Last August, Kenyan police used teargas and even live bullets to break-up demonstrations by Maasai tribesmen demanding the return of land they lost to British settlers a century ago. This followed the expiry of a so-called treaty that the British signed with Maasai elders giving the veneer of legitimacy to the original colonial land grab.
Protests had erupted throughout western Kenya, resulting in the death of at least one Maasai in the Rift Valley in the course of police dispersing a group that had led their cattle to graze on a private ranch in the area.
The Maasai have long been renowned for their traditional culture. One early British observer wrote in his memoirs that "the beauty of their life was the way they roam to seek pasturage, moving with their immense herds to seek the fresh green after the rains". That was in 1950, a decade and a half before Kenya's self governance.
After independence, the story of the Maasai changed little. They remain embedded to their cultural tradition, and reluctant to fully integrate with the modern state. Ironically, it was this fierce independence that made them a national asset in attracting millions of western tourists to East Africa each year. And, for the most part, the Maasai have enjoyed friendly relations with the state. In general, they have always exercised a degree of political savvy that ensured they never courted confrontation with government.
Not so anymore. Suddenly, the Maasai are asserting their right to reclaim their ancestral lands and have been invading private ranches in the Rift Valley. And prominent Maasai leaders are backing these actions. They are demanding the return of land they signed away a century ago to the British, and calling for the state to recognise the expiry of 99-year farm leases which formed part of the original treaty.
Understandably, many of the white farmers have applied to renew their leases which the Maasai say can only happen if they receive appropriate compensation. Maasai leaders have even been suggesting the need for a pastoralist political party to spearhead their demands, and in a recent meeting with state representatives indicated they were seeking $125m in compensation payments.
CURSORY CONCERN FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
The question over the Maasai's ancestral lands has not only emphasised the systemic marginalisation of the Maasai community over the years, but also highlighted Kenya's cursory concern for its indigenous people.