Friday, March 2, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 11 - Intro to Pastoralism and Maasai Culture

I spent the eleventh day of my trip with a Maasai family in the town of Kajiado (or just outside it perhaps) in Rift Valley Province. Because many in the U.S. are unfamiliar with pastoralism, this diary is a brief introduction to pastoralism and Maasai culture.

A quarter of Kenya's population are pastoralists:

A pastoralist society is a society in which the primary means of subsistence is domesticated livestock. It is often the case that, like hunter-gatherers, pastoralists are nomadic, moving seasonally in search of fresh pastures and water for their animals.

Pastoralist tribes in Kenya include the Maasai, Samburu, Somali, Pokot, Turkana, and Orma. Together, Kenya's pastoralists occupy 80% of the nation's land. According to one estimate, there are over 25 million pastoralists in the Horn of Africa: 7.5 million in Kenya, 7.1 million Ethiopia, 4.8 million in Somalia, 4.7 million in Sudan, 1 million each in Uganda and Eritrea, and 100,000 in Djibouti.

Here is another bit I found useful about pastoralism:

Again, pastoralism is most often an adaptation to semi-arid open country in which farming cannot be easily sustained without importing irrigation water from great distances. This means that Pastoralism is the most efficient way of using resources in dryland and marginal areas. Pastoralists are often better off than settled farmers during normal times. They can move their animals to follow the rains or take them to established seasonal grazing areas. Nevertheless, they are often the first victims of prolonged environmental stress, such as drought. (emphasis added)

Consequently, pastoralism is usually the optimal subsistence pattern in arid and semi-arid areas because it allows considerable independence from any particular local environment. When there is a drought, pastoralists disperse their herds or move them to new areas. Farmers rarely have these options. They suffer crop failure and starvation in the same situation. A pastoral subsistence pattern reduces the risk when there is an irregular climatic pattern. This is especially true of nomadic pastoralism. (Source)

The Maasai are not entirely nomadic. That is, they have established homes where their families live throughout the year. However, when necessary, during dry parts of the year, they move with their livestock to areas where there is sufficient food and water. Because they are traditionally polygynous, one or more wives might stay behind with young children and other wives accompany the man and the livestock.

The Maasai speak a Nilotic language called Maa. A Maasai family lives in a compound known as a manyatta. I visited Letuya Tawuo, a man in his late 60s (he wasn't sure of his exact age), who has five wives. Here's a photo of the outside of his manyatta:

The fence is constructed of thorny branches. Here's a photo inside the compound:

All of the livestock that was able to travel were elsewhere, gone to an area with more water. There were two calves who looked like they were in bad shape. At the time of my visit, the animals only got water every other day. Local livestock breeds can survive these conditions even if they don't enjoy them. Exotic (often European) breeds introduced to Kenya might be able to grow quicker or produce more milk, but they cannot withstand such long periods of time without water.

The Inkajijik (maasai word for a house) are loaf-shaped and made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow's urine. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family. Warriors are in charge security while boys are responsible for herding livestock. During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume the responsibility for herding livestock. The elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Every morning before livestock leave to graze, an elder who is the head of the inkang sits on his chair and announces the schedule for everyone to follow.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people who lived under a communal land management system. The movement of livestock is based on seasonal rotation. Contrary to many claims made by outsiders, particularly the Hardinian school of thought, this communal land management system allows us to utilize resources in a sustainable manner. Each section manages its own territory. Under normal conditions, reserve pastures are fallowed and guarded by the warriors. However, if the dry season becomes especially harsh, sections boundaries are ignored and people graze animals throughout the land until the rainy season arrives. According to Maasai traditional land agreement, no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land. (Source)

Here is a photo of Letuya standing outside one of the homes in his manyatta:

The home was small but cool even during the middle of the day. It contained a bed, an area for cooking with a vent to allow the smoke out, a few benches, and some space for storage. There is a stool near the fire that is reserved for the owner of the home - in this case, Letuya's wife Noormejooli. As I was a guest in her home, I should have brought her a gift of sugar. I asked what I should do since I hadn't brought any sugar, and was told I should give her some money to buy sugar. My translator recommended 200 shilings ($2.40) but when I gave that to her, she insisted she needed 500 ($6).

Letuya sat on the bed as we spoke. Neither of the couple spoke English so a young Maasai man named Maya translated for us.

Letuya sitting on the bed

I wished I could ask Noormejooli questions about how she felt being one of five wives or how she felt women's rights fared in Maasai culture, but there was no way to do so with her husband sitting there with us and with a man as our translator.

The mainstay of a Maasai diet are animal products from their cows and goats, although nowadays they sometimes eat plant-based foods as well. But that's a relatively recent development.

When Maasai children are young, they are greeted by adults touching their heads instead of with a handshake. Children become adults when they are circumcised, and this traditionally happens shortly after puberty. Nowadays, there is a lot of pressure to stop female circumcision, but male circumcision continues. You can read more about the ceremony here. A group of boys that are circumcised together are "age mates." Once circumcised, they become morans, or warriors.

(A note about circumcision: male circumcision is the coming of age ritual for many Kenyan ethnic groups. I asked a Kikuyu man about this and he said his son will be circumcised soon, at age 14. He said that if his son isn't circumcised, he will "get it rough" from the other boys in high school.)

There's an awful lot to be said about threats to traditional Maasai culture, both from pressure to "modernize" as well as from problems like the climate crisis and from housing and industrial developments encroaching on their grazing lands. I'll get into that in the next post.

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