Land and violent conflict

Violence and conflicts have long been of interest to anthropologists and other social scientists (e.g. Sponsel, 1996: 96; Vanhanen, 1999). Studies on conflicts over land and water in Sub-Saharan Africa still gain much attention across the social sciences and in the media (e.g. cases in Derman, Odgaard and Sjaastad, 2007; Le Meur et al., 2006). The major thrust of the literature has focused on the search for root causes of violence, linking violent interaction to specific social dynamics: the politicisation of ethnicity (Montalvo and Reynal-Querol, 2005; Vanhanen, 1999; Sambanis, 2001), social exclusion (Le Billon, 2001; Richards, 2003; Watts, 2004), contested entitlements (Brass, 1985; Bryant, 1998), the militarization of profit-seeking elites and consequent grievances (Collier and Hoeffler, 2004) and competition over scarce resources (Homer-Dixon, 1994). This general tendency to focus on the causes of violence has often implied a neglect of non-violent conflict management strategies (Sponsel, 1996: 96). In addition, situations where prior violence turned into peaceful interaction have attracted little attention, though the analysis of such transitional phases holds the promise of contributing to applicable knowledge on conflict resolution.

When social scientists have dealt with transitions towards peaceful intergroup relations, they have often focused on the effects of government measures and NGO activities. Such formal post-conflict peace-building strategies tend to concentrate on short-term political and economic stabilisation at the national level (Filipov, 2006: 7) and often fail to attend comprehensively to factors that shape conflicts at the grassroots level. Hence, social science research focusing on such interventions often deals with changing state–community relations. Local Peace Committees, the upgrading of customary law at the local level, and the activities of non-state bodies in conflict resolution (e.g. peace caravans) have gained some limited attention in social science literature (e.g. Adan and Pkalya, 2006; Odendaal, 2010; Odendaal and Olivier, 2008).

This paper will not focus on these obvious and largely state- and/or elite-driven efforts to ensure peace, but will examine peaceful conflict resolution from a grassroots point of view by describing the role of cross-cutting ties and the conflicting loyalties associated with them. We focus on actors in two communities in the hinterlands of Lake Naivasha, and their roles in turning a previously violent setting into a social situation characterised by a multitude of intercommunity ties. We argue that negotiations over access to land and the ensuing transfer of user rights from Maa-speaking landowners to mainly Kikuyu tenants makes land a shared rather than a contested resource. Intermarriages and the cross-cutting ties associated with them function to deconstruct in-group identity formations which, if triggered politically or otherwise, may lead to violent conflict. We show how ties in intermarriage and land rentals constitute conflicting loyalties, and explain their importance for peace today in the south of the Lake Naivasha Basin, a hub of agricultural industries in the south of the Kenya’s Rift Valley.

First, however, we briefly discuss theories of peaceful conflict management, and then embark on a short history of the research area, focusing on the interplay of politicised landscapes and violent conflict.

Cross-cutting ties, conflicting loyalties and peaceful conflict management

Evidently it is more difficult to define peace than violence in a sociologically meaningful manner. Various attempts have been made to do so (e.g. Galtung, 1967; Galtung, 1969; Robarchek and Robarchek, 1998). Galtung (1969: 183), for instance, understands peace as the absence of personal and structural violence. However, while discussing societies that are considered peaceful, authors have noted the capacity for interpersonal violence and forms of structural violence. They have shown how cultural strategies are utilised to contain such violence (e.g. Bonta, 1996; Bonta, 1997; Dentan, 2001; Fabbro, 1978; Fernea, 2004; Robarchek and Robarchek, 1998). Here we define peace not simply as the absence of violence, but as the capacity for and practice of non-violent cooperation in the face of pertinent challenges.

Why are some societies peaceful? How is violence turned into coexistence? The theory of cross-cutting-ties/conflicting loyalties (e.g. Colson, 1953; Gluckman, 1956) argues that cross-cutting ties between communities lead to conflicting loyalties with a number of actors; these actors in turn will attempt to prevent violence between communities. In a cross-cultural study Kang (1976) operationalised cross-cutting ties and took various forms of exogamy and intercommunity marriages as a major evidence for the presence of such groups (Kang, 1976: 203). However, she only found weak effects to support the cross-cutting ties hypothesis (e.g. Göhlen, 1990; Kang, 1976). Indeed, in some cases where cross-cutting ties exist they even escalate conflicts (Schlee, 1997). From the local perspective of our case study in Maiella and Enoosupukia, however, cross-cutting ties do explain a trend towards non-violent interaction. This serves as motivation to reconsider the cross-cutting ties hypothesis. We hypothesise that it is especially the multiplex character of cross-cutting ties which inhibits or rather discourages violent interaction.

Settlement history and demographic trends in the study area

The research area lies between Nakuru and Narok Counties, and in geographical terms is an extension of the Mau Escarpment. The region is approximately 2,400m above sea level and receives considerably more rainfall than the adjoining lowlands. The soils are highly fertile and allow up to three harvests per year. Historically the Nakuru side was occupied by white-owned commercial farms while the Narok side was part of the southern Maasai Reserve. Today, the Nakuru side of our research area is constituted by Maiella Sub-location, and the Narok side by Enoosupukia Location (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

Study villages: Nkampani, Maiella Trading Centre, and Kokoti (Maiella Sub-Location); Mpeuti, Olosho lole Kaloi and Oltepesi le Parsimei (Enoosupukia Location).

Before colonization the study area was inhabited by Dorobo,1 Kikuyu and Maasai of the Southern Reserve proper (including Purko, Laoita, Sigirari, Matapato, Keekonyokie etc.).2 In the early 1900s Northern Maasai were moved from Laikipia to the Southern Reserve and some settled around Naivasha and Enoosupukia, the place of our study.3 Today these groups subsist on on-farm and off-farm activities, such as subsistence and commercial cultivation, livestock-keeping, wage/salaried labour, business (small shops, hotels, bars etc.). Land rental is an important livelihood component often involving Maasai landowners (including Dorobo) and Kikuyu tenants. However, the majority of the population are of mixed identity, i.e. ‘nusu nusu’/manusu,4 referring to offspring of Maasai/Kikuyu/Dorobo intermarriages—who also sublet land—as well as Kikuyu who acquired Maasai identity by adopting Maasai names and culture as early as 1910. ‘Nusu nusu’ is derived from the Swahili word nusu (‘half’). It is not clear when the term was coined but archival sources show that it was already in use in the 1950s.5 Today, manusu (plural of nusu) is often used by other people to refer to individuals of mixed identities, but the term is rarely used by the latter in reference to themselves. Generally, manusu are strategically allied to Maasai, for security of tenure over land, among other reasons. They have a good command of Maa and Gikuyu languages and culture. During the 1993 violence in the study area, manusu were blamed by Kikuyu for showing allegiance to Maasai. In some instances both Kikuyu and Maasai accuse manusu of double standards in land matters. In a 1957 Handing-over Report, Galton-Fenzi, who was then District Commissioner of the Maasai Reserve, noted that the ‘nusu nusu’ population would always be a problem for administrators, due to their alliances to both dominant ethnic communities and their somewhat unclear relation to land.

Today, Maiella Sub-location is subdivided into 18 villages with a total population of 9,238 people in 2,137 households (KPHC,6 2009). Only Nkampani village has a large Maasai population (Keekonyokie section), while the rest have a majority Kikuyu population. Enoosupukia’s total population is 14,534 people in 2,984 households (Figure 1). Apart from Maasai, villages in Enoosupukia house Kikuyu and other non-Maa people (e.g. Kamba, Baganda, Kalenjin, Luhya etc., who also rent farmland). Dorobo, having been absorbed and assimilated into both Maasai and Kikuyu cultures, adopted agro-pastoralism at least towards the mid-1900s onwards, and progressively abandoned most of their previous hunter–gatherer strategies.


Data collection included a survey of 240 households in Enoosupukia Location (Narok County) and the neighbouring Maiella Sub-location (Nakuru County). Through stratified sampling we drew sub-populations from three villages of Maiella Sub-location (i.e. Maiella Trading Centre, Kokoti and Nkampani villages) and from another three in Enoosupukia Location (i.e. Mpeuti, Ol tepesi le Parsimei and Olosho lole Kaloi villages) (Figure 1). Combined, the three villages in Maiella have a population of 3, 416, while those of Enoosupukia are inhabited by approximately 3,000 people (KPHC, 2009). Mapping allowed representation of different sections of each village in a bid to control biases in choosing informants. About half of the households surveyed registered as Maasai (including Dorobo and manusu) and the other half as Kikuyu. The survey provided information on household composition, livelihoods and assets. About 140 biographical interviews were conducted across the six villages, providing data on marriage, intergroup relations and land use changes. Archival sources, oral history and written sources resulted in information on history and dynamics of intergroup relations. Focus group discussions with interest groups of both Maasai and Kikuyu covered topics like intermarriage, land rentals, business relations and institutions. Fieldwork by the main author was conducted in the course of 2013 and 2014. Where necessary we have protected the identity of our informants by avoiding to use their real names in the text.

Land, politics and violent conflict

Until the 1970s a large forested area extended along both sides of the Nakuru/Narok boundary. In the 1980s the area faced massive deforestation, paving the way for cultivation in small-scale and large-scale farms mostly occupied by immigrants of Kikuyu descent from central Kenya who, among other groups, were looking to settle in agricultural lands that were either perceived to be or factually were under-utilised, such as the Rift Valley (see Hornsby, 2012: 249). Fragmentation of pastoral lands and subsequent agricultural intensification have rapidly increased in Kenya and Tanzania in the last few decades of the twentieth century, oftentimes negatively impacting neighbouring wildlife conservation areas (e.g. Börjeson, Hodgson and Yanda, 2008; Leslie and McCabe, 2013; Okello, 2005).

Traditionally the forest in Enoosupukia was inhabited by Maa-speaking hunter–gatherers who called themselves the Seleita and were classified as Iltorobo by their Maasai neighbours—a term many of them use for themselves today. Il torobo (Dorobo) elders in Mpeuti village said they and other Maasai who later came to the area transferred rights of access to land through sale and/or exchange and in the form of gifts to ‘newcomers’, mostly of Kikuyu descent, since at least the early 20th century.

Kikuyu defied the colonial ethnic segregation policy and moved into Maasailand, becoming clients and workers in Maasai homesteads in exchange for access to land, while Maasai benefited from Kikuyu clients who supplied labour and wives and engaged in trade relations (Klopp, 2001: 151). Access rights to land were also transferred both within and between local groups as part of marriage arrangements and as compensation or penalties imposed in the resolution of disputes by the council of elders (Blackburn, 1996).

At that time transfer of rights to land was thus informal, and mainly involved verbal agreements—only in few instances were handwritten agreements required as evidence of transfer. The terms and legitimacy of such agreements are largely contested today. Kikuyu are accused of having amended the agreements to defraud illiterate Maa-speaking communities of more land. Kikuyu and Maa speakers disagree on whether these transactions constituted permanent or temporary transfers of rights and whether the transferred rights indicated use rights only, or actually indicated a full transfer of ownership rights (Matter, 2010: 138).

Figure 2 below shows responses from sixty farmers of Maiella and Enoosupukia to the question of acquisition of rights to land. It indicates that a large number of the respondents attributed their rights to land to the Ng’ati Co-operative Society (all of them from Maiella), and a sizable number to inheritance as well as to gifts, purchase and land rentals (most of them from Enoosupukia).

Figure 2 

Acquisition of land in the early 20th century in Maiella and Enoosupukia.

In Maiella, until 1964 a large settler farm (16,338 acres) was run by an Italian (known locally as Loska). After Independence the Italian sold Maiella farm to the Ng’ati Farmers’ Co-operative Society, a society made up of about 600 farmers mostly of Kikuyu descent, who henceforth called themselves Ng’ati farmers. The majority of Ng’ati farmers had laboured on the farm. They consolidated their own funds and appealed to friends and relatives, especially from central Kenya, in order to purchase the farm and hence recreated a githaka.7 Hornsby (2012: 249) argues that Kikuyu were a ‘richer’ community and had better access to loan facilities, which enabled them to ‘accumulate and privatise pastoral land’ (Klopp, 2001: 137). Attempts by Maasai to purchase the farm were ultimately unsuccessful.

According to informants, membership of the cooperative was open, especially to former labourers on the commercial farm (Maasai, Dorobo, Kalenjin and some Turkana). A membership subscription fee of about €20 was paid at the time, and was intended to contribute to paying the price of the farm (roughly €8000). However, only about five Maasai registered with the cooperative in the 1960s. From the mid-1970s onwards the farm was subdivided amongst its members. It was cut into a great number of small plots in three sections, corresponding to the dry, hilly and wet areas, and was subsequently cultivated by members of the Ng’ati Co-operative. Some owners later sold their plots to residents or newcomers.

The sale of Maiella farm to mainly Kikuyu farmers sparked outrage among the Maasai who claimed to have occupied a section of the farm (Nkampani village) before colonialism. The Maasai began to seek ways of reclaiming the Maiella farm, citing historical injustices when ‘their’ land was ‘stolen’ by settlers and transferred to ‘outsiders’. Periodic conflicts pitting Ng’ati farmers against Nkampani Keekonyokie Maasai began in 1968, but increased during the subdivision of Maiella farm from the mid-1970s onwards.8 Several people died, and Kikuyu houses built on or near the disputed Nkampani area were burned by Maasai, while Maasai livestock found grazing near Kikuyu settlements or farms were killed by Kikuyu farmers. In retaliation Maasai fed their livestock on crops planted by the Kikuyu.9 Such violent conflicts continued until the 1990s (Hornsby, 2012: 548).

On the Enoosupukia communal land, residents together with the then District Land Adjudication Office declared two areas for adjudication in the 1970s: Kipise Adjudication Section, and Enoosupukia Trust Land, which they called Part A and Part B respectively. Official adjudication of Kipise started in 1977 (Matter, 2009: 8–9) but the presence of a large number of immigrants—most of whom claimed ownership rights to various parcels of land—as well as corruption allegations on the side of the Demarcation Committee dragged the demarcation process out until 2007. Entitlements to land were also contested among Maa speakers. Notwithstanding such dynamics, cultivation in the area increased rapidly in the 1980s as farmers sought to utilise ‘their’ parcels of land so as to deter others from claiming ownership at the time of the adjudication.

In the early 1990s, however, the rapid agricultural expansion in Enoosupukia was disrupted when the politicisation of land and ethnic categories in the run-up to the 1992 elections set the stage for political conflict. A new multi-party era in Kenya shaped ethnic strife targeted especially at migrant groups that were supposedly settling in regions traditionally occupied by other groups (see Klopp, 2001). The ‘survival’ of Kikuyu in traditionally ‘pastoral Maasai’ lands thus required that they demonstrate their allegiance by voting for William Ole Ntimama, a then powerful Maasai politician, which they declined to do.

In October 1993 more than twenty10 Kikuyu farmers were killed and about 10,000 forcefully evicted from Enoosupukia, allegedly to restore the forest (damage to which was blamed on the Kikuyu’s ‘destructive’ farming techniques). The violence was perpetrated by a non-official Maasai militia of hundreds of morans,11 game wardens and administration police assisted by a small core of local government officials and residents, most of whom were eager to take back small parcels of land they had sold to Kikuyu farmers (Hornsby, 2012: 548; Klopp, 2001: 164). The Enoosupukia trading centre, as well as churches and schools that were attended by both Maasai and Kikuyu children, were burned or destroyed.

Thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), most of them of Kikuyu descent, pitched camp in a Catholic Church at Maiella Trading Centre, where they received food aid and shelter from NGOs and members of the public. In late 1994 many of the IDPs were transported in government trucks and ‘dumped’ in Central Province (the alleged land of their forefathers) under the cover of night (Hornsby, 2012: 549; Klopp, 2001: 175). Only a few were resettled in the controversial Moi Ndabi settlement scheme,12 while hundreds rented small houses in Maiella Trading Centre. Efforts by Maasai vigilantes to capture Maiella farm were ultimately unsuccessful. William Ole Ntimama, who Klopp (2001: 154) described as ‘a high powered patronage boss’ has since been blamed for the attacks. Prior to the violence Ntimama issued inflammatory statements warning the Kikuyu that he would ‘press them and make them lie low like an envelope’13 (see Akiwumi, 2001).

Between 1995 and early 2000 a great deal of time was spent preaching peace, reconciliation and coexistence between the two warring groups. Peace forums, which centred on intergroup dialogue, were spearheaded by the church, NGOs, local administration (chiefs) and Local Peace Committees. They brought together the youth, women, religious leaders and elders from both groups. The high costs associated with the violence were unbearable for many; sick Maasai in Enoosupukia could not visit the main hospital in Maiella after the violence for fear of attack by Kikuyu. Most boda boda (motorcycle) operators who plied their trade along Maiella and Enoosupukia routes halted their services, rendering the most reliable means of transport for food and people impossible. This especially affected the Maasai since the Kikuyu controlled the boda boda business. Schoolchildren, especially from Enoosupukia, stayed at home because their schools had been burned down (Klopp, 2001: 170). Shortage of food increased since food crops had been set on fire on the farms or fed to Maasai herds. Consequently landowners in Enoosupukia already began to look for land-seeking clients among the Kikuyu a few months after the violence as a result of looming poverty.

Indeed, the ‘return to peace’ was especially encouraged by the Maasai. Discussions on how to reinstate normality and manage future conflicts were conducted in over fifty meetings involving the area chiefs and local Maasai and Kikuyu elders, who later spread the word through the villages among youths, women and church groups. Intergroup dialogue breathed renewed strength into efforts at peaceful coexistence in many peace forums, including peace tournaments organised by the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), as well as in related peace campaigns by World Vision of Ndabibi, Naivasha. Awareness was raised of the potential for the political instrumentalisation of violence, and youths were cautioned against being used to further others’ selfish political aims.

Trust between Maasai and Kikuyu began to take root in the early 21st century. Hundreds of IDPs who had taken refuge in Maiella began to return to the former conflict areas to re-rent or reclaim their land. To facilitate coexistence, Local Peace Committees were instituted to manage and resolve land disputes and possible conflicts in the future. Higher courts were also involved to settle boundary disputes.

The most famous court case between members of Ng’ati Co-operative Society and the Nkampani Maasai began in 1996 and lasted for over 10 years. After a decade of heated and expensive proceedings the High Court of Kenya ruled in favour of the Maasai, on the grounds of marginalisation and historical injustices, allowing for them to be apportioned 4, 027 acres out of the 16,338 acres of the farm. The invocation of ‘marginalisation’ especially privileges Maasai over other groups in land claims (Little, 1998: 444). The ruling, though received with heated criticism from both groups, inculcated cooperative use of natural resources, and access rights to land have since been negotiated peacefully. Interestingly, today the area allocated to Maasai is extensively leased to Kikuyu and other farmers. It thus befits its name, ‘Nkampani’, from enkampa, a Maa word for ‘a cultivated area’. Intermarriages in the area are on the increase, and ties stretch beyond kinship into friendship networks. Table 1 gives a summary of half a century of conflict and land-related tensions.

Table 1

Overview over conflicts and violence in Maiella and Enoosupukia: 1970–2014.

Year Explanation and Type of Conflict Timeframe Organisers and Perpetrators Impact on Cross-cutting Ties

1968-early 1970s Land-related conflicts: struggle over control of Ng’ati farm between Kikuyu Ng’ati farmers and Keekonyokie Maasai of Nkampani village—destruction/burning of houses and crop fields, and killing of cattle at the boundary of the disputed area. Retaliatory attacks lasting between a few hours to days. – Retaliation between morans and Kikuyu men for damages caused.
– No mention of politicians instigating the conflict.
– Markets in Maiella and Suswa still shared.
– No reports of divorce or separation in interethnic intermarriages.
– Cooperative land use at Enoosupukia continued.
Mid-1970s and 1980s Land-related tensions: land tenure reforms were a major contributor. Enoosupukia and Maiella were shifting from community/group/trust ownership to private property. Intra- and inter-community struggles over rights of tenure. 1977–1980s. – Impacts of multiparty politics already beginning to take shape against migrant Kikuyu. – No violence reported.
– Boundaries negotiated peacefully despite adverse political campaigns.
– Intermarriage and cooperative land use persisted.
– Markets uninterrupted.
1991–1993 Political and land-related conflicts and violence: multi-party (Majimbo) politics along ethnic lines were a main driver of violence. However, restoration of Enoosupukia forest was offered as the main reason for evicting Kikuyu farmers who were blamed for its destruction. (See also Anderson & Lochery, 2008; Anderson, 2007; Klopp, 2001). – Conflicts between 1991 and 1992.
– Violence in October 1993 lasting for about 3–7 days.
– Forceful evictions of Kikuyu farmers from Enoosupukia in late 1993 and 1994.
– Over 20 Kikuyu lives lost; unaccounted number of Maasai killed by Kikuyu fighters.
– Local politicians with a grassroots core of organisers.
– Police and game wardens deployed to assist in the eviction.
– Hundreds of Maasai morans from outside Enoosupukia ‘poured’ into the area by government trucks.
– Some rogue local actors wanted to repossess the lands already transferred to Kikuyu farmers. (See Klopp, 2001: 164; Hornsby, 2012: 548; Human Rights’ Watch 1993).
– Several schools and Enoosupukia shopping center destroyed.
– Eviction of Kikuyu and Kikuyu-friendly Maasai/Dorobo from Enoosupukia.
– Narok/Nakuru borders impassable for fear of retaliations, crippling access to markets, hospital and public transport at Maiella.
– Some Kikuyu in-laws living with Maasai family protected.
– Food crops and livestock of some evicted Kikuyu tenants protected by their landlords.
– Some Maasai landowners offered security to their Kikuyu clients at the time of harvesting of their crops.
2007/2008 to 2014 – Tensions in Maiella and Enoosupukia following the 2007/8 post-election violence, especially in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
– Peaceful coexistence and resolution of land-related disputes through Local Peace Committees and courts from 2008–2014.
– No violence was reported in the study area in 2007/2008. – Rumours had it that unknown Maasai bandits threatened to cause mayhem in Maiella for selfish gains—this did not materialise. – During the post-election violence of 2007/8 many Kikuyu and Maasai opted to remain indoors while others converged at Maiella Centre to follow the post-election violence on television.
– Normal operations continued in the markets and fields, albeit with caution due to the potential for spread of violence to the study area.
– Land rentals and intermarriages increased.

Marriage-related cross-cutting ties

This section opens with an overview of changing patterns of intermarriage between Maasai and Kikuyu over the last 50 years. We will then discuss why disparities in intermarriage exist, and discuss the socio-economic consequences of Maasai–Kikuyu intermarriage.

Changing patterns of intermarriage

In a sample of 140 marriages documented for Maiella and Enoosupukia, 48 (34%) intermarriages between Maasai and Kikuyu were recorded (Figure 3). Out of the 48 intermarriages recorded, about 13 were recorded prior to the 1980s. Since the late 1980s intermarriages have increased, with Maasai men habitually marrying Kikuyu wives.14 A considerable number of children results from these intermarriages. It is these children who embody the conflicting loyalties of their parents and kin.

Figure 3 

Distribution of intermarriages over the last 50 years.

The households resulting from these marriages accounted for over 250 children (Table 2). Table 2 shows the distribution of Kikuyu women who are married into Maasai households in three villages, and the number of children of mixed identity.

Table 2

Number of intermarriages and mixed identities.

Village Kikuyu Women Married by Maasai Children with Mixed Identity

Nkampani 18 104
Olosho lole Kaloi 11 70
Mpeuti (including Kigumu) 19 94
Total 48 268

Sourcing spouses

Kikuyu women who marry Maasai men come from diverse backgrounds. Naivasha and Narok score highest as places of origin for Kikuyu women in such mixed marriages (Table 3). Especially in Naivasha, the majority of women who work in the cut-flower industry find husbands in the surrounding region (Kioko, 2012). Maiella, Kinangop, Naivasha town, Maai Mahiu, Ndabibi and Ng’ondi are social and economic spaces for both Maasai and Kikuyu, and as such are places where close relationships between Maasai and Kikuyu are more likely to emerge. A large number of Kikuyu came from the Nairiegie Ngare area in Narok County and spread to other areas of the County in 1950s and 1960s. Kikuyu women shared interesting stories about how they had met their Maasai husbands (Table 4).

Table 3

Geographic (village) origins of Kikuyu women married among the Maasai.

Village Place of origin
Kiambu Kitale Naivasha Meru Murang’a Nakuru Narok Ngong Nyahuruhu Nyeri TOTAL

Nkampani 1 0 3 0 2 1 8 1 2 0 18
Olosho lole Kaloi 0 3 4 0 3 0 0 0 0 1 11
Mpeuti/Kigumu 5 0 8 1 0 0 4 0 0 1 19
TOTAL 6 3 15 1 5 1 12 1 2 2 48

Table 4

Biographical notes of Kikuyu women marrying Maasai husbands.

Kikuyu woman married by Maasai man Origin How the couple met

Informant 1 Muranga My parents moved from Muranga to Enoosupukia in the 1960s looking for a place to cultivate. They became friends with my husband’s parents (Maasai) and lived as neighbours. To cement their friendship I was given for marriage to this Maasai family in 1978. Since then we have lived as friends and in-laws. I am the only wife in this household and I have 9 children.
Informant 2 Kitale My father is the former head teacher of Olosho primary school. He bought land in this village and moved his family there. I grew up in the new village and got married in 1993. I am the first wife, with 8 children. My husband’s second wife is Maasai.
Informant 3 Nyeri I was born in Nyeri. My mother maintained a friendship with a Kikuyu woman who was a neighbour in Nyeri before she was married among the Maasai. When I came of age for marriage the woman asked my mother to have me marry her son. I was married by the son in 1978. I am the only wife, with 7 children.
Informant 4 Muranga My parents migrated from Muranga to Enoosupukia in search of farmland in the 1970s. At Enoosupukia, our family became friends with the family of Tima Kaloi (Maasai). In 1993 we were evicted from Enoosupukia. We rented a house in Maiella and lived there. However, friendship between the two families continued and was strengthened when my father gave me over to the son of Tima for marriage in 2001. I have 5 children.
Informant 5 Naivasha (Ndabibi) My parents moved from Ndabibi in Naivasha to Enoosupukia to farm. We were evicted from Enoosupukia during the 1993 violence and went back home to Ndabibi. I met my husband (Maasai) in Ndabibi when he was grazing livestock. We got married in 2010 and have 2 children.

Disparities in intermarriage

While a large number of Kikuyu women are married to Maasai men, Kikuyu men show reluctance in marrying Maasai women. There are a number of reasons for this imbalance.

Bride wealth: Kikuyu men suggested that the bride wealth required for a Maasai woman is high. For instance, to marry a Maasai woman who has managed to complete secondary education, one may be required to cover her education costs.15 This was approximated to be about €4,000 (focus group discussion at Oltepesi le Parsimei village). However, it is still uncommon to find many Maasai girls who have completed secondary education in the study area. Bride wealth for young Maasai women who have not attained high school education is also high.16 Additional bride wealth often includes four head of cattle (two mature cows with calves), several dozen to hundreds of small stock, shukas (Maasai cloth) and blankets for the bride’s father and his brother(s), and sugar and honey (about 4kg of each). In addition, a ram or bull is required for slaughtering at the wedding ceremony. Kikuyu often only require a cow and its calf, about 100 sheep, a blanket, and some cooking utensils as bride wealth. Generally, the cost of these items is summed up and the bride wealth is then paid in the form of money.17 In the sampled households, some Maasai paid between €300 and €600 as total bride wealth to their Kikuyu in laws. Land has commonly been used as payment for bride wealth to some Kikuyu in-laws. In both instances payment of bride wealth is spread over a long period, customarily to foster dialogue between in-laws. Indeed the majority of Maasai men interviewed were still indebted to their Kikuyu in-laws; some were planning to start paying bride wealth at the time of circumcision of the sons born by the Kikuyu women. In most instances they will pay almost the same amount irrespective of whether the women attended high school or primary school or not.

Education: Among Maasai, education is largely a recent phenomenon and is still subject to immense cultural pressure. Kikuyu men usually do not want to bring home uneducated Maasai women. To the contrary, educated and independent Maasai women rarely avail themselves for marriage to Kikuyu farmers who may be of lower academic qualification.18 Similarly, Hakansson (1990) has shown that higher qualification in education has the effect of preventing intermarriage with men from non-elite families. However, the majority of illiterate Maasai men want to marry Kikuyu or Maasai women who have attended school at least to a level sufficient to meet the educational needs of the school-going children. Independent Kikuyu women who have attained higher education, on the other hand, consider some Maasai ideals like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and polygyny as archaic and do not avail themselves for marriage.

Female Genital Mutilation: Generally, Kikuyu men have a negative attitude towards marrying circumcised women. Female Genital Mutilation remains persistent in the study area among Maasai, and only a few girls manage to escape the cut. In-depth interviews conducted by Sarah Nyanjui (a Kikuyu research assistant who hails from Maiella) show that a good number of Kikuyu women married by Maasai men submitted themselves to the knife to fit into Maasai culture. They also recommend the practice for their daughters. Therefore, Maasai who abide by tradition laud Kikuyu women who adopt Female Genital Mutilation, but the majority of Maasai and Kikuyu are against the practice.

Divorce, children: In Maasai society divorce is rare. Marital disputes are solved through negotiations between in-laws, often with efforts from the groom’s family. Such security in marriage forms an important pull factor for Kikuyu women. Especially when a Kikuyu woman married to a Maasai gives birth to a son, or sons, she culturally acquires respect, and her rights to land and family property (e.g. livestock) become more secure due to the value attached to children (especially sons) in Maasai culture. The contrary is true in the contemporary Kikuyu lifestyle, where ‘rampant’ elopements, separations and divorce are commonplace; the sex of a child often does not matter as compared to Maasai culture.

From cross-cutting ties to conflicting loyalties

Irrespective of these disparities, intermarriage unites in-laws and their larger social networks of both Kikuyu and Maasai kin and friends. In-law bonds facilitate peaceful relations between the families tied in kinship, but may also influence their friends and neighbours in a similar direction. Through in-law relations the wider network of friends gains opportunities to negotiate for access rights to land. In-laws and their close core of friends receive land as gifts and/or through purchase. Arguably, Kikuyu as wife-givers are socially superior in the relationships. However, the Maasai as landlords are, in turn, socially superior as patrons to Kikuyu clients. Hence, this is a reciprocal social relationship where each party is indebted to the other. That is an exchange of daughters for land. Possible disputes over land thus become a family matter rather than a bone of contention between ethnic groups. This makes disputes easier to manage and averts instances of large-scale rivalry.

Apart from access rights to land, intermarriage strengthens personal security, involves a wide range of socially-meaningful material flows, and grows economically meaningful ties, as explained from a Kikuyu point of view:

The Maasai have a lot of respect for their in-laws. Since the time my three daughters got married to Maasai husbands I feel respected. I occasionally receive presents sent by my in-laws, especially in the form of foodstuffs brought by boda boda (motorcycles). The Maasai have become loyal customers in my bars here in Maiella and in my lodges too. To cement these relations, I occasionally throw a party in their honour where I call all my Maasai friends for goat eating and celebrations … they go home drunk, calling my name and celebrating me. The 1993 ‘clashes’ can be thought of as ordinary conflicts in any family setting. However, if violence did occur while I was in the homestead of any of my in-laws or my Maasai friends, I would be offered protection, and if I had to leave for safety’s sake they would hire a boda boda to take me home. However, I have not encountered such cases.
(Shushu, Maiella Centre, 21.8.2013)

According to Shushu, security and cordial relations, which involve a wide range of material transfers and which feed into local business networks, are enhanced through intermarriages. Kikuyu and Maasai in-laws and their larger networks of families and friends feel safe in the presence of one another and often celebrate the gains achieved.

The stability of Maasai marriages was especially notable since no divorce or separation was reported, especially at the time of the violence. Instead, some Kikuyu families took refuge with their Maasai in-laws and friends, while the majority of Kikuyu left their properties under the care of Maasai families. In Oltepesi le Parsimei village, for instance, the Nadokila family offered refuge to a Kikuyu brother-in-law after the Enoosupukia evictions. He settled on a piece of land that was paid as bride wealth for his sister. Elsewhere, in Olosho lole Kaloi village, many Kikuyu tenants left their belongings and crop farms under the care of their Maasai relatives or friends. Some Kikuyu women who had married into Maasai villages moved outside the conflict areas temporarily with the assistance of their husbands. However, since women and children are not to be harmed during violence irrespective of their ethnicity, as dictated in Maasai tradition since at least the 1800s, some Kikuyu women did not flee the violence. Others fled only when it became clear that some perpetrators of the violence were in fact non-Maasai who were targeting Maasai households thought to be ‘Kikuyu-friendly’ (also Klopp, 2001: 163–170). However, some Kikuyu tenants complained that their land and properties were grabbed, damaged or stolen, the blame for which, according to them, fell on the Maasai custodians, who in turn shifted blame to the perpetrators of the violence. Such grievances still find their way to the courts today, despite attempts to find solutions at the local peace committee level. Over 3,000 land-related cases are filed at the Narok Land’s Office, some of which involve Maasai/Kikuyu boundary and ownership wrangles.

In Enoosupukia, Kikuyu women are lauded for introducing cultivation into Maasai households, thereby providing alternative food sources for often large Maasai households. Adoption of Kikuyu farming techniques (for Irish potatoes, carrots etc.) by Maasai has lowered their risk of poverty. The presence of staple food also means that Maasai do not have to sell livestock in large numbers in order to provide money to buy food or for school fees. In this way farming is increasingly attributed to the stabilisation of household herds:

Today, many Maasai households with Kikuyu wives are easily detectable due to the presence of food crops such as bananas, Irish potatoes, maize, beans etc. The gardens are also well tended. These families never care about blood, milk or meat as food, and they do not frequently sell livestock to buy food as they did before.
(Mzee Allen at Maiella Centre, 19.8.2013)

Kikuyu women have gained respect in Maasailand for ‘bringing development’—small businesses and off-farm activities, the safeguarding and expansion of herds and farmland, and education. Trading centres in Maasai villages feature small hotels and shops, which have transformed the previously rural villages into micro-trading centres. Trust between Maasai shop owners and Kikuyu suppliers has necessitated the exchange of goods through credit. In Nkampani village, for instance, a Kikuyu woman who married into the area started the only kiosk that offers mobile phone charging services, owing to the lack of electricity in the area. Further, Kikuyu traders provide a ready market for Maasai herds both locally and regionally, while also marginally inculcating the practice of keeping exotic breeds among the Maasai. For most Maasai, however, modern breeds are still expensive to maintain, especially given the rapidly changing landscape. Kikuyu women are also regarded as socially competent in that they involve themselves in community development activities such as women’s groups and faith-based organisations. As a result some have been elected by villagers to join the local peace committees.

As discussed, intermarriage not only provides for non-obligatory material transfers and exchanges but also creates social and economic environments which provide land-renting opportunities for land-seeking clients and in-laws. We argue here that intermarriages as described create enabling spaces for coexistence, interdependence and conflict management, especially where disputes over land are handled with due respect for inherent ties. More importantly, one can argue that intermarriage tends to deconstruct ethnic and identity formations and rather neutralise notions of ‘we’ versus ‘them’. The sharing of norms, values and institutions makes people engage in dialogue and appreciate cultural diversities.

Land-renting across ethnic boundaries

Almost every Kikuyu family in Enoosupukia and Mpeuti is engaged in farming, either on rented land or on their own land. Maasai families too are increasingly engaging themselves in cultivation but to a lesser extent than the Kikuyu. Land-renting is both a social and an economic activity in the researched area. On the one hand, landowners get income which is often reinvested in restocking herds, expanding farming activities and paying school fees, while land-seeking clients are provided with the opportunity to invest in farming. On the other hand, land rentals are accompanied by a multitude of interactions, negotiations and friendships, and they also build trust between those involved, and thus reinforce the economic value of the land. In the end, user rights are transferred to land-seeking clients while landowners retain rights of disposal. How, then, does land become a social and an economic resource, and what is the implication of leaseholds in peace-building and conflict management today? In this section we briefly tackle this question.

Due to the fertile soils and favourable rainfall patterns, Enoosupukia has attracted hundreds of land-seeking clients from diverse regions of Kenya and beyond since at least the start of the 20th century. This is in fact only a small number compared to the rest of Narok County. In the case under consideration a good number of tenants already stay on their rented plots after seeking approval from Maasai landowners. In most instances Maasai landowners ask their tenants to build semi-permanent huts (dakis) on the rented plots and to settle there, or use the dakis as stores for their harvests. The majority of tenants we spoke to hailed from Central Province, Nairobi and Western Province. Kikuyu are the dominant group, however. Some tenants have employed labourers, who eventually use their savings and/or connections to acquire land and become tenants themselves.

Through land rentals the intention of the Maasai is to populate their landholdings with crops, farmers and dakis. That way their land is not left idle to possibly attract land-grabbers. Furthermore, the leasing of large parcels of land to outsiders is intended to deter the government from expanding the ‘protected’ Enoosupukia forest area. In 2004 and 2005 residents of Mpeuti were evicted by government officials in a new push to extend the forest area. They were later resettled in the nearby Sintakara Section. Such uncertainties over the forest boundary have prompted Maasai landowners to lease large areas of land to prevent the government from initiating future evictions. Leslie and McCabe (2013: 119) noted similar cases in the north-east of Tanzania, where villagers have leased large areas to outsiders for commercial cultivation to reduce the risk of losing their land through efforts by the government of Tanzania to expand Simanjiro Park. Elsewhere in northern Kenya, Bollig (2014) found that villagers prefer to utilise their land under community-based conservation schemes as a way to exclude outsiders from resource use and also to prevent the state from land grabbing.

Advertising land, negotiating prices and lease periods

Maasai landowners send word via Kikuyu farmers in the area that they are willing to sublet more land; lands are never officially advertised. A land-seeking person can also directly approach a landowning person if the land-seeker has already secured himself plots in the community. New land-seekers are often introduced to landowners by relatives or friends who have already gained the trust of the landowners. Land rentals thus enrich social capital by nurturing new relations that possibly bridge perceived ethnic identities.

The cost of renting a piece of land depends on the dryness or wetness of the region, on how its potential for cultivation is evaluated, and on the prior relations between a landowner and individual tenants. In the wet regions of Enoosupukia, to rent about an acre of land may cost up to €80 per annum. Drier areas in Maiella and its environs (like Moi Ndabi) have prices between €10–€30 for an acre for a year’s lease, while for drier parts of Enoosupukia (Olosho lole Kaloi and Oltepesi le Parsimei) to rent an acre costs between €30 and €40 per year. In-laws and close friends are often exempted from paying for plots allocated to them. The size and number of plots of land as well as lease periods vary, and are negotiable depending on prior working relations with the landowners.

Lease agreements are mostly informal and often do not involve written documents. However, landowners who lease land to many tenants have developed ways of monitoring lease periods and payments. Sankale, for instance, who has leased land to over forty tenants on his farm (mostly Kikuyu women and young men) in Mpeuti village, keeps a book of records with tenant names, size and number of plots of land allocated to them, and payments. Lease periods often run for two years, with the possibility of extension.

Figure 4 shows the pricing of rental land among 60 land-renting farmers in Maiella and Enoosupukia, where the majority of tenants pay €30 and €40.

Figure 4 

Pricing of rental land per acre per annum.

Formal payment regulations for leaseholds are non-existent. Payment is often made at the beginning of the lease period, or at specific times agreed upon by both parties involved within the lease period. However, it has become commonplace for some tenants to consciously spread their payment across the first year of lease. For these tenants a debt opens space for dialogue and negotiations with landowners. Upon settlement, a tenant gains more trust, as he is known to be one who keeps his word, and thus increases his chances for extension of lease periods beyond the agreed time and may negotiate for more land.

Tenants ensure that they pay rental debts in good time to avoid conflict with landowners. In cases where tenants delay payments without prior arrangements with their landlords, the latter often transfer such plots to other tenants. Bad debts on rented land minimise chances of renting more land in the future for affected tenants. New tenants are required to pay for rented land as soon as the lease period starts. Once trust is built, they too can negotiate with landowners. Trusted tenants easily access rental land on credit, with the expectation of settling their debts upon harvesting and selling their produce. In the case of poor harvests or the loss of crops to frost or to insufficient rains, individual tenants often negotiate with their patrons to extend their payment to the next season.

Trust-building and cross-cutting ties in land rentals

Trust-building is essential in transactions and relations surrounding land rentals. Tenants told us that making a simple phone call to landowners and greeting them before or after farm work is considered very commendable as it helps to build rapport. For Maasai landowners, in-depth knowledge of their tenants (origin, marital status, children and employment) enables them to understand each tenant individually. For instance, Ole Sere (nusu) has provided some land for free to a few poor tenants (mostly Kikuyu women). ‘Once they make some money and get food, they can then start to pay’, he said. Other strategies for maintaining trust and friendship involve presenting gifts to landowners (such as shoes, foodstuffs, blankets, mobile phone airtime), inviting them for social events and ceremonies (e.g. circumcision parties, marriage and church meetings), adhering to the agreed payment models and honouring debts, and, often, chatting with them. Some tenants help landowners with manual tasks in their farms or at their homesteads.

Some tenants also reward landowners with money following bountiful harvests, while others lend money to landowners when the need arises, and they can also borrow money from the landowners. Instead of returning any money they may have borrowed from their tenants, landowners often extend their lease periods. Tenants also give or sell crop residue to landowners for their herds to eat. Crop residue in an acre of land is rented out on a short-term basis at about €30 to any interested herder, some coming to Enoosupukia from as far as Nyandarua and Gilgil with their herds, especially in the dry seasons.

There are no restrictions on the crops tenants may grow, although fast-maturing crops like Irish potatoes, onions, cabbages and kale are preferred since they guarantee returns in a short period of time. However, planting long-maturing fruit trees is adopted as a strategy by tenants to control their lease periods, and may easily arouse suspicion from landowners. Kikuyu tenants commonly rent pieces of land across several Maasai villages with the intention of maximising their yields of crops most suited to specific villages. Widely distributed farm plots also serve as an insurance against losses due to frost or poor rains in specific areas. Landowners prioritise the safety and security of their tenants. Ole Sere explains:

I have leased land to about 40 Kikuyu, three Kalenjins and one Ugandan. Most of these are women and young men who have rented between one and two acres of land each. Walking from Maiella to farm in Enoosupukia on a daily basis is tiresome, considering the work they do. Therefore I told them to build dakis and live here with their families, but some say that they are still afraid and cite the 1993 violence. Several have built dakis on their rented plots, though. Should anyone interfere with their normal activities it would mean that he is trespassing into my territory, and I will take personal responsibility and take the intruder to court in the same way I would do to someone who steals my livestock. I have told my tenants to report such cases to me—so far I have not heard of any. If a Maasai herd destroys their crops I will personally take charge and help the tenants to get compensation. We have to respect one another.
(Ole Sere, 13. 10. 2013 at Mpeuti trading centre).

For Maasai landowners, protecting tenants also ensures a steady inflow of income. However, Kikuyu tenants who have cultivated in Enoosupukia for long periods have gathered information on the good and bad landlords and do not recommend the latter to land-seeking clients. For instance, Ole Matano is known for not protecting his tenants. When his cattle feed on their crops he threatens them against pursuing the case. For this reason many tenants progressively left his land for other landlords. Recently (October 2014), a landlord wanted to evict a Kikuyu tenant by accusing him of feeding his chicken with poison. While confronting the tenant, the landlord’s wife slapped him in the face and began screaming that the tenant had raped her. The matter was taken up by the local peace committee, who upon further interrogation of witnesses and the disputants found the allegations baseless. The landlord apologised and the tenant resumed farming in his rented plot. The relationship between the two may return to normal or the tenant may vacate the land when his lease period ends. Such cases of selfish landlords who want to shorten the lease periods of tenants do occur.

Despite inevitable challenges, land-renting encourages salient social and economic relations which are accompanied by material exchanges, engagements and respect. We argue that credit relations in land rentals particularly reveal the depth of trust between landowners, tenants and the wider community. The fact that actors care about the welfare of others reinforces the social value of land rentals whereas the social-economic spaces created encourages dialogue, peaceful negotiations in cases of dispute, and cooperative land use against ethnic lines which encourages peaceful coexistence.

Land rentals play an important role in peace-building through the multiple allegiances and alliances that cross-cut ethnic divides. Such cross-cutting networks are important in maintaining social cohesion in societies (see also Lehmann, 2009 in a very different context). Cooperative use of land, as discussed, has transformed land from being a contested to a shared resource upon which intercommunity exchanges, trust and other socio-economic interactions are based.


In June 2013, two medical officers visited Maiella Trading Centre to seek out victims of the 2007/8 post-election violence who needed medical care for possible physical or psychological conditions. A large crowd, mostly consisting of members of the Kikuyu community living in Maiella, gathered outside the chief’s office where the meeting was held. In a short brief the practitioners clarified that they would only tend to people who needed medical care following the 2007/8 post-election violence. No one in the crowd raised their hand to suggest that they themselves needed medical care. Instead, individuals began to suggest names of people whom they thought would benefit from the checkup, citing conditions that were unrelated to the events of 2007/8 but whose history was linked to the violence in 1993. At the end only a handful of elderly men and women registered for the checkup.

Whereas the post-election violence in 2007/8 hit many parts of the Rift Valley, especially Naivasha’s Karagita settlement, the situation was rather different in Enoosupukia and Maiella, about 40km from Karagita. Tensions were inevitably high, especially following allegations that some morans were being organised to cause mayhem. Most residents of Maiella stayed at home, fearing that the tensions would provoke violence, even as landowners in Enoosupukia continued to urge tenants to continue farming. However, tensions did not materialise into violence as many had feared, but reports suggested that two houses were set ablaze in Maiella by unknown people. Hundreds watched the unfolding of the 2007/8 post-election violence events on television at Maiella Trading Centre. During the 2013 general elections no violence was reported in the area, as it was elsewhere in Kenya, and ties between the two groups now appear even stronger. While we do not want to suggest that cross-cutting ties are entirely responsible for the transition from a situation of violent conflict in the research area, we do suggest that social and economic ties that are hinged on land-renting, intermarriages and friendship networks across the two communities prompt us to think about the dynamics of conflict management at the grassroots level.

This paper suggests that rather than encouraging the formation of in-group identities, intermarriage allows for ‘divided’ identities, builds inter-group allegiances or conflicting loyalties and necessitates cultural diffusion, which links communities together through shared norms, values (e.g. circumcision) and institutions. As discussed, ties that are linked to marriage and leaseholds transcend the immediate reasons for which they are intended and open up windows of opportunity in social exchange and economic transactions. The organised violence of 1993 disenfranchised the majority of basic networks and forms of intercommunity relations. However, actors still managed to maintain ties even at times of stress. Interestingly, in the 2013 general elections, Kikuyu and Maasai united to elect a nusu to political office, ending the term of William Ole Ntimama, the longest-serving politician who has been linked to the 1993 violence. In political contests, the unity between Kikuyu and Maasai can be explained following Paige (1974: 304), who suggests that conflicting loyalties and multiple alliances prevent actors from expressing any single position and consequently reduce conflict and cleavage between the groups themselves.

The sustainability of the ties discussed in this paper is difficult to determine. We are conscious that such ties may only be effective within limited temporal and spatial dimensions, and are dependent on socio-political factors which play out in specific communities and contexts. Current developments, however, provide space for some optimism and we would like to end with the ideas of Shushu, an informant from Maiella, who pointed out that, ‘the Maasai and Kikuyu are one large “family” and the conflicts between them can be taken as any normal conflicts in a family setting, except that politics knocks the heads of two brothers against each other, as it was in 1993’. The survival of one group, she says, is largely dependent on the other.