But just as important is the vast landscape that lies in the background of this portrayed image, namely southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Here they once lived in unthreatened harmony with the harsh African environment, relying on the two things they hold most dear to them: land and livestock. Working hand in hand, land and livestock has sustained them and their culture for decades… until now.
After large chunks of land previously being taken from them for use as National Parks and Game reserves, the Maasai have already been struggling to survive off fewer resources. And then earlier this year the worst news came; the Tanzanian government was going to sell 1000 miles of land, evicting 40,000 Maasai Pastoralists from their homes and negatively affecting double that amount of people. Although the Tanzanian government has not followed through with the sale due to international opposition, this is not the first land eviction to take place. Throughout the last 50 years the Maasai have been forced off land to make way for National Parks, private Game Reserves and commercialization. Eventually, they may lose their rights, their land and their way of life.
The changing lifestyle of the Maasai
The importance of Cattle to the Maasai
However exceptions may be made for special occasions, ceremonies and rituals.
Livestock is also traded for clothes, cash, other livestock and food like rice, maize and beans that they do not grow themselves.
The Maasai own a type of cattle, called zebu, mainly because these can adapt to hot, harsh environments. They also sometimes have cows, sheep, goats, and occasionally chickens. To protect their livestock, the Maasai live in kraals (traditional African villages of huts) arranged in a circle with a fence around them made of Acacia tree branches. Acacia trees have large thorns which keep animals like lions away. The cattle are kept inside the circle at night to protect them from theft and predators.
Maasai Communal Land Management System
However the communal land management system has benefitted some at the expense of others. Subdivision of land and land loss to game reserves and national parks has restricted the Maasai from accessing critical water sources, pasture and salt lick. Land size is being reduced for cattle herding, which in turn reduces the number of cattle per household and food production.
A once proud and self-sufficient society is facing many social-economic and political challenges. Some people are forced to sneak through the Serengeti fences for the bare necessities. They are having to poach wood for building and cooking and hunt wildlife to feed their families.
And even with all these challenges, the Maasai hold onto their beliefs and culture as best they can. They are proud to be Maasai and uphold the traditions. But they also adapt as needed. Today young children go to school to equip themselves with the skills for a changing world. Young adults take to the city to seek work if needed. The Maasai are resourceful and gifted when it comes to surviving in their environments. To live such a life is a gift indeed and we can only hope that they will be allowed to do so for many more years to come.