Last rites for the Masai

`Green' tourism is killing one of Africa's proudest tribes, writes Sue Wheat
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The Independent Travel
There are some things in travel of which everyone approves - conservation, for example, particularly of the wildlife reserves in East Africa. But life on this crowded planet is not that simple. If you stop to ask the people whose lands these are, you discover that not everyone is in favour of the concept of national parks as developed for the preservation of animals and pleasure of foreign tourists. This week, some of those people came to visit the country that dispatches many of said tourists.

"What would you like to drink?" I ask my new friend. "Warm cow's blood," he replies, throwing his head back and laughing. "No, don't worry, I'll have a beer."

Sitting outside a London pub with the Masai - some in jeans and sweatshirts, some in their traditional brightly coloured robes - was a surreal experience. The people next to us, having a quiet after-work drink, were naturally curious. "What are you doing here?" they asked, and the story of the Masai unfolded again.

The Masai are on a mission.Evicted from the land they've lived on for centuries, they became so desperate that they accepted an invitation to visit Birmingham. Red-nosed Comic Relief capers funded a Bristol charity, African Initiatives, which paid for three of them to take a course in conflict resolution in Selly Oak. After that, they toured Britain explaining their situation. I met them in London, tired and yearning for Masailand.

Masailand, to you and me, is Kenya and Tanzania. For them, there are no country boundaries, only traditional land demarcations which are based on ecological regions - wetlands and dry lands. "We are pastoralists - we graze cattle, sheep and goats and migrate from one spot to another so that it is never over-grazed. We know every detail of the land - the type of grass, the water, the animals; we are completely self-sufficient," explains Reyet ole Moono, a young Masai man from southern Tanzania.

But in the name of conservation and tourism, terrible things have happened to the Masai lands over the last few decades. In a modern-day divide and rule, international conservation agencies, say Reyet and his friends, encouraged the Tanzanian government to designate large chunks of Masailand as "protected areas" and forced the Masai out. "They didn't realise the land they have made into national parks is rich in resources and wildlife because we've kept it like that over centuries, grazing our livestock side-by-side with the wildlife."

Crammed into small pockets of land outside the parks without access to watering holes, salt-licks and enough grazing land, their livestock are dying. Without the livestock, the Masai are starving. Many of Reyet's friends have left for the city now, he explains. Others perform "ridiculous dances" for tourists on the roadside. With many men away, the women struggle on the land alone, explains Nolema Losioki Labdaki. "We have to walk six miles for water."

Across Kenya and Tanzania a total of 12,097 square miles has been lost to the Masai and made into national parks to attract tourists. The Masai are fined or imprisoned if they enter them, "but inside these `conservation areas' there are roads, hotels, lodges, and lots of tourist minibuses," says Reyet. "This word conservation is a contradiction." They say that, ironically, in some areas, 80 per cent of the wildlife have moved out of the national parks, so harassed are they by safaris. And now that the Masai are no longer there to scare off poachers, the wildlife that remains is threatened: there were 500 rhinos before the Masai were evicted; there are now only eight.

I am used to the Masai of travel brochures, proud and smiling. These Masai are proud, too, but behind their pride is anger and desperation. "We have not been consulted about conservation; we have been evicted; we do not gain any income from tourism, we are completely left out," says Kanderi ole Toroge, who now lives outside Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and is bringing a court action against two companies which are illegally building a lodge, airfield and zoo on his village land. "We like tourists," he adds, "but we want to manage tourism and benefit from it ourselves."

Kanderi is a mighty figure. With one hand holding a pint, the other continually rewrapping his robe to keep out the cool evening air, he explains in no uncertain terms who is to blame. "The World Wide Fund for Nature, the Friends of Serengeti, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), these are all international organisations that have decided what will happen to our land without ever asking us."

Later, I meet Kitilai ole Ntutu, "I am the son of the chief of all Kenyan Masai," he says, "and I am visiting the European Parliament tomorrow. They are using your taxes to fund these agencies who have evicted us and I'm going to ask them to stop."

I ask if they're hopeful for the future. "We're worried," they say, "but we're hopeful, we're getting educated, we're fighting in the courts." They are warriors, after all.

More information on the displacement of the Masai from African Initiatives, 41 Ashgrove Road, Bristol BS7 9LF (0117 952 0988) and Tourism Concern, Stapleton House, 277 Holloway Road, London N7 8HN (0171-753 3330).

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