Chepkitale Ogiek Thanksgiving Day

Commemorating community’s landmark victory in land struggle

Chepkitale Ogiek’s first Thanksgiving Day was held at Laboot on 18th November 2022 to celebrate 20 years of peace, biodiversity enhancement and land rights achievements.

Court case victory

The celebration was about the community’s legal victory on 26th September 2022 when Bungoma court ruled that the gazettement of Chepkitale Trust Land as Chepkitale Game Reserve in 2000 was unlawful because it had not been done in consultation with the community.

The court declared that “The conversion of the land into a national reserve was unconstitutional, unlawful and of no legal effect”, and that “The land shall revert to the pre 6 June 2000 status”. The land therefore reverted back to the community, to be registered as community land under the 2016 Community Land Act.

Celebration day

As with any community meeting of such significance, the event started with a traditional ritual of foretelling the community’s state of affairs in a brief ceremony called kebir moo”. It was conducted by community elders led by Mzee Arap Chachi Chepkeliek and youths were invited to learn. What followed was traditional offering of sacrifices “korosek”.

Visitors came in as early as 6 am. Friends of the Ogiek Community of Chepkitale including:

  • Communities with similar land rights struggles from Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania and neighbouring communities
  • Elected government representatives, administration officials both from National and County Governments
  • Conservation officials and individuals
  • Organizations who have stood with the community

Among those who attended was Councillor Pius Muyei who had been mandated by the defunct Mt. Elgon County Council to lead negotiations with the Ogiek Community with an aim of reaching an amicable settlement. Councillor Muyei was a member of the council during the conversion of the Chepkitale to a Game Reserve, and was also a councillor during the negotiations. He ended up being the star witness during the trial when the Attorney General turned down the suggestions of reaching out for an amicable settlement. Councillor Muyei spoke very powerfully about how mistaken he had been, and how glad he was that the land was returning to the Ogiek community.

Most County Government officials who were expected to attend failed because they were engaged in other official duties. Bungoma County Governor Hon. Ken Lusaka sent his apologies through area Member of the County Assembly Mr. Francis Chemion. He was hosting the Minister of Agriculture (Linturi Mithika) was vising Mt. Elgon Constituency at the time. His message was that the County Government of Bungoma will not appeal the ruling.

The Permanent Secretary for Livestock Mr. Harry Kimtai sent his apologies as he was accompanying with the Minister. The Deputy County Commissioner of Mt. Elgon was represented by the Assistant County Commissioner of Kaptama, Mr. Bowon.

The key message from all speakers was that the biodiversity of Chepkitale (forest, animals and moorlands) have flourished because they are protected by the Ogiek people.

Professor Gideon Nyamasyo, an expert in biological sciences, spoke of the difference between trees and forest. “Growing exotic trees in straight lines is one thing, but a real forest is something else”, he said adding “A real forest is an indigenous forest with a great diversity of plants and animals depending on each other, including the communities who have lived on their lands since time immemorial”.

Across the world, conservation is changing from its old colonial approach of evicting communities from their lands to the modern scientific approach of recognising the land rights of those living within the forests. Indigenous peoples are now recognised as the best custodians of their lands.

More than 2,500 people participated, including well-wishers from neighbouring communities, and representatives from communities from across East Africa, including from many parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and DRC. These communities spoke of their own struggles for their lands and their appreciation of the unity, effort and success of the Chepkitale Ogiek.

Since the case was filed in court in 2008, one of the 4 people who had petitioned on behalf of the community has since passed on. Ben Muigei Cheptuit was represented by his daughters and one of his sons. They spoke powerfully about their father’s commitment to the community’s struggle.

After the ceremony

The night was filled with song and dancing. Each clan of the Ogiek community lit a fire and held a night vigil round the fire to symbolize the re-birth of Chepkitale.

What next for the community?

The following day on 19thNovember 2022, the community discussed the next steps. These included:

  • The development of working groups to take forward improvements in education and health provision
  • Economic community enterprises
  • Sustainable land management
  • Legal and policy advocacy
  • Governance
  • Planning
  • Monitoring & evaluation
  • Communication
  • Cultural revitalisation.

The Thanksgiving Day certainly revitalised all who attended. The Ogiek community of Chepkitale hope to hold such events annually to thank all within the community and beyond who are helping them; and to reflect on their struggles, setbacks and achievements.

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