Bloggers and online commenters renew media criticism in Kenya and South Africa

New forms of media criticism are gaining ground in countries such as Kenya and South Africa. The Twitter hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN prompted US news channel CNN to back away from identifying Kenya as a “terror hotbed”. And before elections in Kenya in August, male dominance of expert panels on television was challenged with the hashtag #SayNoToManels.

“New technology has changed the traditional system for media accountability. Bloggers and commenters on social media analyse and criticise media ethics and practice”, says David Cheruiyot, visiting researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. Photo: Mats Hellmark

Read the whole story at the web site of the Nordic Africa Institute

Kenya: Indigenous maasai evicted for power plants

It has taken six months, but now the house of Jack Zooibo has been rebuilt.
The house of the Zooibo family was destroyed in the attack on Narasha. It took six months to rebuild it.

Human rights are literally going up in smoke when Kenya launches major geothermal energy projects in the indigenous Maasai areas. Part of the investments derive from UN climate projects under the Kyoto protocol (CDM), where the municipal energy company of Gothenburg (Göteborg Energi) is one of the investors. Emission reductions in Kenya are used for carbon offset (climate compensation) of Swedish district heating.

This is an english translation of a Swedish text published in Sveriges Natur #5/2014  

Text and photos Mats Hellmark

PDF of original story with photos by Håkan Lindgren: Rättigheter upp i rök – massajer och kraftverk i Kenya

It has to be said right away: Geothermal energy is probably a climate smart solution for electrifying Kenya. Significantly better than fossil alternatives. The first power plant was built 30 years ago, and with the planned new investments the complex in Olkaria, 120 km west of the capital Nairobi, will be the world’s largest.

The problem is that the exploitation causes suffering among the indigenous people who live in the area and claim traditional rights to the land. Their environment is damaged and whole villages are relocated by force.

Last summer the conflict reached new heights when the governmental Kenyan energy company KenGen tried to expel Maasai locals from the village Narasha by force. A couple of hundred thugs, supported by armed police, burned nearly 250 houses, killed livestock and assaulted several villagers. The incident became hot news material, so much that the President Uhuru Kenyatta felt compelled to personally visit the village and make promises of compensation for the affected.

Construction work on the  new power stations. Photo Mats Hellmark
Construction work in Olkaria. Photo Mats Hellmark

We are heading to the village, which is situated close to the already established power stations. As the road turns into the hills from the large lake Naivasha the typical volcanic smell resembling rotten eggs can be felt in the air. Smoke clouds are visible from afar, and just inside the gate of the National Park Hell’s Gate we drive through a large industrial park with several power stations. The emissions do not just smell unpleasantly. Sulphur hydroxide is a poisonous gas and one of the health impacts of the power plants is that diseases of the respiratory system have become the most common among the locals.

The large Olkaria geothermal industrial area is just inside the gates of the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark
The large Olkaria industrial area is just inside the gates of the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark

Some warthogs graze below one of the large pipelines carrying hot gases from boreholes a thousand meters deep. Steam hisses from valves. A network of pipelines meanders for miles and miles through the arid landscape.

The first power plant, Olkaria I, was built in the early 1980s. Combined Olkaria I, Olkaria II (funded by the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the German Development Bank KFW) and Olkaria III (operated by American-owned Orpower) deliver 150 megawatts (MW) to the Kenyan grid. Olkaria IV, which is under construction, will provide 280 MW and is launched as a new climate project for foreign investors who want to offset their own carbon emissions (CDM, clean development mechanism). KenGen is planning to expand the capacity to several thousand megawatts in the area.

The name Olkaria derives from the Maasai word for ocher, which is collected in the area. It is used to dye hair ritually. The local Maasai belong to the clan Ilkunono. Following bloody clashes with British colonial power in the late 19th century they retired to this part of their original area because it was less accessible and more easily defended. The area also holds sacred places of significance for all Maasai, among them the scenic Ol Njorowa gorge with hot springs, cliffs and waterfalls.

Just outside the village our car is held up by an old man in jeans and shuka (traditional felt cloak). 78-year-old Oseen Parsampyla is waving menacingly at us with his long rod. Four sons and a grandson follow suit.

He declares that they are prepared to fight us. As he understands that we are journalists and not part of KenGen’s foreign investors matters calm down and we can talk.

– We believe that the company will try to expel as again soon. If so, it will have to be over my dead body. We will not move!

Oseen Parsampyla's family has been relocated over and over. Now he is ready to fight. Photo Mats Hellmark
Oseen Parsampyla’s family has been relocated over and over. Now he is ready to fight. Photo Mats Hellmark

Under the drone of the high-voltage lines high over our heads, he tells how his family has been forcibly relocated from place to place. The first resettlement took place in the period of Kenya’s independence and national formation in the 60s. Initially the family lived in the area where the power plants are now. At that time the morans, the young warriors, took to arms.

– We were promised compensation at the time, but have not received any so far …

The first thing we see in the village itself is a demolished house of corrugated steel, still standing after last year’s attack.

– A group of women used to make cornmeal in there, says Rebecca Liziay, who is standing behind the counter in a small shop next door.

All is quiet and peaceful, except for children’s voices from the school across the road (which has about 400 pupils). It is hard to imagine the uproar last summer, but Daniel Mpatinga picks up his mobile and shows a video he filmed. We see burning buildings and people on the run.

A car fleet with approximately 200 hired thugs with chainsaws and machetes entered the village early morning July 26th. All were Kikuyu, Kenya’s dominant ethnic group. Along came armed police and a court decision for evacuation, which later proved to be false.

Demolished house in Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark
Demolished house in Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark

Land ownership is disputed, here as in many other places. The Maasai claim traditional ownership, but after independence in 1963 the government distributed title deeds to people in other parts of the country who had connections to the political elite. The official title deed holders of Narasha have already reached an agreement with KenGen.

When the thugs arrived the animals had not been taken out to graze yet, most of them remained in the village. Over 200 sheep and many goats and calves were incinerated. Buildings were burned and torn down the whole day.

– Those who tried to stop the destruction were arrested and several people were beaten. My father was one of them, says Daniel Mpatinga.

The World Bank denied involvement in a statement and when the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta visited the village a week after the attack he promised thorough investigation and compensation for those affected. A committee was appointed, but the work hasn’t perceived as planned and is at present stalled. Nothing has happened on the issue of compensations. Daniel Mpatinga is part of the group that is trying to estimate compensation for the values that were destroyed. He figures the values amount to approximately 100 million shillings (about 8 million SEK).

Prior to the attack the villagers were offered 31 million shillings (about 2.5 million SEK) if they moved out voluntarily, he says.

Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark
Narasha. Photo Mats Hellmark

– We were also told that the money would be used to force us out if we did not accept.

Jack Zooibo and his family lives in the house closest to the shop. It took him six months, but now he has rebuilt his burnt house from scratch. His neighbour Hannah Sencho shares the bitter experience.

– We got no chance to empty the buildings. Animals and many possessions went up in flames. It was a great suffering, she says.

The villagers we meet are worried because KenGen visited the village a few days before, measuring the land. The company is planning for a new, more powerful geothermal plant (Olkaria V) and a large industrial area with homes for tens of thousands of workers.

The area the company suggested for relocating the villagers is much smaller than their present and, according to them, with less possibilities for grazing and cultivation.

– The place is stony and eroded. And it is uncertain whether we would be allowed to remain there, says Daniel Mpatinga.

Another group in the area accepted relocation after lengthy negotiations, to make space for the power plant Olkaria IV. KenGen has built 150 new houses for them on a height. The day of our visit the Shaa family is moving in. They are the last to go.

– We waited as long as possible because the houses KenGen built are fewer than what was promised. 14 families have not been offered anywhere to stay and we wanted to fight for their rights, says village elder Daniel Shaa.

The description in KenGens resettlement plan (RAP) does not appear that bad. The goal is that all PAP (”Project Affected Persons”) should be no worse off than before the project started. The World Bank safeguards are to be followed. And the community’s wish to be resettled together has been respected.

The house of the family Shaa, bearing the sign RAP HSE 31, also appears more modern than traditional maasai huts. More space, cement walls and tin roofs. But the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, according to Daniel Shaa.

– We can not live in our traditional way here. The house feels isolated and has a fence around the small yard. There is no space for the animals and it’s difficult to be social with your neighbors. The whole relocation process is very disappointing for most of us and does not live up to expectations.

The water tanks deployed are not matching the needs, the houses are secluded and routes are difficult. Promises of bus transport have not been fulfilled. The families do not have to pay rent, but they are also not recognized as owners.

– To access the house we had to sign a paper that we have no additional claims. But the houses are still KenGen’s and may not be altered in any way. They can not be inherited or sold.

Daniel Shaa has written several letters concerning breach of contracts to the World Bank, but has so far not received any other answer than that the bank has promised to discuss matters with KenGen.

On the road from the settlements we get stuck in the muddy road, even though our car has four-wheel drive. It takes assistance from passers-by, before we can continue towards Nairobi.

The pipelines meander through the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark
The pipelines meander through the national park. Photo Mats Hellmark

Joseph Simel is director of the human rights NGO MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization), working for the Maasai and other nomadic pastoralist groups in Kenya. MPIDO has sued the police, several governemental departments and multinational corporations for several cases of rights abuses, including the evictions in Narasha. The first hearing will take place in Nakuru on December 23rd.

– We ask the court to suspend any activities that are detrimental to the locals until the case is settled, he says.

– The government wants to secure energy supply, but does not consider the consequences. It takes no account of a number of previous court decisions that have gone our way. Instead, the methods for expelling the Maasai are becoming increasingly violent. Narasha is not the only example.

Kenya has not ratified ILO 169 (international convention securing the rights of indigenous people), but Joseph Simel still thinks that Kenyan law does take into account the rights of indigenous people, and he is hopeful of further improvement. The problem is that the authorities do not apply the legislation. And that court processing is expensive, especially for an NGO.

The MPIDO programme officer for land, natural resources and rights, Lawrence Mbelati, adds that the mining law in the making does not include benefit sharing for local communities in the way it should according to the Kenyan constitution.

– I recommend that the government should also consider the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, UNDRIP, and its principle of free prior and informed consent (FPIC), says Lawrence Mbelati.

Joseph Simel says that it pays to mobilize the media on these issues:

– But even that has a price in Kenya. Politicians often bribe to silence the media, or threaten them with lawsuits.

Geothermal energy is not the only form of exploitation that attracts developers to the Maasai areas. Natural gas, hydro, oil exploration and mining are other threats to livelihoods.

Historically, the ethnic group has been pushed out of its original territory further and further into dry and arid areas. The British colonial rule left the feared Maasai warriors in peace until the late 19th century, when severe rinderpest and diseases weakened resistance.

Through two agreements (with conditions that were not respected) the colonial power was able to get a hold of large areas. Independence meant no improvement in terms of land rights, according to Simel.

– I usually say that the white colonists were replaced by black. The political elite redistributed the land according to their own purposes.

Nevertheless Maasai culture and traditions are heavily used for marketing Kenya as a tourist destination. In the center of the national flag Kenya boasts a Maasai shield with two crossed spears.

The big challenge of the Maasai today is climate change, according to Joseph Simel. Although they themselves hardly contribute at all (very few even access electricity grids) the greenhouse effect is heavily affecting their areas. He is also critical of the fact that Olkaria and similar projects are used in climate measures as the CDM.

– The projects are most likely positive for the climate, but they damage the Maasai livelihood and lifestyle.

Language barriers, top-down approach and lack of interest for local stakeholder views result in weak or corrupt environmental impact assessments. The difficulties and problems connected to projects are hidden behind beautiful words.

– I do not think people in Europe or the United States want to make trouble for us. But they may not know what is actually happening. There is a need for better opportunities and resources for indigenous peoples to document and disseminate information.

Link to news footage of the Narasha incident.

Text 2:

Göteborg Energi has invested in Olkaria

Swedish companies that chose to climate compensate for district heating (fjärrvärme) have also been contributing to CMD-projects in Olkaria. “A good deed for the environment” according to the web site of Göteborg Energi (The municipal energy company of Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg).

CDM, Clean Development Mechanism, are projects under the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, where industrialized countries reduce domestic carbon emissions by investing in projects in developing countries. Four different CDM projects have been registered for the geothermal power plants in Olkaria.

One that began in 2011 is about expansion of the capacity of Olkaria II. The power plant was built in 2003 on land where the Maasai had been expelled previously. 14 developed countries are listed as participants, among them Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. A closer look at the documentation shows that Göteborg Energi is the project participant and that Energimyndigheten (the Swedish Energy Agency) approved participation.

When Sveriges Natur calls Göteborg Energi it takes a while to clarify the connection. After some research their Press officer Cecilia Erdalen is able to tell that the project is one of several used for climate compensation (carbon offset) of district heating (“fjärrvärme”) and gas for business customers.

– The ownership is channeled through a fund with various projects, managed by the World Bank. We own two percent of it. The fund itself is not operating, or responsible for, the projects, but it is co-financing them through the CDM.

The Göteborg Energi web site markets carbon offset to corporate customers as ”a way to strengthen your company’s environmental profile”. It also states that the emission reduction units (CERs) are approved according to UN and EU regulations.

– We make no independent scrutiny of projects, apart from the fact that they are authorized by the UN Climate Panel and Energimyndigheten. We follow existing guidelines, but should the fund invest in questionable projects it is of course unfortunate, says Cecilia Erdalen.

It is hard to figure out how much Gothenburg Energy is investing in separate projects and how many tons of carbon emission they represent because figures from different projects are not separated in the fund.

– But carbon offsetting is a small business for us, it just concerns a few corporate clients. One problem is that the system of carbon trading is almost non-functional today, as prices have fallen radically.

Division Manager Erik Eriksson at the Swedish Energy Agency has no insight into the specific case, but explains the system:

– As the national authority we authorize the participation of Swedish companies. But it is the UN that is approving the projects. We always look at the documentation, but do not take decisions on the projects themselves. The host country’s national authority determines whether they contribute to domestic sustainable development, which is a prerequisite.

David Dabass is press officer at the UN Department of carbon trading. He refers to the comprehensive and transparent documentation on the site of all CDM projects:

– We can not comment on particular CDM projects, but each project is assessed and audited by accredited consultants. Their work involves consulting local stakeholders. No project can proceed without approval by the host country’s national authority.

More information on the CDM projects that the World Bank manages can be found on The projects also have social obligations, in this case expansion of an elementary school and measures to improve water supply and roads.

MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization) is supported by the Copenhagen-based NGO IWGIA (International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs). Read more about the situation of the Maasai and the Olkaria case on IWGIA website and MPIDO website.

The World Bank denied involvement in last year’s evictions in Narasha in a separate statement from September last year, which also welcomed the government’s decision to appoint a committee of inquiry. It also stressed that the bank’s ”safeguards”, safety mechanisms, should be applied in all resettlements.

Sveriges Natur has also been in contact with the World Bank in Nairobi. In this matter the Bank only refers to the statement from last year and does not comment further on developments regarding Narasha, other resettlement issues or the general matter of Maasai land rights in the area.

Still proud – portrait interview with Samwel Naikada

Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren
Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren

The modern way of life is gradually taking over in Samwel Ole Naikada’s Maasai village. But he will never let go of the Maasai legacy of protecting forests and wildlife. When he leaves Kenya for global climate negotiations the traditions go with him.

TEXT  Mats Hellmark

This is an English translation of an interview published in the magazine Sveriges Natur #5/14

PDF version here: Fortfarande stolt – porträttintervju med massajen Samwel Naikada

Extended Swedish version here


We meet with Samwel Naikada in the small town Kilgoris where he studies. A tall, cool guy who sort of surfs on top of the messy street life. Over lunch the photographer Håkan asks that particular question you should never put to a pastoralist, whether Sami in Sweden or Maasai in Kenya or Tanzania: “How many animals do you own?”

Samwel smiles and explains that this is like asking someone how much money he has in the bank. In fact, it’s far more than that. Even the very word Maasai is connected to the animals, cattle stands for life itself.

After a visit to the grocery store, shopping for European stomachs, Samwel folds his tall self into the car he has borrowed from his children’s school teacher and we head south. The first part is decent dirt road, the rains haven’t started yet. Every now and then we meet donkey carts loaded with charcoal for cooking, a sight that Samwel disapproves of. Charcoal burning threatens forests across Africa, but in Maasai areas this hasn’t been a problem.

– For us it is a taboo, a curse. Whoever does it will turn as black as coal himself, it is said. But now the traditions are dwindling, people care less and less …

The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark
The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark

The last miles are completely off road, we bump through bush landscape, follow narrow cattle trails and pass a broken fence that was demolished by elephants a few days earlier. A herd of zebras disperse in front of the car just as we are about to enter Samwel’s boma (fenced area for livestock and houses).

– They feel safer close to houses since there is less risk of lions here, Samwel says.

The day before a cheetah killed a small antelope at the closest waterhole, and a few days earlier a jackal stole a baby goat. Samwel’s village Olkirreruki is situated right next to the great forest Nyakweri which in turn adjoins the Maasai Mara National Park. No wonder there is an abundance of wildlife nearby, and that Samwel got hooked on nature conservation already as a child.

– You could say that I was an activist from the start. I hated when trees were felled, and when poachers hunted in the woods.

He reported them regularly to the National Park Rangers, and eventually the boy who was so good at speaking English started to get odd jobs for the conservancy.

Håkan and I move into one of the family’s huts, next to the cow enclosure and the small house for the goats, made with interlaced branches. The hut has walls made of dried cow dung just like the others, but is more modern with its square shape, small window-openings and corrugated tin roofs instead of straw. Since a few weeks back there is also a solar panel on the roof that powers small lamps and a device for charging mobiles (previously the family had to walk eight kilometers to a larger village for charging in shops with electricity).

Samwel shifts quilted jacket and jeans to traditional Shuka (blanket to wrap around the upper body) and long rod. This is the way he feels most comfortable, and the animals are most at ease with people who dresses traditionally.

– Still I rarely wear Shuka when I go to town, everybody keeps asking what we are celebrating…

Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark
Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark

But for the longer trips, to the large cities where the climate negotiations take place, he always brings it. Even if the weather is a bit too cold, like in Copenhagen 2009. Samwel has represented indigenous people in four global climate negotiations. Clothes that stand out make it easier to get attention.

– We often need to make a lot of fuss to be listened to, to make our views part of the process.

Cooperating with indigenous people from different parts of the world is rewarding, and Samwel sees many similarities in attitude and culture. But the general result of the negotiations is disappointing. Top players like the US push their own agendas and fight to minimize their efforts. The indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and affected, but get little sympathy. Samwel has also been working with biodiversity issues under the frame of the Convention for Biological Diversity and he feels the Nagoya Protocol takes better account of the rights of indigenous people.

Samwel specializes in forestry issues. He has presented the local conservancy project Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association at several workshops, one of them in Copenhagen.

– I was participating in the panel discussion along with Wangari Maathai and several Kenyan parliamentarians. At first the people from the government did not want to cooperate, they saw us almost as rivals. But that has changed, in Durban we negotiated out of a common position.

Our arrival is a big event in Olkirreruki where cars (and white people as well) are rare sights. Samwel’s six children are overjoyed as Håkan takes snapshots and show them on the camera screen. Their grandfather Tubula Ole Naikada comes to greet us. He is in his eighties (year of birth unknown), but is still out herding animals every day.

When he was young the local Maasai still lived as nomads. The animals could graze where the grass was greenest. The rains were also longer, the drought periods shorter.

Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s father Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

– After independence 1963 the land was subdivided, agriculture became more frequent and national parks formed closed areas. We could not move as we used to. Life became more difficult, says Tubula.

The traditional diet is almost entirely based on milk. Meat is uncommon, Tubula ate it almost only during the period when he was a warrior, Moran. The Morans also prepared and ate herbs that made them brave. Hunting dangerous animals were part of the rites. Tubula has killed two lions and one elephant. And several men.

– I liked to fight …

His son Samwel has undergone the rituals that mark the end of the warrior period and initiate for life as an elder, but just as ceremony. He has never lived the warrior’s life, which lasts for several years.

– To get a good life today young people need education and jobs. There is neither time nor possibilities for pursuing the old way of living all the way.

For his own part, he broke the traditional bonds by eloping from the wedding his father had negotiated for him in order to continue studying in town. He became the first in the area with high school exams (today it is common) and the last few years he has taken up studies again at university level in Kilgoris.

His wife Diana (who is actually the sister of the girl he ran away from) takes responsibility for livestock and family when he is in Kilgoris.

– It works out fine. There are mobile phones…

Nevertheless, preserving the culture is important to Samwel. One suggestion he has put forward is creating a local training center where elders can pass on knowledge to the young Maasai.

– Maasai pastoralism is in harmony with nature, as long as there is enough land for the grazing. The hunting is generally not done for meat but regarded as rites of initiation. The clans have totem animals, a factor that contributes to the will to protect nature. And forests have always been important, for medicine, for the holy sites and for water supply.

The forests are used, but sustainably. When roots or branches are harvested it is important to cover bare areas to ensure survival of the trees. For firewood only dry branches are used.

Early next day Samwel and two young guides accompany us into Nyakweri forest. We are a bit tired as the dogs have been chasing hyenas around the huts during the night, but it is a great experience to walk under the canopy of trees and listen to all the stories. A glade has just been visited by elephant mothers who gather particularly nutritious roots for their kids.

Walking safaris are a way to raise money for the Dupoto organization that Samwel heads. The word Dupoto means benefit: income from ecotourism will ensure the survival of the forest. A large dam has been built (the village can now manage two years of drought without shortage of water), 40 beehives have been set up and Dupoto pays for expansion of the local school.

Samwel Naikadas mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Dupoto has given the villagers a positive view of protected areas. This has not always been the case. Although the national park Maasai Mara attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, the revenue only marginally benefits local communities. Instead the possibility for grazing is limited and wildlife from the park cause property damage and human injuries and deaths every year.

– The parks protect wildlife but are not helpful to the locals. There are provisions for compensation, but they do not function as they are supposed to, Samwel says.

The Dupoto project has also had conflicts. A British-owned tobacco company was starting up large plantations adjacent to the forest six years ago. Bribery and harassments fragmented the local society for some time.

– I called around to authorities and made a row about it. It took six months of struggle, but finally the Kenyan Environmental Protection Agency said no to the farms. The company really hated me and tried to get at me personally.

But threats do not discourage a Maasai, Samwel concludes.

– We don’t give in, we are still a proud people …

Samwel’s milestones

1993 Samwel escapes from the wedding to be able to study for a high school exam (the first in the area). It takes several months before he comes home to meet his father again.

1997 Forming Dupoto Wildlife and Forest Association to protect the Nyakweri forest with its rich flora and fauna.

1998 Moves to Nairobi for tourism education. He works there for a few years but is longing to go back home.

2004 Working on conservation projects in Kilgoris and the areas surrounding Nyakweri forest.

2008 First time Samwel participates in global climate negotiations (Póznan). He has also been to Copenhagen in 2009, Cancún in 2010 and Durban in 2011. “For indigenous people it is important to make a lot of fuss if you are to be heard”, he says.

2012 Begins to study at university level again to gain formal qualification for higher conservation jobs.

Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Indigenous Information Network is the Kenyan NGO Samwel collaborates with to build a climatically sustainable community in Narok District. IIN has also made it possible for him to participate in the climate negotiations, in part supported by Swedish aid money.

Read more about Dupoto Wildlife & Forestry Association and guided walks in the Nyakweri forest here

Kenya: klimat och heliga skogar

Reportage publicerat i Sveriges natur nr 5 2009

M’Riberia Mwongo leder en ceremoni i Giitunes heliga skog. Foto Mats Hellmark

Kenyanska kvinnor söker bokstavligen sina rötter för att klara ett torrare klimat. Vi har varit med när gamla grödor och heliga platser väcks till nytt liv.

Read an english version

NÄR VI KOMMER TILL BYN dukar kvinnorna fram till fest. Buffébordet fylls av mångfalden från fälten runt om: olika sorters bönor, amaranth, arrowrot, bananer, chapati (bröd) gjort på söt­potatis, jams, kassava och sockerrörsjuice.

Så här såg det inte ut för ett par år sedan. Då hade många knappt något att ställa fram på bordet, trots att området länge varit ett av landets mest produktiva.

– Vi hade inte råd att köpa mat eller låta barnen gå till skolan. Det var svårt också för dem som hade pengar, affärerna var tomma, säger bonden Monica Gatobu i byn Kirugua, som ligger nära staden Meru öster om Mount Kenya.

Vid sidan av majs, potatis och vete hade de flesta småbönder här satsat allt mer på ”cash crops” (kontantgrödor) – främmande grödor som kan säljas på den internationella marknaden och ge pengar i handen.

Men så kom torkan som slog hårt mot vattenkrävande växt­slag. Samtidigt som klimatet förändrades föll priset på kontantgrödor, särskilt kaffet som många satsat mycket på.

– De flesta hade lagt om till kaffe på fälten nära byn och röjt för husbehovsodling i skogen. Men det fick vi sluta med eftersom det förstörde skogen. I stället började vi söka efter gamla fröer och odla på sätt som håller kvar fukten bättre, berättar Monica Gatobu.

Skogen ligger en knapp timmes vandring från byn, och är en del av Mount Kenyas skogsekosystem. Den är en av förutsättningarna för områdets goda vattentillgång.

Monica och hennes make Joseph var bland de första som tog chansen när organisationen ICE, Institute for Culture and Ecology, startade ett projekt för att återuppliva traditionell kunskap i byn. Rådgivaren Mercy Muleva började med en liten grupp, cirka 30 hushåll:

– Många kände knappt till andra grödor än majs, vete och bönor. De västerländska influenserna är starka. Men med klimat­förändringen har regnmönstren blivit mer opålitliga: grödorna måste tåla både regn och torka, säger hon.

Tillsammans lyckades gruppen hitta och odla upp en mångfald gamla sorter, och framgångarna fick fler att följa efter. I dag är en stor del av byns 5 000 invånare med i processen.

Förändringen har säkrat mattillgången, men också ändrat könsrollsmönstren.

– Eftersom många av de gamla grödorna traditionellt planteras av män så har de också kommit med mer i jordbruket. Banan och jams kräver till exempel att man gräver djupt. Vi kvinnor har ansvar för hushållet och det känns lättare nu. Män och kvinnor stöttar varandra mer, säger Monica Gatobu.

Traditionellt har afrikanska män och kvinnor olika kunskaper och uppgifter i jordbruket, berättar ICEs ledare Gathuru Mburu:

– I många fall har kvinnor haft en tyngre arbetsbörda. Med kolonisationen ökade den ytterligare.

Engelsmännen anställde män vid de stora teodlingarna. Många blev förmän, och den rollen antog de också i hemmen.

– Under kolonialtiden tvingades nya kunskapssystem på de infödda, samtidigt med en ny världsbild och en ny religion. Den lokala, traditionella kunskapen värderades inte längre, och regeringarna har inte heller gjort något för att ändra detta efter självständigheten 1963. Vi försöker hjälpa byarna att rekonstruera kärnkunskaperna.

En viktig del är medvetenhet om att skogen måste skyddas för att samhället ska få vatten. En annan är idén om att ”hela” jorden som skadats av hög kemikalieanvändning och hög­avkastande grödor.

– Det handlar om att avkolonisera människors sätt att tänka. Att återskapa gemenskapskänslan i samhället och återknyta kopplingen till de lokala ekosystemen. Ofta är det faktiskt inte så svårt när man väl börjar, säger Gathuru Mburu.

Men det är inte bara kolonisationen som bidragit till den negativa utvecklingen, menar han. Den kristna missionen spelade också en roll, till exempel genom att gamla heliga platser förlorade sin status och sitt skydd.

EN SÅDAN PLATS ÄR den heliga skogen Giitune på en höjd vid byn Ruiga någon timmes bilväg bort. Vi stannar strax intill en vägskylt som visar att vi befinner oss mitt på ekvatorn. Några äldre män visar visar vägen uppför en stig genom den täta grönskan. Vandringen känns skön och sval i skuggan av höga mukui-träd (Newtonia Buchananii).

På toppen öppnar sig en liten glänta, där ett femtiotal bybor sitter samlade i tyst koncentration runt en eld. Så snart vi tagit plats i ringen börjar en grupp kvinnor dansa och sjunga. Med höga tjut bjuder de in oss att delta. Två äldre män kommer ut från hyddan längst bort i gläntan, den ena i sliten grå kostym och solhatt, den andra med huvudbonad av svartvit päls och en tofsprydd stav. De har med sig ett dryckeshorn och en kalebass prydd med kauri­snäckor.

Männen dansar in i cirkeln medan de tar klunkar av vätskan i kalebassen, som de sedan frustar ut över människorna i ringen och träden närmast. Sången har blivit mer rytmisk, ett ord återkommer: thaai, thaai, thaai. När vätskan stänker åt mitt håll känner jag en svag doft av jäst och honung.

Tetu Maingi som sitter bredvid mig förklarar viskande att ceremonin handlar om välsignelse: av den heliga skogen och människorna i trädens skugga. Thaai betyder frid.

Tetu är koordinator i miljöorganisationen Porini som också arbetar med traditionell kunskap och lokalt självstyre. Tillsammans med FN-organet UNDP och Kenyas nationalmuseum driver Porini ett projekt för att återskapa och bevara tjugotalet heliga platser runt Mount Kenya.

I många fall är det bråttom: miljöförstöring och exploatering hotar både kultur- och naturvärden, och den äldre generationens kunskaper är på väg att försvinna.

Ceremonin vi deltar i känns ovan för en sekulariserad svensk. Men man behöver inte tro på den lokale guden Murungu för att inse fördelarna skogen ger i form av vatten, ved, medicin och stabilare väder.

Mannen med pälsmössan (gjord av den heliga colobus­apans skinn) är M’Riberia Mwongo, 74, örtdoktor och råd­givare i Njur Nceke, de äldstes högsta råd i provinsen Meru. Han med solhatten är byäldsten George M’Turuchiu, 84. I kalebassen finns helig öl som fått jäsa vid elden, bryggd på sockerrörsjuice och honung från Mount Kenyas sluttningar. (Senare på kvällen får jag smaka: det är starkt, sött och lite jästgrumligt.)

Ceremonin avslutas med en kristen bön, något som ingen verkar uppfatta som en motsägelse. Men när jag pratar med Mwongo efteråt är han kritisk till mycket som kristendomen fört med sig:

– Bibeln lär oss att Jesus ger förlåtelse. Men i vår tradition måste man också genomföra reningsceremonier och ångra sig för sona sitt brott och accepteras i gemenskapen.

Missionen öppnade för kolonisationen och bröt upp de gamla regelsystemen, menar han, liksom kopplingen till naturen.

– Den förste europén kom hit 1901. Före dess var skogen intakt, skyddad av äldsterådet med tabun.

Man fick till exempel inte ta med sig kniv eller yxa in

i skogen. Det enda man fick skära med var vassa stenar. Ved fick bara samlas in vid vissa tillfällen, och bara torra grenar. Högg man i levande träd skulle blod flyta. Djur fick inte dödas, och slagsmål eller sex var förbjudet i skogen.

När kyrkan blev den heliga platsen försvagades skogens myter och tabun, i stället förknippades den med onda makter. Delar avverkades, timmer användes som byggnadsmaterial och man brände träkol. Undervegetationen togs till djurfoder, och skogen började torka ut.

– Moralen i samhället sjönk också. På ett ställe i skogen bryggdes och såldes öl. Skogen användes som toalett och för kärleksmöten, berättar Martta Kauthi Gituna, 42.

Janet Ikaria är drygt 70 och har sett traditionerna komma tillbaka genom projektet:

– Nu lyssnar de yngre på de äldre igen. Vattendragen har börjat flyta, vi får bättre skördar och behöver inte gå så långt för att hämta vatten.

Vändpunkten var en stor reningsceremoni år 2005 då ett får offrades, menar Julis Gikundi, som är sekreterare i Giitune Environment Conservation Group. Föreningen förvaltar skogen åt Kenyas Nationalmuseum, som beslutade om skydd 2003.

– Giitune är ett exempel för hela världen att det går att skydda skogar med traditionella kulturella metoder. Nu behövs inga vakter. Vi planterar nya inhemska träd för att återskapa de delar som förstörts, säger Julius Gikundi.

Djurlivet har dock inte återhämtat sig än, med undantag för fåglarna, som fortfarande är många. De äldre kan räkna upp ett tjugotal arter som försvunnit, bland annat ett antal apor och antiloper.

– Traditionell kunskap traderas mellan generationerna. Vi försöker kombinera de äldres berättelser med modern teknik, som GPS-kartering. Den typen av dokumentation gör det också lättare att få gehör hos myndigheterna, berättar Tetu Maingi från Porini.

En grupp ungdomar jag pratar med tycker att de lärt sig mycket av de äldre.

– Samtidigt är det förstås många yngre som lämnar samhället för studier och jobb. Men vi hoppas att kunna föra vidare kunskaperna med forskning och fotografier, säger George Ringera, en av ungdomarna.

PÅ ANDRA HELIGA PLATSER har man inte nått lika långt. Vi passerar Mbututia, en helig sjö och våtmark som hotas av dränering och konvertering till odlingsmark. Sjön är en viktig lokal för flyttfåglar och rik på fisk. Den har hotats i olika omgångar, bland annat av en italiensk präst som ville fylla ut den och anlägga en flygplats. På senare tid har en påtvingad folkomflyttning lett till att ett antal bönder till­delats odlingsmark som i dag är sjöbotten.

Artrikedomen är stor, och det finns planer på att skydda sjön som ekopark med EU-pengar. Men så länge frågan om markrättigheter är olöst kvarstår hotet.

Tetu tar också med oss till Karima Hill, en skog på en kulle i Nyeriprovinsen väster om Mount Kenya.

– Här är det fortfarande kamp som gäller. Människor börjar bli medvetna och tar strid för sin skog och alla dess värden. Myndigheterna ser den bara som en timmerresurs, säger han.

Skogen är totalt 270 hektar, men större delen brändes eller höggs ned av britterna eftersom den ansågs som ett tillhåll för motståndsmän under Mau-Mau-upproret på 50-talet. Det gamla systemet med lokalt ansvar för skogen upphävdes, i stället tog stadsmyndigheterna över. De återplanterade delar med främmande trädsorter (mest vattenkrävande eukalyptus) och anlade stora teplantager. Ingen av verksamheterna har gett direkta inkomster till byarna runt.

Däremot har vattentillgången försämrats.

– Förr fanns vatten i alla dalgångar. Nu har 20 av totalt 26 vattendrag torkat ut. Regnmönstren har också ändrats och erosionen ökat, säger byäldsten Paul Thuku.

Äldsterådet arbetar för att ta tillbaka kontrollen över skogen från myndigheterna i staden. Två kultplatser om totalt drygt 70 hektar har trots allt bevarats orörda och är nu skyddade enligt nationalmuseets beslut. Vi klättrar upp till den ena, först genom den branta teplantagen, sedan förbi höga eukalyptusträd på kullens krön.

När vi närmar oss kultplatsen ser vi rörelser högt uppe i trädtopparna. Svartvita djur med långa svansar hoppar smidigt mellan grenarna. Här lever fortfarande de sällsynta colobus­aporna.

Paul Thuku och Kamau Mwita i äldsterådet diskuterar tabureglerna innan vi får följa med till den heligaste delen. Ska vita och kvinnor egentligen få följa med? Och hur är det med avhållsamheten? Den som går in här får inte ha haft sex under den senaste veckan.

Till slut får vi ändå följa med in i den täta vegetationen och delta i en ceremoni under ett jättelikt träd helt inslingrat av stryparfikon-lianer. Kamau Mwita ser det som guds största gåva att helgedomen klarat sig orörd:

– Det ger hopp inför framtiden. Det och utvecklingen på andra heliga platser som Giitune.

Kenya: Climate and sacred sites

M’Riberia Mwongo, medicine doctor and spiritual adviser is leading a ceremony under the towering mukui trees in Giitune sacred forest. Photo Mats Hellmark

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here.

To cope with a more arid climate, Kenyan women are literally seeking their roots. We follow their journey as relict crops and sacred sites are brought back to life.

As we arrive at the village, the women are preparing a feast. The banquet table is filled with harvests from the surrounding fields: a variety of beans, amaranth, arrowroot, bananas, chapati bread made from sweet potatoes, yams, cassava and sugar-cane juice.

Things were very different just a few years ago, when many locals hardly had a meal on the table, despite the fact that the region has long been among the country’s most productive.

“We couldn’t afford to buy food, or to let our children go to school. And it was tough even for those who had money. The shops were simply empty,” explains Monica Gatobu, a farmer in the village of Kirugua near the city of Meru, to the east of Mount Kenya.

Along with corn, potatoes and wheat, most small-scale farmers had begun to invest more and more in cash crops – foreign crops that could be sold directly for cash on the international market.

Then came the drought, which devastated the most water-intensive species of plants. At the same time that the climate began to shift, the world experienced a crash in the prices of cash crops, particularly for coffee, in which many farmers had invested heavily.

“Most of us had converted the nearby fields to coffee and cleared the forests for our household crops. But we were forced to stop because of the destruction it caused in the forests. Instead, we started to look for the seeds of relict crops that could be grown in a way that conserves moisture,” says Monica.

The forest, which is part of Mount Kenya’s larger forest ecosystem, lies just an hour’s hike from the village. It is a major reason for the region’s plentiful water supply.

Monica and her husband, Joseph, were among the first to take advantage of the opportunity to join a project sponsored by ICE, the Institute for Culture and Ecology, dedicated to the renewal of the village’s traditional practices. Mercy Muleva was one of the advisors who began with a small group of about 30 households.

“Western influences are very strong here. Many people here hardly knew of any crops other than corn, wheat and beans. But as the climate has changed, rain patterns have become increasingly unreliable – and our crops have to tolerate both rain and drought,” explains Mercy.

Together the group managed to find and cultivate a number of relict crops, and their success convinced others to follow their lead. Today, a large portion of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants has joined in the effort.

This shift has not only secured the village’s food supply. It has also affected local gender roles.

“Because so many of the relict crops are traditionally planted by men, they’ve become more and more involved in local agriculture. Bananas and yams demand, for example, that we dig deep into the soil. As women, we’re responsible for the home, which seems easier nowadays. Men and women support each other more,” says Monica.

Traditionally, African men and women have had different tasks and skills in the agricultural system,” explains Gathuru Mburu, general coordinator for the ICE group. “In many cases, women have shouldered much of the burden of this work. And colonization has only increased their workloads.”

When Englishmen employed men at the large tea plantations, many became supervisors, a role they then assumed at home.

“In colonial times, native people were forced to adapt to new systems, new worldviews and a new religion. The local, traditional knowledge and skills were no longer valued, and the government has done nothing to change this since the country’s independence in 1963. We’re trying to help these villages reconstruct their knowledge base.”

A crucial part of this effort is to build awareness of the fact that forests must be protected for society to ensure its water supply. Another is the idea that the earth has been damaged by chemical use and high-yield crops, and must therefore be “healed.”

“It’s about decolonizing people’s thought patterns – to reestablish the feeling of community and restore connections with local ecosystems. In many cases, it’s not that difficult once the work has begun,” says Gathuru.

But it’s not just colonization that has led to these negative developments. Christian missions also played a role, in part by diminishing the social status and protection of ancient sacred sites.

One such place is the sacred forest of Giitune, on a hill beside Ruiga, a village several hours away by car. We stop beside a road sign announcing that we have arrived at the equator. Several older men lead the way along a path through dense vegetation. As we hike, the air is pleasantly cool in the shadows of the towering mukui trees (Newtonia Buchananii).

At the top of the hill we reach a small glade, where several dozen villagers sit in quiet concentration around a fire. The moment we’ve taken our places in the circle, a group of women begins to sing and dance, their loud howls inviting us to join in. Two older men, one in a tattered grey suit and a broad sun hat, the other with a black-and-white fur headdress and tufted staff, emerge from a hut on the far side of the glade carrying a ceremonial drinking horn and a calabash adorned with shells.

The calabash used in the ceremony in Giitune by M’Riberia Mwongo contains a sacred beer, brewed from sugar cane juice and honey from the foothills of Mount Kenya, and fermented near the fire.  On the right senior village elder George M’Turuchiu. Photo Mats Hellmark

The men dance within the circle as they drink the liquid from the calabash, which they then spray from their mouths onto the people surrounding them, and onto a nearby tree. The song has become more rhythmic. We hear a single word repeated: thaai, thaai, thaai. As the liquid sprays in my direction, I notice a faint scent of yeast and honey.

Tetu Maingi sits beside me, whispering that the ceremony is a blessing of the sacred forest, and of the people in the shadow of the great tree. The word thaai means peace and serenity.

Tetu is a coordinator in the environmental organization Porini, which also works to promote traditional knowledge and local autonomy. Together with the UN organization UNDP and the National Museum of Kenya, Porini runs a project aimed at restoring and conserving some two-dozen sacred sites surrounding Mount Kenya.

In many cases their task is urgent: Environmental degradation and exploitation threaten valuable natural and cultural resources, and the older generation’s traditional knowledge is dying out.

As a secular Swede, the ceremony around us feels unfamiliar. But it doesn’t take faith in the local god Murungu to understand the advantages offered by the forest in terms of water, firewood, medicine and more stable weather conditions.

The man in the fur headdress – made from the pelt of the sacred colobus monkey – is M’Riberia Mwongo, a 74-year-old medicine doctor and spiritual adviser in Njur Nceke, the highest council of elders in the province of Meru. The man in the sun hat is the senior village elder George M’Turuchiu, at 84 years of age.

The calabash contains a sacred beer, brewed from sugar cane juice and honey from the foothills of Mount Kenya, and fermented near the fire. Later in the evening I’m offered a taste: It is strong, sweet and cloudy with yeast.

At the end of the ceremony is a Christian prayer, a fact no one seems to see as a contradiction. But when I speak with Mwongo afterwards, he shares his criticism of many of the effects of Christianity:

“The Bible tells us that Jesus forgives. But to be accepted back into the community, and to atone for one’s sins, our tradition requires repentance and a purification ceremony.”

Christian missions paved the way for colonization, broke down traditional systems of rules and severed the connection to nature, he explains.

“The first European arrived in 1901. Before this, the forest was intact, protected by the taboos of the council of elders.”

It wasn’t allowed, for example, to take a knife or axe into the forest. The only acceptable cutting tools were stones. Firewood could only be collected on specific occasions, and then only dried branches. If a living tree was felled, bloodshed would follow. In the forest, the killing of animals was forbidden along with fighting and sex.

As the church became the new holy site, the myths and taboos of the forest faded into the past. Instead, ancient beliefs were associated with forces of evil. Sections of forest were cut for timber, which was then used for building and wood coal. Subvegetation was collected for animal feed, and the forest began to dry out.

“The morals of our society also faded. In one spot in the forest, beer was brewed and sold. The forest was used as a toilet, and for love affairs,” explains Martta Kauthi Gituna, a 42-year-old local.

Janet Ikaria is just over 70 years old and has noticed a resurgence in traditions due to the project:

“Now, the young people listen to their elders again. Streams have begun to flow, harvests have improved and we don’t need to go as far to collect water.”

The turning point was a grand purification ceremony in 2005, when a sheep was sacrificed, according to Julius Gikundi, secretary of the Giitune Environment Conservation Group. The group maintains the forest on behalf of the National Museum of Kenya, which granted the area protection rights in 2003.

“Giitune is proof to the whole world that it’s possible to protect forests through traditional cultural practices. Now, security guards are no longer needed. We plant native trees to restore the parts of the forest that were destroyed,” say Julius. The animal life, however, has yet to recover, with the exception of birds, of which there are still quite many. The elders estimate that about two-dozen species have disappeared, among them several monkeys and antelope.

“Traditional knowledge is passed down through generations. We try to combine the stories of the elders with modern technology, such as GPS mapping. This kind of documentation also makes it easier to gain the attention of authorities,” explains Tetu Maingi of Porini.

A group of young locals tells me that they’ve learned a great deal from their elders. “Of course, many younger people leave the village for work or studies. But we hope to be able to carry on our traditions with the help of research and photographs,” says George Ringera, a teenager in the group.

At other holy sites, less progress has been made. We pass Mbututia, a sacred lake and wetland area endangered by drainage and conversion to croplands. The lake is vital to migratory birds and huge numbers of fish, and its survival has been threatened on several occasions – once, by an Italian priest who proposed leveling the area and replacing it with an airport. More recently, a forced relocation program has led to a number of farmers being allotted land that today is lake bottom.

 Wildlife diversity here is enormous, and plans have been developed to use EU aid to turn the lake into a nature preserve. But as long as land rights issues remain unresolved, the threats remain.

Tetu takes us to Karima Hill, a hilltop forest in the province of Nyeri, west of Mount Kenya. “Here, the struggle is still underway. People have become aware of the situation and are beginning to fight to keep their forest. The government sees it only as a source of timber,” he explains.

The forest is 270 hectares in total, although the majority was burned or cut by the British to eliminate what was seen as a refuge for resistance fighters during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Where the forest was once managed locally, the system was later taken over by the city government, which proceeded to set up tea plantations and replace the damaged areas with non-native tree species – mostly water-intensive eucalyptus. None of these projects have brought direct income to the surrounding villages.

Water access, on the other hand, has suffered dramatically.

“The forest is very important for us as women. We’ve been able to collect firewood there, and the water, which has always been near our homes, has given us proper harvests. There were also medicinal herbs, wild fruits and berries for the children,” explains Rachel Wagui, a 75-year-old villager.

“Before, there was water in every valley. Now, 20 of our 26 streams have died out. The rain patterns have also changed, and erosion has increased,” says the village elder, Paul Thuku.

The council of elders is currently working to take back control of the forests from the city government. Despite other setbacks, two sacred sites totaling some 70 hectares have remained untouched, and are now protected by an ordinance from the National Museum. We climb up to one of these sites, first through a steep tea plantation, then past the tall eucalyptus trees at the hill’s crest.

As we approach the site, flashes of movement swish by in the tree canopy overhead. Black-and-white creatures with long tails hop nimbly among the branches. This is the home of the rare colobus monkey.

Paul Thuku and Kamau Mwita, members of the council of elders, discuss local taboos before we’re allowed to follow them to the most sacred site. Are women and whites allowed to come along? And what about abstinence? Anyone who has had sex during the previous week is forbidden from entering the area.

Eventually we’re allowed to follow them into the dense vegetation to join in a ceremony beneath a colossal tree enveloped in the lianas of the strangler fig. That the holy site has managed to survive untouched is something Kamau sees as a gift from the gods: “It gives us hope for the future. This, and the progress being made at other holy sites like Giitune.”


Traditional knowledge

Traditional knowledge is an important part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty which has been ratified in 180 countries.

Porini and ICE are currently working according to a concept known as Community Ecological Governance, or CEG, a model for managing the destructive effects of globalization with the help of traditional knowledge and local influence. Porini and ICE are supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, and cooperate with other environmental organizations in Africa, within the African Biodiversity Network.

Find out more about their work at: and

Text Mats Hellmark Translation Grant Baldrigde