Kenya Honey-Gathering Forest
Tribe Caught in Violence
Nicholas Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
National Geographic News
February 5, 2008
The violence that has swept across Kenya since December's
presidential election has hit the tiny forest-dwelling Ogiek tribe,
bringing to the fore grievances that have been simmering for years.
The Ogiek, best known for their traditional methods of beekeeping,
have become caught up in ethnic clashes following the vote,
resulting in the deaths of nine tribal members at the hands of
police, according to leaders.
A young member of Kenya's Ogiek tribe displays an arrow he uses
to hunt for small game in a photo taken May 8, 2007. The violence
that has swept Kenya since December's presidential election has
hit the tiny forest-dwelling Ogiek tribe, bringing to the fore
grievances that have been simmering for years. Photograph by Tony
The killings may have been retribution for the tribe's support for
opposition candidate Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic
Movement (ODM), in the recent election, tribal officials say.
"I am not allowed to enter town because people say they are
hunting for my life," said Daniel Kobei, chairman of the Ogiek
People's Development Program.
"Being a strong supporter of ODM, I am one of the people who has
been affected. Right now I can't go to work because they say they
are looking for me, so I am waiting for the situation to calm
All across the country, regional ethnic majorities have driven out
minorities in recent weeks, and there is perhaps no minority more
vulnerable than the Ogiek, who have no militia, no government
representative, and only bows and arrows to defend themselves.
On February 4, the Ogiek issued a statement saying they were being
hunted "like rabbits" by a militia group dominated by the larger
"The situation for the Ogiek is very, very bad. They don't have
any security at the moment," said Kanyinke Sena, of the Indigenous
Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, a network of indigenous
groups across the continent.
"People are taking advantage of the insecurity in the country
right now to commit all sorts of atrocities."
Living in the Mau Forest northwest of Nairobi, the Ogiek are one
of the few remaining forest-dwelling tribes in Kenya (see
For centuries they made their living collecting herbs and
cultivating bees, hanging hollowed-out sections of logs from trees
where bees could nest and produce honey.
They also became known for training hunting dogs, which have
become so important to the culture that dogs are sometimes
included in bridal dowry prices.
Like many of Kenya's smaller ethnic groups, most of the 20,000
Ogiek backed Odinga, who had promised to reverse what some see as
years of favoritism toward the dominant Kikuyu tribe.
To the Ogiek, such promises included the assurance that profits
from logging on land traditionally seen as theirs would no longer
go to the government in Nairobi but would instead be given to the
Odinga also pledged to address the tribe's long-standing
grievances over land and to bar members from being expelled from
their territory. Shortly before the election, Odinga was made an
honorary Ogiek elder and was presented with a list of goals the
Ogiek hoped he would achieve.
In December's election, Kenya's incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a
Kikuyu, won a second five-year term in what international
observers said was a highly flawed vote.
That sparked a burst of violence initially described as a
spontaneous surge of frustration that many say reopened old fault
lines between ethnic groups competing for land.
According to the February 4 statement issued by the Ogiek,
militias dominated by the Kalenjin, rivals of the Kikuyu, killed
an Ogiek man in the western region of the tribe's traditional
"The militias represent themselves as a local group defending its
own land rights, but in practice, what they have done is focus on
some of the most marginalized groups to push them off the land,"
said Mark Lattimer, director of the London-based Minority Rights
Threatened for Decades
The Ogiek's existence has been threatened for decades. Since the
early 20th century they have resisted government efforts to remove
them from the Mau Forest.
The government has also logged parts of Mau, destroying the
tribe's traditional terrain and replanting the land with
fast-growing conifers that are useless for honey production.
Now the Ogiek say they are being targeted by Kenyans who simply
want their land. When many people fled the violence after the
election, Kikuyus came and either burned their homes or seized the
land, tribe members say.
"So far, there is an increase [in] hunger because there is no
trading, businesses are still closed, people cannot access the
markets, and police are being perceived as siding with the Kikuyu,"
said Ogiek leader Kiplangat Cheruyot.
"We are appealing for urgent assistance, medicine, food, clothing,
Some food has been delivered to the tribe, but the Kenya Red
Cross, whose resources have been stretched by the crisis, says it
has far bigger problems on its hands. Some 300,000 people are
displaced around the country, and at least a thousand have been
killed in the ongoing violence.
"If we're going to assist all the impoverished communities, then
we'd have to do the whole of Turkana, all of Northeastern, and
many other places," Kenya Red Cross chair Abbas Gulet said,
referring to two of Kenya's poorest regions.
"Unless they are being displaced by the violence, we can't just
give free food to everyone."