On top of a hill on the edge of the Northern Rift Valley in Kenya, the sun is warm but the air is fresh and cool. Moments ago, music of resistance filled the air as Sengwer women practiced traditional dance, song and solidarity. Miles down in the valley, mango trees and the outline of rivers that flow from where we stand can just about be traced with the naked eye. Wood smoke and laughter cascade from the door of a nearby mud-hut where Jacqueline, a member of the Sengwer Traditional Women’s Singing Group, is stirring ugali in a clay pot. Women on either side of her are carefully preparing nettles to eat. Fermented milk, kept in gourds decorated with shell, stands in wait by the glow of the fire.
On this hill, the women’s group plan to build a cultural centre for their community: a place to safely store traditional objects; a place to safely pass on indigenous language and distinctive ways of living to Sengwer youth; and a place to safely meet as a community and welcome visitors.
This cultural centre, which is being organised and fundraised for under the leadership of the women themselves will be, above all, a place of safety. An outsider wouldn’t realise that not too far away from this hill, the same women who now sit in peace and tranquility around this fire have been experiencing violent evictions from their home, Embobut Forest. Many of the women are husbandless; men are still in the forest living in makeshift homes or caves, or in the hollows of trees, while others have fled seeking a better life. Quite a few of the older men have died, unable to cope with being torn from their ancestors and relocated outside of the forest to near the road.
Culture Conserves, Dispossession Destroys
Embobut Forest is one of the five significant ‘water towers’ – areas of high forest land - in Kenya, supplying water to the surrounding region. The indigenous Sengwer of Embobut, some 5,000 people, have been caring for their ancestral territories for as long as memory and myth go back. Their methods of sustaining resources were first threatened by the British colonial government, who stole lands and enslaved local populations. This had the effect of squeezing the Sengwer out of the lowlands and up into their highland territories, jeopardising intricate governance systems based on dividing territory by sub-tribe, clan and totem, as well as a system of moving between high and low parts of the territory depending on season.
In the 1930s, the colonialists created the Forest Preservation Policy leading to the transformation of the Sengwer’s ancestral lands into government gazetted forest in 1954. and a change away from the Sengwer’s traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and livelihood with the introduction of cattle rearing, and pyrethrum and potato planting. These were government attempts to steal both Sengwer land and their cultural identity. While other communities were given native reserves, as a minority community the Sengwer were not. Mary Komen, the chairwoman of the Singing Group, says:
“We have become landless and homeless in our own ancestral lands, our Community Land, for which we have a right to under article 63 (2) d ii of the Constitution. How can we care for our lands if we are not able to live on them?”
Despite the appropriation of their lands, the Sengwer resisted assimilation and continued to live unmolested in the forests until the 1970s when brutal evictions began and have continued under post-independence governments, continuing the colonial legacy of discrimination against a way of life viewed as backward because of the Sengwer’s long term care for, and connection with, their forest lands. With funding from the World Bank, the European Union, and the Finnish Government via conservation projects that use militarised force to evict the very people who are best placed to conserve the forest, the Kenyan Government continues to deny the Sengwer Indigenous Forest Peoples recognition as a separate and distinct ethnic group, and the women are witnessing a criminalisation of the land rights struggle as Sengwer living in Embobut forest are labelled criminals, bandits and militia in a bid to justify continued forceful evictions of peaceful community members living in the forest.
One woman’s children were forced at gun-point to burn their own house, and endless reports detail forest guards burning school books, school uniforms and blankets and destroying kitchen utilities so that families are left with nearly nothing other than the clothes in which they escape from further violence and arrest.
The Kenyan Forest Service (KFS) have been evicting the community with increasing violence and cruelty, injuring, arresting and torturing members of Sengwer with fatal consequences. On 16th January 2019 Robert Kirotich was shot dead with a live bullet by a KFS guard in Kapkok glade leading to the suspension of EU WaTER Tower Project. The Sengwer are clear that if they could live on their ancestral lands in peace then their community, conservation practices would conserve the water towers as they have done for millennia.
The evictions – in the name of conservation – make it much harder for the Sengwer to monitor and defend their ancestral territory which has resulted in continued destruction of the forest. The fires set by the KFS sometimes extend beyond the Sengwer houses into the forest, leading to the loss of biodiversity. Due to evictions, the community has been ‘scattered’. This makes it difficult to sustain, organise, or attend cultural events, or strategise to defend their rights. Dislocated from traditional livelihoods, and forced to sell their remaining livestock to replace basic items – like destroyed cooking utensils, burned blankets and spoiled food stocks – these women can rarely afford to send their children to school. Members of neighbouring communities have also taken advantage of the evictions by overgrazing livestock, cultivating land and cutting tress for their own use without Sengwer permission. There have also been instances where the KFS themselves have been accused of illegal logging from the very same forest they are meant to be protecting.
Land is livelihood, Land is ancestor, Land is life
For the Sengwer of Embobut their culture and identity is the bedrock of community. Their way of life is what sets them apart from their neighbours and provides their deep historical connection to their forested lands and to their ancestors who reside there. The Sengwer embody an oral tradition, meaning there is very little written historical documentation of their habitation. These women are fighting for recognition of their rich and detailed culture; evidence of their long habitation in the form of ancient forest wisdom, cultural practices, and community bylaws.
“The customary law that has always been there is from our great, great, grandfathers. It is a law written in our brains. The government has files of that kind of information but we also have files in our minds that we know” says community leader, Elias Kimiayo.
At a community meeting on the location where the cultural centre will be built, a Sengwer Elder addresses the women congratulating them of their initiative which seeks to keep alive Sengwer ways of life through passing traditional knowledge to younger generations in an indigenous school. He says:
“Someone who does not have a culture is a slave. Someone who abandons their culture is a slave”.
For the Sengwer, to protect culture is to appreciate the beauty of taboos and beliefs which have contributed to the peace and harmony of the community, and the sustainable use of resources. Without access to their forests and the abundance of wild fruits, forest vegetables and medicinal herbs that they rely on for nutrition and health, finding enough food to eat has also become a daily challenge. But this does not stop the women. Albina Cheboi, a Sengwer nurse, youth leader and keen member of the singing group describes how the singing group resurged in 2016 amidst evictions and existential threat:
“Dominant communities use the name ‘Sengwer’ whenever there is any function to benefit from it. They know that Sengwer are a minority group and when appearing at public holidays to sing and dance, they were pretending to be us and accept money to appear as such”.
She describes how, already dispossessed from their land, the women could not sit by and watch dominant tribes dispossess them of their cultural identity. The women started meeting and singing, and in doing so, reviving songs of resistance and cultural pride. Before this, some of the women were in a singing group along with a neighbouring tribe, however, the content of the songs were primarily dealing with the dominant tribe’s issues. In 2006, the Sengwer women decided to separate from the group due to lack of recognition, and started writing their own songs.
This is an excerpted translation of one of their songs, ‘Koretapkukonyo’.
Our grandfather’s ancestral land.
We can’t move away from my ancestral land.
We can’t move away from Koropkwen Glade.
We can’t move out of our glades.
We can’t move away from Kaptirbai Glade.
Our grandfather’s land.
We can’t move away from Kapkok Glade.
What was grandfather eating? He was eating nettles.
What was grandmother eating? She was eating nettles.
What were children eating? They were eating los’ wild fruit.
The Higher Sun knows.
Not women for women alone, but women leadership for the community.
The women’s voices are adding a new dimension to the land rights struggle of Embobut, but they have invited some men to join the group. Mary Komen commented on this:
“In any law, a women’s group will not be complete without some men”.
In this way, the women are not organising for women alone, but are building their leadership skills for the whole Sengwer community. For the Sengwer, to advocate for the community means to advocate for land rights.
In response to the evictions, women have developed DIY micro-financing by contributing 50 shillings when they meet every Sunday. The most in-need woman takes money and pays it back with interest. A loan of 300 shillings will be repaid with an additional 10 shillings, meaning that they are slowly building an emergency fund. When women take a lead in the land struggle, the same issues can be approached in new ways which can open innovative pathways to community power.
“We fight to educate our children and get our land back at the same time”, says a member of the group.
The women also encourage each other to educate the girls in the communities to sustain women’s leadership since they believe that the younger generation will only be better leaders with education, and that education will also mean they will not feel forced into early marriage.
The women embrace and celebrate their culture as the core of their land struggle, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to break taboo to make their point. Their determination knows no limits, and they are ready to take their struggle to the government themselves. Standing powerfully on the hill where they will build their cultural centre, one woman encourages the rest of the group to action saying:
“Let’s go to county government. We are ready to go to any office, not even county…even if it means to go to Nairobi and remove our clothes and walk naked, because we have bigger problems than our nakedness.”
The struggle continues…
This project is being funded by Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action – (GAGGA). It’s main aim is to strengthen the Lobby and Advocacy (L&A) capacities of grassroots groups in the field of women’s rights and environmental justice. GAGGAs long-term goal is to catalyse the collective power of the women´s rights and environmental justice movements towards realising a world in which women can and do exercise their rights to water, food security and a clean, healthy, and safe environment.