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Maasailand in Transition: Globalization Reaches the African Savannah

Maasailand in Transition: Globalization Reaches the African Savannah

Written and created with photos taken by: Dr. Hartmut Walter and Cindy Hamfler

Introduction

The legendary Maasai warriors are the poster people of conservative African culture. Most Maasai have resisted colonial and national government efforts to integrate into modern society. The life of rural Maasai has been governed by their love for cattle—in the past, present, and perhaps tomorrow. Maasailand straddles the border of Kenya and Tanzania.

But is it still possible today to live apart from the rest of the world? Can the Maasai avoid globalization? Our observations made during the 2001 summer season paint a complex picture multiple sides to these questions.

Stressors

Regional and local changes have impacted Maasailand for about 100 years. European colonization, a cattle rinderpest epidemic, and an outbreak of smallpox in 1892 weakened the entire Maasai population. More recently, wealthy and poor Maasai alike endure enormous stress from:

  • Eviction from traditional dry season grazing areas by European and African ranches
  • Urban and suburban sprawl near the cities of Nairobi and Arusha
  • Establishment of game reserves and other conservation areas restricting or forbidding access of Maasai livestock to watering places
  • Activity of missionaries
  • Changing land tenure and title regulations
  • Population growth, livestock growth, and resulting overgrazing of rangelands
Urban area of nairobi
The increasing obstruction to the nomadic movement of Maasai people and cattle between wet and dry seasons over time.

Signs of Modernization

Through tourist eyes, the scantily dressed Maasai women and warriors are reminiscent of the 1800s. However, the signs of modernization in Maasailand are strong and include:

  • Highly educated Maasai in professional positions. We know of doctors, politicians, administrators, and priests
  • Widespread acceptance of veterinary care and public health care
  • Acceptance of modern transportation means- buses, trucks, and bicycles.
  • Markets with imported goods from China and India- soap, plastics, metal spears, and textiles
  • Souvenir trade near tourist routes and hotels Maasai-owned general stores- dukas
Maasai roadside conversation around a bicycle
Dukas along the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway

Maasai society has been very successful in adapting its economic and business life to national and world trade. Leading Maasai entrepreneurs have:

  • Applied for and received titles to their traditional lands
  • Diversified their activities by growing wheat and maize crops including high yield varieties of the green revolution
  • Built fences to exclude the livestock of other Maasai from their fields
  • Opened elementary schools to educate Maasai children
  • Accepted non-Maasai neighbors in the rural environment
  • Significantly contributed to the work force in tourist facilities and national parks, serving all positions from waiters to game scouts and park directors
Ntinina ole Ndukuboi, a Maasai youngster wearing his Kimana Primary School Uniform
Daniel, a Christian Maasai, and Muli in front of an EU-sponsored electric fence surrounding Kimana Group Ranch

Despite the growing Maasai community, Maasai who operate agricultural machinery, use solar energy panels, and collaborate with international non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) live side by side with very traditional Maasai. Evidence of resistance can be seen in:

  • Maintenance of traditional practices and age-old rituals:cattle as symbol of wealth, teenage circumcision as rite of passage, and moran (warrior) age sets
  • Polygamy
  • Traditional clothing and tools, including weapons
  • Widespread illiteracy
  • Traditional cosmetics, beading, ear-stretching
  • Maintenance of traditional mud and straw structures- bomas, enkangs, and manyattas

Conclusion

The reach of globalization includes the African savanna in its remotest corners. Many families hold onto the traditional Maasai way of life but accept and incorporate outside tools, goods, and practices that suit and benefit the family’s well-being and general security. Poverty and lack of access to the outside world play, however, a significant role in the observed cultural and economic isolation. It will take wise leadership to guide the Maasai into the new century maintaining their culture while adapting to the changing world around them.

For more information on the Maasai way of life today, we recommend the following web sites:

The Maasai and Agents of Change (An all Maasai Website)
The Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition
The Future of the Maasai People and WildLife
The UCLA Geography Department

Globalization Research Center - Africa