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Women religious, others stand with Maasai as they resist evictions

According to the UN, over 150,000 tribespeople in Ngorongoro district may be relocated by Tanzanian government evictions
Youth from the Maasai community run to welcome US First Lady Jill Biden (not seen) during her visit to Loseti in Kajiado county, Kenya, on Feb. 26 where she heard about the impoverishing impact of drought on the herder community during her visit to Kenya.
Youth from the Maasai community run to welcome US First Lady Jill Biden (not seen) during her visit to Loseti in Kajiado county, Kenya, on Feb. 26 where she heard about the impoverishing impact of drought on the herder community during her visit to Kenya. (Photo: AFP)
Published: November 02, 2023 06:08 AM GMT
Updated: November 02, 2023 06:12 AM GMT

Wearing his traditional red shuka and holding a spear, Issac Loilet sat outside his Tanzanian mud hut to ponder his fate, as the government continued evicting his tribespeople from their northern ancestral land in the name of wildlife protection.

Like thousands of other Maasai community members in the region, Loilet constantly fears government intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions, ill-treatment, excessive use of force, and forced evictions.

"I want to tell the world we are enslaved people in our country," said the 49-year-old father of five, who requested his name be changed for fear of arrest. "The government has forcefully taken our land, killed some members, and detained anyone who protests."

For the last decade, the Tanzanian government has tried forcefully to evacuate the Maasai people from areas in northern Tanzania to make way for tourists, wildlife and big game hunting. The Masaai mostly live in the Ngorongoro, Loliondo and Sale divisions of the Ngorongoro District in the northern part of the country, which they have long inhabited. Living among wildlife, the Maasai also live next to protected wildlife areas.

Dozens of religious leaders, including priests, nuns and catechists, have been arrested and detained by security forces for supporting the Maasai people and urging the government to follow due process by consulting the Masaai before the eviction, as required by Tanzanian law.

The government historically has allowed the Maasai people to live within some national parks, including the Ngorongoro conservation area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1959. But authorities now say that the exponential growth of the Maasai population and its herds is putting the Maasai in direct competition with wildlife for shrinking resources (such as grass and water) -- thus the move to evict them.

In June last year, for example, the government announced that it would restrict 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) of Loliondo land as a game reserve. The move meant that the Maasai residents had to leave the area and not even use it for grazing or access it to fetch water for household and agricultural use.

"Where does the government want us to go?" asked Loilet, echoing the questions that continue to linger among the Maasai. "We will not go anywhere. We will fight for our land until the end."

The Maasai protested the move by the government and removed the beacons the security forces had set up during demarcation. The report by Human Rights Watch shows that security officers shot and tear-gassed protesting members of the Maasai and destroyed their properties, including livestock and houses. Police detained some members, while others fled their homes to hide in the wilderness for safety.

According to the United Nations, more than 150,000 tribespeople in Ngorongoro District will finally be moved out of their land if the government continues with the eviction.

"As a priest who has worked here for a very long time, I feel disappointed with how the government is handling things by treating people like they are unworthy," said Father Julius Malema, one of the priests working in Ngorongoro District who has been arrested many times for fighting for the rights of Maasai. (He requested Global Sisters Report not use his real name for safety reasons.)

"People here are angry, frustrated, broken and confused," he said. "The people feel like they are abandoned. No one is listening to them, and no one is caring for them."

Another priest based in the Arusha Archdiocese who has previously worked in Ngorongoro told GSR that the government had mistreated the Maasai people for many years at the expense of economic growth that comes with tourism and other projects in the conservation areas.

"These are human beings, not animals that can be moved from one place to another," he lamented, requesting anonymity. "What the government is doing is totally unacceptable; it goes against all humanity and human rights. We are serving a broken community. They have lost hope in the government, their leaders and even God."

One of the nuns running a school and hospital in Ngorongoro District said she is disturbed by how women and girls are severely beaten and raped during evictions. Some of their husbands have been arrested, while others have abandoned them.

The Good Shepherd sister, who has worked in the region for five years to reduce maternal mortality among Maasai women, said, "The tension between the Maasai men and the government has increased domestic violence. Since men are stressed, they tend to vent it out on women."

Although the Tanzania government has successfully moved some families out of the conservation areas under a program the authorities describe as "voluntary relocation," the majority of the residents in the region have vowed to fight for their land to death.

The Maasai argue that they have lived for generations in the conservation areas while protecting the land, preserving wildlife and biodiversity. They say the government's move to evict them was a renewed effort to strip them of the right to occupy and use their ancestral lands.

In September last year, the regional East African Court of Justice dismissed a case against the Tanzanian government by Maasai who sought recourse for violent evictions and burning of homes in their areas. These seminomadic herding people vowed to appeal a decision by the court, alleging that the authorities compromised the court so that they could continue with their impunity to trample on their rights.

"I was born here, and I have to be buried here," said John Lenkanua, a Maasai youth activist from Loliondo. "I would rather die than leave my land because the government cannot just come and take our land just like that. We will fight to the end."

The Catholic Church has been supporting the move by the Maasai people and urging the government to stop the ongoing forced evictions and human rights abuses. The church has called on the government first to consult the Maasai community, whose livelihoods depend on their ancestral land.

"The government should engage the Maasai leaders and find a lasting solution to the problem," urged one of the catechists from Ngorongoro, a Maasai himself. "The authorities should help people and wildlife to coexist in ways that benefit both, instead of violating the rights of the Maasai."

The government offered to compensate each Masaai family with a house, two hectares of land, and 10 million shillings (US$4,300). However, the Maasai said the compensation was not enough since they practice polygamy and require a large piece of land for cattle grazing.

Church leaders and local activists told GSR that the police and soldiers have killed dozens of Maasai. Some Maasai have been detained, and others are reported missing despite people witnessing their arrests.

The leaders and activists say the media also have also been banned from covering the story, noting that several journalists have been arrested in the area for interviewing Masaai people and their leaders. (Security officers also detained this reporter for hours for interviewing members of the Maasai and forced her to delete audio and photos as a condition to be released.)

The Tanzania government also has cut off vital services for Ngorongoro residents, such as health, education, water and electricity, as a weapon to force them out of their ancestral land.

Since June of last year, Endulen village's only hospital, which the Catholic Church has run since 1965, was downgraded to a clinic, with ambulance and emergency services suspended, she said.

"Residents cannot access health care in our facility because there are no medicines. There are also no doctors and nurses to attend to hundreds of patients flocking to the facility daily, forcing them to travel long distances to get those services."

During a recent visit to the region, GSR witnessed government employees -- protected by security officers -- demolish houses to prevent Maasai from moving in, plus dozens of schools, churches and other structures.

Dozens of priests, nuns, catechists and other religious leaders working within the Ngorongoro conservation area have accused Arusha Archbishop Isaac Amani Massawe of siding with the government on the evictions.

One of the nuns from the Arusha Archdiocese, in northern Tanzania, speculated that the archbishop had been threatened and compromised by the authorities to support the eviction of the Maasai people.

But the archbishop told GSR he could not influence the government, and that because he has been fighting for the rights of the Maasai people for a very long time, it was unfair for people to blame him for the government's decision.

"People have accused me of conspiring with the government to force Maasai out of their land, but that's not true," he said. "I cannot fight against the people of God, and neither can I fight the government. We are called to serve in truth and must live according to the church regulations. However, all of us are under the government. … Government is government; when they have planned and decided on things, there is little we can do because we cannot fight against the government. But we can support the people."

Tanzania's church leaders have vowed to fight for the land rights of the Maasai people despite government threats. They also have asserted that they will continue to serve the residents by celebrating Masses, running a few remaining schools and clinics, and fundraising for the Maasai so that they can afford basic needs and use the money to appeal for their court case.

The Good Shepherd nun said religious sisters in the region are visiting distressed families daily to counsel and encourage them to maintain faith in God.

The sisters also are providing health services to all residents, despite lacking medicines and enough staff. The priests, sisters, catechists and other church leaders are visiting homes and villages daily to offer informal education to Maasai children affected by the demolition of schools.

"We are doing a lot of work as sisters," she said. "Most of the women suffer from stress, and they experience nightmares. Therefore, we are trying to help them recover from what they have gone through during eviction because they have lost everything, including their livelihoods."

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