MAU FOREST, KENYA – “We hunt in the morning because you can still see the steps of the animals where they have passed,” Fred says as he runs his hand over the brush alongside the trail that we’re hiking.
We’ve just spent a couple of hot, dusty hours bumping along a dirt road, followed by a mile-long trek through the trees to meet Fred Ngusilo and his family. They are part of the Ogiek tribe, an indigenous population of about 35,000 in Kenya, most of whom live in the Mau Forest, roughly 120 miles from Nairobi. The word “Ogiek” means “carer of all plants and wild animals,” and the name is fitting. As one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in East Africa, the Ogiek have both depended on and protected the ecosystem around them for decades.
On May 26, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled the Kenyan government guilty of violating the rights of the Ogiek for decades. Since 1911, the Ogiek have been forcibly evicted from their land by the government and illegal land grabbers alike in a fight over the forest’s lush natural resources. Although the Ogiek have lived in Mau Forest for generations, they’ve never held proper land titles to the area. With this new ruling, they can now demand formal rights to what they consider their ancestral land.
The decision also comes at a crucial time for the Mau Forest. The site of Kenya’s biggest water catchment and the source of seven major rivers throughout the country, deforestation has devastated at least one-fourth of Mau’s trees, and commercial farming has taken over once sacred land.
I spent a couple of days with the Ogiek, learning about how deforestation has threatened the forest and many of the tribe’s oldest traditions, and how the Ogiek have decided to fight back.
Smoke fills the small room as Grace Ngusilo, 45, prepares black tea for her family after a midday meal of potatoes and rice. Traditionally, the Ogiek eat meat that they hunt (antelope and hyrax, among others) and honey that they gather from the forest. But hunting in Mau Forest is now illegal, so the men in Grace’s family only go on a hunt once a month, walking three days deeper into the forest, where animals have been forced to retreat due to deforestation. “I’m worried,” Grace says, “because in the past, our lives depended on the forest for our food and traditions. We can’t live outside the forest. We can’t survive out there.”
Four generations of Ogiek women—(from left to right) Rashampa Ngusilo, 92, Elizabeth Ngusilo, 24, Blessing Ngusilo, 1, and Grace Ngusilo, 45—sit together in an open field next to their family’s compound. “We love living together because we don’t like loneliness,” Elizabeth says. “My dad takes care of my grandmother. I will take care of my mother when she is old, and my daughter will take care of me when I’m old.” The field that they sit on used to be full of trees and wild animals, Rashampa says, until pastoralists burned down the trees to make space for cattle grazing. “It destroyed everything. There was no more forest for animals to hide, no more trees for our beehives. It brought so many changes.”
Wilson Memusi, 58, stands in the family’s farm beside their compound. The Ogiek only recently started farming to supplement their declining food sources of meat and honey. Here, Wilson grows potatoes and tree tomatoes. “The deforestation of Mau has happened because many communities have come claiming that Mau Forest is theirs,” he says. “They come and cut [down] trees. Once the government agrees to surrender the forest to us, we’ll finally have the power to protect it.” Since 1992, when the government carved out parts of Mau Forest for outside settlement, other communities like the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes have joined the Ogiek in laying claim to the land.
Grace Ngusilo cuts off raw slivers of tree bark that she says can help alleviate muscle and joint pains when boiled and consumed. She leads us around a patch of forest next to her home, collecting handfuls of leaves and pieces of wood while naming and explaining their uses, everything from relieving menstrual cramps to blood clots. At age 16, as part of her initiation into adulthood, she was brought into the forest by an elder to learn the natural medicines around her home. Now, due to deforestation, some of the medicinal plants she saw as a child have gone extinct.
“You’ll find that the leaves, roots and bark of a tree can be for different things,” Grace explains, as she lays out medicinal plants found in the forest. Many of these are boiled and drank as tea, but some, like the plant on the far right, are heated over a fire and used to massage the surface of the skin to treat pain.
Fred Ngusilo, 25 shows us the perfect tree for hanging a beehive; wide branches are key. “Somewhere you can put your beehive and a good place where you can stand while harvesting.” Honey is a crucial element of Ogiek culture, harvested organically from hollowed out logs and eaten spoonful by generous spoonful or used for ceremonies. “When we harvest honey,” Fred says, “we just take honey [for dinner], drink water, then sleep like a small child.” After a log is hollowed out, it is carried up and hung in a cedar tree for months as bees produce honey inside. Fred has 120 beehives and says his grandfather has 1,600. It was from his grandfather that he first learned how to hunt and gather honey at age 15. In a season, he harvests around 800 pounds of honey, collecting it in big buckets and selling some at the local market. Most of the family’s beehives are now a three-day trip from their compound, where indigenous trees haven’t yet been cut down for commercial logging or farming.
A deliciously sweet piece of honeycomb stored away since the last harvesting season. Elizabeth Ngusilo explains the sustainability of honey harvesting: “We are protecting the forest,” she says. “We don’t [cut down] trees to remove the honey. We keep everything the way it is. When a tree falls, our elders go and see why it has fallen so we can prevent it next time. Did it fall because of a person or just on its own?”
The forest is quiet with the pattering of sheep in the distance when Fred Ngusilo stops walking and sticks his hand in a tree. A natural beehive, he explains. “There is no need of putting a beehive on this tree because the tree already has holes. The bees live inside the holes and make honey there.” He and his grandfather survey trees that house bees during the harvesting season, and mark the ones they want to harvest. “Each family has his mark. Once you find that the tree has been marked you know that somebody has come before you, so you won’t dare to harvest that honey. My mark is cutting the bark of the tree three times.” And bee stings? “The bees will just sting you, but because you are used to it, your hands won’t get swollen.”
Elizabeth Ngusilo carries her daughter Blessing on her back through the forest. She says she’s worried that she won’t be able to pass on Ogiek traditions to her daughter if deforestation and land encroachment continues. She hopes to get formal land titles to the land her family has lived on for generations. “Our fathers died squatters,” she says. “Our grandfathers died squatters. But we are on our ancestral lands. The spirits of our grandfathers protect us here.”
Scouts line up for a portrait in front of the main office of the Logoman Forest Station, where young men from the local community volunteer to be scouts. They patrol their 12,300-acre section of Mau Forest once a week with Kenya Forest Service rangers to arrest people doing illegal forest activities like poaching, charcoal burning, logging and more. “The first month of launching the scouting program in November 2015, our scouts arrested 17 people,” says scout chairman William Leleshwa (far right). “Illegal incidences have reduced a lot since then.” He says he sees a revival of plants and honey harvesting now that illegal encroachment has become less of a problem.
Simon Sururu Anderson, 30, far left, has been a scout for a year and a half, since the program started. “I decided to become a scout because I saw the deplorable state of the forest from human activity. Because the forest was being conserved by my ancestors, I must also help conserve it for future generations.”
The scouts participate in a reforestation program sponsored by the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program, an organization dedicated to Ogiek land and natural resource rights as well as community development. Here, young cedar trees peek up through the soil. Eventually, they will be replanted in the forest. These are only the first steps to restoring Mau. Fred Ngusilo is intent on continuing the fight for Ogiek land title deeds so they can take charge of conservation efforts. “If the government wants to protect the Mau Forest,” he says, “they will give the forest to us.”