Acacias in Amboseli: Trees as Historical Memory in African Environmental History

What significance can one single tree have in understanding the history of a landscape and the people who live there? What happens when its meaning is forgotten? These questions gave my research on the history of the Ilkisongo Maasai and conservation a sense of urgency.

When I was in Kenya in 2013 conducting research for my dissertation, one of my interview participants took me to a tree, a rather nondescript “umbrella” tree on the southern plains of Amboseli in southern Kenya. It stood below the imposing presence of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Then one day, it was gone.

Benjamin Turare and I were headed toward Amboseli National Park where we would have a driving interview. I used this technique with many of my participants. We drove through particular locations, discussing the meaning and significance of certain sites in the memory of the community. Jan Bender Shelter used this in Imagining Serengeti, in which she wrote about the spiritual connections people were cut off from that connected them to their ancestors when Serengeti National Park was established. Seemingly inconspicuous places held memories of events, but also served as pathways to the spiritual world.[1] It is a sort of time travel that uses the landscape itself as a historical source—all the smells, weather, and sounds, can evoke memories that they otherwise might not have recalled.

Kimana, Kenya, 2013. Photo by author.

“Pull over here,” Ben said. I pulled off the road and we got out. He began to tell me a story of a battle between the Ilkisongo and Ilkaputiei Maasai, two iloshon (sing. olosho), who were often at odds over cattle raiding, access to water, and territorial possession.[2] In this battle, the Ilkaputiei were fighting to gain territory all the way to the Kenya/Tanganyika border at some point between 1909 and 1920.

The Amboseli plain where this Acacia tortilis (Vachellia tortilis) tree stood was the site where the early twentieth-century battle ended between the Ilkisongo and Ilkaputiei ilmurran of the Ilterito age set.[3] The Ilkisongo killed the leader of the Ilkaputiei in a battle just days before. The Ikaputiei men placed his body at the base of the tree. They positioned the spear in his hand and the shield propped against him. From a distance, he appeared alive. The Ilkisongo ilmurran came to investigate. Meanwhile, this gave the Ilkaputiei time to escape, though failing to gain any territory toward Mt. Kilimanjaro.

About two months after learning that this tree represented the memories of a successful battle for the Ilkisongo, I drove by again on my way to Amboseli National Park. This time the tree was leaning over, cut at its base by a chainsaw. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company cut it down along with any other tree of size within twenty yards of the road as they prepared to install an electricity line from Kimana town to the national park.

A history cut down within minutes. The symbolism of this landscape history being felled by modernity was not lost on me. I am not aware of any complaints to Kenya Power or the local government. I am not even sure that most local Maasai would be all that concerned by what happened since getting access to the electricity grid was an immediate concern and benefit.

Another interview participant, Mr. Ole Kumpau, took me to a different tree; this one had already fallen by the time he showed it to me. It died during the 2009 drought that killed thousands of wild animals and livestock, decimating the livelihoods of many whose investments were on the hoof.  For the tourists who came to Amboseli, they would just drive by this tree without even thinking about it. Why should they notice a dead tree along the road?

Amboseli National Park, 2013. Photo by author.

However, this tree was a meeting place. Elders met in its shade to discuss important matters. Young men gathered there to braid their hair and cover it with ochre, a symbol of their membership in an age set. Women gathered beneath another tree just beyond, gender separated by role and space. These trees were on the Mpash plain, a sort of highway for migrations from one source of grass and water to another. It was a meeting place for people who had not seen each other for months or even years. They caught up on each other’s lives and made marriage arrangements.

Enuoto ceremony. Mbirikani Group Ranch, 2013. Photo by author.

Then he directed my attention to a slight rise in the flat terrain. That, he said, was a dung pile. An old pile of manure? When a family built an enkang’’, a homestead, livestock dung accumulated over time. This particular one was large and had survived at least sixty years or more through rain and wind. It was a part of Amboseli’s history—that a person lived here long enough for such a pile to accumulate. He was apparently a wealthy man, keeping a large number of goats brought into the enkang’’ each night. This area was not far from Ol Tukai Orok, the dark palm tree forest, known to be a “nursery” for lions.

By the 1950s, the colonial government put limits on the number of livestock allowed in what was then Amboseli National Reserve, and by 1974, all access for livestock ended when it was gazetted as a national park. Nevertheless, these memories still linger in the minds of older generations. What will become of these memories as they pass away? Conservation efforts in the region have affected people’s use of these landscapes. They are more stationary than before, but still, they keep cattle. Many benefit from the money and attention of tourism and conservation. At the same time, new memories of the landscape are forming and remembrance of the past filtered through contemporary lenses of formal education and agriculture.

These sites provide a memory snapshot with oral traditions keeping a sort of mental museum of the past. Amboseli is not unique in this way, but it has experienced a rapid transformation of the social structures and traditions that keep these memories alive.

[1] Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania From Earliest Times to the Present (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007).

[2] An oloshon might be imprecisely defined as a subsection of the Maasai.

[3] Age sets define generations of young men who come of age and are initiated into a particular age set. Each one has a unique name. The age sets are a way to keep track of chronologies, as each group is associated with events, individuals, or other remarkable memories. This is how I am able to determine the general date of the Ilkisongo/Ilkaputiei battle.