Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use.  Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.

“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Ngorongoro is one of the seven districts of northern Tanzania’s Arusha region. The over 5400 sq mile territory is originally the home of Tanzania’s Masai pastoral community, who gave it its name -Ngorongoro, from the sound of the cowbell (ngolo, ngolo).  The area is known for its lush plains and fertile lands, guaranteeing all-year pasture and water for cattle and other animals.  

But the area’s fertility also meant that it was an attractive habitat for a lot of other fauna, and in 1959, the colonial government gazetted the territory’s west into Serengeti National Park.  They relocated the Maasai pastoralists to the Ngorongoro crater in the park’s east, where they signed with them an agreement that allowed the Maasai to permanently settle and utilise the land.  However, in 1976, the Ngorongoro Crater was transferred to the management of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) which further pushed out the Maasai to create the Ngorongoro Conservation area.

“The more the authorities of the day tasted revenue from game-tourism, the more they pushed our people away from their lands, without regard to how long they had stayed there or where they would go,” says Kasale

 Pushed from their traditional and most fertile lands and with increasingly limited water and pasture, the Maasai lost their cows in thousands. In 2009, the NCAA placed new restrictions on human settlement and subsistence farming in the Ngorongoro conservation area, practically making it untenable for the Maasai to live in the area.

Kasale was 12 years then, and he saw his and his family’s life change because they could not carryout traditional farming on their own land.  “That was the first time I became conscious of the injustice happening all around us,” he says. Then in school, and forced to take turns at studying and resettling his parents’ cattle, he swore to study hard and confront the authorities behind his and his parents’ endangered existence. 

Last year, the Tanzanian government moved to gazette another 1500 sq kms of important pasture land for pastoral communities in Liliondo division as a hunting block for OBC – an Arab trophy hunting company that has been the subject of controversy in the area. Resident communities were forcefully evicted in an operation characterised by gross human rights violations.         

“Maasai bomas (houses) within the said 1500 km territory were burnt by game rangers. A lot of cattle were seized without compensation, and those who tried to resist were either killed or brutally injured. Moreover, those injured could not seek treatment in local health facilities for fear of being traced back by the operation enforcers, so they had to cross the border into Kenya for treatment,” says Kasale.

At the time, Kasale was doing his final year at university where he is pursuing a bachelors degree in science and education, and he decided he would let the world know about the human rights violations going on in his area. He mobilized fellow students from the Ngorongoro area to speak to local and international press about government excesses in the area, and invited journalists to Ngorongoro to witness first hand accounts of the human rights abuses taking place.

They also started neighborhood barazas to sensitise their people on how to report rights violations. When government started intimidating media houses not to carry stories of the government operation in Ngorongoro, Kasale and his peers turned to social media, exposing such violations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the whole world to see.   For his efforts and relentlessness, Kasale became a marked man:

“ The NCAA reached out to the Ngorongoro Pastoralists Council (NPC) who are sponsoring my university education to warn me that if I didn’t stop my activism, they would withdraw my school scholarship. Between April - September 2022 my life was generally in danger because I was on the list of activists wanted by the government and the NCAA for sabotaging their project. As such, in June 2022, thanks to support from the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, I was able to secretly relocate to Dar-es-salaam because I had gotten reliable information that I was to be kidnapped or even killed,” he says.

Despite the threats and intimidation, Kasale is not deterred. He says he will continue to speak up for the rights of his people because they have nowhere else to go.

“I must keep doing this. Our people are losing their ancestral land, their culture and cultural sites. We’re also losing our unique way of life -pastoralism, which is not only an economic activity but our very livelihood. Someone must stand up for the community,” he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village, Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests: