Re-member-ring Maasai leaders & elders

I was a young man growing up in a newly independent Kenya. Our Kenyan nation was not yet ten years. We learnt early to follow social and political debates in the country. Stanley Shapashina Oloitiptip of Kajiado South and John Keen of Kajiado North were the foremost Maasai leaders. They could never agree on anything.

Keen was the more progressive and public spirited of the two leaders. He was a populist within the prism of J. M. Kariuki of Nyandarua North. Others in this club were Jean Marie Seroney of Tinderet and Martin Shikuku of Butere. There were indeed a dozen or so other leaders cut from the same cloth. They fought and spoke out for citizens’ rights. This was regardless of tribe, race or any other group identity. Their sole concern was the Kenyan nation.

Keen crusaded for inclusion of the Maasai in a modern political economy, while preserving the essence of being Maasai. Oloitiptip resisted modernity for the Maasai, but not for himself. He came through as a gifted calculating individual. He saw the Maasai as horse. He was the horse owner and rider.  He appeared always concerned about himself and what he could get from the system and the horse.

Keen wanted the Maasai to get out of the Manyatta. He desired them to take their children to school and claim their place in an emerging Kenya. Oloitiptip said no to all this. And so the two often threw heavy brickbats at each other, in the public space. Essentially a systems man, Oloitiptip got to the apogee of his good fortunes in the early years of the Nyayo Government. As Minister for Local Government, he would publicly praise the government and independence with words to the effect, “Independence is sweet. This Nyayo Government is particularly good. Because of independence and Nyayo, I now live in a twelve-bedroomed house in Lavington.” It would later emerge in public that this was a stolen city council house.

That was in 1980. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had been barred from running in the 1979 Presidential and General Elections, dismissed Oloitiptip as “an avaricious individual” who was “mesmerized with his ill-gotten wealth at the expense of his people.” As Oloitiptip’s fortunes peaked, other Maasai leaders were eclipsed. John Keen, who had featured prominently in the parliamentary probe into J.M. Kariuki’s assassination, was getting steadily marginalized, because of his outspokenness. Justus Ole Tipis, all this time an assistant minister now in this ministry then the other, was a self-effacing phlegmatic individual. He was unflappable to a fault. And that perhaps represented the perception of where those who owned Kenya thought the Maasai should be. They were to be seen and not to be heard; to remain horses that boisterous tribal nouvelle riches like Stanley Oloitiptip could ride to whichever destination they chose.

While Oloitiptip was at the pinnacle of his fortunes, however, you occasionally heard of the Chairman of the Narok County Council. He was a charismatic individual called William Rongorua Ole Ntimamah, a fiery daredevil whom the establishment was keen to tame. He often spoke about Maasai land rights and protection of water towers in the Maasai countryside. He spoke out against charcoal burning in the Mau and of the need to protect the forest. Like John Keen, he wanted the Maasai to take up modernity, while not losing their soul as the Maasai nation. Because of this, the Kanu Government twice barred him from contesting for the Narok Parliamentary seat. The dull natured Ole Tipis was the State’s candidate.

In the fullness of time, Oloitiptip and Ole Tipis separately fell out with the Nyayo Government. They each demonstrated that they could not live without power and went to be with God. Ntimamah rapidly rose to be the new Maasai supremo. Keen had learnt to keep his thoughts to himself. Although he would find his voice again as the Secretary General of Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party, the old fire never quite returned. He has since retired from politics and is ageing gracefully, away from the limelight. Like Joseph Murumbi, another prominent Maasai leader before him, Keen observes civic goings on quietly – certainly disappointed with the turn the country has taken, given his previous public stand on issues.

For his part, Ntimamah will go down in history as an enigmatic figure. He could unite and divide with equal zeal and ease. Much has been said about his “lie low like an envelope – or antelope – ” edict. He will certainly feature prominently when the story of the heady social and political turbulence of 1992, 1997 and 2007/8 is properly compiled and written. At this time of mourning him, it is useful to remember Mark Antony’s famous words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “I have here come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

Mercifully, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga want to claim Ole Ntimamah in his death. It must be for the good that he did in his life. Or it might just be because they are salivating for the Maasai vote – or both. Both leaders, however, threw up unnecessary tantrums at Ntimamah’s burial service. They forgot that this was a sacred church event – a sacrosanct funeral service.

President Kenyatta went on to call a bishop appalling names. He forgot that the bishop was at his altar. Whatever the misgivings, you don’t throw invectives at a bishop in his own space. In such contexts, the men of God must enjoy the benefit of doubt. When we tell them in this forum that they are “stupid,” the gods could take offence. Likewise, we say in Emanyulia that we should not go to funerals to gloat about the meat in our mouth. The gods could just remove it. President Kenyatta’s advisers and ODM’s Raila Odinga’s people of wisdom might want to remind them about sense of occasion – if they can pluck the courage. Meanwhile let’s bury Ole Ntimamah’s bones and keep his words for some other day.

Barrack Muluka

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