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Literature Discussion -


The story of Magadi 

By Evans Kinyua (Kenya)


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The greatest Oscar and Pulitzer deserving stories happen in Africa. But the Western camera and pen recognizes only the tear jerker variety; the disease ravaged, hunger stricken, below a dollar a day genre of stories, of which, granted, there is no dearth. But there are countless other stories that tickle the imagination, stories of a forgotten era that form a fundamental part of the mosaic that informs a continent’s wretchedness.

Kenya continues to churn out a number of award-deserving pieces, of the above mentioned variety, of self inflicted pathos. But I want to pick one of the forgotten stories, one of the most entertaining, and I shall deign to describe it here. This story regards a contract entered into between the Maasai, the celebrated, pristine tribe of East Africa, and the pipe-smoking British, sometime in the eighteenth Century.

In their travels through the African bush land, the British found a lake somewhere in the Rift Valley. Nothing extraordinary about this. The British had already been the first people to discover lakes, seas, mountains, rivers, trees and skin-clad Africans. But this particular lake, they discovered, held vast wealth in the form of an alkaline substance called trona, a naturally occurring solid mineral comprising of a mixture of sodium sesquicarbonate, sodium chloride, other sodium salts and clays and a small amount of organic matter. Having so discovered, and given the fact that the Maasai, on whose land it lay, considered it a loss to mankind inasmuch as their cows and goats would not drink from it, they decided to agree with the Maasai how they can make use of it.

It is hardly surprising that the Maasai were unaware of the deposit or its nature. Their Illiteracy was gauged by the British at a level even earlier than that of medieval Europe of 14th century. Yet they indicated that the Maasai were advanced enough to enter into deals that were to affect future generations.

And so it came to be that  on 10th August  1904, Sir Donald William Stewart, the British Commissioner for Kenya Protectorate (yes, someone did require protection, they felt) assembled a number of Maasai chiefs in Naivasha, about 100 kilometers west of Nairobi .His intention was to acquire part of their land for colonial development.

In that agreement, the Maasai were requested to cede all the 86,000 square kilometers of the lake, and some 227,000 square kilometers of acreage of the catchments around it – for a total of 999 years! In consideration, the Maasai would get paid in a currency called pittance.

So the clever British set up a facility on the lake to scoop the trona, and even built a railway to ferry the spoils to Mombasa for shipment to the land of the Queen.  In 1913, the Maasai, those hapless natives, did reason that they had just been hoodwinked and demanded their rightful share.  In that year, a group of Maasai went to court challenging the take over of their land. They wanted to prove that the 1904 agreement was fraudulent. The colonial solicitor general, according to Biosafety News ( April 2004  issue), regarded the Maasai as mere articles of faith, (pray, what could that description mean?) and not the right holders of the Magadi  land. And in 1920, when the Europeans declared Kenya a colony, all tribes became mere tenants. This meant that all land belonged to the colonialists.

In his book Magadi; The story of Magadi Soda Company, M.F. Hill says that Africans were disturbingly backward. Say he: “In 1890, the Africans of Kenya were in a more primitive condition than anything of which there is any record in pre-Roman Britain. Therefore, even if the British were to claim that there was an agreement, such are not the kind of people who could have been competent to enter into one assigning their land.” Too true, we all know, but did that give anyone the right to dispossess the wretched herders?

According to Biosafety News, Professor Ruth Oniang’o, a former Kenyan Member of Parliament, has been vocal against what she terms as social injustices. But the Magadi Soda Company management says the land issue was fait accompli, according to the paper. The management also argues that the company provides water and medical services to the surrounding community, as well as employment opportunities. Cabinet minister William Ntimama, himself a Maasai, argues that Magadi Soda land and rail belongs to the Maasai and that is why the investment is surrounded by the pastoralists. He says that “The Maasai were forced to live in areas infested by tsetse flies and malaria”.

In the small bits and pieces of Law of Contract that I have had the opportunity to study, it said somewhere that a contract cannot be successfully concluded with a minor or a person of unsound mind. The Law of Contract, at least the version that I read, was silent on the issue of a contract undertaken between a literate and an illiterate person. But it did state that for such a contract to be valid, there must be something called consensus ad idem, or a meeting of minds. Translated, both parties must be in a position to fully understand the rights and obligations of whatever it is they are agreeing to.

The majority of the Maasai are still illiterate, and therefore cannot comprehend, even today, over one hundred years later, why their trona is being shipped by the ton to all corners of the globe with little value to them. But a few of them are literate, and they are asking that what belongs to them either reverts to its rightful owners, or the compensation be pegged to actual value.

There are many stories out of Africa, and many more contracts that we can talk about. A good number are about wrongs perpetrated by the Africans to fellow Africans, and a good number are like this one, of other people who used and continue to use subterfuge to deprive this continent and its gullible people, oftentimes with the connivance of avaricious and insatiable African leaders, of her enormous resources, unto oblivion unlimited.

There is never a dull moment in Africa. We can talk about outward bound billions of oil wealth from nations whose citizens are impoverished beyond belief, thousands of acres of agricultural real estate ‘owned’ by foreign companies and individuals and families with names like Lord Delamere (whose son still shoots Africans like pheasants in his expansive ranch around Naivasha), all acquired from similar eighteenth and early nineteenth century contracts, the continuing theft of raw mineral wealth, ad nauseam. One day the Africans will wake up and say: “haaiya, we’ve been gone and done.”