Dar es Salaam. Activists in Tanzania have criticised the planned luxury tennis-themed safari in the East African nation, accusing authorities of “sportswashing” the ongoing human rights violations against the indigenous people of Ngorongoro, including the Maasai.
Dubbed the Epic Tanzania Tour, the event is priced at US$24,990 per person for single occupancy, and it will be hosted by world-renowned tennis legends John and Patrick McEnroe. The eight-day expedition in December 2023 is marketed as a “truly extraordinary experience to explore Africa’s most iconic landscapes.”
A partnership between the government of Tanzania and U.S.-based travel firm Insider Expeditions, the tour promises 120 participants a tennis match between the McEnroe brothers, a visit to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, a hot-air balloon flight over the savannah, champagne breakfasts, and scenic safari game drives.
In February of this year, President Samia Suluhu Hassan was quoted welcoming the initiative, saying efforts such as this one help Tanzania grow and achieve its developmental ambitions.
“Adding a special element like tennis to this mix will also help us with another one of our key initiatives, which is to create more health and lifestyle opportunities for our young people,” the Head of State says in a February statement.
“While many know of John, their interests sometimes lie with sports like soccer, so using a great individual sport like tennis to teach life skills from legends first-hand will make for an experience people will never have imagined,” she added.
However, several human rights activists have come out to criticise the move, describing it as a way for the government to clean its image in the face of its controversial plan to “relocate” indigenous people of Ngorongoro to other parts of the country.
Joseph Oleshangay has been very vocal in his opposition to the “relocation” exercise – he describes it as “eviction” – and told The Chanzo in an interview that the planned tour is a “mockery” to his Maasai community, which has been complaining about state violence for sometimes now.
“It just shows you how people are so insensitive to our cries,” Mr Oleshangay, a professional lawyer who works with the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), said during the interview. “It is a mockery to us, the Maasai, but also to every person who has been complaining about the state violence directed at us.”
The planned event will come after almost two years since the government launched a controversial operation to “relocate” people from Ngorongoro to other areas to ensure proper conservation of the areas most used for tourist and game reserve purposes.
READ MORE: Questions Abound on Ngorongoro Eviction Saga
Authorities say the human population in the areas has unprecedently shot up, putting both the lives of human beings and wildlife in jeopardy.
In the case of Ngorongoro, which UNESCO has inscribed as a World Heritage Site, authorities claim that the human population there has increased from only 8,000 in 1959 to 110,000 in 2022.
The government has identified two areas where people who will offer to leave Ngorongoro “voluntarily” will be relocated. They are Msomera in Tanga and Kitwai in Manyara.
In Loliondo, the government decided to form a new game-controlled area, the Poloreti Game-controlled area, on a piece of land locals consider crucial for grazing, especially during the dry season.
While authorities say this is to protect an important piece of land, which is the water source in all of Ngorongoro, communities around have been complaining that this is to the benefit of game hunters who now use the area exclusively.
On both Ngorongoro and Loliondo, locals and rights groups have slammed the entire exercises as forceful and arbitrary, total violations of people’s fundamental human rights.
Oleshangay said that the planned event exposes the government’s excuse for removing the Maasai from Ngorongoro, noting that if the reason was conservation, new structures to attract high-end tourism would not have been constructed in areas left behind by the indigenous people.
“The government looks at us with such contempt that it can remove several people from their ancestral land and build a tennis court in their place,” he told The Chanzo in an interview. “Ours is such a valueless life that the government can play with as it wishes. Those who will come as part of this plan will sanitise such crime.”
Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism Angellah Kairuki was not immediately available to answer questions about how the government can defend its planned tennis-themed safari amidst these criticisms. The Chanzo left her a message, but she is yet to reply.
Hall of Shame
In an essay criticising the move, Eve Devillers, a researcher at the Oakland Institute, a US-based think tank that has been at the forefront of opposing Tanzania’s “assault on the Maasai,” reduces it to a sad sideshow at the expense of the most marginalised.
“By choosing to turn a blind eye to these injustices and sportswashing the Tanzanian government, Insider Expeditions is tarnishing the legacy of the McEnroe brothers from the International Tennis Hall of Fame to the Hall of Shame,” she writes.
“I also hope that donor countries, notably Germany, that do have an idea about what’s going on, can stop associating with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism’s crimes, compulsive funding included,” she said in a written response.
Tito Magoti, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Dar es Salaam told The Chanzo that people have every right to be outraged by the planned event because the government is determined not to heed calls to stop its “violence” against the Maasai.
“This event is planned to take place amidst widespread reports of human rights violations in the exercise to evict the Maasai from their land,” Magoti pointed out. “I mean, human beings are uprooted from their lands so that other people can come and play tennis there. It is outrageous.”
Lukelo Francis reports for The Chanzo from Dar es Salaam. He’s available at firstname.lastname@example.org.