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Entries about nomads

With the Maasai People of Tanzania


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. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Material from Joshua Hammer of Conde Naste magazine, UNESCO .org, Mbango expeditions and Mike Rainy’s MasaiMara.com have been incorporated herein.
Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:38 Archived in Tanzania Tagged culture africa tanzania kenya crater maasai mara nomads serengeti ngorongoro boma samburu maasai. Comments (5)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author


“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.

Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.

They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

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