Academic journal article Africa

Marginalisation of the Waata Oromo Hunter-Gatherers of Kenya: Insider and Outsider Perspectives

Academic journal article Africa

Marginalisation of the Waata Oromo Hunter-Gatherers of Kenya: Insider and Outsider Perspectives

Article excerpt


This paper examines how the way of life of a little known group of hunter-gatherers, the Waata Oromo, was brought to an end through British colonial wildlife conservation laws and the creation of national parks in Kenya. Through this policy and that of the containment of ethnic groups to 'tribal reserves', the Waata lost their place in the regional economic system and suffered loss of cultural identity. It also meant that when Kenya gained independence, the Waata were not recognised as a distinct entity with rights to their own political representation. Instead, they became appendages of the dominant pastoral groups with which they had been associated. They were thus doubly marginalised, in both economic and political terms. The paper describes how this situation has led some Waata in northern Kenya to claim separate ethnic status. It discusses the problem from the point of view of a Waata social activist and of an anthropologist. These two perspectives raise further issues for the etic/emic debate in anthropology.


In the late 1940s and 1950s, an ideological shift took place in conservation policy in colonial Kenya, from the preservation of wild game for Euro-American 'trophy' hunting, to the creation of national parks, where animals could live in their natural habitats as protected species (MacKenzie 1988; Steinhart 1989, 1994, forthcoming). (1) The former policy marked a continuity with the colony's historical past as a place for big game hunting and trade in wildlife products, particularly ivory, both of which had generated considerable revenues. (2) The latter, anti-hunting, policy reflected changing attitudes towards nature that had begun to emerge in American and European circles before the First World War, and which laid the foundations for the environmental movement (Nash 2001). It sought to promote wildlife tourism, based on the model of the American Yellowstone Park created in 1872, which would generate an alternative source of profit for the colonial state. This new strategy, which eventually led to the total ban on hunting in Kenya in 1977, contributed to the demise of the way of life of a number of hunting groups. Colonial administrators considered these indigenous hunters, who did not possess official licences to kill game, to be illegal 'poachers'. Their subsistence hunting activities in and around the parks became an offence punishable by law and they were treated like criminals (Holman 1967; Parker and Amin 1983).

This paper discusses the case of the Waata, hunter-gatherers who have traditionally been associated with a number of Oromo groups in eastern Africa. (3) Based on published sources, it examines how in the late 1940s, one group of Waata elephant hunters became the main target of the anti-poaching campaign that was launched in Tsavo National Park in eastern Kenya (Holman 1967; Parker and Amin 1983). It examines the repercussions that this conservation policy had on other Waata communities, who were not only economically disenfranchised, but also became politically disempowered vis-a-vis the dominant pastoral groups in which they had sought refuge. This loss of livelihood exacerbated the negative aspects of their ambivalent social relationship with these pastoral societies.

The paper traces how, like many other hunter-gatherer groups in Africa (Kenrick 2001; Woodburn 2001), the Waata are reclaiming their indigenous rights. It focuses, in particular, on the movement for political representation that is being led by Bashuna in northern Kenya, where the Waata have retained the specialised ritual roles they had traditionally played in the Borana and Gabra pastoral societies. It indicates that the problems faced by the Waata have not only been caused externally by the state, but also stem from the hierarchical relations pertaining within the Oromo culture, based on the concept of the 'first-born' son. It posits that in the modern-day context of northern Kenya this situation has led to the instrumental deployment of ethnicity in the struggle over strategic national resources (cf. …

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