A GREAT PEOPLE TRAPPED IN A CHANGING WORLD BY RAMDAS IYER
01.12.2013 - 23.12.2013
The Maasai: A Great people trapped in a changing world.
If one thinks of Tanzania or Kenya, two things come to mind; safari and the Maasai people. Anywhere you go in towns or countryside in the above mentioned countries you will meet the Maasai people. In northern Tanzania where I was traveling recently, the Maasai people can be seen everywhere. These famous warriors and herders of East-central Africa who once dominated the plains of East Africa are now confined to a fraction of their former land and their total population is estimated between 900,000 and 1,000,000 both in Tanzania and Kenya. It is believed that the Maasai population is in decline. While still a pastoral nomadic people they have increasingly been forced to settle, and many take jobs in towns. So you would find them working in the safari lodges as guards or porters.
In the nineteenth century, the Masaai dominated East Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that extended 500 miles from the Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya to the Masaai Steppe in Tanzania. They were cattle rustlers and warriors, and their raids, "which spread from Lake Victoria to the Indian Coast, were feared by Bantu, Arab, and European alike," Peter Matthiessen wrote in The Tree Where Man Was Born, his classic account of his 1960s odyssey through the Serengeti wilderness of Tanzania
After 3 weeks in Tanzania I became very curious about the real history and background of these people who originally migrated from Southern Sudan. The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers of Africa (people of the Nile valleys) and their homeland includes the range lands of the Boma Plateau of South Sudan (near the infamous Darfur region). The reason for my curiosity and fascination for these people is because of several factors including 1. They have managed to preserve their traditional ways despite the impact of western civilization. They have continued to practice their ancient customs and ceremonies including the retention of their age-set structure with its warrior ranks of proud and brave warriors. 2. Their presence on the savannahs of East Africa has either protected the open wildlife filled range lands that is and has been their domain as pastoral guardians of the natural estate (an alternate view taken by wild life conservationists is quite the contrary blaming them for living amidst the last great mammalian assemblages of the East African Pleistocene.) 3. Their fierce presence prevented slavery amongst related pastoral tribes from the Arab slavers, along the Sahel coastline of 1000 km from current day Northern Kenya to Southern Tanzania.
Cattle keepers in Africa had fully specialized pastoral cultures along the Upper Nile in Egypt and Sudan for more than 6000 years at a time when the savannahs in what is now the Sahara had just begun their trend towards extreme desiccation. The greatest survival tool and adaptation of all cattle keeping people is the high mobility of the human population and the cattle on which they depend. While they might lay claim to and defend range lands with great ferocity against non allied pastoralists, successful pastoral people must also be masters at keeping the peace that their livestock needs to grow and prosper.
The desertification of the vast Saharan ranges along the length of the Nile has pushed the ancient cattle keepers south into both Ethiopia and the southern Sudan as well as into northern Uganda and Kenya. We know from scenes on the dynastic carvings of ancient Egyptian monuments that cattle keepers of southern Sudan were amongst those people whose involuntary labor was used to move and work these monumental stones.
The Maasai (meaning speakers of the Nilotic Maa language) do not recall just when they left their Nilotic homeland in the Sudan. This suggests that their exodus was not a single event but a very long process of north to south movement that took place over more than 2000 years. Once they arrived into the Kenyan Highlands where they pushed aside other pastoralists, they also cultivated long lasting exchange relationships with neighboring agricultural people. This rescued them to a great extent from the periodic famines that are such a very great challenge to cattle keepers without reliable agricultural neighbors.
In exchange, all of these agricultural neighbors were insulated and protected by the Maasai from repeated attacks by Swahili and Arab slavers in the thousand kilometer coastal Sahel that extended in a long chain of at least a dozen independent trading city states from Lamu in the north through to Zanzibar. Thus during the height of the Swahili and Omani city states, a vast area of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the populations adjacent to Maasailand in central Kenya through to northern Tanzania were protected from the scourge of slavery by the Maasai who had fled from the ravages of slavery in the Sudan and forged their very culture in that prolonged escape.
The Maasai people are two distinguished groups and both groups speak one language known as Maa. The first group is identified as "pastoral Maasai" who are basically headers and keepers of livestock. It should be clear that Maasai have a deep love for their livestock because to them cattle are not only food and source of income, but also a religious symbol of God's favor. When the Maasai people pray they always ask for two things namely children and cattle. The Maasai prayer runs as follows: May God (Enkai the"Creator) give us children and cattle." In short, for the Maasai "a cow is life." Raised as a Hindu, this sacrosanct concept of the importance of cow as a life giver is very similar to me. Unlike the Maasai pastoralists, the Agrarian Hindus used milk and butter as our main source of protein. The bullocks helped in ploughing the fields and later moving the grain to the markets on carts. The cow was also a non-violent grass eater and fitted nicely with the mostly vegetarian Hindu culture. The Vedic Hindus were nomadic cow herding Aryans who settled in India around 1500. Readers who are familiar with Krishna, one of the main Hindu gods was an avatar in the form of a cow herd. The second group is the "agricultural Maasai" known as Ilarusa or Warusha. The Ilarusa occupy the southern slopes of Mount Meru in Arusha region where the land is fertile and the rainfall is sufficient for raising maize, bananas, beans, coffee, and other crops.
The Maasai have no chiefs, although each clan has a spiritual leader who also plays the role of a political leader. As spiritual leaders, the Maasai diviners are consulted whenever misfortunes arise in the community. They also served as physicians, dispensing their herbal remedies to treat diseases and absolve social and moral transgressions. As political leaders their role includes settling disputes on land issues, to resolve conflicts between Maasai communities and other tribal groups, and the government.
Circumcision for the Maasai is the most significant event. It is a sacred ritual through which the warrior groups of the Maasai are designated. The four age groups are junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders, and senior elders. The junior warriors do not engage in any political affairs or cultural rituals. Their main responsibility at this stage is to learn warfare under the tutelage of their senior warriors. They also learn their customs and traditions and are not allowed to marry. The senior warriors assume a tremendous responsibility to defend the land from all sorts of enemies such as lions who come and invade livestock etc. The senior warriors, therefore, are equivalent to military commandos who serve to protect the welfare of the people and to stabilize and maintain peace. Each of these age groups serves a twenty-year term, after which another age group is circumcised and takes over the duty of defending the land.
Maasai marriage is a bit unique. When a man loves a girl he gives her a beaded chain. He then sends milk and honey through his clanswomen to the girl’s parents (from another clan). This honey is brewed into beer. The father invites his relatives and other distinguished elders of his age-group to drink the beer. At this point, the man who had declared to marry the girl is summoned and their decision regarding the marriage meted out. If the union is not agreeable, the man is never to talk to the girl.
Maasai women play a significant role in the community. Women's roles include collecting firewood, drawing water, taking care of children, and building huts. Since it is the woman who builds the house, she also becomes the owner and the manager of the household. When a Maasai man takes delight to introduce his wife, he would say honorably, "This is the woman (wife) who shelters me in her house." Women have a strong voice in their culture. They function as educators and religious leaders. In short, they are the keepers and sustainers of the Maasai community. On the other hand, Masaai women are minors in their culture and have to be always represented by their father or husband in sensitive matters and in decision making on those issues. A Maasai woman is by birth a member of her father's family line, which means she cannot own land etc. It is one of Women’s affairs projects taken on by NGOs.
Throughout Masailand, which covers some 8,000 square miles in northern Tanzania, Masaai pastoralists are under siege, their future endangered by three powerful forces: the Tanzanian government, the safari industry, and wildlife advocates, who often have both the cash and the political clout to make their voices heard over the Masaai. "The Masaai always come in third, behind tourism and conservation," said Damian Bell, the head of the Honeyguide Foundation in Tanzania, which is trying to help indigenous people gain an equitable share of tourism profits while preserving their traditional culture.
There are three critical problems faced by the Maasai people today. First, the Maasai people are facing the reduction of land. For example, since 1959, part of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority which was formerly occupied by the Maasai people has been taken away from them for wildlife parks. The second is drought which is intensified by the fact that they live in arid parts of the land where rain is insufficient for grazing. Third, the Maasai people face another crucial problem, that is, illiteracy. Some Masaai have managed to straddle the traditional and modern worlds, working, for instance, as guides at safari camps, where they use their salaries to buy cows and procure additional wives. And many of the rituals and customs—the morani circumcisions, arranged marriages, elaborate wedding ceremonies—have survived. But growing numbers of Masaai have taken up farming or moved to towns and cities, where they have become estranged from pastoral life.
Having traveled to many countries with ancient cultures, I have found that “modernity” has destroyed and impoverished traditional peoples. Such traditional cultures have long been destroyed in the west due to illiteracy, greed and wars during the past 300 years. Today such cultures only remain in the “third world” countries where corruption and poverty is rampant. The traditional peoples much like us are attracted to modern amenities. A rapid change in their lifestyles does not sustain their cultures since illiteracy never gets eradicated for at least two generations. First goes the beautiful village houses replaced by a concrete base and a tin roof, next comes litter and sewage strewn around and lastly the sale of traditional lands for a few dollars, which destroys many future generations ability to maintain the old ways. As an amateur anthropologist I painfully observe every day the wars and oppressive regimes of South Sudan, Central African Republic, Congo, Ecuadorian Amazon, Syria, Xinjiang province, Tibet, northern Burma etc destroy indigenous cultures, languages and unique ways of life with a great sense of loss.
There is no simple solution to this problem. Tourism helps in stemming some of the decay. The Maasai in the Ngorongoro area refuse to modernize which is a great contribution to the survival of their culture. The question remains if one tribe should hold out against the survival of many animal species which cannot adapt as easily as humans to changes in their environment.
Material from Joshua Hammer of Conde Naste magazine, UNESCO .org, Mbango expeditions and Mike Rainy’s MasaiMara.com have been incorporated herein.