Dances with Samburu

The Samburu of northern Kenya are pastoralists, and they are under attack. According to Survival International, two US-based charities — the Nature Conservancy and the Africa Wildlife Foundation — bought lots of land, from Daniel arap Moi. How did he get the land? Good question.

The Samburu, who had been forced out of nomadic pastoralism by the encroachment of fenced off ranches, had settled there twenty years earlier. For twenty years they used this piece of land for grazing and access to water. They made land decisions on communal interests, with no one having the right to permanently dispose of the land. While the decision making process was dominated by male elders, women, especially married women, were involved in decisions concerning land use and allocation.

Until Daniel arap Moi bought the land, no questions asked. Then he sold it to charities.

Since the sale, the Samburu have been harassed, beaten, raped. The lucky ones have “simply” been evicted and had to fend for themselves in makeshift lean-tos. The Samburu have gone to court to retain their land, and to get some justice. Africa Wildlife Foundation has “gifted” the land to Kenya, for “conservation.”

It is a familiar enough story: “Native people” caught in the crosshairs of conservation, charity, and gift economies bestowed upon them by the good people of the Global North. But there is more. The Guardian featured Samburu women prominently … in pictures. In the paper, Samburu women “sing a song” and “wear colorful beaded necklaces.”

It’s not the first time that foreigners have visited sexual violence on Samburu women in the name of progress and civilization. For the past fifty years the Kenyan government has leased land in the Samburu District to the British military. It’s a training ground. Over 600 complaints of rape have been filed against the British military. Women like Miliyan LeKanta, Lydia Juma and Nigaripen Lesiamito have testified, in public, to the rapes. Testimony that resulted in their isolation and even expulsion from their own communities. The “internal” British investigation found the military not guilty. Then the Kenyans “lost” the evidence. As the women’s lawyer explained, “There is no glory in reporting rape.”

That struggle is ongoing and it’s more than colorful beads and the singing of songs. Locally, the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organization has been key in documenting the devastation of the evictions and abuse on the Samburu. In their report, which Survival International sent to the United Nations, they have shown the ways in which women as herders and farmers have been rendered helpless by the violence of police. They also have reported on women who have had to watch as their husbands have been beaten, sometimes to death, by police or by paramilitaries, and then left for dead in the fields. Houses are burned, villages ransacked, women raped. Sometimes, it is the price of charity.

The bitter irony of conservation here is that the Samburu women are actually at the heart of the indigenous preservation of wildlife, in particular of elephants. The Samburu claims a kinship between elephants and Samburu women. It is a kinship of everyday village labor. This kinship results in cultures of respect and honor. It is a kinship which is hard to translate into a language of not-for-profit multinational charitable organizations, their ears more attuned to Samburu women singing and wearing fantastic bead necklaces.

Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

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