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Review of Olonana Ole Mbatian


By Christopher Fyfe

Olonana Ole Mbatian by Peter Ndege. East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, 2003. ix+100pp. ISBN 9966250948 (pb). £12.95 / $20.95.

This volume appears in a new series, ‘Makers of Kenya’s History’, edited by Professor Simiya Wandibba. It tells a tragic story. Olonana Ole Mbatian (known to the British as Lenana) was the son of a powerful Maasai laibon (a leader with religious authority) whose status he was determined to inherit. Engaged in war against his rival step-brother, he made friends with the pioneers of the advancing British occupation who were glad to find an ally among the potentially hostile Maasai. He became their intermediary and was made a salaried ‘Chief of the Maasai’ – a centralised office unknown to this people of small autonomous political units.

Successive governors dreamed of ridding the territory of pastoralism and making it a farming country for white settlers. In 1904 Olonana was persuaded to accept a treaty confining the Maasai to a reserve, leaving the vacated land for white settlement. Anxious to introduce the white man’s useful skills, he welcomed the arrival of American missionaries. But as they, like the government, feared pastoralism and taught farming skills instead, few Maasai ever joined them. Increasingly Olonana became alienated from his people. In 1911 he was tricked into accepting an agreement reducing the reserve in size. He then fell ill and died, ‘transformed from a broker into a broken man’.

Ndege tells his story in a lively style, using a good selection of sources and fitting it lucidly into the context of Maasai culture and environment. He also adds some well-chosen photographs. It is heartening to find good work of this kind still appearing amid all the difficulties experienced by the African universities.



[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 88-89]

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