Written by Mokia Naputu
Education is the most critically important tool in enabling humankind to survive. The United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) backs this idea by arguing all UN member states to stand firm in supporting children to go to school so that they can become active participants of transformation in their societies. The organization adds that by providing quality, relevant and inclusive education to all human races and ethnicity, the world would arrive at its optimum and provide binding instrument for a fair living planet.
While this is undeniable global truth, is the delivery of education inclusive of knowledge of indigenous Maasai livelihood? To the Maasai tribe, who populate the Northern part of Tanzania and the West Southern plains of Kenya along the East African Rift Valley, livestock is a backbone for survival. Maasai have been livestock keepers for over 4000 years and know little on alternative economic activities to continue thriving. This is to say without cattle, there is no Maasai.
The 21st century creates many hurdles to human survival such as a fast changing climate change and increasing population pressure in Sub Sahara Africa. This impacts the livestock sector with the shrinking use of grazing lands, eruption of new pests and dwindling water resources which deeply threaten Maasai livelihoods. Many are forced to move seasonally in search of water, causing conflicts with farmers and death of livestock due to lack of pastures, water and eruption of new diseases. However many rural Maasai communities still consider the incidence to be the consequences of an angry God and use prayer and sacrifice to try and negate the menaces.
Range-land in Northern Tanzania In the pursuits of sustaining our cattle, in 1998 when I was only 8 years old, I was enrolled to a local primary school at the village which had only one tree as the classroom. The school teacher was hired and remuneration included milk and cereals. Transportation for the teacher to the village required riding a bicycle almost 30km daily. In the same year the teacher disappeared unknowingly hence the school had to come to an end. In our minds we had an idea that we have probably finished schooling.
Then in November 1998 I was assigned together with a friend of the same age to travel with cattle about 70km away from home to keep up with new season rains. We had about 800 cattle and had very little interaction with other men perhaps two people per year, not hearing the sound of the car for about one year and half. Our life there was terrible because we lived in the same jungle with lions, hyenas and buffalo which would attack the livestock whenever they felt hungry. We slept outside with no house, no sleeping mattress but only small pieces of rags and animal skins. At some point we used to sleep in the same place with hyenas closer to the burning woods to keep all of us warm. We had scorching sun during the day, the heavy hails of El Nino rains of 1999 and the extreme cold in the night all hitting us for almost two years without any protective dress or gear.
In January 2000 the message came that we were supposed to go back home to register for a new school; we then had to trek back the cattle. This time around the school was officially registered by the government to start enrolling students with only two class rooms walled with mud and roofed with old grey white iron sheets. The building lasted until grade 4, then the government built four block classrooms which we had to share from grades 1 to 7. When a teacher for grade 3 gets to class then grade 4 had to remain silent until the grade 3 teacher leaves and the next enters. Schooling and herding cattle were a one by one activity. Being the only school boy and the oldest son in the family, I was supposed to go to school for one day and the next day go to feed and water cattle. While in school, we used 3 hours to go and fetch water daily to help teachers for survival. The practice lasted the duration of my primary school.
During the holidays, I and other children had to do the same thing we did in 1998 by taking cattle far away from home for the whole month. When we returned at the school opening, many of us didn't know where we last left our uniforms, books and some classmates used to forget which grade they were in so teachers attempted to remind us as our parents didn't know either (the parents didn't understand why we had to go to school accept in that the government forced it).
Because of this situation many students dropped out of school or some used to forget to go back after holiday. They realized their absence months later and would be too nervous to return as they might be whipped by the teachers as punishment. Despite this tough journey I passed to secondary school where I used to be the best student especially in English subject. During secondary school studies, parents used to fear about my destiny that Irmeek (government) had taken me away, or I might not choose to return, or if I did return, I would be a different person who no longer relates with the community cultures and traditions of polygamy, communal lifestyles and attending traditional rituals which would consequentially bring curses and shame to the family. When I returned home for a mid-year break, I found a prospective wife waiting at home for me from my parents as their way to discourage me to return to school. I found myself rejecting the girl and telling my parents that I need to go to school so I can become successful and prepare to give my family a good life in the future. Because of the conflicts between us, I had to run to my uncle’s home.
When I went back home 2 years later I found the same girl had married my father who was 75 years older than her and was the third wife whom I now would call mom. My in-laws and neighbors were outraged when they found out that I chose school over cattle and a wife. I lost friends in the village and was neglected by my parents until after some time at University and returning home with money, clothes, sugar and food during the hunger seasons. At this point my parents realized I was reasonable in prioritizing schooling.
Many Maasai children continue to miss school because of the responsibilities of taking care of the family cattle. A herd of 100 cattle for example needs 4 young boys to take care everyday while young girls keep calves and goats. Middle aged people don’t normally herd cattle because they are soldiers to protect the community and go to war while elders are advisers. Therefore only young boys and girls are left with this obligation. In our situation where cattle need to be trekked longer every day for pastures and water, it is not possible to go to school while completing domestic responsibilities in the same day.
Unless the child does as I did and forges his/her own unconventional path, he/she is doomed to miss school all together. Even doing both concurrently is very risky to a students’ performance. And the calamity of climate change is leaving my people, the Maasai, with neither cattle nor education, resulting in hopelessness.
Mokia Naputu Mollel, a Maasai from Simanjiro District in the northern part of Tanzania. Mokia is a student and teaching assistant at the University of Dar Es Salaam. He is an emerging writer and hopes to use Voice of Maasai platform to teach others about Maasai culture and the issues they face.