The Ogiek are a forest-dwelling, hunter-gatherer community who are officially identified as one of Kenya’s indigenous people.* They are also known as the ancestral guardians of Kenya’s largest, closed-canopy, forest ecosystem, the Mau Forest complex.
The 52,000 members of the Ogiek tribe live in and around a forest that once stretched over 400,000 hectares (1,544 sq miles) in southwestern Kenya. Most Ogiek live within Mau Forest, inhabiting the Nakuru, Narok, Baringo, Kericho, Nandi and Uasin Gishu counties. The remainder of the population inhabit Mount Elgon in the area of Chepkitale, Bungoma County.
The Ogiek, whose name means “caretakers of flora and fauna,” are experts at thriving within a forest ecosystem, conserving resources, and maintaining biodiversity.
The Forest as Home, Market and Holy Place
The Ogiek community has a close affinity with their environment: They live, eat, and cure ailments using natural resources within their ecosystem.
To the Ogiek, the forest is like a supermarket—it provides food, medicines, and materials for building homes and other structures. Every shrub, tree, twig, tuber and all else that is in the forest has a meaning to the Ogiek community.
The forest is also where spiritual and traditional rituals and ceremonies are performed. Ogiek shrines, “Mabwaita,” are where cleansing, performing sacrifices to the gods and making covenants as a community take place.
Every family has a Mabwaita erected in their homestead facing the eastern side of the house where the sun rises. It is erected using specific sacred trees and shrubs, which are tied together; it is always redone during a new ceremony.
Additionally, the Mabwaita is appeased with fresh plants and honey wine poured on it, accompanied by prayers offered by elders. Elders are mostly men accompanied by elderly women who are beyond childbearing age.
Water as a Blessing from the Gods to Sustain Life
The Ogiek believe water (peek) is supplied by the gods for the survival of biodiversity. Proper care of biodiversity ensures that the community never lacks water.
Water is also believed to have a cleansing power. This is why, before circumcision, the initiate is taken to the river to bathe, ensuring he enters adulthood clean from any unwanted act committed during childhood.
According to Ogiek beliefs, rainmakers are men blessed by elders to have the ability to stop rain. The Ogiek live in areas where it rains constantly. Therefore, they depend on rainmakers to stop the rain to allow ceremonies to take place. Similarly, during the occurrence of a drought, women gather at a designated point along the river and pray. A virgin girl or a virtuous married woman will stand in the river during the ceremony. This act causes the skies to open to accept the prayers and offer rain in return.
The connection between water, forest, and livelihood of the Ogiek, portrayed through culture, traditions and norms, has been reckoned to follow international conventions, protocols and declarations. Traditional knowledge on conservation is embedded within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as well as the Nagoya Protocol.
There are three objectives of CBD: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
The Ogiek Livelihood and the Bee Culture
For generations, Ogiek life revolved around hunting and gathering. But the 1970s wildlife hunting ban in Kenya forced the Ogiek lifestyle to undergo drastic changes, including adoption of subsistence agriculture. Despite the changes, however, the Ogiek community maintained its beekeeping culture.
Honey is at the core of the Ogiek culture; it is the main component of their food and livelihood. At the turn of the 19th century, the Ogiek traded honey for ceremonial livestock from the Maasai. The Ogiek now use commercial practices, such as branding and packaging, to enhance the market value of their honey and capture a wider portion of the market.
The Ogiek use their traditional knowledge to conserve the Mau Forest, thereby ensuring an abundance of flowers for bees to gather nectar and increase production of honey.
Minimizing pressure on biodiversity
The Ogiek community has traditionally lived in small groups or clans, which were distributed throughout their given territories in the Mau Forest. This division into small groups, as well as their seasonal migrations through their territories, ensured that little pressure was put on the forest’s biodiversity. The community also endeavored to minimize their disturbances to biodiversity through other means. For instance, they only hunted older game that were past young-rearing stage, and gathered roots sparingly to ensure that trees would not dry up or fall.
Modern agriculture, however, has disrupted these kinds of practices. The clearing of large tracts of forest lands for agricultural activities has been a leading cause of biodiversity destruction within the Mau Forest. Additionally, the use of agrochemicals to maximize crop yields is interfering with honey production in the ecosystem; natural flora is cleared out while cultivated plants’ flowers are poisoned with agrochemicals.
Through the leadership of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and the Community Forest Scouts, the Ogiek community has been able to conserve and restore the Mau Forest. This initiative is focused on rehabilitating degraded forest areas and preventing destruction of forest biodiversity. This has led to the restoration of more than 40 ha (98 acres). Through this initiative, the Ogiek are restoring Mau to its former glory, step by step.
Tororo ripe-ech, Konech konye-eng
Konyeg oop samak, Konech panda nemocheygei
Tororo konech konye-eg op koriron
Ripwech timtonyon, emenyon nepo
Tirap, Tirap, Tirap nemi Tegeltit
Emetop sasaondendet, Emenyon nepo Setyot,
Emenyon mo-o netepes
Tororo konech lagog, konech komeg
Konech konyegap ongweg,
Ripwech mosotig, poponik, murguywet,
Ripwech moingonigchog po mogonjog
Konech keldop kugo nimokinochiy
Tororo rip kotop Ogiot
Tororo tomoyon kotop SOGOOT
Sere! Sere! Sere!)
(Ogiek prayer by Daniel Kobei, 2009)
(The prayer is asking God to bless their biodiversity, forest, and hunting grounds. It asks for protection against misfortunes and requests for food, biodiversity, bees, and their hunting and gathering protection. The prayer ends with a call of blessing, blessing, blessing!)
*This is per the guidelines given by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa, a special instrument of the African Commission on Human and Indigenous Peoples Rights (ACHIPR). The claim to indigeneity was further echoed by the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights on 26th May 2017, in Arusha, Tanzania, during the landmark judgement in favor of the Ogiek community and its land rights, as well as cultural rights, to the forest’s ecosystem.
*Daniel Kobei is the Executive Director and Founder of the Ogiek Peoples' Development Program (OPDP), an NGO based in Kenya, with ECOSOC Status since 2019, promoting the human and land rights of the indigenous Ogiek Community and other Indigenous Peoples (IPs) of Kenya and Africa. He is the focal point on IPs matters in the International Indigenous Forum for Biodiversity (IIFB) under the Collaborative Partnership for Wildlife Management (CPW) established by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). He has an MBA in Strategic Mgt. from Egerton University, Kenya, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Project Appraisal and Management from Maastricht School Management (MSM) in the Netherlands.