“Without a man, everything is possible.”

Koert Lindijer

Florence Onyang Oror is poor and disowned. That is because she is a widow and she denied inheritance by her brother-in-law after the death of her husband in 1993. She lives on a small piece of land in Kombewa, a village near Lake Victoria in western Kenya. “A judge allowed me to live here, but the community, the men, are always against me. I am an outcast. You have to be brave as a woman to survive”.

Florence Onyang Oror

Statistics from the World Bank last year showed that more and more households in Kenya are headed by only one parent, the mother. This trend is eroding the foundations of traditional society, on a continent where the extended family and ubuntu (the philosophy of “I am, because we are”) held people together, in lean and prosperous years. According to the World Bank, 30 percent of households in Kenya are headed by a woman. Poverty, disappearing sense of community and emancipation are among the main causes. It occurs throughout Kenya and especially in the west of the country among the Luo people.

The stiff body of Florence, born in 1964, stretches with difficulty to cut down a bunch of bananas. “Men think they are the king of their compound,” she says. “When my husband died, his relatives wanted to drive me out of this compound. Because I had refused to sleep with his brother, which in tradition comes with your brother-in-law inheriting you. You must then have sex without a condom the first time, otherwise you are not cleansed. Now I am old and barren and therefore worth nothing. The traditions of the Luo are so terribly bad for women.” A few of her fingers are numb, her shoulder hurts: at her advanced age it is difficult for her to get some income from her field. “I don’t have the strength anymore and I’m on my own.”

Fish for sex.

An hour’s drive away between hills and rocks, in the village of Lunga, 33-year-old Helma Akiny Owuor is also on her own. She got pregnant at seventeen after having sex, hoping he would pay for her school fees, but he refused. Then her sister found a husband for her, again hoping he would pay for her school fees. “He was a fisherman. Fishermen always have a lot of money, so every woman wants a fisherman. But he hit me and I ran away.”

Helma Akiny Owuor
Helma Akiny Owuor

Back in the parental compound, the task fell to her to take care of three elderly people: het father, her mother and her adopted mother. “I washed their body. If you have washed your father, you will never have children again, according to the Luo tradition. I was cursed”. She smiles and brings her son to her breast. “But they didn’t succeed, I did get pregnant, but I don’t want a man anymore.” She grows corn and vegetables on a piece of land as well as makes clothes. “I struggle every day for my family. I advise all girls to finish school first and earn money. Only with your own income can you think about marriage without becoming a victim.”

Helma gestures angrily with her phone, as if she were going to throw it away. “The boys watch pornography on this nowadays. Afterwards they feel so macho and taunt you that they can have sex anywhere for just twenty shillings. When the Luo culture was strong, boys lived with men and daughters with their mothers. Where they heard stories, and received life lessons. Nowadays, that parental guidance has disappeared and the children are guided by the Internet. There are so many pregnant girls in schools these days.”

Come and stay

A Luo man is a kind of demigod, he wants to be worshiped by children and women. But that status brings obligations. Boys were disciplined by all the elders of the community, night runners were employed to spy on possible marriage candidates for their suitability. The inheritance of women was for the social security of the widow and her children. “Nowadays it’s all about sex, inheriting happens in bed,” sneers Mary Ger of a private aid organization against domestic violence, part of CSO network in Kisumu. “Poverty makes men feel worthless, their self-esteem eroded. They no longer take responsibility and instead abuse women and children”.

Tabitha Akinyi

Tabitha Akinyi

As an alternative to the old marriage with obligations, the new “come and stay” is emerging, living together without obligations for the man. Tabitha Akinyi throws another chapati (an Indian flatbread) on the hot plate. She lives in the Nyalenda slum of Kisumu and makes 150 chapatis every day and earns three euros a day, plus another four euros from washing clothes. When her husband died ten years ago, she was left with five children. “I invited a boyfriend to come and stay, with no mutual obligations, but he wanted me to take care of him. That’s how it is these days, men don’t take care of their families anymore. That’s why I stay single and manage to pay the school fees for all my children. My son says ‘it’s better this way, mom, because fathers cheat on you’. I don’t want any more men in my life.”

In Nyalenda, geese splash in the alleys in the overflowing water where children are being washed. Boys surrounded by the smell of marijuana hang around their “base”, watched by girls who stroll by. Phanis Odongo doesn’t dare let her daughters loose on this. “I promised to send them to a boarding school, away from the slums, but I have no money.” The man she lives with is the head of her family, but she provides almost all of the income. “You never show that outside of your family, that reflects badly on the man. He deserves respect. We used to bow to our men, but with all the poverty those habits can’t stay the same.”

Meat on meat

Ismael was raped when she was 17 and is now a commercial sex worker in the poor neighborhood of Kaloleni in the regional capital Kisumu. She has five children, each by a different man. “Because of the increasing poverty, I am undergoing more and more competition from women who want to earn money with sex. Corona made everything worse. I am now HIV positive and no longer do it nyama kwa nyama, meat on meat, so without a condom, although it pays more. No sex, no food. Today I didn’t have a single customer. I hate men, but see no other way out.”

Besides poverty, the emancipation of women plays a role as well in the changes of the structure of the family. In traditional cultures, everything revolved around respect for the elderly and a sense of community. Children were supposed to marry young, start a family, and care for their parents in their old age. Everyone felt part of a their community – a tribe, a clan, a family – with close relationships. In rapidly modernizing Africa, and certainly in the cities, women are given more opportunities on the labor market and in politics. Sometimes they chose their marriage partners themselves. Or decide not to get married at all.

Treazer Mware (34) rides up on the back of a pedicab. “My career is more important to me than marriage,” she says. After the death of her father, her mother took care of the family of five children. She became Treazer’s role model. “My friends have been married and divorced so many times. I see more and more single women around me, women who don’t want to be controlled by men. Without a man, everything is possible.”

This article was first published in NRC on 21-2-2023

Africa can no longer be lectured

Interview on Africa’s position in the world with Murithi Mutiga, head of programs with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi

Murithi Mutiga

Africa hardly played a role in the geopolitics of the United States under Donald Trump; the competition with China and Russia was given priority. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow have been pampering African countries at special summits for years. Washington was also holding such a summit with African heads of state for the first time since 2014 this week. In addition to the 49 heads of government, the president of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was also invited. But Western influence in Africa is waning. Take trade between China and African countries. It reached a historic high of $254 billion in 2021, while that of the United States with Africa decreased from $142 billion in 2008 to $64 billion in 2021.

“Asian, Turkish and Arab companies come to do business, they come to engage, bringing in their airlines, their businesspeople, settling here, engaging in partnerships, they see it as an opportunity for long term business. While the United States and Europe treat Africa paternalistically, as a problem area that must be solved,” says Kenyan Murithi Mutiga, head of Africa at the think tank the International Crisis Group. “That difference in approach means that the partners of the future are the ones in the east.”

With the new balance of power in the world, stripped of the hegemony of the United States and Europe, Africa no longer accepts lessons from the West. Murithi Mutiga is surprised that this is not getting through to the West.

“It is amazing that the West was surprised when the continent refused to side with the United States and Europe in the conflict with Russia over Ukraine,” Mutiga says in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Does the independent position of African countries in the war in Ukraine expose a grudge against the West?

“What arouses feelings against the West, of course, are first the memories of humiliating colonialism. And what Europeans and Americans forget is that in the Western world the Cold War is remembered as a time of peace, but almost everywhere else as a period of conflict. The Soviet Union and the United States fought their wars through proxies in Africa. They changed sides according to their own interests. This happened in wars in the Horn of Africa and in Angola and Congo.

“And then there is the Western hypocrisy. Europeans fail to realize the anger that NATO’s intervention in Libya provoked, just when the African Union was working on a peaceful solution.

“From this comes the tendency in Africa to remain nonaligned on the Ukraine issue. Europe will have to understand that Africans will henceforth make their decisions autonomously, in a multipolar world in which no one ideology dominates.”

Africa felt belittled?

“Yes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the continent had become subservient to the economic policies of Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

“At that time I was working as a journalist for the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation. The first thing that was impressed upon us in the editorial office were the names of the representatives of the World Bank and the IMF in the country. The West bullied Africa with the anti-social policies of those two institutions. Americans and Europeans don’t realize how much we detested that.

“The United States used to be able to help settle conflicts, but in the biggest war in Africa in a long time – the conflict in Ethiopia between the central government and the state of Tigray – they proved virtually powerless.

“Ten years ago, the United States still had enough influence to enforce South Sudan’s independence. The war in Ethiopia shows what can happen if there is less order in the world. Turkey, the Emirates, Eritrea, they determined the outcome of this war. Such are the consequences of a new era without hegemonic control.”

Which African country can fill the vacuum?

“One of the major problems is that the giants are struggling. Nigeria is drifting along in difficult economic and security circumstances. South Africa used to be seen as a moral compass but now it cannot even solve its problems in its own governing party. And Ethiopia will have to recover for many years to reclaim its influence. Africa has dire challenges but a weak leadership. There is a vacuum in leadership.

If foreign powers can no longer force an African country into peace talks, who can? African solutions to African problems, without outside interference? In Ethiopia it only worked after two years, when the African Union finally acted.

“Ethiopia has a complex history, with wars fueled by elites. This war was very popular among the masses. It shows how deep-rooted the grievances are and that makes it difficult to come to a solution. Until the parties were exhausted. Wars in Ethiopia usually end by their own internal logic. Sudan, on the other hand, where a peace agreement was recently concluded, has a its own homegrown culture of dialogue, despite its bloody history, but the elites have always been able to engage with each other, in contrast to Ethiopia where they sometimes seem to be buried in their grievances and their hostilities to one an another”.

Is the influence of the West over? The United States warns African countries about the dangerous influence of autocratic China and Russia.

“To reduce the debate to a dispute between democracy and autocracy, Africa will not accept that. We know how the West maintained autocrats in Africa, most prominently the megalomaniac Mobutu of Zaire.

“The forms of governance in Africa are determined by local circumstances, not by the partner we deal with. China is not forcing its governance model on us.

“And Africa is not turning away from the West either. At the height of the war, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy was very anti-Western, but now that the damage of the war must be repaired, he still needs Washington, the World Bank and the IMF once more.”

This article was first published in the Nehterlands newspaper NRC on 12-12-2022

Once more the Maasai will be expelled from the Garden of Eden they helped to create

It’s called a Wonder of the World. Around the lush green-clad mountain ranges of the Rift Valley and the sea of plains in the Serengeti Game Park, and at the bottom of the immense Ngorongoro crater, the nomadic Maasai of Northern Tanzania shared the Garden of Eden with zebras, lions and wildebeest. But white conservationists, Arab hunters and a growing population undermined the symbiosis. A crisis arose that exploded in June 2022 when riots broke out leaving one person dead, people were displaced and dozens of Maasai shelters went up in flames.

The Maasai have to leave two areas: in the game park Loliondi they have to make way for hunters, in Ngorongoro for tourists. “The government is selling us to the Arabs,” complains Paul ole Sarbabi (a pseudonym) in Arusha, northern Tanzania. He is Maasai and has just returned from Loliondo, which borders the Serengeti wildlife park. This morning he awoke with an elephant at his kraal, his home with a fenced yard. “Wild animals feel safe with us, but the Arabs come to shoot them,” he sneers. “The government has started to demarcate our grazing areas for the Arabs, who want to expand their hunting grounds. We oppose it and the government acts cruelly against us. All Maasai are now scared; if we see a government car, we run. Our area is under a kind of martial law.”

According to Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, nature in the Ngorongoro is in danger if the crater is not depopulated now. “We agreed at the time that Ngorongoro is a special area where people and animals coexist. But now it appears that the number of people exceeds that of animals,” she says. In 1959 eight thousand Maasai lived there, now about one hundred thousand. The government wants to reduce that to around twenty thousand. That means only Maasai traditional kraals are left for cultural tourism.

Ngorongoro, Loliondo, Serengeti in Northern Tanzania and the adjacent Maasai Mara in Kenya form a unique ecosystem in the world. But the question arises again and again whether people actually belong there. In and around the Ngorongoro, the government wants the majority of the Maasai – officially on a voluntary basis – to leave the area and settle further south in government-set up settlement villages.

Wild animals and humans do not fit together, is the claim of many animal protectors, mostly from Europe. One of the founders of the protected areas in the Ngorongoro and Serengeti game park was the German professor Bernard Grzimek. He wrote 70 years ago: “For a national park to retain its essential character, it must remain pristine wilderness. No one, not even the natives, is allowed to live in it.” True to that idea, the colonial government threw the Maasai out of the 14,763 square kilometer Serengeti in the late 1950s. They would pose a threat to the animals and were only allowed to live in and around the Ngorongoro Crater, an 8,300 square kilometer reserve. Scientists all over the world have now come to the conclusion that involving the local population is essential for nature conservation.

Grim atmosphere

“What is happening is yet another land theft of the Maasai, the war against the Maasai has been going on since colonial times,” says Tanzanian opposition leader Tindu Lissu from his place of exile in Belgium. The warlike people dominated East Africa until the end of the nineteenth century. In the competition between man and beast, however, wild animals still had the upper hand. Since then, the Maasai in Tanzania have lost 60 percent of their territory to wildlife parks. Yet they still dominate the steppes of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya with their red and blue shawls. But youngsters no longer amble after the cattle, they ride on mopeds. Their savannas are now dotted with schools, churches and mosques. Factories appear in Maasailand on the Kenyan side of the border, old customs such as female circumcision disappear, agriculture is introduced, and many Maasai are now part of an outspoken elite of lawyers and politicians, the pride of their community. The stereotypical image of the nomadic people is no longer valid.

The higher areas around Ngorongoro and Loliondo are not affected by the drought that has caused massive livestock deaths elsewhere in East Africa for years. It is still wonderfully green. Around this time each year, over a million wildebeest and zebras from the Serengeti come to graze and calve before beginning their annual migration north.

A grim atmosphere has developed in Tanzania around the debate about nature reserves. Maasai only want to give information in back places in Arusha, and they don’t dare to take a stranger to their kraals. “The government has a colonial nature conservation policy,” grumbles Maasai activist and lawyer Joseph Ole Shangay from Ngorongoro. “She says she wants to protect paradise, but it is not about nature, it is about money. Tanzania has so many wild animals precisely because there are also nomads. We do not threaten wildlife, we are natural conservationists.”

In colonial times, Loliondo was reserved for European aristocrats as a hunting ground. Books in the 1950s in which the hunter writers Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark portrayed the inhabitants as savages and poachers and called them scoundrels, became famous in the white world. President Roosevelt went on a hunting safari there at the beginning of the last century and Winston Churchill fired from the locomotive of the train from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Kenya banned big game hunting in 1978, but the Tanzanian government believes hunting is the best use of the land and wildlife. The cost of a hunting license can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars; a hunter brings in many times more than one of the one million tourists who visit the country every year and leave their mark in the parks with their off-road vehicles, where large hotels have been built for them.

Landing strip

Since 1993 Ole Sarabi of Loliondo has opposed the arrival of the Otterlo Business Corporation, a tourist company in the United Arab Emirates, to which the government has allocated the 1,500 square kilometer Pololeti Game Reserve for exclusive use. Members of the royal family and hundreds of other wealthy Arab guests hunt there every year. “The Arabs don’t want to see cows and Maasai. They built a luxury lodge in the mountains and a runway where an Airbus can land. When the king hunts there, he takes his own army and police with him. In 2007 they first started burning our kraals to force us to leave the area for the hunters.”

Loliondo became the focus of the crisis in June. The Maasai again resisted evictions and demarcations, security forces used tear gas and shots were fired. “When we refused to leave, the police started shooting at us,” Ole Sarbabi says. A police officer was killed, several injured and a few hundred Maasai fled across the border into Kenya. “This incident has traumatized the entire community; young people are now ready to take up arms.”

No stone houses

The Maasai went to court in Arusha for the first time in 2017 to stop hunting in their area. The state owns all land in Tanzania, “but the government cannot just give away land from the Maasai to the Arabs. The government wants to take their village land, which is against the law,” said Donald Diya, a lawyer for the Pan-African Union of Lawyers (PALU) which is assisting with the lawsuits.

Diya thinks the current nature policy is outdated and calls it ‘fortress conservation’. “It is one of the least populated areas of Tanzania, where the Maasai coexist peacefully with the wild animals. To protect the Garden of Eden you have to work with the people, but the government strategy is to clear the area of people.”

Since its first post-independence president, the socialist Julius Nyerere, Tanzania has always been governed on a strong nationalist basis, averse to tribalism. The country does not subscribe to the special rights recognized by the UN for so-called ‘indigenous peoples’. Nyerere adopted Grzimek’s old policy: around the Ngorongoro crater, the Maasai had to remain “primitive”, they were not allowed to farm and build stone houses with story’s. “You are being stopped at the gate when you try to enter the reserve with a door or toilet for your house,” says a Maasai. “And also we would like to ride a moped sometimes.”

A senior official in the area calls it “a sensitive matter” and therefore does not want his name in the newspaper. He defends the displacement of the Maasai who still live around the crater. “They are better off in the new villages that the government is now establishing for them in southern Tanzania,” he says. According to him, the soil is suffering from the increased pressure from people and livestock. “People who say otherwise refuse to change.”

According to the Maasai, there are no indications that the area is being eaten bare by their cattle due to the increased population. According to them, the wildlife population is not declining either. The Maasai do not hunt. They graft their way of life onto nature and have an intimate knowledge of it. They understand the sounds of birds and animals and part of the year their cows graze next to the zebras. “It’s racism,” says Ole Shangay. “There is no better way to explain the madness of this colonial form of conservation – that we have to leave our homeland so that others, whether white tourists, royalty or wealthy urbanites, can use our pasturelands as their playground.”

This article was first published in the Netherlands newspaper NRC on 12-12-2022