I was fortunate enough to meet an incredibly knowledgeable Maasai man named Sidney Quntai. On our way to Kajiado to meet him, I was not sure what to expect. Would we find him out in the bush with a bunch of cattle, wearing a shuka (traditional Maasai clothing)? As it turned out, he was at a small restaurant and he was wearing a very nice suit.
I began the conversation, noting that I was interested in pastoralism because, as pastoralists make up 25% of Kenya's population, understanding food sovereignty for Kenya had to mean also understanding food sovereignty for Kenya's pastoralists.
Sidney began, saying that pastoralists not only make up 25% of the population, they also occupy 80% of Kenya's land and they have within that land most of Kenya's natural resources. I asked him to name some of those resources. He replied:
First of all, I'll begin with the wildlife resource. Ninety percent of wildlife in Kenya is on pastoral land. And actually, very specifically, eighty percent of that eighty percent is Maasai land. Within Maasai land we have Masai Mara National Park, we have Amboseli, we have Nairobi National Park... we have Samburu, we have, actually, most of those parks. And wildlife is actually found here.
And Magadi soda ash is actually mined here... We also have limestone, we have precious stones and semi-precious stones. We have rubies, we have gold, we have tanzanite, several of these. And recently, they discovered deposits of natural gas.
Sidney's cell phone rang, so we took a brief break. When we began talking again, he said:
Affluent Kenyans are buying land, particularly this Kajiado county, and settling here. The biggest problem pastoralism faces in Kenya and particularly in Maasai land... is the introduction of other land uses that are not compatible with our system of pastoralism.
From Nairobi you saw areas that used to be open not just a few years ago have now adopted different things. Housing estates, poultry farming, particularly flower farming is what is our biggest challenge. We do not have the land that was open anymore. Today, myself, my livestock are not even here. And they had to go through a built up area in Nairobi because they went through Kitengela area which is now closing because of houses and schools and other infrastructure coming up so we no longer have that area that we used to call our dry grazing area and our wet grazing area.
So pastoralism is no longer in a sense as we understand it because now, due to that, due to the frequent droughts, due to the serious pollution, we are now facing serious challenges on accessing pasture. That has forced us to reduce our numbers, numbers of our livestock. We no longer have such large herds because we cannot afford to have them because there is not enough space for them to graze.
This is true. As we drove from Nairobi, we passed an area called Kitengela that serves (or perhaps more accurately, served) as a wildlife migration corridor between Nairobi National Park and Amboseli and Maasai Mara. But now it's full of factory poultry farms and enormous flower operations.
I asked Sidney, in the past, how many cows and goats would a typical Maasai man have? He answered:
A poor man in our society would have at least 100 cows and about 200 goats and sheep. And, of course, land was still communal then, so there was enough space. And, for example, in a bad spell we would take our animals as far as Tanzania, which is like 100 km from here, or even take to Nairobi beyond, take to Namanga, take to Magadi, take to Amboseli, land was still open.
JR: So, throughout the year, the pastoralists move with their animals?
SQ: Exactly. And you know, some particular areas were specifically left for dry season pasture. And other areas were for wet season. So we never had a problem because we knew, that part of the county, when it is dry here, we can access the pasture on the other side. The few months we be there, it would have rained on this side. At least, the weather pattern was reliable. It was consistent.
JR: So you always had a place to graze.
SQ: We always had a place to graze.
JR: What would be a normal cycle for a year? Where would you start and when would you move the cattle?
SQ: Actually, our cattle would start moving around August because that is when it will be dry, beginning to be dry. September, October would be bad months.
JR: Where would you take them?
SQ: During those bad months, because of the weather pattern and because of the geographical areas within the same Maasai land, some areas used to have at least rains that were heavier and therefore they would at least retain most of the pasture. But in a place like this, it rains in a short while it is green, but because of the humidity here, because this area is semi-arid, it will dry up earlier. But we have highlands, Maasais of Magadi, that area would receive heavy rains and therefore the pasture would last for long. So we would take the cattle there, and when it became dry, we would start moving now. When the rain was reliable, we would begin to have our rains by the end of October. So November, December, generally would be perfect. It would be green and plenty of pasture, plenty of water, and plenty of milk of course. And that is the time when we would generally offload some of our cattle because they would have multiplied. We would sell them for meat.
Sometimes we also do barter, like exchange with agrarian people and get some food. Get some maize and get some beans and stuff like that. But then that changed. Now we just sell you livestock and go to a market and buy stuff. But in the past it was an exchange. That changed from the 70s. From the 70s it changed because land now in Maasai land started getting privatized, from communal to individual holdings.
From the late 70s now others began to buy land from us. So people coming in would start practicing some form of agriculture. And in the process, you know, even cultural shock people would go through because they would come in the different cultures. And people who were very coercive... and they were used to doing things in a traditional way would find themselves with strangers and also started eroding our cultural values. And the thing that went and is getting out mostly is the speech. The spoken Maasai language.
JR: And that's Maa?
SQ: That's Maa. So we find that people today cannot converse. Those who can are not articulate. We still have the traditional way of doing things, people are still doing that even within the midst of others.
As I'm sure you've noticed, the Maasai culture and livelihood is under several threats - urban sprawl and development, the climate crisis, and increased privatization of land. Once land changes from communal to individual private holdings, that allows individuals to sell land that was once held communally. But that impacts the entire community, not just the individual who made the choice to sell.
At this point, I asked Sidney where the Maasai live when they move with their cattle. He answered:
You live in the neighborhoods there. You live in the homes that you find. In areas where there's no population, you just build. You build a house.
JR: How do you build it? Out of what materials?
SQ: First and foremost you use sticks. Just... as support, and you can carve them. And you use cow dung from your cows, then plaster it with the cow dung. And if you don't have much cow dung you can use soil. So you just do that.
JR: Do you return to the same home you built the next year?
SQ: Depending on whether or not you'll be back that direction because there are various areas. What you do if you get back in that area is you remold your house. Having been left for a whole year... You just recement it, replaster it with the mud, and you get in.
JR: Is it typically men or women or both who build the houses?
SQ: Women. It's a women affair. Women are the ones who build.
JR: When you move with your cows, the whole family goes?
SQ: Yes, you move the family. But in instances where there's kids in school, those kids will be left in the neighborhood where there's a school, because boarding schools are few and far apart.
Not everybody will move. A few remain, particularly near a school. And the ones who remain are just the old ladies, the grandmothers.
JR: And they watch the children?
SQ: They watch the children. They take care of them, and the parents move. Sometimes, because of our tradition where you have a man who is - most of the people are polygamous - now things have changed - one wife will remain with the children and you move with the younger one. The older women will be left, they will not be subjected to these long treks. But then the younger ones with younger kids who are still, maybe, suckling and stuff would move with the husband.
I felt like an idiot to forget about polygamy. Of course, it made so much sense that if a man has several wives, one can accompany him as he travels and another can stay home with the kids. So I asked for more information about polygamy, since of course that is not something we in the U.S. know very much about:
JR: So in the past, men would have more than one wife?
SQ: Yes. Oh yes. Even now, even the traditional Maasai - not the contemporary one - they are still polygamous. They still marry more than one wife.
JR: How does that work? I've heard that it depends on wealth. That once a man can support another wife he can take another one.
SQ: Yes. Yeah, because it's a matter of provision for basic needs and wealth determines. Because if you don't have wealth, if you are a poor man, you cannot even support the needs of one wife, then you really do not have the capacity to take up another one.
JR: How many wives could a very wealthy man afford to have?
SQ: Many. I know, for example, we have a minister who had 20 wives. So many kids. In fact, in the local primary school, the preschool, 90% of the kids were his kids. It's all a matter of how endowed you are.
JR: Do they continue polygamy? Or do they feel any pressure to stop?
SQ: Oh yes. Because the way life, the shape it has taken, the economy of this country is not doing well, inflation is very high. It is expensive now. And you see, the government - last two years ago, three years ago - had a new policy on education. A new child, children's act, so now it is compulsory for you to take your children to school. In the past it wasn't.
Now it is compulsory so the more kids you have, the more stress it's gonna be for you because primary education [grades 1-8] is free but there are hidden charges in schools, some of these things for development and stuff like that. Then when they go to secondary school [high school], secondary school is expensive. So imagine if you have ten kids joining high school and you have to take care. Pay the school tuition, pay boarding, everything. Because of that alone, common sense detects that you don't get many kids because you can't afford them.
But for those who have, there again, the other bigger one, other than that, is pressure on land. That is the biggest pressure that most - my uncle - I'll give an example of my uncle - and I wish we could find him because that is the only place - it's not far from here - where you'll actually see a traditional Maasai boma, because the rest of the places around here all are built - this stuff.
I asked him to spell boma, which means a Maasai family compound, but this time he gave me the word manyatta, which seems to mean the same thing. He defined it as a homestead. Sidney continued:
My uncle - I have two uncles - one is nearer to the road so he's easy to see. He's the chairman - he was the chairman of a communal land. He was a chairman, eventually there was so much pressure for people to get their individual holdings, their individual pieces of land. On average, they got about 200 each, 200 acres each. He got more because he was the chairman...
JR: How many acres do you need per cow?
SQ: It is very tricky now because it depends on the breed. Because generally we no longer have the traditional Zebu breeds. So you are looking at something like 5 acres each. So the more you have and the less land area - it doesn't work out. So, this old man has, like 29 children. And out of that he has 20 sons. So where is he going to take all these 20 guys? Each one is now over 18. They are adults. They need land. So when you look at that scenario - and he's lucky because he has 1000 acres himself - at least they'll get land. But a neighbor of his has about 10 sons and his parcel of land is only about 50 acres. Because the rest is a big, big, big hill with limestone in it. What is he going to do? So those are the challenges and the realities the people are facing now.
And it's like - eventually it's going to be like the way it's been in the rest of Kenya. For example, in Central Province, among the Kikuyu people, when they realized they didn't have much land, now they started migrating. They are the people who are buying land here. They are buying land all over. And because of that we had problems after the elections of 2007, the communities where these guys now migrated to demanded that they go back to their home district. And then clashes [inaudible]. So pressure for land is enormous. It is enormous.
And that is why people are now thinking that we need to actually plan our family or maybe I don't need to have a large family. For one, even providing the basic needs is a challenge.