Martin Saning’o Kariongi – a life in brief

Martin Saning’o Kariongi Ole Sanago

While looking through my notes this week hunting some site data for a community in Tanzania that we are working in jointly with our partners OMASI, I found – on the very first pages of my notebook – the notes from our first project meeting, where Martin gave us a little glimpse of his life and achievements. One of the many things we had discussed with Martin since then was to help him to write his biography. This would have simultaneously told the story of his life alongside a inside description of community social and economic development efforts told from the African perspective – something that regrettably is all too rare.

One of the many tragic consequences of Martin’s passing from the effects of coronavirus is that this is a story that will now never be told in full. Instead, the best we can do is to sketch the barest outline, from the three pages of notes from that meeting.

Martin addressing the community in Terrat, February 2020

Martin began with a description of his full name: Martin is his baptismal name, added to his Maasai name of Saning’o, given him by his mother and meaning “head” or “well known” in Maa (the Maasai language). His father’s name was Kariongi, and Ole Sanago was the extended family name, coming from an unmarried female ancestor. The father’s name becomes the effective “surname”, so the short form of Martin’s name was Martin Kariongi. Martin’s sons in turn take his Maasai first name as their surname, so they are Steve, Osidai and Oshipai Saning’o.

Martin was born in the early 1960’s in the Simanjiro region of northern Tanzania. This is in the Maasai heatland – the high arid plains south of Arusha. In common with many Maasai of his generation, Martin and his family cannot be sure exactly when he was born. But Martin believed it to be in 1961 or 1962.

Simanjiro plains

Most Maasai children at the time did not attend school, but because Martin’s father had joined the Lutheran Church, he recognised the importance of education. So Martin attended a Catholic boarding school 25km away from him home. He was one of only 2 out of 600 Maasai boys at the school to go on to secondary school, and eventually University.

On his return from University, he became a community health officer in Simanjiro, working for the Lutheran Church. Always interested in how he could help his Maasai community more, Martin came to the UK and Ireland for his graduate studies between 1988 and 1990, to pursue qualification in Dublin and at University College London in community development and eye health. As an example of Martin’s innovative approach, during his time in the Republic of Ireland, he sought out the travelling community, to see what he could learn from them to support his nomadic Maasai people become more coherent, and have a stronger voice.

Due to the extreme dryness of Simanjiro, and the scrub and thorn trees, the Maasai had a high prevalence of eye disease. On his return from Europe, Martin specialised in community eye health, again for the Lutheran Church. But he found the Church too conservative, both culturally and socially, to support the sort of activities he knew were necessary to support the advancement of the Maasai.

Grazing land in Simanjiro

So in the early 1990’s Martin founded IOPA – the Institute for Orkonerei Pastoralists Advancement – with 20 other progressively-minded local Maasai in the context of taking a wider view of community health, and bringing about positive social, economic and cultural transformation of Tanzania’s Maasai. For example, to fight trachoma not just through treatment, but by providing clean water to the Maasai communities to prevent the disease in the first place. .

If the land goes, the Maasai are finished.

Martin Kariongi

IOPA’s first priority though was not eye health or water, but land rights. This was just the time when the Government of Tanzania was allowing NGO’s and independent media to be established. Martin became an activist, and critical of moves to displace the Maasai by reallocating their traditional lands. He became seen as “too critical”, and as a result the government initially refused to register IOPA. Martin’s indefatigability showed itself, and he sued the government over the issue – then an almost unimaginable course of action. It took Martin 3 years of legal struggle to even get permission to sue the government! By this time more than 6000 Maasai had already been displaced from the National Parks by the government. IOPA filed a number of court cases against the Tanzania government, eventually resulting in a landmark ruling by the High Court in IOPA’s favour.

Martin and IOPA realised that community education and education of Maasai elders were key not just for land rights, but more generally for development. From his 3 weeks with the Traveller community in Cork, Ireland, Martin had learned about the power of community radio for linking and educating remote and nomadic communities. IOPA decided that the Maasai needed their own community radio station, not only to learn about land rights, but to be informed about cattle diseases, human health and a myriad of other things.

The ORS FM transmitter – the tallest structure in Simanjiro

Martin bought land in Terrat village from a teacher, who supported his idea of community education as an enabling tool, and IOPA began to build its radio station. Building the infrastructure for a private radio station took Martin and IOPA 5 years. And to allow ORS FM to begin broadcasting took even longer, until 2002. All radio stations in Tanzania broadcast either in English or Kiswahili. But most Maasai spoke neither. Media regulations restricted the amount of non-Kiswahili or English broadcasting that was possible, but ORS FM was able to broadcast the news in Kimaasai, and also play Maasai music – in which the key messages could often appear! ORS FM was the first (and indeed only) community radio station in Tanzania, and was initially restricted to broadcast no further than 100km, and with less than 10% of broadcasting in Kimaasai. Selling of advertising was also prohibited!

From the conception of the idea of a community radio station, Martin realised something else. The need for electricity. Not just for the station, but for the audience, so they could have radios to listen to the broadcasts. The Irish Ambassador to Tanzania was someone that Martin had met and spoken with during his time studying in Europe, and he introduced Martin to a number of regional environmental organisations, including UNEP in Nairobi. This had two consequences – Martin was able to advocate at international levels for indigenous people’s land rights and environmental stewardship, and the power of community radio in bringing this about. But he was also invited to one of the first regional workshops on solar energy systems in 1992, and as a consequence established the Orkonerei Solar Energy Project in the mid-1990s. This was the first attempt to try to introduce solar appliances to the Maasai in Simanjiro, focussing particularly on solar lanterns and radios. The prices, however, were astronomical ($250 in the money of the day) so the project did not have quite the impact and sustainability that IOPA and the funders hoped for. And of course, since ORS FM was not able to start to broadcast until 2002, there was nothing to listen to on the radio, in Kimaasai language anyway.

IOPA hostel building in Terrat (wikicommons)

IOPA was established to work with the whole Maasai community. Because Martin had come to have a more liberal outlook, from his time in Europe, he was keen to bring women on board. He also realised that without doing this, IOPA would be missing access to half the population. So IOPA created a refuge for beaten women on the land Martin had purchased in Terrat, by the radio station. They established a programme for these women where they and their children could be provided a safe haven, and could tell their stories and what had happened. Where appropriate IOPA would invite their husbands in for a managed dialogue. Through this programme, IOPA became involved in trying to prevent FGM and child marriage, encourage education of girl children, and elevating the status of women in Maasai society. Where possible, they would use Maasai culture to support this, recalling Maasai sayings such as “a household without a woman is not warm and friendly”.

By now, Martin’s work through IOPA with the Maasai was coming to international attention. Invitations to participate in international dialogues and conferences grew, and Martin travelled widely to talk about his work on land rights and conservation, but also about the broader development work IOPA was carrying out with the Maasai, and advocating for community radio stations, education and sustainable development. ORS FM became one of three projects that Swedish development organisation SIDA supported, allowing the station to be completed and begin broadcasting in 2002.

With the success of the women’s centre in Terrat, IOPA established another 5 similar centres across the Maasai region in Tanzania. These centres also contained community libraries, to support education for the Maasai communities as a whole. For the children, IOPA had by then helped establish more than 50 pre-primary and 20 primary schools across the region. Half of the IOPA staff were women, and IOPA conceived of the idea to try to help Maasai women economically. Traditionally, the only resource that belonged to women in Maasai culture was milk. If women could sell that milk, it would not only provide an additional source of income for a family, but would raise the economic and social status of women in the family and in society more generally. Simanjiro needed commercial dairies!

Enabling women to sell milk strengthened the family bond, and made women be seen as generators of value. Women had the money now – husbands needed to ask them for it!

Martin’s work and international advocacy did not go unnoticed, and one of his proudest achievements was to be elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2003. This Fellowship came with a 3 year stipend, which Martin put to work in his activities with IOPA back in Terrat. The Ashoka Fellowship also brought him to the attention of Dini de Rijcke, a Dutch private philanthropist, who began to work with 4 of the original 20 Ashoka Fellows, including Martin and IOPA through her foundation, Stichting Het Groene Woudt.

Working with Ashoka and SHGW allowed IOPA to finally achieve many of its objectives. They supported IOPA in the acquisition of reliable generators to power the radio station, and to allow IOPA to embark on a number of water supply projects that were so critical for the dry Maasai lands. The water table across Simanjiro is, on average, 150m below ground level. So deep boreholes and powerful pumps were necessary to bring it to the surface. Martin was always conscious of the need for energy to catalyse other initiatives and services.

The Terrat centre with guest house, community hall and dairy

The Dutch foundation also provided IOPA with 5 dairy plants, and the generators to power them, located across the region. Each dairy could process up to 2000 litres of milk per day, into cheese, yoghurt, butter and ghee. These were sold locally and throughout the country. IOPA adapted and extended the women’s and community centres to provide conference facilities for Maasai workshops, meetings and community education and study.

The original women’s refuge and community centre in Terrat was expanded to also become a guest house, that could accommodate visitors to the area and local government meetings. The electrical power from the generators for the radio station and dairy was so popular, that IOPA decided to add additional generators, and build one of the first minigrids in the country to supply more than 1000 customers in the village of Terrat with power, since the government utility had deemed it too expensive to connect Terrat to the main grid.

By now, Martin was receiving further international recognition, including being awarded Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 by the Schwab Foundation and World Economic Forum Africa, the Ford Global Community Leadership Award, and Dubai Global Innovator Award.

Martin understood that for true sustainability, all the activities and initiatives in the region needed to try to become self-sufficient. So where possible, IOPA tried to create viable microenterprises and businesses, so that even after funders like SHGW ended their collaborations, the services and activities that had been created would continue. IOPA’s strands now included the radio, water businesses, guest house and conference centre, energy and dairies, amongst others. And they were still supporting education and health throughout the community.

Martin in front of Longido Dairy, Jan 2021

In 2019 IOPA, as a company limited by guarantee (but with non-profit objectives) was forced to re-register as an NGO, and became OMASI (Orkonerei Maasai Social Initiatives). In late 2020, Martin’s long-term goal of grid connection for Terrat was finally achieved. Businesses that had been established with the IOPA minigrid are now able to connect to the grid, along with residential households that have become used to the conveniences and benefits that electricity can bring. IOPA’s boreholes are still reliably pumping water for the Maasai and their cattle. ORS FM is now broadcasting 24 hours a day, with a range of up to 300km, in both Kiswahili and Kimaasai. And the dairies, after brief downtime for repairs and renovations, are shortly due to reopen their doors to buy milk from Maasai women again, to process into milk products to sell to hotels when tourism returns to Tanzania post-COVID.

Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit…The potential for greatness lives within each of us.

Wilma Rudolph

Martin passed away on March 1st in Arusha from COVID-19. He dared to dream large and his spirit was big enough to see those dreams fulfilled. By any measure, he achieved greatness. He always told us he was a storyteller at heart – I hope we have done his story some justice here. Rest in Peace Martin!

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