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Kenya 2022: Beyond Safari postcards lies colonial-era land grabs

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 07:43, updated on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 14:16

Virgin Group's billionaire founder Richard Branson cuts the tape to open the new facility at the Sekenani primary school in Maasai Mara game reserve
Virgin Group's billionaire founder Richard Branson cuts the tape to open the new facility at the Sekenani primary school in Maasai Mara game reserve, south of Nairobi, May 17. 2008. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Kenya's blissful safari holidays have a sombre side: local communities shunted into low paid jobs, stigmatisation of cattle herding instead of investment in agricultural productivity, and a healthy dose of 'white saviour industrial complex'.

This September, Mahali Mzuri, a safari hotel in Kenya’s Maasai Mara owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, was ranked the number one hotel in the world. The daily newspapers reported the award as a welcome mark of distinction for a tourism industry that has been struggling for years, even before the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a blow to travel worldwide.

However, behind the feel-good honours is a much darker story of enduring colonialism, land grabs, violent conflict and disenfranchisement in Kenya’s arid rangelands, that is ever more urgent to address in the lead up to next year’s general elections.

Local politicians are once again inciting violence, and calling on the Masaai community to rise up against ranch owners.

Beyond the electoral cycle, as climate stress becomes increasingly frequent, and national and global calls for racial justice become ever louder, it [land grabbing] is something no incoming Kenyan leader can afford to ignore.

Kenya has an enduring image as a haven for safari adventures, with its pristine wilderness and vast array of wildlife. The picture postcard can obscure how tense and fraught this seemingly timeless beauty really is.