The Ogiek
An in-depth report by John Kamau, Rights Features Service

Ogiek: History of a Forgotten Tribe


1 The name Ogiek is used by professional anthropologists to refer to the hunter-gatherer communities that inhabit the forests in Kenya central Rift Valley. The name Dorobo has also been used in recent literature to refer to the Ogiek and in newspaper articles. Amongst themselves, members of this community prefer the term Ogiek, also spelt Okiek.

2 See for instance, Rogers M. Van Zwanenberg, 1976, "Dorobo Hunting and Gathering: A way of life or a mode production", African Economic History 2; G.W.B. Huntingford, 1929: Modern Hunters: Some account of the Kamelilo-Kapchekendi Dorobo (Ogiek) of Kenya Colony. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, LIX, 333.

3 The Maasai do not eat wild game and rely on meat from their livestock. To the Maasai the Ogiek way of life depicts poverty hence the nickname "il Torobo".

Kenya mapThe Ogiek1 inhabit the Mau forests of central Rift Valley of Kenya but many historical works2 refer to them in the contemptuous nickname, Dorobo, which means "poor people who cannot afford cattle".

The name Dorobo is derived from a Maasai name il torobo which means a "poor person who has no cattle and has to live on hunting and gathering"3 and is currently widely used to refer to many other communities that inhabit the Kenyan forests.

In this work the name Ogiek is used to refer to the residents of Mau Forests in Kenya.

4 J.l. Bernsten, 1973, "Maasai and Iloikop: Ritual Experts and their followers", MA Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 47.

5 W.A. Chandler, 1896, Through the Jungle and the Desert: Travels in East Africa, Macmillan, London.

6 C.W. Hobley, 1903, "Notes Concerning the Eldorobbo of OggiekMan 317, 33-4.

7 see for instance K.R. Dundas, 1908, "Notes on the Origin and the history of the Kikuyu and Dorobo tribes", Man p.136-9. And G.W.B. Huntingford, 1929, "Modern Hunters", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 59, 333-78.

8 R.H. Blackburn, 1974, "The Okiek and their History", Azania vol 9, 150.


There is controversy on the origins of the Ogiek with some earlier scholars thinking that the Ogieks were "probably remnants of some pre-Maasai people who occupied the Rift valley and adjacent areas before the arrival of the Maa speaking peoples".4

The first mention of the Ogiek in published literature was by W.A. Chandler who noted their unique physical features and thought they were different compared to other tribes5 while C.W. Hobley6 said they reminded him of "Mongolian types". What followed was a general speculation about the Ogiek and their neighbours7 and the final conclusion reached by 1974 was that "there is nothing in the traditional Ogiek life of hunting and gathering which would indicate a prior adaptation to a plains environment or to pastoralism or agriculture".8

The question that remains then is why the Ogiek were never taken to be a tribal and distinct cultural entity and why everyone wanted them out of their habitats.

Although they speak a Kalenjin dialect, depending on who they border, as their first language, the Ogieks do not (even today) consider themselves to belong to either Tugen, Nandi or Kipsigis by virtue of speaking the language.

9 R.H. Blackburn, 1974, "The Okiek and their History", Azania vol 9.  

"All Ogiek maintain that they are one people in origin who have separated some time in the past and now live in different high forest areas and have become like their non-Ogiek neighbours in language and to some extent culturally, socially and technologically".9

10 Yeoman, G.H., 1993: "High Altitude Forest Conservation in Relation to Dorobo People" Kenya Past and Present, 3.   However, they differ from neighbouring tribes in that for many years they lacked corporately organised formal institutions. They had no chiefs, clan leaders or formal councils. Historians say that indicates that the Ogiek were the original inhabitants of the Central Rift Valley leading to a general feeling that only the Ogiek "have at least a claim to be aboriginal East Africans since there is no evidence of their having come from elsewhere".10
11 Yeoman, G.H., 1993: "High Altitude Forest Conservation in Relation to Dorobo People" Kenya Past and Present, 3.  

"[The Ogiek] are a hunting and gathering people of antiquity greater than other peoples amongst whom they now live i.e. the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai, Kikuyu, etc.", concludes Guy Yeoman.11

Initially, the Ogieks covered virtually all the central highland zones of the country but have slowly been squeezed out by invading tribes, the colonial settlers and now by settling communities.

Another process in which the Ogiek lost their land was through declaration of their ancestral land as forest reserves.

The above processes have not only led to wanton destruction of the natural forest on which the Ogiek depend on but has seen the replacement of indigenous forest cover with useless exotic conifer plantations.

The process was concluded in the 1937-1938 Kenya Land (Carter) Commission that recommended the eviction of the Ogiek from the remaining forests and to concentrate them either on European farms as squatters or in the Forestry Department labour camps. The colonial government thus used the Ogiek to destroy their own habitat by clearing the forest and replacing the indigenous trees with exotic to meet the colonial needs of timber.

This injustice was noted earlier on with one commentator writing:

12 Unpublished commentary by Guy Yeoman on the Ogiek stored at Kenya National Archives.  

"In as much as the Ogiek are offered employment by the forestry department and are encouraged to leave the forest and join the great labour camps, they are...working for their own extinction since every hectare of trees they plant is a hectare of their birthright lost forever".12

Unlike other communities in colonial Kenya that were easily controlled the Ogiek posed a problem since they had no organisational structure.

13 Yeoman, G.H., 1993: "High Altitude Forest Conservation in Relation to Dorobo People," Kenya Past and Present, 3.  

"To the European farmers, foresters and administrators, the [Ogiek] represented a tiresome problem. They were an elusive, apparently (but not truly) nomadic, uncountable people lacking a recognisable hierarchical structure, resistant to tidy organisation".13

In his work Guy Yeoman has heaped praise on the Ogiek especially their character. We lavishly extract some of them here. Yeoman says that the Ogiek "are capable of being totally and comfortably self-sufficient on the natural products of the forest, with the exception of what little iron they need for making their arrow heads, knives and spears".

He further describes the Ogiek as "a shy and diffident people, of engaging gentleness and charm, considerable intelligence, of quite astonishing technical expertise in their special arts of hunting and bee-keeping, and having a most unusual sensibility in relation to their forests and the creatures which inhabit them".

And these characteristics can be observed on the Ogiek still and one would agree with Yeoman when he says that unlike other communities the Ogiek "are not gregarious and are happiest in situation of isolation, the trees and animals proving them with the psychological support".

14 A Whital, 1957/8: The Last of Dorobo. E.A. annual 71.

15 Yeoman, G.H., 1993: "High Altitude Forest Conservation in Relation to Dorobo People" Kenya Past and Present, 4.


The uniqueness of the Ogieks is on their linguistic facility and are able to adopt the language of their neighbours at ease. It is because of this characteristic that some scholars and administrators thought that the Ogieks were not a true ethnic group. Whital14 for instance thought the Ogieks were "outlaws from other tribes who have found refuge in the forests". There were other similar misconceptions which saw the Ogiek as a "dying remnant", "lawless poachers" et cetera to which one scholar15 posed:

"[But] how can one poach one's own game on one's own ancestral land?"



16 Yeoman, G.H., 1993: "High Altitude Forest Conservation in Relation to Dorobo People" Kenya Past and Present, 10.

  The introduction by the colonial government of game and forest laws saw the criminalization of Ogiek survival tactics and legally deprived them of a home. The Forest Act and the Wildlife Conservation Act had multiple effects on the Ogiek. They were evicted from the forest on the grounds that the colonial government wanted to "conserve" the forests. The second injustice that followed was the replacement of their natural forests with Conifer plantations that are, to the Ogiek, "totally sterile, unproductive, and useless for either bees or wild animals".16

17 R.H. Blackburn, 1974, "The Okiek and their History", Azania vol 9.

18 G.W.B. Huntingford, 1955 "The economic life of the Dorobo", Anthropos 50:602, see also G.W.B. Huntingford, 1929: "Modern Hunters: Some account of the Kamelilo-Kapchekendi Dorobo (Ogiek) of Kenya Colony". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, LIX, 333.


It is true that the Ogiek did hunting in the Mau Forest. Traditionally three-quarters of their diet consisted of game meat while honey contributed to less than a quarter.17 As Huntingford noted the Ogiek display an affinity with and care for the wild animals in their forests. They only killed to meet their domestic needs and predominantly only those species with buoyant populations such as warthog and tree hyrax.18

Had this been taken into consideration the Ogiek should have been taken as the true inhabitants of the forests. But then there was the perception that they were "outlaws" and the best the colonial government did was to come up with the "overall solution" to the "Dorobo problem".

The Kenya Land (Carter) Commission which was set up to look into land problems in the Kenya colony between 1938-9 deprived the Ogiek of their tribal status and denied them any claim to ancestral land. The Ogiek were to be moved into the tribal reserves of other communities especially the Nandi, Kipsigis, and Maasai. This roved to be impractical since the Ogiek abandoned the reserves and went back to their homes in the forest where they were seen as squatters.


19 R.H. Blackburn, 1971, "Honey in Okiek Personality, Culture and Society", unpublished Ph.D Thesis, Michigan State University.

  It was not fun to stay out of the forest or to abandon an economic system they had for ages practised. Blackburn tried to explain this by arguing that the Ogiek have "a honey complex"19 and that by far honey is the most important item in the Ogiek culture. It was plentiful, valued and used as a medium of trade.


20 R.H. Blackburn, 1974, "The Okiek and their History", Azania vol. 9.


"Without honey and condition of getting it Ogiek life would be entirely different. This explains why the Ogiek live in the forest," wrote Blackburn.20

The initial assumption was that the Ogiek did not own the forests as their ancestral land. But research carried by Blackburn indicated the contrary. He wrote:





21 R.H. Blackburn, 1974, "The Okiek and their History", Azania vol. 9, 146.


"Cross-cutting the horizontal ecological zones are streams which run parallel to each other, draining the Mau (escarpment). Since these are permanent water sources, animals and humans can remain permanently in restricted areas without needing to migrate. Between the streams are strips of land, sloping down the Mau and with a central ridge, which extends upwards through all the forest zones. Each is owned by a different local lineage. Significantly, rights over a lineage territory do not extend to the exclusive use of the territory for residence or hunting by the owning lineage".21

According to Blackburn a lineage could bequeath the honey collecting rights to other persons or lineage. This involved legal compensation, bride-price payments, or outright purchase or outright purchase in those zones where there were no animals.

It was then reckless on the part of the colonial government to interfere with the Ogiek way of life and for the independent Kenya government to continue with the wanton destruction of the Ogiek habitat.

The destruction of Ogiek forests saw them turn to small-scale arable farming and stock raising in the forests. The unassuming community found later that the only land they could call home was Forestry Department land and they were being granted short-term tenure on sufferance in return for clearing and cultivating the soil for the planting of exotic trees. After every few years they were moved on to clear other areas thus irreversibly destroying their natural habitat. Whether this was by design remains a matter of speculation. But we do believe it was a colonial design to exploit the Mau forest.

Elders who spoke to our research team recalled how they were moved from their original home near Lake Nakuru to Olare in East Mau sometimes around 1908. Then they were moved towards Elburgon by a man they only know as "Pettyjohn".

Some elders also say that a forester who they nicknamed "Kongoru" was the one who set the tone for the eviction of Ogieks when he moved them to Marioshoni around 1914.

Kongoru confiscated the Ogiek cattle and destroyed a total of 6,000 beehives.

It was at Marioshoni that the Ogieks were first used as labourers initially to plant exotic tree species. It was at this time that Nessuit, Kiptunga, Sururu and Baraget became settled areas.

In 1936, the colonialists using forest destruction as a cover attempted to evict the Ogiek. The real reason was to harvest the indigenous trees wholesale. It was at this time that the Ogiek were to be removed from these areas for Narok. The Ogieks refused to stay at Narok and were returned to Marioshoni by their leader Tiwas. Tiwas resisted the colonial government and died in 1947. His brother Kuresoi was picked by elders along with Sururu Kitango.

In 1975 the last of the three Ogiek leaders, Kitango died. The government insisted on appointing a new chief for them, which they refused. It was not until 1989 when the government finally picked an Ogiek chief.

In the same period the then Nakuru District Commissioner Jonah Anguka tried to have the Ogieks of East Mau transferred to West Mau. An estimated 90% refused and those who left under duress soon returned. Due to this resistance, the provincial administration left them alone. The DO of Molo Division then appointed heavy-handed chiefs who were used by the administration to harass the Ogieks. MORE>>



Ch. 1: Ogiek: History of a Forgotten Tribe
Ch. 2:
The Struggle Begins, The Struggle Continues
Ch. 3:
The Closed Society

Ch. 4:
Wanton Destruction
Ch. 5:
Promises and More Promises
Ch. 6:
Threats and Lies
Ch. 7
: The Court Battle
Ch. 8:
The Aftermath

Pt. 1:
The Ogiek Community Submission before the Njonjo Land Commission
Pt. 2: Epilogue
Pt. 3: Conclusions
Pt. 4: Recommendations

Annex 1: Declarations on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities
Annex 2
: The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights
Annex 3:
Legal Instruments that Govern Land in Kenya

The Ogiek: The Ongoing Destruction of a Minority Tribe in Kenya Copyright © 2000 Rights News and Features Service. Citations on this document may be made freely but copyright is vested in Rights News and Features Service. Unless otherwise stated all the views expressed here are those of the authors and are endorsed by Rights News and Features Service, which is responsible for the content in this publication. First published in Nairobi by Rights News and Features Service, First Floor, College House, University Way, P.O. Box 63828, Nairobi, Kenya. Phone: +(254-2) 311724. E-mail: Copies of the report may be ordered from Rights News and Features Service.