In the Shadow of the Serengeti
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
"I don't know who his father is." The tears are slowly rolling down Mtongoli Nenga's cheeks as she cradles her one-month-old son, Youssouf, in the squalid ten-square-meter room she shares with her six children. The first four are from her deceased husband; the youngest two from "clients." When the sweet-faced 30-year-old works the streets of Mugumu, a small agrarian town in northern Tanzania, her oldest child, 18, watches the others. "They don't know I sell my body. I tell them I go out at night to look for money, but I don't tell where it comes from," she whispers.
Her life unraveled on October 14, 2001. That day, the police torched her home to the ground in the village of Nyamuma, which sits on the northeastern edge of the Serengeti National Park, one of the world's most pristine wildlife preservation areas. The hilly hamlet was the home of poor millet farmers and small-game hunters from the Kurya, an ethnic group that is also present across the nearby border with Kenya. The security forces accused the villagers of being unlawful residents, criminals and foreigners from Kenya. But Nyamuma also happens to be located very close to an ambitious ecotourism project driven by Paul Tudor Jones, a legendary American hedge fund manager, fueling speculation that the hamlet had been cleared to promote animal viewing for wealthy tourists. After their expulsion, most of the villagers moved to nearby Mugumu, where they now live in dire poverty, relying on temporary manual jobs if they are lucky—and, in Nenga's case, sleeping with men who pay a premium for unprotected sex.
Nenga is a collateral victim of Tanzania's eager embrace of luxury safaris, an industry that draws around half a million visitors each year and is by far the main contributor to the country's annual tourism earnings (which totaled $1.26 billion in 2009, according to a report from the Tanzanian central bank). In recent years, there have been a number of government-orchestrated forcible dispossessions related to high-end safari ventures in northern Tanzania—first and foremost around the Serengeti National Park, where endless herds of elephants, zebras and wildebeests, followed by packs of predators, migrate every year.
What happened in Nenga's village is neither an isolated case nor an incident harking back to a bygone era. While the traces of the evictions in Nyamuma have long since disappeared, a strikingly similar set of events is unfolding on the other side of the Serengeti National Park, in a remote area called Loliondo. After years of peaceful coexistence with hunters from the Persian Gulf, the legendary Maasai pastoralists are under assault, accused of trespassing, destroying the environment and, just like the Nyamuma villagers, of being illegal immigrants from neighboring Kenya. Starting in July 2009, the police began burning their bomas—their traditional mud-and-wood homesteads—in the grazing areas of eight villages bordering grounds owned by the safari hunting company Ortello Business Corporation (OBC). Since then, the Maasais, who could be seen shepherding their cattle, sheep and goats all over those greenish hills with their trademark red-and-blue garb, intricately beaded necklaces, and bows and arrows, have gone into hiding.
A quarter of Tanzania's land mass is already allocated to wildlife, and the authorities are striving to extend this domain. That objective, however, has become more problematic because of the country's explosive population growth—from 10.4 million at independence in 1961 to 42.5 million in 2008—and because the zones bordering the wildlife areas have seen an influx of new inhabitants lured by their rich agricultural and pastoral potential. According to the law, when the president decides to transform land into a national park or game reserve—which ban human settlement and activities except hunting and animal viewing—he simply needs to issue a decree. The law stipulates that the inhabitants of the area are to be informed, resettled and compensated.
However, "the land situation is much worse in Tanzania than in many African countries because of the compulsory land acquisition presidential prerogative and because compensation is tepid and only granted after people are evacuated," says Peter Veit, a senior fellow with the World Resource Institute, a research organization based in Washington.
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After the 2001 events, the Nyamuma villagers received... nothing. They were kicked out on short notice and were neither compensated nor resettled.
The cultivators had settled in the area in the mid-1980s after being chased from their land further south. But the proximity with the Ikongoro Reserve, which is located in the migratory corridor between the Serengeti National Park and Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, would soon prove contentious. In 1994 the Ikongoro Reserve was expanded and its status was upgraded from "game-controlled area," where both animals and humans are allowed, to an animals-only "game reserve." The expansion put the main part of the village inside Ikongoro; its inhabitants were thus removed and compensated. Most of them resettled in the part of the village that sat just off the reserve, which took the name Remaining Nyamuma. But when villagers of nearby Nyanguge were evicted from their homes in 2000 for allegedly being Kenyans, they also moved into Remaining Nyamuma. This influx created tensions over land and water with neighboring villages and the wardens of the game-controlled areas.
On October 8, 2001, the district authorities informed the residents of Remaining Nyamuma by loudspeaker that they had to evacuate by October 12. The residents refused, and two days later the evictions began. They were led by the district commissioner (known as the DC), Loy Thomas Sabaya, the highest central government representative in the area. Villagers were forced to empty and burn their homes, storage spaces and cowsheds. At least 135 households were completely razed. The district authorities ordered all neighboring villages not to accommodate the villagers. More than eight years later, they keep vivid memories of those fateful days.
Esther Jackson was six months pregnant. "The district commissioner and his deputy beat me with sticks and fists," she told me in Mugumu in the outdoor terrace of one of the hotels where safari visitors generally stay overnight on their way to Serengeti. "I began to bleed more and more. I slept outside because I was too weak, until someone brought me to the hospital." She miscarried. She and her husband, Mwita, along with their thirteen children and grandchildren, now live in four small rented rooms in Mugumu. Their only source of revenue comes from bringing water into town from a river dam a few kilometers away.
Mugere Mwita, a 38-year-old cripple, recounts how his wife was able to flee the police. "But I obviously couldn't. So they beat me, the DC broke my crutches and they left me in the bush." The DC then told him: "You really want to live here? You can just stay here now!" Mwita remained in the bush for eight hours, until his wife came back and brought him to the Mugumu hospital. He now shines shoes in the streets, unable to feed his three children more than once a day or to send them to school, "because I can't afford the uniforms and the books."