Running Through History (An account of the Osotua run)

There are many good reasons to take part in the annual Osotua run. Let us start with the scenery. It is simply to die for. If you have not been, may I suggest you stop reading this and check out the photos that Roul posted on the Swaras facebook page. Or, if you like Victor more, here you go.

Go on and look. I’ll wait.

Here is one of them. Beautiful, no?

Here is one of them. Beautiful, no?

Then there was the run itself. In case you are like me and can’t help confusing Osotua with Ololua, that other classic that happens in Karen and the nation of Ongata Rongai, here is a quick tip: for Ololua – think Monkeys. For Osotua – think killer hills, for that is what the run, starting as it does on the edge of the great Rift Valley escarpment portends.

But there was nothing like killer hills this time. At least not many. Otora must have found religion during the holiday season. He avoided the temptation of routing us up the vertical escarpment against which the Osotua camp nests. Instead we went left of the escarpment wall, aiming straight at Mai Mahiu town and Mount Longonot beyond it. Then we gently curved left again, using Mt Margaret as the beacon this time, just missing the Longonot satellite Earth station until we arrived at the Kenya Pipe Line depot, which sits at the end of an ancient tarmac road that I am told used to form the Nairobi Nakuru cattle track, way back in Colonial times.

Speaking of Colonial times, history alone could be a good reason to do Osotua , assuming Masai cuisine and herbal goat soup are not your cup of tea. Osotua sits on the northern boundary of official Masai land, an artificial border demarcated by power of Colonial fiat and treaty chicanery. It is thus a symbol of the greatest land grab ever perpetrated in Kenyan history, a historical injustice of gargantuan proportions if you want one. This crime, committed more than 100 years ago, is part of a long story. So let me tell you the short version.

The lay of the land. El nino has turned it all green

The lay of the land. El nino has turned it all green

The Colonial British were a rather practical, if devious lot. I guess you had to be when, hailing from a small Island with terrible weather, you found yourself the owner of an empire that stretched half way round the World. How would you rule such a massive empire? There are not enough of you and despite the prowess of your army and navy, the expanse of your dominions are simply too vast to control by force. You can’t always rely on bribing the natives. Many of them cannot be trusted to stay bribed and in any case, there are only so many beads and trinkets to go round. So they invented the doctrine of divide and rule, or rather they perfected a doctrine that the Romans had invented more a thousand years earlier.

In a nutshell the doctrine goes like this: to rule the natives and keep them subdued you need to do two things first and foremost: (a) identify their weaknesses so that you exploit them and (b) identify their strengths and either align yourself with them or do everything you can to turn these strengths into weaknesses. Together these principles formed the key pillars of what became known as the theory and practice of indirect rule.

Back to Osotua.

Before the British showed up on our shores, the Masai used to graze their cattle on the land stretching from near Arusha in Tanzania, past Kiajado, Nairobi, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Eldoret to Kitale. This vast stretch, almost 1000 kilometers long, formed the nomadic tribes summer and winter (high land pasture and lowland pasture) grazing grounds. The right to ownership was reinforced by history, mythology (Engai (God) gave the land to us and all cattle on earth besides) as well the fierceness of the Moran warrior class. These Masai Moran’s had for hundreds of years kept any strangers away from the Kenyan hinterland, single handedly shielding the tribes of Central and Western Kenya from the ravages of slave raiders, colonial explorers and the missionaries who followed them.

On the run. Negotiating some of the treacherous terrain

On the run. Negotiating some of the treacherous terrain

I am sure the Masai could have continued doing exactly that, but for a perfect storm of disasters that struck around the 1820 to 1890. First an epidemic of smallpox that decimated many populations in the East African region, causing forced migrations that changed the ethnographic landscape permanently. Next and even worse for the Masai, a series of cattle epidemics, mainly Riderpest, that killed many of their animals, threatening to destroy the basis of their economic and cultural existence as a people.

It was around this time that Joseph Thomson showed up courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (mother of the present day National Geographic that you see on TV) to explore the East African hinterland. Thomson boasts in his memoirs of his prowess in traversing the previously impenetrable Masailand, “…a sheaf of green grass in one hand (a Maa symbol of peace) and a rifle in the other” (a British symbol of deceit?). But the truth is he and his servants were traipsing through largely empty savanah grassland. The disasters had reduced the feared Masai into a shell of themselves and the stresses caused powerful internal tensions, especially following the death of respected leader, elder and prophet, Batian, when his two sons Lenana and Sedeyo turned on each other and split the tribe into two.  The resulting Morijo civil war was to cause a permanent rift, creating the tribe now known as Samburu and giving the colonialists the weak point they needed to exploit in order to steal the Masai’s land.

Joseph Thomson. When I was young we were taught that he was the 'first man to cross Masailand' which made wonder what had happened to the Masai. Had they all gone blind?

Joseph Thomson. When I was young we were taught that he was the ‘first man to cross Masailand’ which made wonder whether the Masai had all gone blind

The British needed land and other natural resources to support the home country and the expansive empire, and later to settle white veterans from World War 1. They discovered the fertile valleys and slopes of the Abadares and the expansive well drained plains of the Laikipia and Uasin Gishu plateaus. Good land, well watered, plenty of native labour nearby, and weather like the Yorkshire Dales in permanent summer. What was not to like? So they liked. In fact they liked so much that they promptly renamed it ‘The White Highlands.’ One small problem, the Maasai and to a smaller extent the Nandi and Kipsigis to the West claimed to own most of it.

What to do? Start a land war? Not a very efficient idea, especially as you would still need the same native owners to provide cheap labour or serve as hired mercenaries to subdue restless tribes that could threaten the settler project.  In any case, even though the Masai were weakened by then, no one wanted to test the theory that they could not fight, or give them a reason to unite their warring clans against a common enemy. Otherwise the Colonial project in Kenya could have ended before it began.

The road to Mai Mahiu. Getting there can be tougher than doing the run

The road to Mai Mahiu. Getting there can be tougher than doing the run

Enter a chap called Frederick John Dealtry Lugard – (marches in, stage right): fresh from a stint in subduing the restless natives of West Africa, who insisted on opposing the creation of modern day Nigeria. Born in Madras (present day Chennai) India, Lord Lugard was one of the greatest proponents of the policy of indirect rule. You could say he wrote the manual on the philosophy and practice of divide and rule. He believes the British can convince the Masai to vacate their land without having to fight them.

Enter Lenana ole Batian – (sits quietly stage left) – the brash but rather humbled Maasai war leader from Kiserian, recently enthroned as Oloibon Kitok and soon to be Paramount Chief of all of Masailand. Brave and well versed in the ways of warrior hood and the culture and beliefs of his people, but Lenana was clearly ignorant in the dark arts of politics and diplomatic sleight of hand. He has recently emerged from a devastating struggle for power against his brother. All he desires now is peace and he thinks the British are his friends.

The meeting of the two people and opposed visions was to be a disaster for the Maasai and indirectly for Kenya. Through a series of tricks, the Maasai were somehow convinced to give up the fertile upper plateau lands of Nyandarua, Nakuru,  Nanyuki  and beyond and move to the dry and marginal Kajiado/Namanga plains to the south while their Samburu cousins were pushed to the dry Laikipia plateau north of Nanyuki and Isiolo. You can read one of the colonial agreements here. No I’ll not wait.

Further afield, the project of colonizing Uganda, for which the Uganda railway had been built, was largely abandoned and Kenya colony became the new center of British settler attention. The rest as they say is history.

The deed is done. Chief Lenana shortly after signing away most of Masai grazing land

The deed is done. Chief Lenana shortly after signing away most of Masai grazing land

The Mai Mahiu road that passes just next to Osotua forms the utmost northern edge of this historical injustice perpetrated on the Masai people. An injustice that every post independence Kenya government has continued, either by default or by design. In fact the genesis of land tensions that have existed here between the Maasai and the Kikuyu, which flare up in regular, so called ‘tribal clashes’ can be traced this far back. The people of Maa have never recovered.

But let us get back to the running trail.

The flat section of the run lasted exactly 27K. Shortly past the KPL depot, the trail turned left, then right and bang into the face of a massive rock strewn cliff. Clearly Otora had saved the best for last. Somewhere near here the SGR will soon be passing, emerging from one of the longest tunnels to be constructed in East Africa. But for now it is all volcanic rock and scrubby bushes, mute witnesses to the suffering of the Urban Swaras.

The morning mist makes the land look a scene in fantasy movie

The morning mist makes the land look a scene in fantasy movie

At the top of the cliff we emerge onto a narrow flat plain abutting the real escarpment. The sharp hill curves gently to include the Mai Mahiu road and the old railway line. Both hug the escarpment closely, tracing ancient elephant trails, an Engineer friend once told me, to traverse the famous Williams hill to Mai Mahiu town. Somewhere near the bottom is a small Chapel, built by the Italian prisoners of war in memory of their comrades who died building this road. Nothing marks the, even greater, suffering of the Indian natives who built the railway line.

My grandfather told me that watching the Italians being forced into near slave labour by their British jailers was one of the incidences that broke the myth of white invincibility and contributed to the rise of the Mau Mau. To the Kikuyu, a white man was a white man (gutiri muthungu na mubia). If the Italians could be beaten, so could the British. A story for another day.

The long run ended at 34K, as confirmed to me by Roul and my running mate Waweru, although Timothy somehow was able to scratch out a 39K (some people are insatiable, I tell you). The food was very good as were the cold showers. The views were even better, once the pain was behind us.

I vote that we do this again.

On a previous visit, Swaras posing with the locals

On a previous visit, Swaras posing with the locals

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