IN TANZANIA last year I heard about the zoologist Charles Monbiot and meant to look him up on my return to England. He had spoken to people who lived on mountains and plains so remote that just getting there was a major achievement. He had put his nose into affairs that would undoubtedly make Kenya and Tanzania the eighth and ninth countries in which he is persona non grata.
I had been visiting Maasai friends who herded their cattle on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and the sun-cracked plains below and they were angry. A government more interested in tourists than its own people was nudging them off their native land. The Maasai are not exceptional. These days all nomads get a bum rap.
In the 1950s the British colonial administration targeted the game-filled forests and the volcanic craters of the Ngorongoro Highlands, the Maasai spiritual heartland, as a potential tourist attraction. The blueprint for the area's development promised protection for the peoples' rights, but as the economic value of tourism grew, wildlife began to take precedence.
Twenty years ago, the Maasai were expelled from the crater which now has about 150,000 visitors a year. With grazing lands reduced and access to dry season water holes denied, they turned to agriculture to supplement their food. Tensions escalated when cultivation was prohibited. The legal basis for the order is tenuous, but prosecutions and prison sentences continue. More recently, the Maasai have been evicted from Mkomazi on the Tanzania-Kenya border so that the area can be resurrected as a game reserve. Neither compensation nor alternative grazing grounds have been offered. Instead, they are prosecuted for trespass when they drive their herds on to land belonging to the farmers on the borders of the reserve and prosecuted again when they retreat back into their old grazing grounds inside Mkomazi. It is a catch-22 situation with a trapdoor that leads to urban slums.
While most of us Western journalists fiddle, Charles Monbiot has written this book about the persecution of East Africa's nomads. Its mongrel presentation - a mix of traveller's diary and journalistic expose with a dash of academic monograph - is at times frustrating, but the zeal that blazes from the pages is ample recompense.
For the Maasai, Sainburu, Turkana, Barabaig, Somalis and other semi-nomadic herders, progress has always been impeded by ignorance, bureaucracy and government apathy. Now it is in danger of being smothered altogether by corruption and greed, politically sanctioned massacres, and cattle rustling sponsored by high-level politicians for their own gains.
Monbiot's interviews and interludes take him from the homeless Turkana children in city markets to the Samburu astrologer Ledumen living up a mountain; from office clerks and warriors to the bewildered refugees from massacre, drought and famine. A Maasai complains that when a warrior kills a lion to protect his cattle, 'he gets an enormous fine and up to seven years in prison', but when a lion kills a Maasai, government compensation to his family rarely materialises.
Monbiot meets Richard Leakey, the elephant messiah and poachers' nemesis, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Despite feeling like a pupil 'waiting outside the headmaster's study for a caning', he charges that KWS cares more for tourist money than for conservation and the Maasai, and cites the well-supported accusation that KWS rangers regularly beat herders who wander across the borders of Tsavo Park. Leakey denies the latter but concedes the former.
This is a fascinating book that occasionally blossoms with haunting prose. Here, for instance, warriors have just sacrificed and eaten a white ox: 'A kite wheeled round the enclosure, trimming the hot air with the fingers of its wings, turning and swooping above the elders' heads. The remaining bones and gristle of the ox were burnt, to ward off the possibility of sorcery.'
While their lifestyle has long been idealised in the West, the nomads' plight remains muted in international forums. Monbiot makes an impassioned plea on their behalf: 'Without the land and the sky there is no God; without their tribe, their language and their laws there is no identity.' The future of East Africa's nomads is a cause worth fighting for. They are fortunate to have Monbiot on their side.
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