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How the U.S. Border Arrived in Kenya

A look at U.S. border externalization, the death it has caused, and the art of negotiating and resisting borders in Maasailand.

A marker denoting the Kenya-Tanzania border with an unauthorized border crosser in the background.,(Photo credit: Todd Miller)

When I got in the car in Nairobi to go to the Maasai Mara in the Kenya-Tanzania borderlands, it was hard to imagine that I was going to a place touched by U.S. border operations, but it was true. The United States, as I learned when I was researching my 2019 book Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, has a Customs and Border Protection attaché at its Kenya embassy. This is one of 23 such attachés that the U.S. has across the world, in various places, including Bogotá, Mexico City, and New Delhi. The border, in other words, has far more reach than you might think.

The U.S. has long been pushing its borders out to places across the globe. Perhaps the most well-known cases are the Mexico-Guatemala and the Dominican Republic-Haiti frontiers (as The Border Chronicle detailed last year), along with others in Latin America and the Caribbean. As former DHS secretary John Kelly put it in 2017, “Border security cannot be attempted as an endless series of ‘goal line stands’ on the one-foot line at the ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico. … I believe the defense of the Southwest border starts 1,500 miles to the south, with Peru.”

In reality the “defense” starts even further away, beyond the Western Hemisphere, in the Philippines, Jordan, Morocco, and Kenya. U.S. border forces have had programs in more than 100 countries across the globe. Externalization has become a fundamental strategy of U.S. border policing in the post 9/11 era, comparable to its long-standing prevention through deterrence strategy.

Outside Nairobi, we stopped at the escarpment in the Great Rift Valley, which extends nearly 6,000 miles from Mozambique to the Red Sea. From my vantage point, I had a sweeping view of southern Kenya, a vast expanse of green and brown, with distant mountains under a mostly blue sky. To the south, I could see to the Kenyan-Tanzanian borderlands, where I was going. I was excited not only because the Maasai Mara was teeming with wildlife such as elephants, lions, giraffes, and leopards, but also because the Maasai have one of the most creative and practical approaches to borders. Borders, to the pastoral Maasai, are always movable and porous, never fixed, never hardened, never militarized. And the negotiation of a border happens between peoples, peoples and the biosphere, or peoples and animals meeting on equal ground, a coexistence that existed well before the colonial British government brought its private enclosures.

It was this vision—including how free movement becomes more essential in the era of climate change—that I wanted to hear more about as I headed to the Dopoi Center, a Maasai cultural and education center near the small town of Talek, where I would be spending the next week.

The U.S. commitment to border proliferation, however, does not see things as the Maasai do. According to a U.S. Embassy dispatch titled “Security Sector Assistance in Kenya, Part II: Land Border Security Training,” it was in 2003 that, at the request of the Kenya Ministry of Defence, “the United States began to assist in the development of military units capable of responding to cross-border security challenges.” The purpose of the CBP attaché—in Kenya and across the world—is to coordinate trainings and equipment transfers for border operations, which in 2009 included helping fund Kenya’s Rural Border Force. A U.S. Border Patrol assessment that year determined that the force would need specialized training and more equipment. From 2007 to 2009, the U.S. sent $53 million to Kenya to help provide such assistance. The first operation of the newly anointed border force so startled people in a small Kenyan town of Migori—the force arrived in camouflage, heavily armed, and with tanks—that they closed down their shops and retreated to their homes in fear of an imminent crackdown.

The first time I went to the Kenya-Tanzania international boundary, in 2017, it was a small crumbling marker that was hidden in the tall grass where the Maasai Mara met the Serengeti Plain. Looking across into Tanzania, I could see the distant silhouettes of four large elephants and three giraffes in the setting sun amid spread-out acacia trees and croton bushes. The animals, of course, crisscrossed the international boundary all the time and with ease. That year I had come to Kenya straight from Israel-Palestine, where I was studying one of the most aggressive and sophisticated borders in the world, with its concrete smart walls, checkpoints, and armed soldiers. On the Kenya-Tanzania border, if we hadn’t found the boundary marker, we wouldn’t have known that the border was even there.

Later, when I talked to the director of the Dopoi Center, Meitamei Olol-Dapash, I realized that despite its illusion of absence, this border is a powerful impediment to movement. Olol-Dapash is a respected Maasai leader long-involved in a strong land-rights movement, and while I was in Kenya in June 2017, he was a candidate for parliament in an election that was only a few months off (he would run again in 2022). Even without walls, barriers, obvious surveillance systems, the rumbling vehicles of border guards, or any other such markers of an international boundary line, Olol-Dapash said, the border was a “tool of oppression.”

On top of that, here I was further from my home in Arizona than I had ever been, only to learn that the Border Patrol had also been in the Maasai Mara. CBP had provided training for 15 law enforcement departments from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—including the Kenya Police Service and the General Service Unit, the Kenya Administration Police Service, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Tanzania Police, the Tanzania National Parks Agency, the Tanzania Wildlife Department, the Uganda National Police, the Uganda Customs Police, the Uganda Wildlife Service, and the Uganda Anti-terrorism Unit. According to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, CBP trained 330 law enforcement personnel in the area “to better secure the region’s borders,” an example of its dedication to advancing “peace and security” and promoting “opportunity and development in the region.”

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Olol-Dapash—whose Maasai mother was born in Tanzania—called the boundary a “product of colonial power when they were partitioning Africa, with their own political and economic interests.” He was referring to the1884 Berlin Conference, in which European powers sliced up Africa and handed out territories to different countries, including England, which got Kenya and Germany, Tanzania. This border remained after Kenyan independence in 1963 and was “a gross injustice,” he told me. Like so many borders drawn arbitrarily by European powers around the world, this international boundary cut right through ancestral Maasai land, whose people share language, traditions, and history but could no longer organize together effectively.

From the escarpment on the Great Rift Valley, I saw this whole expanse of Maasailand, a place overrun with constant attempts at land grabs and land privatization—from the British to the neocolonial government that followed—for more than a century. As I stood there, I noticed a family of baboons along the side of the road. I walked over to them with one of the drivers, without realizing that what I would see would profoundly affect me and even frame a mindset for the journey. The mother baboon caressed a small baby, and another baboon munched on a mango rind. We had been there for about a minute, mesmerized, when another man approached us from behind and said we had to go. There was a dead body. “What?” I asked. We had to get out of there. We turned around, and I immediately saw the body, face down in the bushes off the side of the road, as if he had just been tossed there. The body almost looked alive, but it was still, unmoving, and naked.

As we came down the escarpment, it soon became clear that we’d never find out what happened. The drivers didn’t know, though they speculated. But the image of the body dumped on the side of the road stuck with me. Later that night, when I arrived at the Dopoi Center deep in Maasailand, after we passed elephants and giraffes en route, Olol-Dapash showed me a picture of an old Maasai man curled on the ground after being attacked by the Tanzanian police. He later died. I again in my mind saw the body I had seen earlier that day. This was part of an eviction of 70,000 people to make way for a private company (which I will be writing about in my next post). Since these evictions began in June, thousands of refugees have crossed into Kenya.

When this started to happen in June, Olol-Dapash and others from the Dopoi Center went on rescue missions. Remember, here borders are agreements, not impositions. They move with changing contexts and circumstances, and they are negotiated on equal ground. This includes people and peoples, animals, and the living planet. And it is for this reason that Donkol ole Keiwa, the director of language and culture at the Dopoi Center, told me that the Kenya-Tanzania “border is illegitimate,” adding, “This border was put here by the colonialists. There was no reason to put the border between our communities.”

As Prescott historian and codirector of the Dopoi Center, Mary Poole, told me in 2017, “If you’re not negotiating, then you’re colonizing land rather than living on the land.” It is in this context that the Maasai are facing off against the U.S. global border apparatus.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.

The Border Chronicle is a weekly newsletter that publishes original, on-the-ground reporting, analysis, and commentary. Every Tuesday and Thursday subscribers will receive our latest dispatch in their inbox. We’ll be doing some investigative reporting, short audio pieces, Q&As, reported pieces, occasional film and book reviews, media critiques, op-eds, and—what the hell—we might even publish some poetry and satire. Eventually, we’d also like to host a podcast. We want to create a community of ideas so that we can break free of the “crisis” narrative that does such a disservice to our region.  Subscribe