Battle over the Serengeti pits Maasai against Dubai

Maasai women in Tanzania are trying to sustain weeks of protest against a government plan  to appropriate a large swath of traditional grazing pasture to a Dubai big-game hunting firm. 

Jason Patinkin
Morkelekei Gume (r.) is a Maasai woman who lost a child during the 2009 clashes between herders and OBC security.

The Maasai of northern Tanzania continue to scramble to stop a government plan to turn 600 square miles of their traditional grazing pasture into a private hunting reserve for foreign tourists.

The plan, announced in March and stoutly opposed by Maasai activists led by women, would mean the eviction of some 30,000 herders in the Loliondo area near Serengeti National Park.

The land would be appropriated for a sporting ground or “wildlife corridor” for the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a big-game hunting firm owned by Dubai’s royal family.

Tanzania authorities say a new corridor will protect the migration zones of the wildebeest; but the Maasai say their livelihood as cattle herders will be destroyed.

The plan to take land was first announced in early spring as a kind of fait accompli by Tanzania’s minister for tourism, Khamis Kagasheki.

Maasai females in particular were outraged and organized protests across the Loliondo highland savannah. Their group got support from Tanzania’s powerful ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), and a delegation of Maasai leaders, including women activists, were given a meeting to air their grievances with prime minister Mizengo Pinda.

In the meeting, Mr. Pinda assured the Maasai activists that he supported their cause and would take their concerns to the president, according to members of the delegation. But no official decisions have been made since the meeting with Pinda two weeks ago. The women fear the government is stalling.

“We are worried that this is just a smokescreen,” said Morgayamat Maanda, a grandmother of seven, speaking of the meeting with the prime minister.

Indeed, Pinda’s spokesman told the Monitor that the government’s position is still that of Mr. Kagasheki, the tourism minister. Kagasheki had earlier launched a national media campaign claiming the Maasai are squatters on government land, and that their cattle are overgrazing and threaten the local wildlife.

With no clear answer from Pinda, the women are camping in tiny Arash village in the shadow of one of the corridor’s forested mountains, debating whether to sell their husbands’ cows for funds in order to travel to Dar es Salaam to demand an audience with President Jakaya Kikwete.

Ancestral heritage

The Maasai view the land in Loliondo as part of their ancestral heritage. In practical terms, about 90 percent of Maasai locals raise and export a breed of humped cattle that pays for their food and for the costs of living, including school fees for children.

“If the land goes, then the livestock does not have grass,” said Mairetwai Olenguyo, a local mother.  “I won’t have cattle to sell, and then my children will die of hunger.”

When the plan was first announced, a number of local politicians, males, said they would resign their offices in protest. Yet none did, sparking anger by women and mothers, who experts say suffer most from the kind of social upheavals that a mass removal of Maasai herders would involve.

Women here recall being left behind by their husbands to care for children during a 2009 drought when security forces for the OBC company, which has operated in Loliondo for the past two decades, denied them access to water. Maasai men often seek work in the city as guards since they are seen as fierce warriors. 

Broken promises

Tanzanian Maasai have suffered from a history of broken promises.  The British removed them from the Serengeti in 1959 with assurances that land rights would never be infringed again. Yet post-independence governments did so anyway.

“You cannot move the same group of people twice in their lifetime,” said Tina Timan, a Maasai representative dressed in a red cloak and a blue head scarf who met with Pinda, the prime minister. Ms. Timan's parents were evicted from the Serengeti a year before she was born. 

In recent weeks, the women, whose protest was largely spontaneous, each donated 7,000 Tanzanian shillings ($4.30) to send Timan and another woman to meet Pinda.  In the current rainy season, a woman earns about 10,000 Tanzanian shillings ($6.14) per week selling milk.

Mwigulu Nchemba, a political officer from CCM, the party taking up support of the Maasai, says the local herders already have title deeds. “The villages are registered … and [the Maasai] have little impact on the ecology,” he told the Monitor, denying that the cattle harm wildlife.

Tribal leaders say the abundant wildlife enjoyed by OBC’s hunting party clients is evidence that the Maasai tribe have been good stewards of the land.

They say that Tanzania’s president Kikwete has tried for years to give OBC more land in return for heavy payments from the Dubai-based firm.  A more radical contingent of Maasai have threatened to occupy OBC’s hunting camp.

Ms. Olenguyo, the local mother, doubted the Maasai protest would make a difference.

“I don’t think he’ll give back our land,” she said of Kikwete, even though she retains some hope: “Even the president has children and a wife.”

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