When one thinks of the Maasai, an image that usually comes to mind is of a tall, strong man dressed in red traditional cloth, standing proudly over a vast African landscape with a spear in his hand. This is how the Maasai are often portrayed; warriors, hunters, a proud people holding onto their culture and roaming freely through the African wilderness.
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.
Recently a good friend of the Cheza Nami foundation travelled to Kenya and spent some time with a Maasai tribe. In her beautiful photos throughout this article, you can see their colorful, traditional way of life, their strong character and you can feel their free-roaming spirit. They smile from their hearts. They take great care in their appearance and adorn themselves in brightly-colored traditional cloth and handmade jewelry. The young and old work hard on the land, keeping their family and fellow villagers fed. They make music, dance and celebrate traditional rituals. They hunt and fight off lions that attack their cattle. They live lives that we can only imagine really exist. This is the beautiful culture and people we would like to preserve.
However the reality is that the Maasai are having the foundations upon which they live, taken from under them.
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 Maasai are historically semi-nomadic, always searching for grazing pastures for their livestock, the backbone of their survival. They move from place to place, erecting huts made of mud, sticks, grass and cow dung. When required the men and boys of the tribe will sometimes travel far distances from home to keep cattle fed.
Everyone in the family has their chores. Women erect the houses, collect water and firewood, milk cattle and cook meals. Men are warriors in charge of security and when needed help the boys tend to the cattle. Young children go to school and do their chores following classes.
Traditionally the Maasai culture had no need for material possessions. Their greatest value lay in their cattle and land. Their simple and yet balanced lifestyle once held very little need for money. However, now they have become more dependent on money to survive. They are having to buy more food, pay for children’s schooling and are relying on more modern means to survive.
Being a resourceful and proud people, the younger generation is taking to the city and becoming entrepreneurs. Today you can find various Maasai owned retail businesses.
The importance of Cattle to the Maasai
The Maasai put great value in their cattle and livestock. Livestock provides them with milk and sometimes blood which they drink for protein. They try to not kill their cattle for meat as their wealth is measured in the number of cattle they own.
Maasai Communal Land Management System
The Maasai constitute about a million people living under a communal land management system. This system should allow land resources to be used in a sustainable manner. According to their traditional land agreement, no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land. In times of a harsh dry season, they ignore boundaries and graze cattle throughout the land, ignoring section boundaries.
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.