Indigenous life | Kenya

“Indigeneity is not a label”

Maori, Inuit or Maasai: What connects indigenous people worldwide? Kenyan activist Mali Ole Kaunga talks about the power of international networking and the political space it opens up
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Activist Mali Ole Kaunga

Interview by Gundula Haage

Mr Kaunga, you are the founder and director of IMPACT, the Kenyan organisation for conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Which indigenous communities do you represent?

In the beginning, I mainly represented the Maasai from Laikipia, the group I belong to. But now we work with over ten communities in Kenya alone. These include pastoralist peoples such as the Samburu, the Turkana and the Maasai, but also hunter-gatherers such as the Ogiek. The longer I spent with different communities, the more I realised that indigenous people in other African countries have very similar problems. That's why I co-founded the PARAN alliance, which brings together indigenous organisations from all over East Africa.

What are the key problems that different groups have in common?

There are legal and political differences from country to country, but indigenous communities are threatened with the loss of land almost everywhere.

In most African countries, governments fail to sufficiently recognise the rights of indigenous peoples. The possibility of preserving traditional ways of life such as nomadic pastoralism or hunter-gathering is severely restricted. Whether in Namibia or Kenya, Ethiopia or Congo, indigenous communities are being driven out of the forests so that they can be placed under nature conservation. They must leave the savannahs because industry is being built there or new infrastructure projects are being developed.

“The wounds of the colonial era are still very fresh in Kenya”

The reasons for the forced relocations and expulsions are of secondary importance as the outcome is same: indigenous communities lose their territory. Land is essential to us in many respects: it is about securing the material basis of life, but also about identity, culture, spirituality and historical rights. Many of these land conflicts have their roots in the colonial era. But these are not old stories from long ago. The wounds of colonialism are still very fresh in Kenya.

In which areas are these wounds still noticeable today?

When the Europeans came to America, the first thing they did was to destroy the livelihoods of the indigenous population. They killed the buffalo and stole their land. Indigenous communities in Africa were confronted with similar situations: They were violently robbed of their collective land. Livestock was confiscated, new diseases killed extremely large numbers of people and those who remained were no longer allowed to live as they were used to.

When we talk about indigeneity, we are inevitably dealing with issues of power and domination. Being ruled in your own country by strangers who make the decisions is an experience that all indigenous communities have experienced. Like the Aborigines in Australia, the Maasai and other indigenous groups in Kenya were oppressed and assimilated.

The British colonial lists determined how we were allowed to make a living and what the education system should look like. Things didn't get any better after independence, because the new Kenyan government also took land away from indigenous communities.

If we, the Maasai, were to claim all the land we have lost, we could claim the whole of Nairobi. The Kenyan capital was built on stolen Maasai land.

From the Inuit in the Arctic Circle to the pygmies in Cameroon, the term “indigenous” describes very different people around the world. How do you define indigeneity?

At IMPACT, we work with more descriptive definitions, such as in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations on indigenous peoples. Self-identification is central to this.

Other important aspects are a special relationship to the land and to nature, an individual cultural understanding and a sense of identity and that a more traditional way of life is still maintained. These points are similar in all the indigenous communities I know. What exactly these cultures and ways of life look like is, of course, extremely different. This also applies to their self-image.

In African countries, for example, we are not so concerned with questions of “indigeneity”, i.e. whether indigenous communities actually lived in a particular place in the first place. In Latin America, the USA or Australia, on the other hand, the question of aboriginality, i.e. being there first, is central. What is more important for us is the difficulties we face today and how these are similar across different communities.

“The strength of the term lies in its collective power. We have legitimate rights that we can only claim if we work together”

Is self-identification as “indigenous” also restrictive in some respects? For example, when someone wants to leave the traditional way of life behind and move to a big city to study?

In some contexts in Kenya, it can be the case that you are discriminated against. Many people have prejudices and see indigenous people as somehow backward or primitive. For example, if you are out and about in Nairobi in traditional Maasai clothing, people may only address you as “Maasai” and not by your own name.

But indigeneity is not a label that you give yourself as you see fit. Treating people like objects and labelling them is colonial thinking. The strength of the term “indigenous” lies in its collective power. It is not about pursuing an agenda of identity politics. Indigenous peoples have legitimate rights that can only be claimed collectively. For this, we need standardised terminology.

By using the globally recognised term, we connect across national borders with other people who are struggling with similar problems. We are not demanding some outrageous things. We want to be able to lead a life in dignity - just like all other people. The fact that indigenous people now have their own convention at the United Nations and have guaranteed rights was only achieved through the joint struggle of many indigenous communities.

When I was recently in Kenya for research, I visited a Maasai village whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated for the construction of the large Olkaria geothermal power plant. Some of the residents told me that they had exchanged ideas with Māori from New Zealand. In a similar situation, they had managed to obtain appropriate compensation and a share in the profits of a power plant. Do you often co-operate with geographically distant indigenous groups, as in this example?

I have supported the campaigns of the resettled Maasai in Olkaria in various ways. There are currently a lot of new geothermal wells being drilled in the African Rift Valley, so it is likely that many more people will lose their land. At IMPACT, we are currently developing a map showing all renewable energy installations. We expect to publish a study in May 2024 describing the impact of this expansion on indigenous peoples in Kenya.

“We demand to live with dignity - just like all other people”

But as for the exchange with the Māori, fortunately we are seeing increasing international cooperation of this kind. Especially in court, it can be very helpful to be aware of arguments from successful comparable cases in other countries and to build on them. We are currently in close contact with Sami groups from Norway. An important case was won there and the indigenous community was vindicated in their lawsuit against wind power companies.

There was a similar case in Kenya when the Kipeto wind farm south of Nairobi was built on indigenous land. This is the only example I can think of so far where the community was adequately compensated for the loss of land.

There seem to be frequent conflicts between companies seeking to expand renewable energy production and indigenous people whose rights are threatened by the plans...

Like so many indigenous activists, I am of course in favour of protecting the environment and fighting climate change. But when we talk about the goals of sustainable development and a fairer world, this must not occur at the expense of indigenous people. The world must finally be prepared to recognise historical injustices.

For this reason, it is very important that leaders in indigenous communities from different countries come together and ensure that our rights are recognised on the international stage, such as in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The first indigenous person from an African country to speak at the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) was Moringe Ole Parkipuny, a Maasai activist from Tanzania in 1989. What about the representation of the interests of African communities at the international level today?

For a long time, indigeneity was mainly associated with Native Americans from the USA, Mapuche from Latin America and perhaps Māori or Aborigines. Fortunately, this is slowly changing. More and more representatives from African countries are on international committees. However, there are still far too few of us. This is mainly due to the struggle for visas and funding to attend relevant conferences.

Africa is generally very underrepresented at the United Nations. Yet it is extremely important to be visible there: to have a say, to be heard and to gain allies. At the moment, however, I see it as an even more pressing problem that national governments, such as Kenya's, disregard the rights of indigenous peoples. They tend to see indigenous communities as a disruptive factor, as a threat to prestigious economic projects. That's why we try to do a lot of public relations work and enter into dialogue with members of the government.

Are you optimistic that Kenyan indigenous people will gain visibility in the future?

When you arrive at Nairobi airport, you are greeted by large posters of festively dressed Maasai. There are performances of traditional dances during state visits, and when Kenya officially celebrated National Maasai Day for the first time last year, Kenyan President William Ruto appeared in Maasai dress. So we are already visible. But this visibility has yet to translate into the recognition of rights. More and more value is being placed on cultural diversity internationally.

It is slowly becoming clear how important indigenous communities are with their ways of life that are in harmony with nature. If we are allowed to keep our land and our rights are recognised, this will not only contribute to the well-being of indigenous people, but to the well-being of all people worldwide.