Samburu women haunt the empire of charity

The Samburu of northern Kenya are pastoralists, and they are under attack. According to Survival International, the Nature Conservancy and the Africa Wildlife Foundation, two US-based `charities’, bought land, lots of it, from Daniel arap Moi. How’d he get the land? Good question.

The Samburu, who had been forced out of nomadic pastoralism by the encroachment of fenced off ranches, had settled there twenty years earlier. For twenty years they used this piece of land for grazing and access to water. They made land decisions on communal interests, with no one having the right to permanently dispose of the land. While the decision making process was dominated by male elders, women, especially married women, were involved in decisions concerning land use and allocation.

Until Daniel arap Moi bought the land, no questions asked. Then he sold it … to `charities’.

Since the sale, the Samburu have been harassed, beaten, raped. The lucky ones have `simply’ been evicted and had to fend for themselves in makeshift lean-tos. The Samburu have gone to court to retain their land … and to get some justice. Africa Wildlife Foundation has `gifted’ the land to Kenya, for `conservation’.

It’s a familiar enough story. “Native people”, “Africans” are caught, or not, in the crosshairs of conservation, charity, and gift economies bestowed upon them by the good people of the Global North.

But there’s more. Women. The Guardian featured Samburu women prominently … in pictures. There “Samburu women sing a song” and “the women wear colorful beaded necklaces.”

Samburu women do more than sing songs and wear colorful beaded necklaces.

It’s not the first time that foreigners have visited sexual violence on Samburu women … in the name of progress and civilization. For the past fifty years the Kenyan government has leased land in Samburu District to the British military. It’s a training ground. Over 600 complaints of rape have been filed against the British military. Women like Miliyan LeKanta, Lydia Juma and Nigaripen Lesiamito have testified, in public, to the rapes. Testimony that resulted in their isolation and even expulsion from their own communities. The British `internal’ investigation found the military not guilty. Then the Kenyan government `lost’ the evidence. As the women’s lawyer explained, “There is no glory in reporting rape.” That struggle is ongoing … and it’s more than colorful beads and the singing of songs.

Locally, the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organization has been key in documenting the devastation of the evictions and abuse on the Samburu. In their report, which Survival International sent to the United Nations, they have shown the ways in which women as herders and farmers have been rendered helpless by the violence of police. They have reported as well on women who have had to watch as their husbands have been beaten, sometimes to death, by police or by paramilitaries, and then left for dead in the fields. Houses are burned, villages ransacked, women raped. It’s the price of charity.

And who pays the price?

The bitter irony of conservation here is that the Samburu women are actually at the heart of the indigenous preservation of wildlife, in particular of elephants. The Samburu claim a kind of kinship between elephants and Samburu women, a kinship of everyday village labor. This kinship results in cultures of respect and honor. But those kinds of ties mean nothing to an important not-for-profit multinational charitable organization. After all, those ties involve Samburu women, singing and wearing fantastic bead necklaces.

 

(Video Credit: Vimeo / Cultures of Resistance)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.