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The Maasai Crisis: Five core challenges implicating the future of indigenous people in East Africa

Written By Mokia Naputu

The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. Their number seems to range between 2 to 2.3 million, though there are no official statistical reports to confirm the numbers. Popular tourists’ destinations in East Africa such as the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro, Maasai Mara, Amboseli, and Tarangire game reserves are located inside the Maasai region. The reserves are now considered protected areas set aside by governments for conservation, wildlife viewing, and tourism. Maasai people are prohibited from accessing water sources and pasture land in game reserves.

Maasai and their traditional life cycle

Traditionally, Maasai lived under a communal land management system which offered equal access to all members of the community with rules of using and conserving the natural resources for consideration of others and the future. With this aim, the movement of livestock is based on seasonal rotation to avoid lasting concentration in a single area that can alter land productivity and breed harmful pests. The warriors, called Morans, protect land invasion from outsiders if the outsiders are promoting individualism in usage of land resources or restricting the land from cattle access.

Maasai warriors exercising traditional dancing

Childrearing varies on gender basis whereas boys are groomed to be community warriors responsible for protecting communities against enemies and to increase the number of heads in the household. The girls are raised to become responsible mothers and facilitate warriors on performing community duties. Both genders are instilled with socio-cultural norms, practices and values of respect, obedience, cooperation and a dedicated commitment towards serving the community.

Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep are the primary source of income for the Maasai. Livestock serves as a social utility and plays an important role in the Maasai economy as they are traded for other livestock, cash or products such as milk, siege and clothing. Individuals, families, and clans establish close ties through giving or exchange of cattle.

The land itself provides the natural herbs used for various medicinal treatments which help to strengthen the immune system and protect and treat common illnesses. Generally, Maasai livelihoods were sufficiently supported from nature and among interactions between themselves. However, severe droughts and appropriation of rangelands have created radical implications for Maasai lifestyle and livelihood.

Maasai are at the forefront of rapid change in global challenges. These five major challenges pose irreversible threats to livelihood of Maasai future.

Brutal and greedy land grabbing Land-grabbing is an enduring controversy. With regard to the purpose of this article, the threat in Maasailand is the rate at which land grabbing is taking place, the brutal evictions and the disenfranchisement of Maasai people both in Kenya and Tanzania. Maasailand is characterized with high soil fertility suitable for cropping, conducive wilderness to support wildlife and unique landscapes such as the beautiful Savannah's, all attracting tourism and hunting investments. Sequentially, hundreds and thousands of Maasai have been forcibly evicted from their land for foreign investments, particularly in the key locations that are bio-diverse and support Maasai livelihood.

Today a number of cases are pending in courts for Maasai pastoralist communities that have filed suits for illegal appropriation of their land. Pastoralists are particularly vulnerable to land appropriation, as their semi-nomadic lifestyle is viewed by discriminatory legislation and vague land ownership policies including the ambiguity of the 1999 Land Act’s inclusion of Tanzanian rangeland falling within the category of ‘general land’. Corruption in the legal systems often results in drawn out legal battles that drain resources of the community and often fail to provide an adequate settlement, if any. The entire process of land acquisition is characterized by bribing, cheating, and dividing communities.

With the arrival of international safari and exotic hunting companies, the expansion of wildlife protected areas and forest reserves is an economical focus for the country. This ever-growing focus prioritizes tourism over livestock keeping of those who call this landscape home, the Maasai. Amidst the evictions and extreme droughts, rises a concern among the Maasai of whether they will be able to contend with these horrifying challenges.

A few examples of afflicting land appropriation; The long standing case of Maasai conflicts with the Dubai OBC hunting company were backed with extrajudicial eviction of Maasai pastoralists in Loliondo, 1,500 km next to Serengeti National Park; Persistent clashes between national parks authorities and Pastoralists for Mkungunero wildlife corridor in Simanjiro district; Use of coercion forces to evict the group from Ngorongoro Conservation Area; Several other estates acquired illegally from Maasailand by foreigners in support of few selfish leaders.

With fast growing population in towns and cities, the need for individually owned lands increases. Land privatization and subdivision of formerly communal rangelands into private holdings includes the loss of access to key resources for the Maasai and inflates the price of land exorbitantly. Farming activities are quickly expanding towards Maasailand and the Maasai are selling their land to wealthy outsiders who then “cleverly” gradually expand beyond the size given by natives. These movements and migrations have always been associated with fatal clashes with farmers who claim the right of occupancy to the land before the arrival of pastoralists while the latter urge that farmers have invaded their areas which they had left for rejuvenation.

Limited livelihood options Maasai are “synonymous” to livestock which means they rely on livestock for provisions. The people depend entirely on cattle for food, medical access and at times securing shelter. It is not uncommon to find one has established shelter inside a cattle's shed for security reasons, for warming during cold weather or for sheltering calves. Extreme droughts, fast-growing populations and development push pastoralists onto ever more marginal lands where pasture and water is becoming harder to find, leaving thousands of cattle struck by hunger and death.

According to Tanzania’s Ministry for Livestock, a total of 132,000 cattle had died in 2016/2017 fiscal year due to severe drought, many at the Northern Maasai corridor (Mwananchi, 2017). Another report by (All Africa Media, 2010) shows that from August 2009 to March 2010 (7 months), about 316, 437 cattle; 236,356 goats and 92, 640 sheep died of the severe drought in Arusha region alone. This catastrophic loss of livestock takes years to recover and the environments to support such replacement are becoming considerably more limited.

Panoramic view of Maasai Enkang, see from inside

Specialized knowledge of Pastoralism at the core of Maasai cultural identity creates a large gap between what is required for diversification into farming skills or other entrepreneurial pursuits being forced upon the Maasai. Those Maasai who transition to farming do so at a high price as it is often more weather-sensitive than cattle husbandry and they lack the farming skills required to deal with unreliable rainfall patterns and other weather specific challenges. Often this new pursuit reaps no return at the end of seasons.

What does all of this mean for us Maasai? Options for different livelihood strategies are very limited. As the result of the inevitable imbalance, hunger, school dropouts, stranded families and eroded resources are the reality. We Maasai now are one of the major seekers of government's relief food during shortage seasons. This again poses a challenge of perceptions, aspirations and actions and the forces of what the situation will be like in the coming 10-20 years.

Low rate of school turnout Maasai are considered one of the most ‘least educated’ ethnic groups in the world when it comes to class-based education system. It is estimated that less than 20% of Maasai have a primary school education with the pyramid becoming sharper as you move to higher education. It is however important to note that there is a considerable difference within the group between Kenya and Tanzania with the former having made substantial progress integrating education among Maasai while the later lagging behind. In Tanzania, Maasailand has been and still is the area with the least amount of schools, primary schools were once a rare sighting and secondary schools were virtually non-existent.

Following the Tanzania's policy on universal access to secondary education in 2006, at the minimum, every ward is now being served with at least one primary school and one secondary school. However, having schools established and accessing education does not always mean the same thing.

Village schools where pastoralists live, possess the highest index of distance from home to school, few classrooms, lack of power and learning materials, libraries and few teachers and laboratories are non-existent. It is not uncommon to visit a primary or secondary school in the morning during class hours and find no students and be told that the teacher has gone to search for water or may be out reminding parents to pay costs of their children attending to school, etc. This raises doubt on the quality of education and the intentions of those assigned to the duties.

The Maasai have a reputation of rigid adherence to their traditional means of living as sometimes they have little regard for the tenets of modernity. Attending to school seemed a threat to one abandoning traditional values and probably marrying outside the community, considered a violation of traditional arrangements. These practices still to date all contribute to reluctance of allowing children to attend schools.

Furthermore the Tanzanian education system includes seven years of primary school, six of secondary school, and, for a fortunate minority, three/four of university. Passage into secondary school and university education is dependent upon passage of two standardized exams administered nationwide to students during the final years of primary and secondary school. These exams are offered one time only and failure on these exams prevents students from continuing forward in their education. Because the exams are biased towards urban knowledge and educational opportunities not available in rural areas, a small percentage of students in Maasailand are able to pass these tests.

The cost of schooling continues to be a factor that inhibits the success of Maasai school children.

The recent fee-free education policy on primary and secondary schools still creates an imbalance. The cost of having meals at school, uniforms and books is still levied to parents whom the majority are incapable to manage given the diminishing number and value of cattle as the result of severe droughts and infringed grazing lands.

Wide spread poverty syndrome Confronted with the loss of grazing land, due to several geographical factors and political marginalization, some Maasai have migrated to different parts of Tanzania including Morogoro and Kilosa districts and/or taken up other economic preoccupations in addition to livestock keeping. Various wealth ranking data demonstrates a minority of pastoralists who are thriving, and the majority of pastoralists increasingly fall within the depths of poverty. The decline of pastoral resources and the rising profitability from agricultural pursuits has widened the wealth gap between the well-off groups and the poor.

With new assets like permanent houses, bicycles, and tractors becoming more common, access to such resources has become individualized rather than community based. The induction of ‘western lifestyles’; access to services such as food, water, clothing, health services, power and education all requiring the exchange of currency rather than livestock. Maasai purchasing power, with respect to decline in the number of herds, is at an all-time low. Many can't afford daily meals, school drop-outs are increasing and managing medical expenses is becoming an unbearable burden.

Philipo Osano from the Maasai Oltumo Project had to say this on poverty. "It is sad to see a society that had a long tradition of pride being a beggar for relief food of imposed foreign concepts of development" (OMP, 2015).

Irrelevant development interventions It should be expected that the rural areas with many challenges receive prioritized attention and understanding of livelihoods in order to help bridge gaps. Conversely, imported development initiatives are promoted by government and the private sector in Maasailand that only push transformation and no understanding of resource allocation from the perspective of pastoralism.

Development in Maasailand focuses on conserving forest reserves and national parks and reducing number of cattle which are assumed to lead to environmental degradation and threaten wild animal populations that are essential for tourism activities. Advocating conservation is a good thing but when based on outdated theories, conservation advocacy is used for exploitation and undermines the prosperity of local conservators and livelihoods.

With the complex problems facing Maasailand, should governments and international communities apply affirmative action to counter-check critical impacts among the Maasai communities?

Unless the governments and civil society sit together to consult with Pastoralist Maasai to construct helpful development frameworks; conflicts with farmers and conservation, indigence and personal damages will increase.

Author’s recommendations We as Maasai must educate and empower ourselves as every one of us is responsible for the decisions for our future. Time to act is now. We, both young and old, should face the challenges with an educated and consultative perspective before our ability to dream and change is crippled by outsiders.

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 empower knowledge and teach others about Maasai culture and the issues they face.

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