Going back

Feb 5th, 2008 | By | Category: International

In one of those arrangements where it was impossible to get a straight answer from anyone as to what had happened, I found myself bumped from the flight. This was a relief, the prospect of flying in a six seater aircraft that would take off and land in fields, and which would pass nothing recognizable as an airport in between, was not attractive. I would travel by jeep with the baggage, it would take two days, but it would be a chance to see some countryside.

It was grim. Once fertile land had become semi-arid, through deforestation and climate change. People lived at the roadside in houses that were literally no more than mud huts. The poverty was absolute, in two days of driving the bright spots could have been numbered on the fingers of one hand.

The journey began deep in southern Tanzania. At one point a group of tribesmen with a cluster of bony cattle crossed the road, one of the few roads in the region.

“Maasai”, said John, our driver, “I have never seen them so far south”.

The southward drift of the Maasai had been caused by the lack of grazing for their cattle. They had shifted far from their traditional regions. A lifestyle that had endured for millennia was under threat from forces far beyond the control of the tribesmen.

I thought of John and his comment, some ten years ago now, when reading a “Financial Times” report on Kenya. The political conflict has caused a collapse of the tourism industry, a development that has a direct impact upon the Maasai.

In the small town of Talek, the absence of free-spending tourists has caused life to grind to a halt. “The warriors used to go to villages like Kolong to dance for the guests,” says Mr Silantoi. “But now they decided just to sit at home.”

The town’s Step Inn Bar is open but no one has money to buy its beer or soft drinks. The local butcher says his plans to build a house are on hold because business from the camps is vanishing.

The only visible sources of energy are the children playing outside the primary school, but that is also threatened as the salaries of six of its 13 teachers are paid by the county council and a parents’ group, both sustained by tourist revenue.

Ms Maitai, the veteran among 30-odd trinket sellers standing in the sun, is ready to accept that she and others might have to return to more traditional ways of survival. “We have a lot of new technology but now we have to go back to drinking blood and milk,” she says. “If there is no peace in Kenya, we can go back to our culture to survive.”

The history of Northern Ireland should demonstrate to anyone that prosperity is only possible when there is peace. The conflict in Kenya is affecting not only the warring politicians, it is dragging down the whole country. Ms Maitai believes that the Maasai have an escape route if the country does not come to its senses, that it is possible to shift back to traditional ways of survival, that the old culture can be recaptured. I hope so

Leave a comment »

  1. There are other problems too that the Maasai face. Global warming has resulted in droughts now so frequently that relief supplies are often all that is available for survival. You can only drink blood and milk if your cattle survive – and in the droughts, many don’t. Twice this past season people have planted grain when some rain came – but the normal period of rain didn’t come and the seeds germinated and then died.
    And. Flower farms, often owned by non-Kenyans and supplying fresh flowers to the UK supermarkets (among others), have sunk so many large boreholes that the water table level has dropped and the adjacent farms are left without water.
    You need to talk to Rev Naftaly Lemooke if you have an opportunity before he returns to Kajiado Diocese. (At present he’s studying at Belfast Bible College and living in the rectory at Magherally – soon to be living in the rectory at St Nicholas’).
    He’s a Maasai, hurt by the neighbouring flower farm, suffering with the drought and he ministers among a very isolated group of Maasai in Oltiasika and Lemasusu. In Naftaly’s home settlement they now have to buy water. Prices in the shops have doubled since the election results were announced.
    The Maasai Rural Training Centre has done a great deal to introduce water conservation methods – but that works only if there is water to conserve! They also demonstrate ways of finding alternative sources of income – but that too only works if there are people who can afford to pay for the goods and services.
    The Maasai in the towns, and there is a huge number in Nairobi itself, will find that the land that once provided rich pasture for their cattle does so no longer and that a return to traditional ways is more than likely to be impossible for them. Those who have maintained the traditional lifestyle are also struggling to survive.

  2. Liz,

    Thanks for that. I got a sense that ten years ago the Maasai lifestyle was becoming unsustainable. In Tanzania, they were grazing already overgrazed land that was the domain of other farmers and there were growing resentments. One of the reasons I like the ‘FT’ is that it covers the news stories that others ignore. I would be worried for the people featured in the report.

  3. The price of ‘progress’ is a heavy one. These nomadic peoples much like our own aboriginals have maintained a balance for centuries and now we’ve made it untenable for them to return to traditional ways with land ownership and mis use of the land. It’s so depressing. Here, some farmers ‘lease’ their land from the Government which allows our indigenous people to roam onto the properties and maintain their traditional hunting and gathering ways but these are few and far between. War, exacerbates these difficulties to the nth degree. So sad in a country that has been so stable for so long. The ‘traditional’ practices, seem here, to be along the coast and in Islands such as the Tiwi where white encroachment has been minimal.

Leave Comment