Blessed, cursed land: Ngorongoro crisis shocking but not surprising

Tuesday July 05 2022
ngorongoro pic

Aerial view in Ngorongoro. PHOTO | MWANANCHI | NMG


Have you noticed that songs of patriotism are always sung by children? All of my favourite Tanzanian ones that come to mind have a high piping voice in my head: “Tanzania eh! Tanzania ah! Nchi yangu eh!...” and “Tanzania, Tanzania! Nakupenda kwa moyo woteeeeee…” and so on. You know why? Because we are biologically wired to respond emotionally to the sweet voices of babies. They plant the seed of patriotism deeper in our hearts with their little tremolos and make us malleable, susceptible to the Official Story of Us.

Part of the Official Story of Tanzania is naturally rooted in the land. Once a bunch of people were living in the central and eastern part of this landmass minding their business and then after 1885 what would become our modern borders were drawn in Berlin and then we renegotiated some of them (rather poorly) in the 1960s onwards but the Organisation of African Unity told us it would be better to keep them as is more or less, so we did and here we are now. Nation states-ish.

The Tanzanian experience of this arc is very well documented from German colony through the union with Zanzibar (we’re still looking for the “missing” pre-nuptial document) and the first attempt at group marriage with East African Community Version 1. In there the concepts of land ownership evolved, as did those of citizenship and land use rights.

We seem to have settled on a murky, complex but generally communalistic agreement wherein Tanzanian land belongs to the people of Tanzania and the government, mostly the Executive branch, is the steward of the said land on our behalf.

Tanzania has “a lot of land.” What this means is that we have a relatively low human population density, large tracts of potential arable land, resources above and beneath the soils and including the soils themselves.

And the people. The people of Tanzania are, in fact, a resource too, though one might not think this considering how we are spoken of and treated.


We the people have been put in competition with wildlife and nature since colonial times when the American parks system was imported, a model that excludes humans from nature to uphold a notion of nature as “pristine” and man as defiling and exploiting it if left to his own devices.

I don’t have the word count to get into the psychology and history of it all here, but let’s just say that between the Protestant Ethic, colonising the Americas via genocide and deep ignorance of Africa, this model came to us with issues.

I guess you might have noticed in the news that the Maasai people who have lived in Ngorongoro and Loliondo for a while now are being relocated by the government of the United Republic of Tanzania? This is not new per se.

I have known about the tenuousness of Maasai presence in the Ngorongoro area since I was in secondary school learning human geography, and kept loose track of the topic since the 2000s when the first whisperings about funny land deals and trophy hunting started emanating out of Loliondo on a regular basis.

By then I had made up my mind. The human-wildlife conflict is real and eternal and we haven’t quite figured out the best way to handle it. As for trophy hunting — god no. Isn’t Viagra enough?

In the event, indigenous folk, living a traditional lifestyle, like the Maasai are allowed in protected areas.

There is something quite manufactured about this arrangement, let’s admit it.

“Indigenous” and “traditional” come to Africa loaded with the same racist colonial baggage as the protected areas. Yet another way to classify people and create roles, hierarchies, “tribalisms.” Why are the Maasai on every tourism billboard while the rest of us aren’t?

Speaking of which, why do we still allow the rest of the world to think that Tanzania is populated by the Big Five, one moran holding a cellphone, two rangers in a Land Cruiser Hardbody wearing a safari suit and one smiling Zanzibari man wearing a baragashia serving chapatis and clove tea?

I think the world can cope with the idea that we are not a caricature.

You would think post-colonial governments would consciously address these crafted complications. You would be wrong. As designations, aside from the off-key branding, the terms “indigenous” and “traditional”— alongside “citizenship”— have political uses and are kept fluid.

When the current Ngorongoro and Loliondo relocation crisis started weeks ago, it was shocking but not surprising. I was already tired. I felt the weight of all of my four decades being African on this planet pursuing The Lived Stories of Us from elders, peers and books, gleaned even from an extremely rare copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the bowels of a library that I stole into so I could gaze upon this secret and rare first edition treasure.

I have stood on the lip of a secret slavers cave near a sultan’s pleasure baths and gazed into the Rift Valley, seen the ruins of a church demolished by Idi Amin’s armies.

Land. Blessed, cursed land. I know how this story began. I know how this story ends. If you admit you are reading between the splashy headlines and beneath the weariness of this article, you also know. It is a tale as old as civilisation. Tanzania eh? Tanzania ah. Nchi yangu eeeehhh…

Next stanza, next week. Read here

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]