HomeOpinion & AnalysisGrass versus community: Lessons from Kenya

Grass versus community: Lessons from Kenya

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By Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa

Once upon a time, the Kenyan government lost an eviction case to the Endorois people, an indigenous community. The Endorois community had been evicted from its ancestral land by the Kenyan government to pave way for a game reserve.

In an analogous manner, the Zimbabwean government has enacted a law to legalise the eviction of the Shangaan community from its ancestral land in Chilonga, Chiredzi South district to pave way for a lucerne project.

Some sections of the public have welcomed government’s move while others have frowned upon it to the extent of threatening to boycott Dendairy products through the hashtag #BoycottDendairy.

Dendairy is a Kwekwe-based private company set to implement the grass project.

Government authorities and all those involved in the impending displacements ought to draw lessons from Kenya’s Endorois community case.

The Endorois community case

The Endorois have for many years survived from livestock rearing around Kenya’s Lake Bogoria. They have strong religious, and cultural attachments to their ancestral land.

Their historical places of worship and sacred sites for circumcision, rainmaking ceremonies and other cultural practices are located within the Lake Bogoria area.

They believe that the spirits of their ancestors, no matter where they are buried, live in Lake Bogoria.

The Endorois had enjoyed undisturbed occupation and use of their land until 1973 when the Kenyan government evicted them for the creation of Lake Bogoria Game Reserve.

After confronting the authorities, the Endorois were assured that the affected 400 families would be compensated with plots of fertile land, that they would get 25% of the revenue that was to be realised from the game reserve and that they would get employment.

However, none of the promises was fulfilled. What was done was to try to silence 170 out of the 400 families by giving them some money. The inadequate money was only paid 12 years after the eviction.

In 2000, the Endorois community took the matter to the Kenyan High Court. It was only in 2002 that a disheartening judgment was handed down.

The High Court ruled in favour of the government and held that Lake Bogoria Game Reserve was a national resource, so the Endorois community was precluded from laying claim to any revenue from such an asset.

In dismissing the case, the judges stated that they believed Kenyan law could not address the issue of special protection to a people’s land based on historical occupation and cultural rights.

Aggrieved by the court’s decision, the Endorois community took the matter to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in 2003 and the commission declared that the evictions were illegal.

In the landmark decision, the commission concluded that by preventing the Endorois from maintaining their religious and cultural practices, the Kenyan government had violated their cultural and religious rights  in contravention of the African Charter and several other human rights instruments.

Since the game reserve had already been established, the commission recommended that the Kenyan government must “ensure that the Endorois community had unrestricted access to Lake Bogoria and surrounding sites for religious and cultural rites and for grazing their cattle”.

The commission further directed the Kenyan government to pay adequate compensation for all the losses incured through the inability to enjoy cultural and religious practices on ancestral and sacred lands over the past three decades.

The commission also found that the Kenyan government had violated the Endorois community’s right to property, right to natural resources and the right to development set out in the African Charter. To remedy these violations, it was recommended that title of the land be restored back to the Endorois community.

Relevance to Zimbabwe

The African Commission’s landmark ruling is a milestone in the understanding and recognition of indigenous rights in Africa. It creates a significant legal precedent and is the first case globally in which a ruling has been made on the right to development.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and is subject to  the African Commission. Considering that the Zimbabwe’s foreign policy is based on the respect for regional and international law and also that the country is on a re-engagement drive, the responsible authorities must draw lessons from the Endorois case.

Above all, Zimbabwe is founded on the respect for the nation’s diverse cultural, religious and traditional values, the Constitution, and property rights among many other relevant rights.

Shangaan culture

Sometime last year, this author had the privilege of visiting that Chilonga area to conduct research on Shangaan culture together with some colleagues. Just like the Endorois people of Kenya, the Shangaan people boast a unique and vibrant social culture, which they are proud to preserve.

The Shangaan community is one of the few indigenous communities still performing rainmaking ceremonies in the country. They perform the ceremonies at sacred sites which include Chikhovo, Mapume, Luseza and Dzinzela. Some ancestors’ graves such as that of Mungoni, Hahlani and Khangale are also rainmaking sites.

They perform male circumcision and initiation into adult ceremonies which they call ngomeni and these are done at specific sacred sites. Girls are initiated into womanhood at a separate ceremony known as khomba. These ceremonies are done at sacred cultural sites such as Chigwejiva-sala and Chipinda.

There are several other sacred hills, pools and ponds within the area. Tivalan’wamunzeyani pool and Chigwejiva-sala are examples of those regarded as highly sacred and spiritual.

The Chigwejiva-sala pool reportedly never runs dry even during the worst droughts. It is strictly visited for spiritual purposes and cattle watering. Elders are allowed to bathe therein but without soap.

Recommendations and conclusion

To avoid an Endorois disaster, the government should widely  consult with the Shangaan community in a meaningful and culturally appropriate manner with a view to obtaining an informed consent from the indigenous people before the  grass project or the “irrigation scheme” is implemented.

Failure to properly consult and obtain informed consent will not only violate the rights of the indigenous community, it will confirm some long-held speculations and allegations against some government officials. The Shangaan eviction case is already before the courts. It is hoped that the courts will safeguard the indigenous people’s fundamental human rights.

In the event that the courts rule against the people, civic society organisations and concerned citizens must spring to action and come to the aid of the people by taking the matter up to the African Commission.

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