NAIROBI, Kenya — A favorite of National Geographic, the Maasai are perhaps the best known tribe in Africa.
Semi-nomadic pastoralists, they move with their cattle through the Savannah of Kenya and Tanzania. According to legend, the Maasai
were entrusted with cattle by the creator god, Enkai. Cattle, which provide meat and milk, are vital to their way of life.
Land allotment in Maasailand is communal, which makes it sustainable. After families and their livestock have lived off a pasture and
its food supply has been depleted, they move on. The pastures are given time to regrow. People and animals find new sources of food.
To understand why their way of life is now threatened, it is important to understand life in Maasailand.
Maasailand is the unofficial title of over 160,000 square kilometers along the Great Rift Valley. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania
recognize it as such, but the legal language is vague enough to allow settlement and use by people who have equal right to the land.
When grazing grounds are encroached upon, the Maasai’s grazing system falls apart. Communities are forced to settle in areas that have not
completely healed, then settle again in areas of which the same is true.
To ensure their own land security, wealthy Maasai have begun privatizing acres on acres, which makes the situation for landless Maasai all
the more dire. In past years, a man who had lost his cattle could earn money, then buy a new herd. Now he must earn enough for a new herd and the land to house it on.
Other areas are bought up by commercial farmers, businesses, and set aside as wildlife preserves.
It isn’t just legal troubles that plague the tribe. The Maasai have always depended on the healthy Savannah, but climate change has crippled
their ecosystem. Rains are shorter and more sporadic than ever before.
In 2007, a drought in Amboseli National Park killed 70 percent of Maasai livestock within the region.
During droughts, water sources evaporate and grasses die. Predators whose prey have been killed by starvation or thirst turn to Maasai cattle. Thirsty animals have difficulty producing milk, which is a mainstay of the Maasai diet. Herds and their keepers walk, sometimes for miles, for a good water source.
As it is exclusively men who lead the livestock, things become especially difficult for Maasai women. With the cattle goes their surest food supply. In the interim, women are forced to gather what little they can find to eat.
To escape changes in weather and land tenure, many pastoralists have left for the city. Tribesmen sell cattle on urban markets, a nontraditional practice. Young men and women sell beads, cell-phones and crops. Some are hairdressers, some are hotel workers and some are herbalists. Others take up agriculture, which is viewed by many Maasai as a desecration of the land. Tilled soil, after all, cannot regrow pastures.
Though wildlife tourism is a mainstay of the Kenyan economy, and 80 percent of Kenyan wildlife lives on Maasai territory, the Maasai do not
benefit from the industry. Most companies operate independent of the tribe. The establishment of their businesses contributes to the land grab that is so damaging to herders.
Education has been a struggle for years. Only 45 percent of Maasai girls attend school; five percent go on to a secondary education. An
estimated 75 percent of Maasai are illiterate. This is, in part, due to perceptions of education among parents. Many believe that children with an education will find jobs in the city rather than return to their families. Uneducated girls are more likely to marry early, and marry the man of their parents choosing.
Then there are the logistics of an education. There are schools in Maasailand. In 1992, the district of Kajiado boasted 161 primary schools. But for a nomadic people, maintaining regular school attendance is a challenge.
The Kenyan government has begun providing training for pastoralists; grazing grounds are zoned to make better use of the land left.
Farming has become a necessary evil. City life has suited many of those that choose it while others remain in their traditional homeland. The future of the Maasai is uncertain, but it is to be hoped that their rich culture and pride may endure.
– Olivia Kostreva