The Ogiek: The Guardians of the Forest


The Ogiek: The Guardians of the Forest

By Ron Nomi

Seattle Preparatory High School
African Studies
December 13, 2004

Natural resources play an important role in the shaping of a culture or the survival of a society.  The relationship between man and his dependency on the environment has been a major cause of conflicts throughout the history of the world. The Mau Forest, an ecological haven in Kenya, is an example of such conflict. The Mau supports an abundance of diverse plant and animal life as well as one of the last indigenous forest dwellers, the Ogiek. The Ogiek, commonly referred to as the “caretakers” (Sang, 2002, p.3) of the forest, have existed for centuries in a peaceful (Obare & Wangwe, 1998) and symbiotic relationship with their homeland. This union instills a feeling of a true religion for these people. The Ogiek is a forest-dependent community who have resisted, struggled and survived decades of discrimination and eviction from their ancestral land (Astill, 2002).  Since colonization the Mau Forest has undergone environmental chaos of all living plants and animals (“Kenya,” 2001). This loss of natural resources and the denial of spiritual and cultural rights of their homeland have had a devastating affect on the continuance of the Ogiek identity. A loss of identity is a loss of life. The Ogiek individuality, spirituality, and economic survival are based upon the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Mau Forest. Although the Ogiek have maintained their heritage for centuries through a symbiotic relationship with the Mau Forest, they now face cultural extinction due to government policies that are destroying their traditional homeland and denying their right to exist.

The Mau Forest

The Mau Forest, located on the cliffs of the Rift Valley in Kenya, covers approximately three hundred fifty thousand hectares (Sang, 2002). It is a mountainous rain forest with an average rainfall of two thousand millimeters that is bordered by four Districts: Kericho, Narok, Nakuru and Bomet (Sang, 2002).  The Mau is a delicately balanced and complex ecosystem that plays an important role in nature, capturing and absorbing water during the rainy season, and releasing water into streams and rivers during the dry season (“Facts,” 2003). Famous as one of five water sheds (“Protect,” n.d.) it provides forty percent of the water to Kenya (Astill, 2002).

The natural resources of the Mau are essential to the lives of the Ogiek. Water, necessary for all life, is placed under the strict guidance of the Elders. The Elders prohibit land cultivation within fifty meters of running water (Obawra & Wangwe, 1998) protecting its purity and the continued use by all life in the forest. The ecosystem and the biodiversity supported by the Mau exemplify the fine balance that must be maintained in this ecological haven. Any alteration will affect the stability of the forest, causing detrimental effects on all of its inhabitants, which the Ogiek is a part. The loss of the Mau Forest and its biodiversity is the loss of the Ogiek heritage.  The disappearance and extinction of a culture and heritage is a permanent loss to mankind that cannot be replaced.

History of Ogiek

The ancient Africans are revered and praised as frontiersmen who coexisted with nature (Beinhart, 2000). To them the word land is not defined in a one-word idea (Beinhart, 2000), such as ecosystem or environment.  Instead, nature and the environment are described symbolically (Beinhart, 2000) using human and/or animal spirits. Land is often identified as dangerous, sacred or powerful through the use of myths and fables.  These stories discuss the relationship between man and his environment or question social issues of society that often lead to a moral or an open-ended tale.  To the ancient Africans, their natural environment and all its resources play an important role in shaping their society (Beinhart, 2000).

The Ogiek are a long established African tribe of hunters and gatherers assumed to be the first settlers of Eastern Africa (Sang, 2002).  Their existence can be traced as far back as 1000 A.D. (Towett, 2004b).  The forest provides a way of life, a source of ceremonial and sacred locations such as graves sites (Towett, 2004b), and a place that inspires spiritualism and emotional well-being (Kirui & Mbugua, 2004). The spiritual life that the Mau offers cultivates sincerity and moral commitment to the environment and to all of its inhabitants.  It is here that the Ogiek draws their inner strength and the purity of consciousness. According to ancient stories, God made the Ogiek of the East Mau Forest from soil gathered at the cliffs of the Mau Complex (Majtenyi, 2001). The Ogiek heritage can be thought of as being built on a bond to the soil of their homeland, instilling a belief that where they exist is where they belong. As such, the Mau Forest is the foundation of their community, tradition, and culture affecting the every day life of the people.  Therefore, without the Mau the Ogiek will fade away into oblivion.

The Ogiek’s sense of sight, smell, and sound has become highly developed through centuries of living in the forest (Sang, 2002). This adaptation has made the them proficient at tracking, mapping, and quick to identify a variety of flora and vegetation (Sang, 2002). This knowledge and skill makes them efficient at hunting small animals, the gathering of honey, nuts, fruit, wild plants, and herbs for food or medicinal use (Sang, 2002). The Ogiek familiarity and awareness of the sensitive balance between themselves and nature makes for a peaceful and happy co-existence with the wildlife of the forest. They hunt and gather as long as it is supplied in bountiful amounts. Their dedication to maintaining the harmony and balance of their homeland yields unconditional sacrifices within the community for the protection and safety of their environment. If the scale of supply and demand is tipped, adjustments will be made within the community until the balance can be restored. The Ogiek use their indigenous skills to support them. They use the skins from hunted animals, herbs and honey gathered from the plants and bees, and commodities made from iron ore, such as knives and spearheads, to trade with other tribes (Towett, 2004b).  The philosophy of their economic system is based on providing for the good of the individual and the community, while simultaneously maintaining the health of the environment (Towett, 2004b). The Ogiek are responsible for themselves and the livelihood of the world they live in. By living within the laws of nature, the tribe is obeying the laws of life and therefore, they are successful in bringing prosperity, peace, and happiness to themselves and the earth. It is this instilled value that has made them “self sufficient” (Towett, 2004b, p.100) through the centuries without the need of any outside intervention or assistance. The social and economic livelihood of the Ogiek is dependent on the natural resources of the forest, forming a partnership, which is based on mutual respect.

Council of Elders

The Ogiek is the oldest and most knowledgeable environmentalist (Majtenyi, 2001). Methods to preserve and conserve the forest are passed down from generation to generation by the Elders of the community (Obare & Wagnwe, 1998). Their guidance affirms the moral responsibility of each member of the community to the physical and spiritual laws of nature.  The Council of Elders distributes land, solves disputes, and governs the Ogiek people. Property is held communally through a system of tenure to which animals and plants are a part of the land (Obare & Wagnwe, 1998).  The Elders are responsible for the distribution of property to clans or family members (Sang, 2002). Land boundaries are demarcated and identified through the use of swamps, glades, valleys, rivers, streams and sacred trees (Towett, 2002), exemplifying the spirituality and sacredness that land and its inhabitants play in the life of the Ogiek. As a sign of respect and identification, each family names their portion of land, acknowledging their responsibility to the occupancy and usage of the property (Obare & Wagnwe, 1998). According to Ogiek law, each family is accountable for all animals and plants living on their allocated area, to which hunting, gathering, and tree felling must first have the approval of the Elders (Obare & Wangwe, 1998). The Ogiek heritage is built on a sense of responsibility to their homeland, themselves, and their community.  Their legacy is built on the philosophy where the needs of the individual become the needs of the many.  Therefore, the Ogiek spirituality is based upon not only the respect of their environment, but also upon each other as a group of people. The Mau not only provides for the basic needs of the Ogiek, such as shelter, food and clothing, but it also is an important aspect of their social and spiritual life. 

Protectors of the Forest

The Ogiek world is the Mau Forest, which holds many treasures close to their hearts, minds, and souls. Through the centuries, the Ogiek have practiced methods to conserve and preserve the Mau’s natural resources. In doing so, they have become the protectors of the forest.  Honey is collected year-round in beehives shaped in the form of hollow logs made from the barks of trees (Obare & Wangwe, 1998). The stripping of bark requires expertise and knowledge so no harm or damage is done to the trees. The special care and attention placed on bees, beehive manufacturing, and honey collection is supervised by the Elders who controls the quantity and quality of beehives thus guarding against the overuse of trees. The Ogiek familiarity of the flowering season and pollination practices of the bees is the result of centuries of forest life (Sang, 2002).  This has led to a symbiotic relationship between the forest and the Ogiek. The process of honey collection aids in the cross pollination of trees and plants within the forest and in return provides food, wine and a means of trade with other tribes (Sang, 2002). Wine is used in ceremony rituals of the Ogiek, such as the naming of a child.  Honey wine is served to guests in this spiritual and sacred ceremony (Kirui & Mbugua, 2004).  The care and attention the Ogiek place on honey collection has given them notoriety as honey gathers (Sang 2002). Honey is a vital component in the Ogiek life. It provides food for the community, an item of economic trade with other tribes, and is part of sacred ceremonies that is crucial to the spirituality of the Ogiek. The dependency on natural resources and the relationship between the Ogiek and all life within the forest motivates the Ogiek to use their indigenous skills and wisdom to protect their environment. The Mau, while providing the fundamental necessities of life, more importantly supports the emotional well-being and enhances the spiritual rituals of the Ogiek tradition that is crucial to the survival of their heritage.

The Effect of Colonization

Beinhart (2002), in his paper African History and Environmental History, discusses the destructiveness of human society.  He states that the European expansion into Africa brought forth the idea of humanizing the indigenous people and nature. Colonization tried to change the African way of land use and in doing so caused social and environmental ruin. Africans were considered abusive to their environment and attempts were made to control, segregate, and exclude tribal people from the forest areas.  Furthermore, environmental regulations were introduced for the protection of natural resources.  As Beinhart later reveals, this was all a deception used by the colonists to remove occupants from the forest in order to extract timber and other desired natural resources to pad the pockets of the rich and powerful.
Discrimination of the Ogiek

Since the time of British colonization, the Ogieks have been fighting for the right to be recognized as individuals who have cultural and the ancestral entitlements to their homeland.  In 1932 the Kenyan Land Commission implemented The Forest Act, to which the Ogiek tenured land was declared a forest and therefore a protected natural resource (Towett, 2002).  Declared unworthy, harmful, and detrimental the Ogiek were evicted from the Mau Forest (“Kenya,” 2001).  The British government hoped they would be assimilated into other tribes ridding them of the Ogiek (Astill, 2002). But eviction did not deter the forest dwellers from their homeland; they kept returning only to be treated as trespassers and squatters, and to have their homes destroyed and their beehives torched (Astill, 2002).  In 1963 Kenya became independent of British rule (“Kenya,” 2001), but this did not change the fate of the Ogiek. The Kenyan government, using the Forest Act, refused to allow the Ogiek into their ancestral home (Towett, 2002).

Referred to as “Dorobos” (Sang, 2002, p. 3) or paupers, the forest dwellers now faced discrimination by their own people. The Ogiek land dispute, eviction, and social discrimination continued in the new Independence, forcing the Ogiek to move deeper into the forest (Obare & Wangwe, 1998).  A small group of Ogiek was eventually gathered and placed temporarily around the forest station with the promise of resettlement, but this never happened leaving them landless (Obare & Wangwe, 1998).  Their land was allocated to individuals that were not members of the Ogiek community, but were political supporters of the present government (Towett, 2002).  Judged to be detrimental not only to the Mau but to the outside community, the Ogiek were collected like cattle. As their land was continually taken and under siege, their communities became split and in disarray, leaving the Ogiek lost, confused, and constantly persecuted. This peaceful community of forest dwellers, whose only desire is to be allowed to live their lives as they have for centuries, became victims at the hands of their own countrymen. The constant eviction from the Mau has led a small number of Ogiek to push deeper into the woods, while the majority have been forced into an unfamiliar world. As such, they have become susceptible to assimilation, disease, and poverty as they struggle to adapt to a new way of life leaving their heritage in danger of becoming extinct.

The Desecration of the Mau

Discrimination, corruption, greed, and power are the underlying causes of the desecration of thousands of acres in the Mau. In man’s desire for a better way of life, selfish compromises are made at expense of others.  The Mau, labeled to have environmental protection, continued to be cleared for timber, plantation, and settlement. Three logging companies, Pan African Paper Mills, Raiply Timber, and Timsales, Ltd, were exempt from The Forest Act  (“Kenya,” 2002).  All three logging companies have ties with the Kenyan government. Raiply Timber and Timsales, Ltd employ over thirty thousand Kenyans and Pan African Paper Mills is a company in which the Kenyan government is a shareholder (Astill, 2002). Timber is felled for exportation and land is cleared for plantation and settlement. In 1930 ten percent of forestland was used for exotic tree plantation, again forcing the Ogiek deeper into the forest (Obare & Wangwe, 1998). Timber and tea plantation was seen as a means by which Kenya could compete on a global scale in the world market as well as provide employment within the country (Obare & Wagnwe, 1998). By the order of the President and Parliament, in 1986, tea and pyrethrum plantations were established (Obare & Wangwe, 1998) in Kenya. Pyrethrum or painted daisy produces a natural pesticide in its brightly colored flowers proved to have detrimental effects on the bee population (Obare & Wangwe, 1998). At the same time, large portions of land were given to outside settlers who were considered to be the politically correct, and to individuals who were active supporters of the current government.  All parties had no knowledge of land conservation or preservation and caused unnecessary damage to the forest and its natural resources (Sang, 2002). Poor land management of plantations, logging, and settlements resulted in the destruction of the forestland.  The desecration of the all plant and animal life in the Mau from developers and settlers started a chain of natural disasters in the forest, which negatively affected the Ogiek way of life.  The loss of tree and plant life changed the microclimate of the forest (“Forest,”2004), as water that was once trapped is now evaporated.  The elimination of trees and plants left the land barren and exposed, leaving the soil prone to erosion. Erosion eventually affected the quality and quantity of water in rivers and streams.  Pesticide introduction and use on plantations caused a decline in bee and honey production. These combined changes have had a dramatic effect on the ecosystem and biodiversity of the Mau.  Changes in the forest affect the Ogiek ability to support themselves. Violation of the land and its inhabitants is considered sacrilegious, affecting the Ogiek spirituality, their sense of well-being, and their way of life.  When the land becomes exhausted and useless, and there are no more parcels left to take, the Ogiek moves closer to the eradication of their heritage.  Soon the Ogiek, like their land, will become extinct.

Violations Against International Laws

Kenya takes pride in being a globally conscientious partner, supporting many international conventions and treaties regarding the environment and the rights of indigenous communities (Trouwborst, 2002). The Kenyan government in denying the recognition of the indigenous Ogiek and the desecration of the Mau Forest is in direct violation of international environmental and human rights laws it adopted (Towett, 2002).  In 1972 Kenya agreed to a multilateral World Heritage Convention, which approved a treaty concerned with the protection and survival of cultural and natural heritages. In being an active member of this agreement, Kenya pledged to safeguard and protect heritages from any social or economic changes that cause damage or destruction of a heritage (Trouwborst, 2002). Again, in 1982 pledging to abide by The World Charter for Nature, the Kenyan government promised to respect nature and all its processes, avoid irreversible damage, and adapt agriculture and forest practices that are natural to the environment (Trouwborst, 2002). Lastly, in 1992 accepting the Convention on Biological Diversity, Kenya vowed to protect the ecosystem and natural habitats, respect indigenous communities, and use nature in such a way that does not cause harm to the biodiversity, or present and future generations (Trouwborst, 2002). In these three treaties alone, the government of Kenya has disregarded the socioeconomic dependency of the Ogiek on the Mau Forest, dismissed the cultural and spiritual importance of the Mau to the continuance of the Ogiek heritage and lastly disrespected the Mau Forest as an integral part of the Ogiek society.

The Assimilation of the Ogiek

The Ogiek is highly adapted to their life in the Mau. Life outside the forest is unfamiliar, frightening and possesses many threats to the innocent and naïve Ogiek people. As forest dwellers, they lack the social skills necessary to survive successfully in the modern world. They have become susceptible to the influences of money, modern conveniences, diseases, and illnesses of their new environment.  Tuberculosis, malaria, and sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, AIDS, and HIV are a few examples of infirmity that present a deadly threat to their existence. The Ogiek of the Mau Forest once a self-sustaining, spiritual, and proud people now find their heritage and their cultural spirit dissolving at the hands of man.

The assimilation of the Ogiek people into the outside world is occurring today. There is no written language of the Ogiek; instead it is a spoken language that is passed from parent to child (Kirui & Mbugua, 2004). As some of the Ogiek have become assimilated into the population bordering the Mau, they have become cattle and peasant farmers. They have adopted the languages of their neighbors and are marrying outside of their tribes (Kirui& Mbugua, 2004). Language and children is crucial to the Ogiek.  The spoken language is the only way knowledge and information is passed along in their culture from old to young. The vanishing use of their language in the younger generation threatens the Ogiek heritage.  Children are ones future. The procreation of children is a means of ensuring the continuance of ones lineage. As young men and women marry and intermingle outside of their tribe knowledge, language, and the Ogiek way of life is becoming a thing of the past. Centuries of data, rituals, and spirituality that were once passed down through stories, fables, and discussions are slowly being lost in the transition with each generation. Due to government closure of all schools in the East Mau in 1989 (Sang, 2002) the Ogiek suffer from an eighty percent illiteracy rate, which is the highest in Kenya (Astill, 2002). Illiteracy among the Ogiek hinders the Ogiek to learn about their heritage through the written word.

As more young men and women become assimilated into the outside world, they also adopt the modern way of life. Herbs that were once used for medicinal purposes and for the treatment of ailments are now being deserted for modern medicine (Kirui & Mbugua, 2004).  While some have become cattle and peasant farmers, others have taken employment in businesses or government sectors such as the forest department, planting non-indigenous conifer trees.  Sang (2002), in his paper The Land Question, addresses the ignorance of the forest department about the indigenous plants and trees in the Mau which led to the planting of conifer trees. He notes that the conifer does not provide viable substances or provide provisions that can be used by the Ogiek or the wildlife in the capacity of food or honey production. Therefore, it can be assumed that the conifer uselessness further upsets the ecosystem and biodiversity of the Mau Forest. In essence, these employed Ogiek are part of the system that is eradicating the culture and heritage of their own people.

The assimilation of the Ogiek is a threat to their language, culture, and heritage.  Assimilation is erasing centuries of knowledge and an enriching way of life. 

Lessons That Could Be Learned

Through centuries of living in a symbiotic and peaceful relationship with nature, the Ogiek have developed a deep understanding of their environment.  Today’s environmentalists and conservationists could learn a great deal from the Ogiek people. Beinhart (2002), in African History and Environmental History, states “local knowledge of the environment, and the means of living in it, have become an increasingly rich area of research as well as a powerful ideological statement about the right to manage resources.”  Mankind’s past is his gateway to his future. Centuries of environmental and conservational practices between man and wildlife could be documented for forest management. The medicinal use of plants and herbs for treatment of ailments could become an aid to modern medicine. The sacred rites and spiritualism of the Mau Forest could provide historical information for future generations. With only 500 families practicing their ancestral life style as hunters and gathers (Astill, 2002) in the Mau Forest, the survival of the Ogiek heritage is of great importance.


In just slightly over twenty years, a total of sixty percent of what was once lush forestland is now scrap pieces of barren land (Mbaria, 2004). Since colonization thousands of acres of prime land were released to the politically correct people, supporters of the government, and outside settlers through fraudulent title deeds (Towett, 2002).  In man’s quest for fortunes, he threatens the survival of nature and those whose way of life is dependent on it. While the Ogiek people lived in the forest, it remained healthy and prosperous, once settlers and developers move in, the forest and all its inhabitants are now facing extinction. The Ogiek are a minority group of only twenty thousand countrywide (Sang, 2002), of which currently approximately five hundred families live the traditional way of life in the Mau Forest. At one time scattered in all of the forests of Kenya, they are now dispersed in only the seven sections of the Mau Forest: South West Mau, East Mau, Ol’donyo Purro, Transmara, Maasai Mau, Western Mau and Southern Mau (Sang, 2002).   The Ogiek have been evicted from their land since colonization, discriminated against and dominated by their own countrymen, and suffer from the highest illiteracy rate in Kenya. The future of their identity is threatened as young men and women become assimilated into the modern world.  Homeland, heritage and culture becomes of great importance as only a handful of Ogiek live in the traditional lifestyle in the Mau Forest. This unique relationship with the land and its environment is necessary for the cultural and spiritual survival of these people. The vanishing of the Ogiek is a loss that cannot be replaced. The vitality of the biodiversity and the ecological system of the Mau Forest is central to the tradition, spiritual growth, and economic livelihood of the Ogiek.  Therefore, the continued existence of the indigenous Ogiek is dependent upon the survival of the Mau Forest, and their ability to live in it, for without it they will cease to exist.


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Author’s Note

There is nothing more powerful than being immersed into a society of people of a different race.  There is nothing more profound than communication with a different society of people who you come to respect and sympathize.  There is nothing more life changing that being proud of people that you have never met.

As a student at Seattle Preparatory High School, my senior project involved researching and writing a thesis paper based on a conflict that is occurring in Africa today.  This process led to the discovery of the persecution, discrimination, and eviction of the Ogiek from the Mau Forest of Kenya.  In seeking resources it was discouraging to find limited information.  An article a listed the names of six people in Kenya with matching email.  This was the beginning of a cultural exchange between people and myself whom I have never met. I have come to understand I am responsible for the good of the world. My paper is my opportunity to give something back to the larger community.  I read a quote by Father Fernando Cardenal who states, “You learn to read so can identify the reality in which you live, so that you can become a protagonist of history rather than a spectator.”  My thesis has become more than a senior project.  It is about making a difference, spreading awareness and opening the minds of others.  The Ogiek crisis is an international and a moral issue concerning the rights of individuals to their heritage, identity, and a place they call home.
I would like to thank the Ogiek Welfare Council and ECOTERRA International for their assistance and support in provided information on the Ogiek, especially Ms. Tari Kulissa, Mr. J.K. Sang and Mr. Cheruiyot Kiplangat. Lastly, I would like to recognize Mr. Chris Kiehn and Ms. Carey Swensen for their guidance, and Ms. Mary Roy, my African Studies teacher.