communities )
who use the term as a way of attracting donor support since the phrase has become catchy in
donor circles over the last several years.
In Kenya, as in the whole of Eastern Africa, people who are categorized as indigenous are the
nomadic and pastoral communities who comprise among other the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania,
Turkana, Borana, Samburu, Bendille, Somali and others. Although pastoralists are difficult
to represent accurately in official statistics since they are dispersed in a wide arid territory
with little or no communication network, they are suppose to number approximately 6 million people
(The Indigenous World, 1994-5). They subsist mainly on livestock - cattle, sheep, goats and
camels and reside in the southern, northern and north eastern parts of Kenya.
They constitute 25% of the country's population and occupy 88 % of the arid region of the
country. Geographically, the marginal status of the areas occupied by pastoralists are
identified by the allocations of a hardship allowance to administrative personnel posted to
work in those areas. The colonial connotation of Northern Frontier District typified this
concept of geographical isolation.
In Kenya, although 60% of the population live below the poverty datum line, and are marginalised,
the majority of those marginalised are nomadic/pastoralists. Not only are they economically
marginalised, buy the comprise a minority group which is not a part of the mainstream of
development, culturally socially and politically.
Besides being identified as indigenous by the United Nations, these people also see themselves as
marginalised economically, socially and politically. They see themselves as oppressed, dominated
and discriminated against by the state and by the more numerous agriculturalists. They perceive
development as not focusing on matters that would improve their own situation, but only that
of others. Because of cultural differences, remoteness from the centre of development, that
have found themselves marginalised from the main-stream of the economy. We shall recall some
of the broad definitional orientations of the term "indigenous" for the purpose of
assessing their relevance to the situation of Kenyan indigenous peoples.
1. Special attachment to the land and territories
In a situation with a low technological level, like that observed inmost parts of Africa,
livestock herders require large and ecologically variable grazing areas for optimal productivity.
The special attachment that they have to land, is therefore, the need for mobility during
different seasons, either as pure nomadic, as practised by northern pastoralists, or as
transhumant pastoralists, as practised by the Maasai in the Southern part of Kenya and
northern Tanzania. Mobility is necessary for the regeneration of the environment for
sustainable use and for optimum management of the herds. They feel especially attached to
the land because they depend on its resources for the survival of the herds and people, and
without it, they cannot survive especially since they do not also have the skills necessary
for survival outside the pastoral sector.
2. A sense of shared ancestry and a right to self determination
The reason they feel marginalised vis � vis land, and therefore identify with other
indigenous peoples, is because, in most cases, their best grazing and water catchment areas
have been alienated for other land uses and for use by others. Conflicts arise between extensive
land use systems (such as pastoralism, hunting and gathering) and other systems.
Forced relocation, plundering of resources, destruction of the natural environment, etc. Are
familiar stories to pastoralists. A common occurrence in Kenya is the eviction of indigenous
peoples from their territories in the name of management of those resources by the state.
However, the destruction of forests and water catchment areas that are critical for the survival
of pastoralists and their herds, point to the ineffectiveness of the government management
mechanism. Many times the President "discovers" the destruction going on in forests and
castigates forest officers for their laxity and involvement in logging and over-exploitation
of forests products.
While this is going on many indigenous people are denied the right to harvest subsistence resources
such as fuel-wood, water, wildlife products, and medicinal plants, which they used to utilize
without destroying the forests or the environment. This not only denies pastoralists items that
are necessary for their every-day life, it also seriously undermines the productivity of
pastoralism as an economic system, and the ability of pastoralists to feed themselves.
The consequences have been serious famines resulting with decimation of herds and frequent
human deaths. Such disasters are often brought about many a time by the politico-economic
policies that disregard sustainable use of critical environmental resources as had been
observed over many generations by indigenous peoples. The denial of dry wood for fuel
in the absence of any alternative, or the denial of medicinal plants in the absence of
a dispensary, all amount to a denial of a right of existence.
Some examples of land loss include the alienation of the best Maasai grazing areas by the
colonial government and a continuation of the same policy by subsequent administration.
At present, at least 90% of protected areas such as national parks, wildlife reserves,
gazetted forests, etc. have been curved out of the best grazing areas of one pastoral group
or another. The sprawling Maasai Mara including Serengeti in Tazania, (the largest national
park in the world) Amoseli, Marsabit, Samburu and Turkana National Reserves, and others were
all the better endowed pastoral grazing areas.
Eighty percent of Samburu District has been protected by the State as game park or forest reserve
and the reminder 20% is shared with wildlife, 60% of which is outside the designated park or
forest areas most of the year. Utilization by pastoralists of any protected area during
difficult drought conditions has to be negotiated with the relevant authorities, who deny
them use, imposing fines on those found "poaching" and more serious actions have been taken
against indigenous peoples trying to utilize territories they used to utilize freely and
sustainably. Law enforcement officers take advantage of the ignorance of indigenous peoples
on matters relating to their rights, to such an extent that they are a law unto themselves.
It is common knowledge that the further away people live from the centre of administration,
the more likely they are to have their rights flaunted by the local administration. Illegal
arrests by wildlife park and forest officials are common and defence provided within statutory
law is inaccessible for those who are not adequately literate to access it.
Highlands of Nairobi and the outlying areas used to be dry-season grazing for the Maasai, but they
now have to negotiate the sue of open spaces for grazing livestock during drought conditions with
the present owners.
At the same time, the allocation of land and plots in all areas is done centrally by Ministry
of lands officials who often allocate them to themselves and their friends such that
indigenous peoples do not own plats in their own urban centres. The last time we visited
Lodwar town no Turkana owns a plot since none of them are represented in the Ministry of
Lands. The same is true of many urban centres in Kajiado District.
Thus, economic marginalisation of pastoralists is evidenced by alienation of land for other
economic activities that are deemed to be more productive. This is coupled by a devaluation
of their contribution to the national economy. The bulk of the profits from tourism derive
from pastoral areas and so is the meat consumed in all the urban centres of the republic.
Yet pastoralists are often castigated by officials of the state for contributing nothing to
the national economy.
It is often said that when Northern Kenyan pastoralists go to Nairobi, they say that they
are going to Kenya. This is because they are so far removed, physically, culturally and
politically, it is as though they are in another country altogether. What goes on in Nairobi
is so alien to them and to other indigenous peoples who live in remote parts of the countries
in which the are supposed to belong. What they have in common is shared ancestry among themselves
and this is disregarded by the states within which they have found themselves.
3. Have their own languages, cultures, spirituality and knowledge
While the national and official languages - Kiswahili and English respectively - exists
in Kenya, few pastoralists speak them. This is because of a combination of factors, relating
to a poor education system where they get untrained or poorly trained teachers, lack of teaching
equipment and other educational facilities. It is common practice for poor teachers and those
being disciplined to be sent to remote areas occupied by indigenous pastoral communities. Such
teachers do not do their work but since they receive supervision, they continue to receive salaries
and their pupils end up not learning. This is partly how they end up not being taught the
languages and basic skills of the rest of the country. Distances to schools as well as the
irrelevance of the curricula also contribute to the lack of effectiveness in the school system.
4. Have their own political, social and cultural institution -e.g. Customary law, consensual decision making processes, community life and collective sharing.
This situation notwithstanding, officials of the state address public meetings often in Kiswahili
and often with a few sentences in English. In so doing, those who do not understand the medium
of communication are left un-informed and not fully participating in the affairs of the state,
and so don not feel a part of it.
Visible culture in Kenya is displayed by pastoralists. The mode of dress, knowledge of the
environment, the retention of indigenous political and social institution, religious ides,
and the like. In a country like Kenya that depends a great deal on tourism as an important
foreign exchange earner (number one), culture is something she needs to sell to tourists for
display at the airports, in hotels frequented by tourists as "state of the art" and even at
state house. Dances performed by pastoralists in these hotels will raise the value of what they
offer and make them popular spots. Paradoxically, these are places indigenous peoples cannot
afford to spend their leisure time even though these places are enriched by their culture.
Because they have retained their cultures, indigenous people are looked down upon by the dominant
communities who have perhaps from pressure, adopted western styles of dress for which they feel
Some of these institutions have served indigenous peoples well over the year, to govern tenure
and use of resources and to regulate human interaction. Although some exist in an attenuated form,
little has been developed nationally to replace these institutions or to play the roles they were
meant to perform. Customary law will exist in Kenya but as a junior partner to conventional law
since its application is only possible as long as it is not in contradiction with statutory law.
Although the Kenyan constitution provides for equal protection under the law, in effect, due to
prejudice against pastoralists, equal access to and use of the legal system is an impossibility.
5. Cultural institutions are violated by states and global forces through acts of domination:
In a area where democratization is being developed, indigenous consensual decision-making processes
are still being practised locally by many indigenous peoples in isolated corners of the country
as part of their cultural heritage to resolve issues and reduce conflicts. These are often set
aside and replaced with systems that are neither democratic nor locally sustainable. Were it
not for the ideological resistance against indigenous ideas and peoples, some of their institutions
perhaps would form an important part of any discussion on what Africa could offer in terms of
Although colonialism ended over 30 years ago in Africa, the socio-economic, cultural and
political acts of domination that are presently oppressive to many indigenous peoples are derived
form the colonial past, imbibed, upheld and perpetuated by the educated elite. Some of these acts
bring about a lack of recognition of status.
Post-colonial Kenya is characterized by a struggle to create uniformity and deny differences.
When discussing the issue of indigenous peoples and rights pertaining to them, the argument of
tribalism often comes up. This is why discussion of indigenous rights is met with arguments
suggesting a revival of unwanted tribalism. To this end, the recognition of status that is
different from the mainstream is interpreted as an allowance of "tribalism". Following
colonization, Africa has often opted for open democratic parties shaped after a western model,
rather than a situation where common interests are organised by tribal unity.
Yet in Kenya, differences are acknowledged and somewhat tolerated to a point since administrative
districts are often named and represented along ethnic lines. We talk of Kikuyu, Nandi, Samburu,
Turkana Districts, etc. giving the impression that common interests of all will be represented
equally within the national umbrella. But the interests of the minority indigenous peoples
isolated in remote parts of the country are suppressed in the interest on national unity.
In this way, the visible differences and interests displayed by many indigenous peoples are
caricatured as though they have no right to be different. This threatens their cultural
survival as themselves.
As a result of discrimination and domination, many indigenous peoples are outnumbered in their
own areas to such an extent that they are unable to communicate in their own languages, practice
their own religion and display their own cultures. This is perhaps best observed in Maasai
Districts where Migration of agriculturalists is so high that even funeral sermons take place
in Kikuyu or Kiswahili, languages that are not understood by the majority of Maasai. When they
try not to peak in their language the dominant communities force them to speak in a lnugage the
(outsiders) understand. When they try to do so, they are unable to articulate themselves
adequately, their accents are different and they are then made fun of. This is made worse
when those who represent them in parliament are from other communities, do not speak their
language nor understand their culture and development concerns. This amounts to a denial of their
status, a right for them to be Maasai and to be represented within the state structure, and a
denial of self determination. Because of displacement and domination, few Maasai children now
speak Maa (the language of the Maasai).
The water from Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kajiado District provides another example. The water flows
across some dry plains to the President's export flower garden in Athi River, to Machakos
District and a little is pumped back to the Maasai in Kajiado. It is common knowledge that
if there is one resource that the Maasai lack it is water and it is hardly possible that,
were they to be involved in development planning, that they would choose a development initiative
that would deny them this vital resource. In bother cases "development" has meant development
for others, not for indigenous peoples, In this way, indigenous peoples of Kenya have remained
marginalized and their livelihoods are threatened.
Ever since the declaration of the international year (1993) and later decade for indigenous
peoples much discussion has taken place on the subject. A handful of African indigenous
peoples have attended international fora and have formed small NGOs to address their problems.
E. What Action Plan is needed for Indigenous Peoples
However, they are still few, rather weak and do not encompass all indigenous communities.
At the same time, their organizational skills are limited and they have not formed co-ordinating
umbrella bodies. While a few individuals have attended international conferences on indigenous
peoples, they do not attend consistently or in any systematic way, usually because of lack of
funds. This results in poor representation and a lack of expertise on how to organize, associate
with others and press for their cases. There is also little networking among the various
indigenous groups and on African regional indigenous network or organization as exist in the
case of Asia and Latin America.
Additionally, some NGOs using the name "indigenous" have no focused agenda; they have
no programme activities and if they do, they are not comprehensive enough to target issues that
are critical and of concern to indigenous peoples in their territories. Yet others are ad-hoc
intermediary groups that have developed without involving indigenous people, and therefore, are
not committed to their cause and do not represent them or their views.
The problem of indigenous peoples in Africa is exacerbated by the fact that they are not
recognised as indigenous peoples by the states in which the are a part. Despite the situation
described above, when the question of indigenous peoples is raised in international fora,
officials of African states are always quick to state that "in Africa we are all
indigenous". In stating so they are deliberately using the more literal connotation of
"indigenous" in order to gloss over inequities that their governments have perpetuated
in their respective countries and which have continued to marginalize and oppress certain
categories of people in these regions. Interestingly, the same claim is used by scholars,
researchers and even lawyers form the more dominant groups in similar fora to achieve the
same ends, and to make it difficult for indigenous peoples to make any progress.
When designing a strategy for the support of indigenous peoples in Africa, the following ides
might be of help:
- Fully understand the situation of indigenous peoples and their endeavors. Perhaps a thorough analysis of each situation will give a clearer picture of who the most vulnerable groups are, what makes them vulnerable and what assistance would reduce their vulnerability.
- Improving the livelihoods of indigenous peoples by supporting their production systems. For pastoralist, this involves the support of the livestock economy on which over 80% of pastoralists derive their livelihoods and basic needs.
- Draw up strategies on how to influence governments, other donors and international institutions to take indigenous issues in the region into consideration. This must involve some change in policy, direction and trends in "development". While conditionally has not been the best approach to influencing policy, some form of encouragement is needed to gear African governments toward taking indigenous people' concerns into consideration.
- Facilitate meetings, discussions and exchange of ideas, experiences and strategies among and between indigenous peoples within the region and in Africa
- Facilitate the participation of African indigenous peoples in important international fora.
- Increase support that enables them to obtain dialogue with government.
- Give special consideration to issues that are special concern to indigenous women since these are bound to be disregarded even by indigenous men.
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