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The Maasai

Maasai History and Culture and its relevance to Conservation

Who Are the Maasai? Where Did They Come From? What Is Their Modern Conservation Role? – Mike Rainy, May 2011.

The Northern and Southern Maa speakers of East Africa have been the pre-eminent cattle keepers in terms of wealth, land control, and influence in both Kenya and Tanzania for a very long time. At the height of their ascendancy in the mid 18th century the range lands that they “owned” included the Great Rift Valley and fertile volcanic lands on either side over an area of more than 350,000 km sq. ( 60% of the land mass of modern Kenya). Prior to 'Emutai’, the decade of disaster between 1893 and 1903 that probably killed 60% of the pre-disaster population of Maasai (because in the first few years it killed over 95% of the cattle that they depended upon for their daily milk), the population of Maasai that controlled this vast area was likely less than 100,000. It is incredible that even with well organized standing armies of bachelor warriors the Maasai could have owned and controlled such a huge area of diverse terrain with only one fifth of a person per square kilometer.

In the north they were close neighbours of pastoral Dasenech, Turkana, Gabbra, Rendille, Boran, and Pokot who were all confined to less productive range lands on the periphery of the northern Maasai (Samburu and Chamus). The southern Maasai occupied a long broad tongue of semi arid land bounded by sixteen agricultural peoples : the Meru, Embu, Kikuyu, Kama, Taita, Usambaa, Parakuyo, Larush, Iraqw, Tatoga, Kuria, Gusii, Luo, Kipsignis, Nandi, Maraquet and Elgeyo. The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers of Africa and their homeland includes the range lands of the Boma Plateau bounded in the south by the waters of the Sobat River which flows from the Ethiopian Highlands into the White Nile and the Sudd just south of Malakal.

Modern genetics and traditional linguistics show information and genetic exchanges with their Afroasiatic (Cushitic) neighbours to the north and east over the past 3000 years. And yet authoritative treatments of Maasai history do not penetrate beyond the last 20 to 23 remembered fourteen-year age sets. The oldest remembered north Maasai age set of warriors was probably initiated about 1690, but these Lkasurutia men (“ of the brass coils”) inherited the way they thought, acted, spoke, and prayed from people who walked the mountains of Sinai and the shores of the River Nkishon which flows into Galilee. The Maasai are named as being amongst the Hebrew priests in Chronicles and the Samburu are called the Korr, or Kore, and are listed in following verses of the same Bible Chapter as singers and gatekeepers. At times of great challenge modern Maasai pray 'Nkai ai Oi Pasinai’ = my god given at Sinai.

Cattle keepers in Africa had fully specialized pastoral cultures along the Upper Nile in Egypt and Sudan for more than 6000 years at a time when the savannahs in what is now the Sahara had just begun their trend towards extreme desiccation. The greatest survival tool and adaptation of all cattle keeping people is the high mobility of the human population and the cattle on which they depend. While they might lay claim to and defend range lands with great ferocity against non allied pastoralists, successful pastoral people must also be masters at keeping the peace that their livestock needs to grow and prosper.

The desertification of the vast Saharan ranges along the length of the Nile has pushed the ancient cattle keepers south into both Ethiopia and the southern Sudan as well as into northern Uganda and Kenya. We know from scenes on the dynastic carvings of ancient Egyptian monuments that cattle keepers of southern Sudan were amongst those people whose involuntary labour was used to move and work these monumental stones.

The Maasai do not recall just when they left their Nilotic homeland in the Sudan. This suggests that their exodus was not a single event but a very long process of north to south movement that took place over more than 2000 years. They do remember when they left the hot floor of the Kenyan Rift Valley and followed the Kerio River southwest until it guided them onto the well watered range lands just east of Mt. Elgon. Once they arrived into the Kenyan Highlands where they pushed aside other pastoralists, they also cultivated long lasting exchange relationships with neighouring agricultural people. This rescued them to a great extent from the periodic famines that are such a very great challenge to cattle keepers without reliable agricultural neighbours.

Although three Modern Maasai sub groups, the Chamus, Larush and the Parakuo became sedentary agriculturalists around Baringo, on Mondule Mountain and on the southern edge of greater Maasailand, the Maasai themselves shunned the life of digging, but still were very much protected and nutritionally sustained by the crops from agricultural peoples around them.

In exchange, all of these agricultural neighbours were insulated and protected by the Maasai from repeated attacks by Swahili and Arab slavers in the thousand kilometer coastal Sahel that extended in a long chain of at least a dozen independent trading city states from Lamu in the north through to Zanaibar. Thus during the height of the Swahili and Omani city states, a vast area of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the populations adjacent to Maasailand in central Kenya through to northern Tanzania were protected from the scourge of slavery by the Maasai who had fled from the ravages of slavery in the Sudan and forged their very culture in that prolonged escape.

Depending on the narrative you favour, the Maasai presence on the savannahs of East Africa, has either protected the open wildlife filled range lands that is and has been their domain as pastoral guardians of the natural estate, or as pastoral nomads from hell they have destroyed or are in the process of destroying the last great mammalian assemblages of the East African Pleistocene.
Like all modern people in East Africa the Maasai population more than doubles every 20 years. They lost a lot of their range lands and since that time their once open range lands have been reduced by many national parks and modern conservation areas. With a near constant cattle population per-capita, Maasai cattle wealth is reduced by the increase in people. While it is true that many of their range lands, particularly in the north, bear little resemblance in wildlife abundance and richness compared to just the last few decades, it is also true that in many areas Maasai owned wildlife sanctuaries are increasingly some of the best managed and productive conservation estates in Africa.

Make no mistake, modern young Maa speaking men and women are as much a part of this new information age as anyone else, and they will surprise themselves and the rest of us by tapping their very deep, life-tolerant, cultural roots and coming up with “new” solutions to what may appear to be impossible conservation problems.
Maa people like to say that all of life is both bad and good but if you can listen to the “mouth of Maa “– you cannot die.
Let’s not imagine that the Maasai are now at a cultural and conservation dead-end.

About Mike Rainy

Mike Rainy came to Kenya in 1964. He moved to Samburu to study and live with the Maa speakers in Samburu and later moved to the Maasai Mara. Mike studied their large scale ecology and livestock. During this time he learnt to speak their language, Maa, fluently.

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