Margaret Chesir was born in Embobut forest and for over 50 years has known no other home. She is a member of the indigenous Sengwer community, often evicted by the government in a bid to conserve the forest.
An agonised Chesir was evicted in 2014, and since then, she has been in and out of the forest, struggling to get back to the hunter-gatherer life that defines her community.
“Life outside the forest is unbearable and we often return to the forest as soon as security agencies burn down our structures,” Chesir told the Star, holding back tears.
Chesir and other women grew up in an environment where colobus monkeys chattered, jackals howled and crickets chirped. They are fond of natural fruits and vegetables found in Embobut and nearby forests.
“We don’t cut down trees because we live inside thick forests, and we rely on the forest for food and medicines,” she says.
Other communities listed as indigenous include Boni (Bajuni), El Molo, Malakote, Ogiek, Sanya, Waata, Wagoshi and Yaaku.
But as the world commemorated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9, Chesir and company were wondering what their future holds.
LEFT BY HUSBANDS
Mary Komen, a Sengwer community women leader, says the community is now joining the list of internally displaced Kenyans after a series of evictions.
The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders recently conducted a research titled “Race against eviction. The plight of Sengwer women and human rights defenders in Embobut forest”.
The NCHRD report, launched in Iten, shows a community that has lost its traditions and language during successive evictions.
According to the report, Sengwer were forcibly evicted every year since 2007.
The community has lived in Embobut forest since the 1890s, and they were given permits by the British colonial government to stay in three glades, including Kapkok, Kaptirbai and Koropken.
Its members also occupy parts of West Pokot and Trans Nzoia and consist of 21 clans. The 2009 census put the Sengwer community population at 33,187.
The NCHRD further established that the evictions depressed the community, while frequent displacements and disruption of livelihoods have denied the community’s children the right to education.
Early marriages and disintegration of Sengwer family units have also been threatened by the evictions.
NCHRD media executive director Kamau Ngugi said researchers spoke to women of the indigenous deep inside the forest.
“The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights had previously conducted a study on human rights violations. We found out that women’s views were not put into account, and that is why we decided to look into the situation of women inside the forest,” Ngugi said.
It was also discovered during the study that Sengwer women were abandoned by their husbands after forest dwellers received Sh400,000 each as payout to move out of the forest.
“Men left their wives and married younger women from the neighbouring Marakwet community, and squandered the money meant for buying alternative land,” the interim report reads in part.
NCHRD North Rift coordinator Agatha Mukami, who was part of the research team, says Sengwer women and children suffered abuses after seeking refuge in people’s homes after evictions.
“In one incident, 10 women and their children were accommodated by a family in Kapyego area outside the forest. One day they were chased away, with nowhere to seek refuge,” she says.
“We found a young lady having rented a store where she leaves her children and siblings. Her mother died and left her with young siblings.”
Sengwer women are now calling on the state to help the community restore their eroded culture.
“The women want a cultural centre where they can weave their mats and teach Kenyans and local tourists about their culture,” Mukami says.
Embobut-Embolot MCA Paul Kipyatich says he is seeking funds to construct a cultural centre for the community.
“The Sengwer never engaged in farming. They never knew how a jembe [hoe] looked like, but today they cultivate. I encourage them to stick to their culture to avoid being targeted during evictions,” Kipyatich says.
KFS DEFENDS EVICTIONS
The Kenya Forest Service, the state agency enforcing eviction of encroachers in the 21,000ha Embobut forest, defended the move.
“All people living in the forest were compensated, and the President ordered the closure of all camps. KFS does not expect any dweller in the forest,” North Rift ecosystem conservator Daniel Rono says.
He says all forest dwellers, including the indigenous Sengwer, agreed to voluntarily leave the forest after they were compensated.
A taskforce was formed in 2009 and recommended that three categories of forest dwellers, including the indigenous community, landslide victims and land squatters, be paid Sh400,000 per adult.
Landslide victims and squatters are said to have encroached the forest in the 1970s, joining the Sengwer.
The two groups, according to KFS, introduced some members of the Sengwer community to maize and potato farming.
Rono says the community was asked to live in camps on forest glades ahead of the 2014 evictions.
He says the forest dwellers resisted efforts by the state to relocate them on land identified in Uasin Gishu and Nakuru counties, fearing they would lose their cultural ties with the forest.
But Sengwer spokesman Paul Kiptuka said they opposed claims the community is destroying the forest.
Kiptuka urged KFS to allocate a section of the forest to the community and make frequent assessments to see if the section will be destroyed.
“Sengwer is the only indigenous community in the world to be evicted from its ancestral land [the forest]. It has been neglected by the state and elected leaders,” Kiptuka says.
The community is now threatening to petition the UN to compel the state to stop an ongoing operation to smoke out bandits in Embobut forest.
In a strongly worded statement, the community said the operation is a forcible eviction of the indigenous community disguised as a war on bandits.
The statement, read by community youth leader Philemon Cheptorus, said the community will seek the intervention of the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous people, KNCHR, NCHRD and Amnesty International, if the operation is not stopped.
Community spokesman Paul Kiptuka said the over 500 police officers conducting the security operation are forcibly taking away and slaughtering sheep belonging to community members.
The situation of the Ogiek has in recent years attracted international attention due to the community’s protracted litigation against the Kenyan government. This is after the state issued a 30-day eviction notice to the Ogiek in the Mau Forest, demanding that they leave the forest.
In May last year, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in favour of the Ogiek regarding forced evictions in the Mau Forest. This outcome meant the court recognised the role that Ogiek and other indigenous groups in Africa play as guardians of local ecosystems, and in conserving and protecting land and natural resources.