Africa's Masai wrestle with windfall of British money

As compensation for injuries from British ammunition, the Masai received $8.1 million - both a blessing and a burden.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

High up in the central highlands of Kenya, amid rugged mountains and giant cacti in the yellow grass, Samuel Kariangei hanged himself from a tree after he discovered he had spent all of the 680,000 Kenya shillings ($8,947) he had received as compensation from the British government. Most of it had gone to beer and whiskey.

But when Simpeo Bobogi received 2.7 million Kenya shillings ($35,500) in compensation after her son was killed by a British Army bomb, she spent it more wisely. She built a house and set up a minibus service between her village and the nearest big town. Inside the new house, her maid Elisabeth Nosip sits on a new velour sofa. "It is good they got the money," she says, playing with the Bobogis' youngest child. "They are rich people now."

In November 2002, Britain's Ministry of Defense agreed to pay people who claimed to have been injured by live ammunition that the British Army left behind from training exercises on their grazing lands over several decades. More than 230 people received £4.5 million ($7.2 million). After the settlement, thousands more alleged victims came forward. The Ministry is investigating the new claims, but is reluctant to pay out such large sums again.

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The British money has both revitalized and destroyed the lives of tribe members here. Even as the Masai have faced pressure to move from grazing lands and build regular farms, the money has poured in, providing a graphic lesson in the perils and opportunities of the modern world.

The Masai, who number just 450,000 in Kenya, are a striking part of the Kenyan landscape - tall, wrapped in bright scarlet robes, and adorned with colorful beads. Traditionally, they live simply in huts made from tree branches and dried cattle dung. In Dol Dol, they live among their livestock in huts scattered far apart on the dry mountains.

But the compensation money has forced this nomadic pastoral society governed by strict tribal laws to deal with unfamiliar problems of alcoholism, consumerism, and depression.

Many of the Masai have never managed large sums of money, says James Legei, manager of Osiligi, a community group in Dol Dol. Some of the men who received the money headed straight to local bars, where they would buy drinks for everyone in the room. A police spokesman said Mr. Kariangei himself "had never been seen sober." Others spent the money on useless toys - mobile phones in areas with no signal and refrigerators that end up being expensive cupboards in a region with no electricity.

"Many of the people found that the money has disturbed their minds," says Alice Maisula, a smartly dressed Masai woman who owns a grocery store in Dol Dol. "People say the Mzungu [white people] worship money, and they worry that they may have put a curse on it before giving it to us. I don't believe it. Money is not good or bad. It depends how it is spent."

The money has been liberating for some. Kadurie Eletiko received 540,000 Kenya shillings ($7,105) for burns on her left arm. She paid her father a dowry so she could marry her long-term boyfriend, and she opened a shop in town.

Osiligi used the compensation package as an opportunity to teach people about financial management. "The payments brought large sums of money into circulation in the community for the first time," Mr. Legei says. "People were buying and selling cattle, goods, [and] even their labor in large quantities. In the end, everyone had money to buy things from the towns, and could diversify so they did not rely exclusively on their livestock to survive."

The payments have also shifted values in Masai society, helping women and the disabled, who have faced discrimination. "For the first time, the disabled can work," Legei says. "People see a man with one hand driving a new Toyota ... and it makes the disabled visible in the community."

Yet the frenzy surrounding the settlement has left the Masai and the British bitter and mistrustful. Investigations by British journalists have cast doubt on the veracity of some of the claims. Meanwhile, many here have been expecting more money, and others say they have not received promised medical treatment.

The Masai have always had an uneasy relationship with the British. Early white settlers forced them off their most fertile lands and marginalized them while simultaneously romanticizing their image. The settlement is seen in Dol Dol as a way the British can atone for earlier wrongs.

"They deserve this money," Legei says, "and it is good they are learning to spend it."

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