- Modern life has not been kind to a people who know no existence outside forests
The journey to get a wife among the Ogiek begins under cover of darkness. As the first bees leave their hives in search of fresh nectar, the engagement party leaves home in pursuit of the bride. Their sole aim is to reach their destination before sunrise.
Tradition demands that the travelling party meet no one along the way. This, they say, would invite bad luck since it is not uncommon for a stranger to dispatch an evil spirit to trail the suitors and ensure their mission fails.
The party carries a beehive, an axe, a bow and the most priced item of dowry — two hunting dogs — without which no future father-in-law would raise his gaze from the rolling hills around his homestead and direct it at the suitor. The marriage dance cannot begin until he sees the dogs.
A 1907 British colonial map identifies the home of the Ogiek (The Protectors) as part of Nandi country surrounded by a number of other communities.
According to the map, the Ogiek, referred to as the Dorobo (a derogatory term meaning those with nothing) lived in “forest and difficult” country where the map says they cohabited with other “Devils”.
They were surrounded by ‘‘the Tuken to the south, the Keiyo and Maasai to the north, and the Tiriki and the Kabarasi to the west’’. To their east lay virgin forests which they claimed to be their home. The same document gazetted Kipkurere Forest as an Ogiek reserve.
For centuries their hunter-gatherer lifestyle went uninterrupted as the rest of the world moved on. However, they could not hold on to their paradise forever.
“Since the white man came things have never been the same,” said arap Aisenei. “They came and cut down our trees. Each time they did that, we had to move deeper into the forests.”
Things got worse after independence in 1963. Factories like Panpaper, Timsales and Raiply were given concessions to cut down the indigenous trees in the forest and replace them with exotic species.
Eventually, even the forest cover became inadequate to preserve their way of life, and they were accused of being a hindrance to the preservation of the forests — their homes.
Although he does not know exactly how old he is, arap Aisenei said he was here before the white man came, he was here when the British left, and he has been here to feel the might of governments past and present. He knows this through constant evictions.
The journey to Ndururo Ogiek camp takes roughly an hour from Nandi Hills town through the tea estates of Kaboswa, Siret, Kipkoimet, Kapsumbeiywo and Kibabet where the tarmac comes to an end and the journey continues on murram tea estate roads.
Ndururo village is on a stretch of dirt road that not only serves as an access point but also as the border between private property and Kipkurere Forest from which the Ndururo Ogiek were evicted in 1987.
Traditionally, the Ogiek made their houses from morobit, an indigenous tree they say had so much undergrowth around it that respective families cleared part of the undergrowth to create rooms.
Enock Keino, an elder among them, says some morobit had such thick undergrowth that as many as seven “rooms” could be created from it.
“The vegetation was so dense that even during the fiercest of storms, rain water would not filter through,” Keino said. If that is the case, then age has not been kind to them.
They moved from living in thickets to thatched houses measuring about six feet by six feet. The roofs of some of the huts have gaping holes that would offer little resistance to even the lightest rainfall.
This is the place they have called home for more than two decades. For years, the Ogiek have interacted with so many tribes that other languages have rubbed off on them. However, once in a while, they break into their own language to shut out the outsiders.
They have a reputation of being a shy people, and legend has it that they have several ways to evade strangers. Settlements have spotters who spend the whole day perched on high trees or rock cliffs to look out for any approaching visitors.
Once a stranger is spotted, word goes around through whistles, and the rest of the family is alerted.
But if you were to meet an Ogiek head on, it is said that he would immediately change direction and begin moving backwards. This ensures the distance between the two of you remains constant until he disappears around a bend and hurries away.
Such techniques are inadequate to deal with their current problems.
“We feel sorry for them because of the harsh conditions they live under. But if they want to survive, they need to move with the times,” said Irene Ondeng, Nandi East District Commissioner.
“For how long will you hang on to tradition? They need to go to school and compete with other Kenyans. No one will hand them a better future on a silver platter.”
To the eyes, only a few ridges appear to separate Ndaruro camp from another group of Ogiek. But by road, it is a two-hour journey from Nandi Hills town to Sanghor, Lelgotet, Maraba Market and then through to Tinderet Tea Estate.
Then the terrain changes, and the cash crop of choice becomes sugarcane.
The ascent to Ng’atipkong Ogiek camp is steep and rocky. Donkeys, small children and women dot the landscape. Once in a while you come into contact with an old man. The young men are few and far between.
Ng’atipkong has a total of seven camps in which 508 families with a combined population of almost 3,000 people live. The houses are similar to those at Ndaruro.
The first camp at Ngatipkong, Kapchanga camp, was formed in 1981 after the Ogiek were first evicted from Tinderet forest when they totalled 180 families.
They eventually accepted the evictions amid promises of resettlement back into forestland.
“But somehow the forest land meant for us went to other people,” said Patrick arap Tabot, chairman of Raila camp. He says of the 180 families targeted by the resettlement, only 68 received land. The rest of the allocations were made to outsiders purporting to be Ogiek.
And this is a persistent problem.
“Each time a directive is made by a sitting president to resettle our people, something is always lost in the communication, and we end up losing out,” said James Ng’ososei, councillor of Kapkuris ward in which Ng’atipkong falls.
“Even when CDF allocations are made, we get nothing,” the councillor said.
But the local administration sees things differently. “They need to understand they do not deserve preferential treatment just because they are Ogieks,” said Ms Odeng, under whose district Ndururo camp falls.
Mr Tabot says no one is calling for preferential treatment.
“We want to be treated as Kenyans in our own country,” he said. “And I am hopeful that day will come.”
The Raila camp in Tinderet, named after Prime Minister Raila Odinga who reportedly visited the area sometime back.