History of the Maasai

 

The Maasai of Tanzania are an indigenous pastoral society with a rich and vibrant oral history.

MaasaiMaasai

Their traditional knowledge, often narrated in the form of folktales, songs, stories, poetry, and chants, contains a wide-range of knowledge about traditional medicine, grazing practices, landscape ecology, the behavior of animals, livestock management, and the gathering of wild plant foods.

Maasai pastoralists represent the highest degree of pastoral specialization in the Eastern-Sudanic region of East Africa. Maasai peoples, however, also combine livestock herding with other economic activities such as cultivation, trade, and gathering. Because of their dependence on natural resources to sustain livestock and human populations (such as natural watering sites, grazing areas, agricultural land, and drought reserves), many Maasai groups that historically depended on community grazing structures and local, opportunistic agriculture suffered economically when they were forced onto smaller parcels of settled land. This conflict arose as colonial, and later local governments began instituting land reform programs that transformed Maasai lands in Kenya and Tanzania into group ranches, privatized settler farms, national parks, game reserves, and hunting areas. In 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present-day Kajiado and Narok districts. Maasai lands were further enclosed to allow for the creation of game parks, including Amboseli, Nairobi, and Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. Ndagala states that were the colonial and post-colonial eviction of the pastoralists from some of their best grazing lands were rationalized to protect the wildlife. The transfer of these lands has served to enclose many pastoral and semi agricultural groups onto parcels of lands that are unsuitable for either semi-nomadic pastoralism or agriculture at a sustainable level.

After independence, Tanzania implemented a socialist policy of villagazation, a program to promote sustainability, development, and nationalism. In Maasai areas, this meant that people were physically resettled into bomas, a circular cluster of homes. The bomas, which were formerly kin settlements, were now neighborly groupings of individual families. In 1976, the government officially resettled the Maasai in Monduli and gave them a maximum of three acres of land each to farm (Ndagala: 1982). Whereas the Maasai previously thought of grazing fields as a community resource (Ndagala 1992), each family now owned its own plot of land. In the shift to a more sedentary lifestyle, the Maasai in Monduli Juu became a pastoralist community where they cultivated both maize and beans and kept extensive herds of livestock. In this sense, they were likened to ilmeek, outsiders or non-Maasai, whom they had formerly despised because they did not value grass, a significant source of life for pastoralists (Galaty 1981:4; Hodgson 1999). In the words of one woman in Eluai Village, “There used to be so many cows that the grass would not reach the door of the house; now there is [unused] grass everywhere.”

This subsequently placed the Maasai at odds with their environment, both culturally and economically. Without livestock, a Maasai male is presented with many difficulties. These difficulties include the inability to obtain sufficient food, lack of money to buy grains, inability to put up a good house, and if unmarried, he may not be able to attract a wife. Thus, the privatization of land ultimately increased the relative poverty of those living in Eluai and led to a more individualistic view of maintaining the environment. Instead of protecting the communal character of grazing lands, those who cultivated farms destroyed grass; an act seen as an aggression against Engai. As a result, trees, which were formerly regarded as objects of refuge, ritual, and healing, became capital to be owned and used or sold in the same way livestock once was, by whoever held the land they grew on.

1. Engai is the Maasai name for God. In the Maasai language, en- is the feminine prefix and God is associated with femininity; as a mother creator and protector of all natural things.