Honey Gathering Peoples of the High Hills
This is a story about a different kind of community, one in the Global South. A different kind of community to the ones we are working in in the Global North as we try to build resilience before the economic and ecological dam breaks completely.
Or is it really such a different community, and such a different situation?
Is establishing community, and in particular a community’s rights to land, not going to have been as crucial a process for those of us in the Global North as it is now for those in the Global South?
When the price of oil sky-rockets and the wheels really come off the global environment-smashing economy, will we have established our rights to land and the rough beginnings of community need-meeting structures (including the need to resolve conflicts and disputes)?
Will we find ourselves, as ever, up against those asserting their power to grab and hold onto diminishing resources, or will they seek to melt into the need meeting structures we will have begun to (and are beginning to) create? Doubtless some will go one way and some another, and in relation to this I find the story of Mubarek’s Generals pretty instructive.
The story goes that they had to decide whether to back the people and help oust Mubarek, or back Mubarek and order their soldiers to shoot the protestors.
It wasn’t a moral question, it was a question of what would the soldiers do?
Would they obey the order to shoot, or would they disobey and reveal the truth that at the end of the day it is the people who do the work (whether soldiers or protestors, teachers or street cleaners) not the elite and the Generals, who decide.
They decided that to hold onto their power, to not reveal that truth, they had no choice but to side with the protest and the people. Perhaps the extent to which radical change happens depends on the extent to which people know and act on this truth.
. . . . . . .
I’m in Kenya. I’ve been working in the Western Highlands, and have now reached the island of Lamu where i hope to work with a different group of highly marginalised hunter-gatherers. I took the chance of a momentary lull to sketch how the last few days have gone.
So – if you have a moment and the inclination – I’ll begin . . .
The day before the day before yesterday: we drove along the sharp ridges of steep mountains here on a western edge of the Rift Valley.
We passed through forests where monkeys speed off the road, hillsides where cattle roam, past thatched mud houses, bamboo fences round plots of maize, clusters of kids playing, adults talking, glowing yellow orange fires starting to dot the landscape as dusk falls.
The next day we walked in to see a Sengwar community living in one of their five forest glades. Although it is their land, it has been officially taken from them by the Kenyan Forestry Service who every year come and burn their thatched round mud houses to try and force them out. As always, there is such good humour, joking and friendliness amongst the seriousness of the situation.
Then yesterday we tried for a second time to reach the Ogiek of Mount Elgon (the forest guards having refused us entry a few days earlier, and threatening to shoot the land rovers tyres when we tried to bypass them). We headed for a different track up the mountain to avoid the forest guards and had some difficulties: first on the fast dirt road the land rover hit a water carrying cart pulled by a donkey and went carriering off the road (all fine – including donkey!); then the steep mountain track through beautiful high open forest often proved almost impassable; then this was followed by the engine giving in and us walking the last length while the driver turned into a mechanic and set about taking the land rover apart – an old enough model that it can be fixed by a man on a mountainside – with the right tools and the right skills.
It is a stunning place high up above the world. Big open volcanic plateau with forest just below and then mixed open and forest land on ever rising hillsides becoming mountains as they ascend towards Mount Elgon itself.
We shared delicious hot chai tea sitting on low wooden chairs round the embers in the hearth, in a smoke tasting hut beneath the thatch, with slight gaps in the mud wall where sunlight comes in; the light from the low doorway shining on smiling faces, serious conversation lightened to laughter by a drunk man!
An elder of the Sengwar community was with me. He’d visited the Ogiek here only twice before, and he and Fred Matei exchanged stories of their peoples origins, including a story of Kemala, the ancestor of the Sengwar on the eastern side who walked out of the forest and saw the moon for the first time and shot at it with arrows thinking it wads wild animal.
Another story of the ancestors was of a time when there was great hunger and calamity. Two brothers took their people To different parts of the forest and promised to light fires so that the smoke would let the others know they were still alive. They lit fires in a sort of cactus and the smoke billowed out of the top. They met again and there were great celebrations. Lighting ritual fires to be cleansed in the smoke of a specially hard tree, and ensuring that the smoke rises up and reaches the ancestors, is done whenever help is seriously needed.
Then we walked out of the welcome shade and darkness of the hut, out past the little gangplank that leads up to the hut where the sheep sleep at night, past the little area cleared and planted with potatoes, some carrots, spinach and onions, and fenced in from the few cattle on which they rely for subsistence. (We had passed many trees on the way up where they had gathered honey – the other key food).
A woman elder wearing a simple head dress and ritual objects collars me, holding my wrist in a tight grip and, together with the purple shirted drunk man, leads me intensely on to somewhere.
Soon I am dancing with women and men in a series of songs and circling and leaping: the drunk man edging me on to greater heights! The meeting follows with well over a hundred folk, old and young, and more women than men.
Their everyday needs are for more food, education and a clinic. Despite it being their land, it has been taken from them and they are not allowed to build a school or clinic. Ill people have to be carried down the long hill by donkey, cars and motor bikes are stopped by the askari (the forest guards) from coming up to fetch them.
They have made a school themselves for 150 P1-7 kids in the open and in a huge UN White tent the Red Cross gave them after they had been attacked by more powerful neighbours whipped up by politicians last year, followed by the Kenyan Forestry Service burning all their homes down and taking their cattle.
It is a serious and urgent situation which is going to need a response at many levels.
They retreated back up here from where they had been forcibly resettled in a densely populated area down in the Lowland. They were forced to go down, their cattle being shot, and were given small plots alongside dominant groups who hate and despise them. Then the dominant group turned on them and people were killed.
After retreating back up to their land where they were forbidden to be they were attacked again last year, but this time it was in their own territory and, though greatly outnumbered by people with guns, they came down to fight them in their forest between the lowland and their highland, and had no problem defeating them with arrows.
While they had been away from their land, elephant numbers on Mount Elgon had dropped to only 50 – a precarious level – as poachers with machine guns took advantage of the Ogiek’s absence to gun down elephants for ivory. Within a few years of their return elephants numbered closer to 300. Elephants giving birth to twins being seen as their way of restoring their numbers now that the Ogiek were back and keen to alert the Kenyan Wildlife Service (with whom they are on good terms, unlike the hated Kenyan Forestry Service) whenever someone came to their land with bad intent.
I feel honoured be with the Sengwer (the honey people of the forest glades) and the Ogiek (honey people of Mt Elgon).
Hopefully it will be worth their having shared their stories, but that depends on what We can do next.
That was the mountains, now for the island.