The Hardships and Successes of Being Indigenous in Africa

In Africa indigenous peoples face a lot of challenges ranging from marginalization and nonrecognition by governments and other ethnic groups, to poverty, AIDS/HIV, and illiteracy. At the same time there have been remarkable achievements by indigenous people in the last 10 years, especially in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Central Africa, Nigeria, and other eastern and central Africa communities.

In Africa, indigenous people can be classified into two major groups, namely livestock pastoralists and hunter-gathers. Some communities also exist known as the blacksmithery and potters.

Since 1992, the indigenous people of Africa have entered the international arena to fight for their recognition, land, language, and culture. Recent years have not been easy for many indigenous activists, who have faced intimidation, arrests, and even death as they fought for the rights of their communities. The fight took Africa’s indigenous people to Geneva for the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations, to New York for the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and to the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights.

The past decade has been full of challenges caused by conflict in the political arena, lack of food security, and globalization—in particular the structural adjustment programs that are creating a global market economy that is leaving indigenous communities in a problematic situation.

I am, however, happy to announce my joy and hope for the indigenous people in Africa. I am happy and hopeful because the indigenous people of Africa have made a lot of remarkable achievements, which are giving us confidence and determination.

Freedom of Expression and Assembly

In the past, it was illegal in Kenya to speak about the rights of indigenous people. It was also illegal to hold meetings, as they supposedly amounted to inciting people against the law of the country. These restrictions were a way of marginalizing the indigenous people by denying them knowledge of their rights. Meetings educated the people and the government knew that if the indigenous people knew their rights, they would claim those rights and expose the violations against them to the international society.

Today in Kenya and many other African states where indigenous people are found, there exist indigenous organizations registered by the governments and people are allowed to meet and express themselves to some extent. This change is a step forward. It is, however, important to know that obtaining the right to assembly and self-expression is also dependent on gaining political representation. Indigenous people must therefore continue fighting so that they can have political representative from the grassroots level.

Land Rights and Natural Resources

From the times of the early colonial powers to the present African governments, indigenous people in Africa have been robbed of their lands and natural resources. Indigenous peoples’ lands have been used for large-scale agriculture, livestock farming, and mining. A lot of traditional indigenous land has also been set aside in Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania for wildlife game reserves. These reserves attract millions of tourists annually, but their income does not benefit the indigenous peoples.

The achievements made so far in obtaining land rights for Africa’s indigenous are minimal but promising. In Kenya, for example, when the government threatened to evict the Ogiek from the Mau forest, the Ogiek mounted pressure and managed to to retain the land. Maasai land-rights lobby led to the development of the Njoncho Commission on Land.

The drafting of a new Kenyan constitution has also demonstrated strides for indigenous rights in Africa. Indigenous people are among the groups fighting for a new constitution because the old one is not favorable to indigenous communities. Constitutional review communities have visited indigenous communities for input during the drafting of the new constitution. Before, the government would have ignored the indigenous communities during the drafting process. Some delegations to the drafting sessions included indigenous peoples, and one of the vice chairpersons of the constitutional review committee was an indigenous Maasai, Koitamet Ole Kena. But the fight for recognition in the constitution continues as the Kenya government delays adopting the new constitution, which was supposed to be completed June 30 but has still not been released.

Other achievements include increased access to education and scholarships. Many indigenous youth are now better able to get an education. Indigenous peoples organizations hold workshops and seminars for youth, and the Simba Maasai Outreach Organization broadcasts a Maa-language radio station. Training is also available to empower indigenous women, who are now fighting at the national level for their rights back in their communities.

A lot of work remains to be done in training, health, poverty reduction, and bio-diversity. Other areas that need attention include protecting indigenous language and culture, which are threatened by urbanization and Western education influence. Indigenous peoples must have their own education curriculum to avoid loss of language and cultural practices.

From Africa to the World

The indigenous people of Africa have made a lot of achievements in the international arena. Many indigenous organizations have attended international fora, including the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as the drafting sessions for the Declation on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They have also been represented in committees such as the U.N. Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Durban, South Africa, indigenous people of Africa joined other world indigenous people to push for the interest of indigenous peoples in the development world. Indigenous peoples have also met with success in securing some intellectual property rights. In South Africa, the San won the right to share the benefits from the sale of for a weight-loss medicine that was developed from traditional San knowledge (see CSQ 27:3).

Indigenous peoples have also appeared internationally to make their case for being on the front lines in discussions about biodiversity issues. The group of indigenous representatives who attended the 2004 World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, challenged renowned conservationist Richard Leacky on his view that conservation of wild animals can only be achieved in isolation from humans.

Francis Nkitoria Ole Sakuda (simookenya@hotmail.com) is the director of the Simba Maasai Outreach Organization.

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