Babati. Maria Gidabwakhta looked forlorn as she stares her children under a tree at Maramboi hamlet within the wider Vilima Vitatu Village in Babati District, Manyara Region.
Her home had been torched on orders of the district leaders on grounds they were illegally living in the fairly forested area which officials say had been converted into a protected area.
But the courageous lady and other villagers – members of the pastoralist Barbaig community – contests that and with a legal backing.
“We have been living here since the 1980s and for others from the 1970s. And we won the court case against any type of eviction”, she told The Citizen team.
That was in late September last year when the 22 families of 260 people were forced to live under the trees or in an open area after their dwellings were put on fire and told to move out.
At one point, she and her fellow villagers were told they had to vacate the area on the eastern shores of Lake Manyara because there was an outbreak of the deadly anthrax there.
She did not buy the idea. Being a member of the livestock herders, the contagious disease was not new to them and knew pretty well the cure lay with vaccination of the animals.
With life ‘’under the trees’ becoming unbearable, she pleaded for legal assistance to once again challenge the eviction in the court and support from well-wishers against the emerging hardships.
An elder Gidabard Mwandeya said disease outbreak was only used as an excuse to evict them from Maramboi because the hamlet had increasingly become ‘an area of interest’ for conservationists, tourism investors and cattle keepers alike.
“We (pastoralists) are generally seen as troublesome people who should be forced out yet we are legally here just like anybody else,” he told The Citizen.
Late last month, when many families country-wide were preparing for end-of-the- year festivities, majority of those at Maramboi had moved away as life had become unbearable.
But this was not the case for Maria and few others.
She is holed somewhere in the vicinity but shuttling between the village and the ward and division offices and, at times, the district headquarters at Babati to fight for the rights of her people.
“I am seen by the authorities as too stubborn. But this is the beginning of a new struggle to reclaim our land”, she pointed out, noting that if dialogue failed they would pursue the matter in court again.
Fifty-year-old Gillagu Bwarrheid is one of the affected people. He said his family shifted to the area from the Bassotu plains in the neighbouring Hanang district in the early 1980s.
They were forced out of the Hanang following the opening of the vast wheat farms with the technical assistance from Canada in what used to be the endless plans suitable for grazing.
“My family moved here in 1981 and we found this area suitable for grazing as well. We have been living here with other livestock herding families since then”, he explained.
Another villager- a member of the Maasai community – is furious on what he sees as bitter hostility subjected to the traditional livestock herders by some local leaders in Babati district.
‘Pastoralists should not be seen as trouble makers. They are seeking livelihood like anybody else and have the right to access land resources”, he insisted during an interview.
His family shifted to Vilima Vitatu village way back in 1972, running away from severe droughts at Kisongo in Monduli district. He was one of the victims of the September 2018 house burning.
Many of the 22 livestock keepers whose houses torched have now been forced to settle at Mfulang’ombe, much closer to Lake Manyara shoreline, but which they claim was not suitable for livestock grazing.
“The place is water logged, the land is parched with limited forage and area to accommodate us and our large herds,” one of the villagers said on condition his name is not mentioned.
The decade-old conflict between the herders and the local authorities has zeroed on pressure to evict the former because the disputed spot was a wildlife corridor linking the Tarangire National Park to the saline lake.
The move was spearheaded by the Vilima Vitatu village government and the Burunge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and sealed by the 2010 decree of the Land Division of the High Court.
But in 2008, the 17 villagers successfully lodged an appeal before the Court of Appeal to repeal the High Court decree which sought to evict them.
The ruling made on March 13th, 2013 allowed the appeal with costs on grounds that no legal procedures had been followed in transforming the disputed land into a WMA.
The Appeals Court ruling on March 13th, 2013, the Appeals Court under Justices January H. Msoffe, Sauda Mjasiri and Ibrahim Juma allowed the appeal against an earlier decree by the Land Division of the High Court which sought to evict cattle herders from the area.