In Langscape Magazine Articles

The Wealth of Our Lands: Celebrating Boititap Korenyo with the Ogiek of Mount Elgon, Kenya

June 28, 2023
A community advocates for land rights and protects its ancestral forest with mapping technology.


Peaks of Mount Elgon

Walking on the path to a sacred cave, with the peaks of Mount Elgon in the distance. Chepkitale, an area on Mount Elgon where a sizable part of the Ogiek community resides, has an altitude of roughly 3,300 meters.


The Ogiek of Mount Elgon are an Indigenous group native to western Kenya. They have lived across the vast swathe of moorland and forests of Mount Elgon since before colonial occupation and the subsequent creation of the modern Kenyan state. They are believed to be the first people to live in the region. They can trace their use of caves on Mount Elgon to at least as far back as the twelfth century and describe their ancestral practices of coexisting with and responsibly managing the natural environment with great pride. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, however, huge portions of Ogiek ancestral lands have been lost — first to European settlers and the gazettement of a forest reserve during the late colonial era and then, following independence, to the creation of a national park and a game reserve.

The Ogiek are taking action to advocate for their land rights and protect their ancestral forests.

Like other Indigenous communities across East Africa, today the Ogiek of Mount Elgon face numerous threats to their lands and livelihoods, ranging from encroachment to cattle rustling, eviction, and a national reforestation scheme (called PELIS) that was intended to stimulate the regrowth of forest in degraded areas but, in areas such as Mount Elgon, has resulted in the destruction of native forests to make place for plantations.

To stave off these threats and counter the loss of territory and the degradation of their biocultural landscape, the Ogiek are taking action to advocate for their land rights and protect their ancestral forests. The Chepkitale Indigenous Peoples Development Project (CIPDP) was founded by the Ogiek community of Chepkitale (the area that a large portion of the Ogiek of Mount Elgon call home), with the mission of undertaking a rights-based approach to forest conservation. A crucial role of the organization is to legitimize the Ogiek’s traditional territory and stewardship practices through the creation of official community plans and community mapping.

In my previous work with Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization that co-creates digital tools with Indigenous communities to help protect their lands, I had the honor of assisting CIPDP, the international NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), and the Ogiek in using several of Digital Democracy’s open-source and offline-first mapping tools, such as Mapeo and Terrastories. Our collaboration took off in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and therefore we could not travel and had to conduct most of our work together remotely, including organizing workshops and training on mapping methodology over Skype. In spite of these conditions, however, and maybe even helped by them, the CIPDP mapping team was able to make great strides in training Ogiek community mappers to use the tools with a high degree of autonomy.

A crucial role of the CIPDP is to legitimize the Ogiek’s traditional territory and stewardship practices through the creation of official community plans and community mapping.

Over a year and a half, the community mapped a wide extent of their ancestral lands, collecting thousands of observations and photographs of different landmarks as well as places where specific historical events had occurred across Mount Elgon. CIPDP is already using the data collected by the community to generate a community spatial plan and to share information about their land management practices and the unique relationship of reciprocity they hold with the landscape through impact storytelling.

In July 2022 the timing was finally right for travel. Not only were we long overdue to visit the community to troubleshoot some technical issues that several of the smartphone devices were having, but also, as fate would have it, the trip coincided with an East Africa Assembly organized by CIPDP and FPP, which brought together members of seven other Indigenous communities from across Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania to discuss issues of land justice and Indigenous cooperation.

At long last, for two weeks our mapping team was able to meet in person, enjoy the synergy and comradery of being in one another’s company, and learn extensively about the Ogiek way of life and their view of biocultural stewardship, as well as about the high stakes that Indigenous communities face in defending their lands and the very recent history of evictions and colonialism across East Africa. And we danced into the night with all the 150 people who were present, finding ways to celebrate hope and solidarity in spite of the challenges.

A geographer and technologist by trade, I am also a photographer by hobby and was able to document some of our time together during the East Africa Assembly. Inspired by the joy we found in spending time together, in this photo essay I share images from those unforgettable two weeks in the beautiful ancestral homeland of Chepkitale, as a way to celebrate boititap korenyo, “the wealth of our lands.”

View the story map about the dispossession of the ancestral lands of the Ogiek of Mount Elgon.


An impressive complex consisting of cottages.

To host convenings like the East Africa Assembly, the Ogiek community created an impressive complex consisting of cottages, kitchens, a meeting hall, and other amenities.


Phoebe Ndiema and Lilian Kiriongi, mapping experts.

Phoebe Ndiema and Lilian Kiriongi, mapping experts from CIPDP, at the community resource center.


Using two forms of technology.

Using two forms of technology (one very new and the other very old) to validate the spatial data collected using Mapeo — a computer mouse and a stick (here wielded by Richard Kiara).


During the assembly.

During the assembly, our colleagues at CIPDP presented on the impressive mapping that the Ogiek have been undertaking since 2020.


Phoebe Ndiema

Phoebe Ndiema explains the value of mapping for biocultural land rights to the assembly’s participants.


Lilian Koriongi sports printed textiles.

Lilian Koriongi sports printed textiles with information about the mapping tool Mapeo. Although the textiles were printed in Spanish, the team loved them because they came from work done with Indigenous people in the Amazon.


Using the Mapeo app.

Left: During our time in Chepkitale, Lilian Koriongi (center) trained a team of eight women in using Mapeo. Right: The newly trained Ogiek mappers use the Mapeo app to map natural resources and cultural sites, which are often deeply entwined and interconnected.


Left: The Ogiek use the caves of Mount Elgon to harvest water and bee honey for medicine. They say that long ago their ancestors lived there as well. Right: Lilian Koriongi gives a demonstration of Mapeo and how the community has been using it to map caves.


Debugging phones.

Another perspective on the realities of grassroots community mapping: debugging phones at the CIPDP office in the nearby city of Kitale.


Tom Rowley, mapping officer and Peter Kitelo, Director of CIPDP

Comrades in the struggle to defend Ogiek biocultural rights: Tom Rowley, mapping officer at FPP (left) and Peter Kitelo, Director of CIPDP (right).


A serene forest.

A serene forest area in a river valley of Mount Elgon. The Ogiek landscape is lush with plant and animal life.


Teresa Chiptuit

Teresa Chiptuit explaining the Ogiek traditional use of a local grass to the other Indigenous participants in the East Africa Assembly.


An expression of joy.

An expression of joy upon visiting a sacred cave along the slopes of Mount Elgon. The caves are a shared space for the Ogiek and the local elephants.


Saying goodbye.

Saying goodbye: (left to right) Tom Rowley, Lilian Kiriongi, Milka Chepkazi, and me on the last day in Chepkitale, shortly before we parted ways.


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Rudo Kemper.

Rudo Kemper has over a decade of experience supporting Indigenous communities in mapping and monitoring their lands and building digital tools that enhance self-determination and autonomy. He has worked with the Cadasta Foundation, Digital Democracy, and the Amazon Conservation Team and is now the senior technical lead at Conservation Metrics, where he is stewarding the co-creation of an Indigenous biocultural monitoring system.

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