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.