Two worlds collide
For as long as they have existed, the Maasai of East Africa have led a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle, moving with their livestock across the plains of Kenya and Tanzania in pursuit of water and pasture for their animals. But that lifestyle is under attack from states that are trying to impose their own rules.
The ethnic group are renowned for their unique culture and for co-existing with wildlife in some of Africa’s richest ecosystems – despite repeated attempts to push them out from the Serengeti and Ngorongoro reserves.
They have never seen themselves as Kenyans, or Tanzanians, the only strata being traditional clans, age-groups and age-sets. With land in the community being collectively and communally owned, the only limit to how far someone can graze their livestock is whether the land is owned by the community or not.
But this long held custom was jolted in October 2017 when Tanzanian authorities seized thousands of cattle, sheep and goats from Maasai herders living in Kenya’s Kajiado County, who had crossed the border in an attempt to save the animals from dying in the country’s drought.
The Tanzanian government said the country was not a grazing field for ‘foreign’ herders, and in a shock move auctioned the animals a few weeks later. Traumatised herders appealed for diplomatic intervention to compensate them for the loss, arguing that they had committed no crime by moving their starving herds southwards to lands belonging to their own community: the Maasai of Tanzania.
This furore reignited the old debate about international borders across Africa, most of them drawn up in the late 1800s by colonial authorities in the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’.
According to Soyinka Lempaa, a Nairobi-based human rights lawyer, asking ethnic groups that have moved in response to rainfall patterns and in response to the availability of foliage for their animals for thousands of years, is unreasonable.
‘Colonial boundaries in Africa as drawn up at the beginning of the twentieth century distorted communal life, and divided families, taking members of the same family to different countries,’ says the lawyer. ‘What the boundaries achieved is to disrupt communal life, they separated people but did not end, kill or separate their cultural identities.’
Throughout East Africa and the Horn of Africa, similar cases are seen.
Along Kenya’s border with Ethiopia the Oromo people straddle the two countries where they freely intermarry, move across international boundaries with their livestock and participate in trade, both barter and cash-based, in commercial centres in the two countries.
An even more complicated situation is posed by the Somali community, whose clans live in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, and who often acquire citizenship in whichever of the countries they feel their interests are best taken care off in, according Nairobi-based security analyst Simuyu Werunga.
‘With lawlessness, and terrorist group Al-Shaabab active in Somalia, governments in the region have been trying hard to enforce restrictions on movements across borders by the Somalia people, a hard task to enforce since the culture, customs, language, names and religion of the Somali is the same in the four countries,’ notes Werunga.
On the other hand the Iteso people live across Kenya and Uganda and annually make a pilgrimage east into Kenya, where their ceremonial king lives, for an annual cultural festival celebrating the community’s culture.
Within the community people spend their days labouring in farms across the border only to retreat home in the evening in either Kenya or Uganda, says a George Ashiona, taxi operator in border town of Busia and member of the Iteso community. In his community children go to school across either side of the border something governments in the two countries are aware of and tolerate.
And during elections he says politicians move across to Uganda and pay young people to acquire Kenyan identity cards, so as to register to vote in Kenya.
‘Here Iteso people belong to Kenya or Uganda when it suits them, and they cross the border either way to acquire services such as education and health services,’ he explains.
Governments do not always react as repressively as Tanzania’s did in 2017, and sometimes acknowledge that the ethnic backgrounds and economic activities of such communities drive them to cross transnational boundaries.
In early February 2017 an estimated 700 Turkana and Pokot families – nomadic peoples who graze animals in the north of Kenya, migrated to Uganda with thousands of animals as they fled the drought-ravaged country. This has become an annual migration in response to the rising frequency of climate change-linked dry spells.
Acknowledging that similar migrations are part of life in the region Ugandan authorities, unlike their Tanzanian counterparts, have over the years taken a more accommodating stance, allocating the nomads grazing areas inside Uganda – as happened in March 2017.
At about the same time the Ugandans were taking in these nomads, Tanzania to the south had seized another estimated 10,000 heads of cattle from Uganda and Rwandan pastoralists who had as per tradition moved their animals southwards in pursuit of pastures, in total disregard of geographical boundaries.
Going by these dynamics in pastoralists’ movements across East Africa it would be prudent for governments to acknowledge that colonial boundaries drawn up about 100 years ago have failed to hold, or win the recognition of communities. They must allow a more relaxed approach towards cross-border movement and lifestyle-based migration.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.