The Battle for Laikipia
(Kenya/USA/Greece, 94 min.)
Dir. Daphne Matziaraki, Peter Murimi
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Programme (World Premiere)
Is Laikipia, a county in Kenya known for its lush landscape and diverse wildlife, a litmus test for Africa’s future? That question rumbles throughout the aptly titled The Battle for Laikipia as directors Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi observe an escalating conflict between Indigenous settlers and British-Kenyan ranchers clashing over two ways of life. The film gives ample time to each party, but the filmmakers don’t risk bothsidesism. They need perspectives from either end of the story and ultimately find a nuanced view of warring factions.
In one corner is Simeon, a Samburu pastoralist who fights for his tribe’s longstanding practice of letting their goats and cows roam the plains. Their customs don’t recognize fences, property, or borders. Animals eat where the grass grows. They drink where the water pools. Theirs is a relatively simple way of life that moves at its own pace.
In the other corner is Maria and her son, George, who own a cattle ranch. They represent the community of Kenyans of British descent. Put another way, they’re white Kenyans whose families have been on the land for four generations. Their farming practices resemble Western habits, using commercial factors of supply-and-demand agribusiness that rely on the rhythms of the land. Moreover, the for-profit nature of their work demands they keep an eye to their fences, fields, and water rights.
The water proves especially contentious as Laikipia endures a multi-year drought. Until recently, the white farmers have let the pastoralists herd their livestock to the bodies of water on their ranch. But now, as tensions mount and erupt into violence, the water becomes a leverage.
Things escalate quickly. Cows and goats are slaughtered en mass by night. Homes are raided, properties destroyed, and businesses upended. Human lives, too, are lost as the violence explodes. Both parties call upon the government for intervention, but nobody budges. When an election strikes, however, a candidate rallying for support from the Samburu pastoralists stokes dissension with language that the whites charge amounts to inciting violence. The call brings some justice, but also an ensuing counterblow.
Spanning back to 2017, the film witnesses a fight with no clear end in sight. Bodies pile up and lives are overturned as both sides refuse to be swayed, as any bending risks forcing one practice to break. To liken it to a David vs. Goliath story, however, risks simplifying and diminishing the drama. There are high stakes here and tough questions that anticipate a reckoning.
Greek director Matziaraki (an Oscar nominee for 4.1 Miles) and Kenyan filmmaker Murimi (I Am Samuel) offer a laudably even-handed portrait of the battle for Laikipia. Nobody is a hero here and nobody is a villain. They objectively observe the stakes in the livelihoods on either side of the fence. Editor Sam Soko (Softie) weaves deftly between perspectives, creating through the cutting a dialogue that the parties fail to have in real life.
The film captures the fundamental ideological divides in communities that feel the ongoing effects of colonialism. For the pastoralists, they’re fighting for far more than the needs of their thirsty animals. They’re fighting for traditions that span generations. The whites, meanwhile, don’t really grasp that people inherit the burden of colonialism. Just because they’ve been there for years doesn’t mean that the Samburu should accept their practices. The Battle for Laikipia isn’t a litmus test for Africa, but rather one for a de-colonial future.
As the tourist industry nevertheless thrives despite the conflict, the film observes the beautiful animals that share the Laikipia plains without worry. The zebras, gazelles, elephants all roam the land with enough resources to spare. Even the cheetahs only eat when they’re hungry.