DODOMA, Tanzania – The Maasai African ethnic group faced two recent incidents of land threats. Thanks to the leadership of Kijoolu Kaliya, the loss of tribal homelands was averted. Ms. Kaliya is not only a remarkable example of female leadership in a male-dominated society – she is also responsible for halting the secretive land deals and getting the Tanzanian government to take the Maasai people’s interests first over foreign investors’.
The Maasai people, whom Ms. Kaliya belongs, lives in the northern area of Tanzania, around the Ngorongoro district just east of the Serengeti National Park and west of Mt. Kilimanjaro. As semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai people rely on land heavily.
In 2009, 20,000 Maasai community members were threatened eviction from their ancestral lands. Ms. Kaliya took leadership of the situation on behalf of the Maasai because she did not trust that the male Maasai leadership was working in the best interest of all of the Maasai people. Furthermore, Ms. Kaliya could not trust the Tanzanian government to protect her people’s land rights because it was the government that was allowing the land grab to occur.
Ms. Kaliya had to resort to secretive meetings to organize a campaign to protect Maasai lands. The meetings resulted in a peaceful, public demonstration involving 1,000 women and five long days of walking to Dar es Salaam. Ms. Kaliya asked to speak to the prime minister, who did not oblige. Instead, Ms. Kaliya and 3 other women were subjected to arrest and interrogation for 5 hours. In spite of this, the protest got national and international attention. After all the naysays, Ms. Kaliya had won the respect of the male Maasai leaders at this point. From then on, the male Maasai leaders joined in Ms. Kaliya’s fight for future land rights.
In response, the Tanzanian government sent a commission to the Maasai tribal leaders. However, the Maasai felt that the commission was not listening to their concerns. Land deals still threatened the Maasai landscape.
In 2013, the Tanzanian government was about to hand over Maasai pastoral land to a foreign luxury hunting company. Without the free, prior and informed consent of the Maasai people, the Tanzanian Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources announced the sale of 1,500 square kilometers of traditional Maasai land to the Ortello Business Company from the United Arab Emirates. Ms. Kaliya did not tolerate it.
Of course, resistance came from the foreign investors, the Tanzanian officials, and others who were to benefit from the land grab at the Maasai people’s expense. Intimidation was abound. Male Maasai members who fought back were beaten and Maasai homes were burned down.
Again, Ms. Kaliya organized another 5 day march – but this time, it was with the intent to return 2,000 political party membership cards. This did the trick. It halted the land deal with the Ortello Business Company, and it got the prime minister to visit the Maasai people in their homeland. He declared that foreign investors would not be allowed to take their land away in the future.
Time will tell if this declaration by the prime minister will hold up. The Economist Intelligence Unit just published its 2012 Democracy Index. Out of 167 in the index, Tanzania ranked 81. The Democracy Index uses five criteria: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Typical of Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania is still working on its rule of law and governance. Until then, civil society has to play a strong role.
Effective and sustainable change cannot only come from the top. As in Ms. Kaliya’s case, change came from the grassroots. Her work was recently recognized in the October 16-18 World Food Prize Conference held in Iowa. She was a guest speaker there, and she is featured by Oxfam as an example of defending land rights in an age when land grabbing is heightened in vulnerable communities like the Maasai’s.
– Maria Caluag