Honey at the Top: A film about the Sengwer forest people in the Cherangani Hills, Kenya

Honey at the Top is a film by Dean Puckett, a UK-based documentary film maker. At the end of 2014, Puckett travelled to the Cherangani Hills in Western Kenya. He filmed and documented the lives of the Sengwer people.

Parts of Puckett’s film are beautiful. The Sengwer live in a landscape of mists, forests, fields and mountains. They farm cows, sheep and goats, and collect honey.

Other parts of the film are disturbing. In recent years, the Kenya Forest Service has carried out a series of violent evictions. Armed guards from the Kenya Forest Service have burned the Sengwer’s homes. They destroyed their property, and punched and beat the Sengwer. They even destroyed a school.

Honey at the Top includes film of the KFS guards destroying and burning Sengwer homes.

“We didn’t invade this forest”

Elias Kimaiyo is one of the Sengwer living in the Embobut forest, in the Cherangani Hills. Early in the film he sums up the Sengwer’s feeling of injustice:

“In every society in this world, you don’t apply to be born where you are supposed to be born. It’s just circumstance, the way God planned it, where you be born is your place. In fact, we didn’t invade this forest, we inherited it from our grandparents. Here is where was born, I was brought up, and till this age I am just here. But since I was young I have experienced, evictions … several. Until I was wondering, what have we done?”

Puckett interviews a Sengwer man living in a cave, who explains he has nowhere else to go since the evictions. When Puckett asks him about conserving the forests, he replies,

“We want to conserve our land. We don’t want anyone from outside to come and do it. The people of the land will conserve it. Someone from outside cannot claim a portion of this land. Forbidden.”

Violent evictions

A Sengwer woman describes how the KFS guards evicted her:

“At around 5am, I heard some commotion from the cows, over there. Who are these people coming in the night? They came through there. They held me like this by the door. So I pulled my hand away and he slapped me twice over here, and punched me here, twice again. He pushed me hard on the ground and grabbed me on the mouth like this. I couldn’t speak. He said, ‘shut up!’ I said, ‘how can I shut up when it hurts?’

“I asked him to give me my shoes because I had sat down. They refused. They took my boots and put them into the fire. They took the child’s school bag full of books, and put it into the fire. They removed my clothes, that heavy scarf worth 600 shillings, and put that in the fire. Two blankets, no three, into the fire.”

She had lived for 45 years in the forest. “I’ve been in this forest all the time,” she says.

“During all the evictions I have remained here. They have continued to harass people the whole time, until we accepted that this is how life is. This is life and we have nowhere else to go. If they come and burn us, we remain here. If they come again and burn us, we will still remain. Even if the KFS arrest me and take me away. They can take me 10 times. I’m not going anywhere. Never.”

World Bank and EU support for conservation in Kenya

From 2007 to 2013, the World Bank funded a conservation project in Kenya. The project paid US$64 million to the Kenya Forest Service. In 2015, the Bank’s Inspection Panel found that the project did not uphold the rights of the Sengwer people. But the Panel decided that the Bank had not directly funded the evictions.

The World Bank and the Kenya Forest Service declined to give Puckett an interview for the film.

In June 2016, the European Union and the Kenyan Government announced a new programme. Funded by the EU, the “Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme” will run for six years.

The Sengwer have requested that the European Union suspend the programme. At least until the programme incorporates a rights-based approach.

Grasp the Nettle Films, Puckett’s film company, has set up a petition demanding that the EU doesn’t fund evictions of the Sengwer.

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