Surviving in Modern Times
Written by Nathan C. Weber
TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. Who Are the Maasai?
IV. Post-Colonial Adaptation
V. Future of the Maasai
Before discussing how the Maasai are adapting to the changes of a growing industrialized and Westernized world, we must first understand who the Maasai are. The Maasai are a group of clans which live chiefly on a traditionally pastoralist livelihood. They are dispersed over an area covering most of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They have a stratified society based upon age groups and gender. They use circumcision as a rite of passage for their youth (i.e. boys become warriors through circumcision; girls become marriageable women through circumcision). During and after the imperial occupation by the British, the Maasai found that many of their long-standing traditions conflicted with both British colonial rule and the laws of the post-colonial African governments. Despite these foreign pressures, the Maasai stubbornly cling to their own way of life.
Who Are the Maasai?
It is not clear as to where or when exactly the Maasai tribe first appeared. Even the Maasai are a bit vague on this point. Their origins are told in stories and myths like the creation stories of Judeo-Christian religion, and even then, these stories only refer to their settlement of the Kerio Valley Escarpment in Kalenjin country. It has been established, however, that the Maasai originated in Ethiopia sometime during the seventeenth century. "Their original dispersal area was, in all likelihood, the north-western shores of Lake Rudolf." The Maasai then began a southern migration into the highlands of northern Kenya during the nineteenth century. They continued southward, attacking and absorbing other tribe along the way in order to gain more land for cattle-grazing. By the end of the nineteenth century, "Maasailand stretched in an hour-glass shape from the highlands of the central Rift Valley north of Lake Naivasha in central Kenya to the Maasai Steppes of northern Tanzania, encompassing dry plains to the east, wooded savanna and plateaus to the west, and the great lakes of the Kenyan Rift." The Maasai owed their ease of mobility to the exclusive dependence on livestock (primarily cattle, but also sheep and goats) for their way of life, as well as to the age-sets which forced the young men into large wandering groups who were instructed to raid other tribes for their cattle and fight them back to obtain grazing land.
Cattle are an integral part of Maasai life. So much so that cattle are treated with the same respect accorded to family members, and in most cases, they are used as currency. "According to Maasai folktale, God brought cattle to the earth specifically for the ancient Maasai. This folktale is the foundation for their belief that all cattle on the earth should rightfully belong to them . . . ," hence their proclivity for raiding other tribes for additional cattle. The Maasai rely on their cattle for milk, cheese, meat, and on occasion, blood which is mixed with the milk to supplement their diet. It was considered taboo to eat any other meat, fish or fowl. Because of their life-sustaining importance, fines and bride prices are usually paid with cattle.
Maasai clans live in kraals. A kraal is "a village with a cattle pen, the whole surrounded by a fence or palisade." A kraal is usually built no more than a few miles from a well, watering hole or other source of water. There are basically two types of kraals: the enkang, which is built by an elder for himself and his family with room allowing for the family to grow, and the manyata which is built for unmarried warriors who live with their mothers and their sister (who are allowed to have lovers among the other warriors). Maasai boys work as shepherds until their circumcision, sometime in their teens, when they become ol-murrani or morans; warriors. "When a boy has been circumcised, . . . he may choose a bride and ask his father to approach her parents [usually bearing a gift of honey]. The bride's father receives usually five head of cattle and the bride's mother three sheep as a bride price." Should the marriage fall apart, the bride price is repaid in the original amount. One exception is that two sheep is considered to be equal to one heifer. "A man may have as many wives as he can pay for . . ." A man with two wives is common among the Maasai. A man with three or more wives is rare because of the expense in cattle, sheep and honey.
The first major challenge to the Maasai came in 1900 when the boundary between German formed Tanganiyka and British formed Kenya sliced directly through Maasailand. Later the colonial treaties of 1911 and 1912 forced the Maasai off of the central highlands north of the Uganda-Mombassa railroad into a reserve in southern Kenya. Their dry-season water holes and grazing lands were stripped from them by the Europeans. They were not allowed to graze their cattle near European estates (for fear they would contaminate the European herds) and they weren't allowed to sell their cattle on the European dominated market. The British government saw the Maasai raiding practices as barbaric and aggressive and took steps to stop them by fining them, imprisoning them or confiscating their cattle.
Grazing was further hampered by the National Park Ordinance of 1945 which established large game reserves. The colonial government was concerned that the Maasai cattle were damaging savanna used by giraffe, wildebeest and elephants important to tourism revenues. In addition, the Maasai found themselves in competition for land with agriculturalists and commercial cash crop estates. In the 1950's, there was a population explosion across Kenya due to above average rains during that decade, improved health care, rangeland conservation, agricultural production, and veterinary services. Kikuyu and Kamba agriculturalists began migrating into Maasai lands to escape overcrowding in central Kenya. It wasn't long before the Maasai population was reduced from 78% of the population in 1962 to 63% in 1979.
Kenya gained its independence in 1963. The Maasai now cover some 41,000 square miles, 15,000 square miles in Kenya and 26,000 square miles in Tanzania. This afforded them with about 24 million acres of grazing land, which is not nearly enough. In 1968, the Groups Representatives Act was passed when it was realized that there was not enough land in the Maasai reserve to subdivide into individual plots. This act established grazing blocks allowing a community of co-residents to legally form a "group ranch." Many of the Maasai accepted the group ranch as a means of preventing further encroachment from agriculturalists onto their land. Although the ranch afforded permanency for the Maasai, which led to a stronger market presence, eligibility for social services and schools, the set boundaries made them susceptible to drought, as was the case during the 1968-1973 droughts.
Later years would see the Tanzanian government turn the tables on the Maasai. "By 1994 over [124,000 acres] of land had been alienated in Simanjiro district for about 80 large scale farms ranging between [220 and 32,000 acres]." These farms produce mostly cash crops, the majority of which are exported to Holland. To discourage Maasai pastoralists from grazing in the fields, the remaining plant matter is burned after the harvest. This practice, known as land alienation, was achieved by the government presenting title deeds to immigrant agriculturalists and commercial growers without any consideration for the current users of the land, the Maasai. Traditional grazing patterns and access to watering holes were disrupted leading to cattle loss.
Polygamy, having more than one wife, was another Maasai tradition which became a point of contention between the tribal Africans and the Europeans. The practice conflicted with the standings of the Africa Inland Church, a Christian organization which ran the schools and clinics that served the Maasai, as well as performed religious conversions. The Christian missions of the nineteenth century usually put forth the rule that only the first marriage was valid and that the other wives were to be sent away. This caused a lot of problems since the woman's family refused to take the daughter back after she had been properly married, in their point of view. Also, a woman could not remarry if she has already had children for her previous husband. The church did not take into account the culture of the indigenous people before laying down the law. Nevertheless, the Maasai stood by their long held traditions. Today, even those within the Africa Inland Church have developed split views on the Maasai practice of polygamy. Some feel that forcing rules which disrupt the Maasai's fundamental way of life causes the church to excommunicate itself from Maasailand. These "rebels" are even baptizing many of the Maasai elders and, in effect, creating tension within the church.
In the 1950's, education was difficult to obtain in Maasailand. There were very few intermediate schools, and as a result extremely few Maasai university graduates. Those schools that did exist were usually too far away for the children to travel to on foot. Most Maasai felt that it was too much trouble for too little gain. Additionally, those who did succeed either split from traditional Maasai lifestyle and went to live in cities, or they returned to the traditional way of life without utilizing their education to help the tribal community. The result of this was that children who were sent to school were considered "lost", and the Maasai became reluctant to send more. This view changed after the 1961-62 famine and flood when many of the educated Maasai came to help their communities. After the independence of Kenya, development in the Maasai area increased. More schools, hospitals and properly paved roads were being built. Attitudes were also changing as the Maasai realized that they could no longer be a nomadic people. They are now working towards become an effective presence in the Kenyan economy.
Future of the Maasai
There are some who believe that the Maasai will disappear in the not-so-distant future. They claim that their reluctance to embrace agriculture as a way of life or create cattle cooperatives with fewer, more productive cattle will only cause them to be crowded out by those tribes who are willing to be developed. "You know why the Maasai did not develop? Because they had millions of cows and were rich in comparison with the other tribes. They were content," stated James ole Torome, an educated Maasai who has worked as a government official and a translator in the British High Court in the 1940's. "Most outsiders can't understand the Maasai," he said. "Even now some ignorant people will say the Maasai are primitive."
Tom ole Sikar, a rural development economist working with the Simanjiro District Drought Rehabilitation Programme in Arusha, Tanzania, believes that the only way to address the serious conflicts between the Maasai and the African governments is for the governments to recognize the Maasai's right and ability to make "an informed contribution to the planning of all activities in their area. Acknowledging their capacity to manage the natural resources in a sustainable manner as well as their rights to do so implies they must be given a leading voice in deciding how these resources, the land and water, the wildlife, and the minerals can be best utilized."
Many of the Maasai traditions may eventually be lost. Pressure from human rights groups may soon prevent the Maasai from performing female circumcision. Conversion to Christianity among many of the young Maasai may begin to phase out polygamy as a traditional practice. Additionally, the more Maasai youths are educated, the more likely it is they will turn away from their heritage to seek Western lifestyles in cities and towns. S.S. ole Sankan wrote The Maasai which was first published in Kenya in 1971. Originally printed in Maa, the language of the Maasai, to "record for posterity some of the customs of the Maasai people . . .", it was later translated into English "so that the General public may learn something about Maasai life and customs." Through efforts such as this, it becomes ironically clear that the last hope for the Maasai's survival are it's Western educated children.
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Sikar, Tom ole. "Conflicts Over Natural Resources in Maasai District of Simanjiro, Tanzania." Http://treesandpeople.irdc.slu.se/newsl/30sikar.htm, 1995.
Stafford, Tim. "Can Mr. Mombasa Keep All His Wives?" Christianity Today. February 11, 1991, pp. 33-4.
Taldykin, Nikita and Sris, Mayu. "Traditional African Societies." Http://danenet.wicip.org/mmsd-cso/west/africa.htm
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