The Maasai: A plight for ancestral access

25th Apr 2013

Governments have been reducing Maasai lands for ranches, farms, national parks, hunting areas, and game reserves.

There is cultural symbolism behind the way people treat those with drastically different lifestyles from their own. It is a reflection of the way that society interprets “being civilised.”

The Maasai (Masai) people of East Africa have been semi-nomadic pastoralists living off the land for generations. Their deep-rooted traditions have allowed them to live sustainably with the environment, but in the last few decades the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments have attempted to downsize their land access. Currently, a proposed “wildlife corridor” is being debated, which would cut off 30,000 Maasais’ access to grazing grounds for their sheep and cattle, yet allow a high-end safari and hunting company out of Dubai to access the space.

Colonial and subsequent local governments have been reducing Maasai lands for decades, for ranches, farms, national parks, hunting areas, and game reserves, according to Kitumusote, a Maasai advocacy NGO. Some ecologists support the attempt to downsize, claiming that the Maasai lifestyle is detrimental to wildlife and the environment. They support this argument by citing Garret Hardin’s ideas in The Tragedy of the Commons, which claims that shared resources controlled by each individual’s self interest will take away from the long-term ability to optimally use the resource. This is a powerful, and controversial argument that has been discussed by scholars for years, but may not be universally applicable.

The Maasai’s plight is akin to that of the Native Americans, who lived off the land and saw it as a shared resource, and once they were given plots to own by the government, still did not understand the concept of land ownership. Therefore, the spaces were not used optimally as intended. The transition into viewing land stewardship more individualistically rather than community-based is making traditional Maasai practices and rites of passage more difficult to carry out.

Governments are using the argument of conservation when trying to force the Maasai out of their ancestral lands with the wildlife corridor initiative, yet are giving access to private companies who support hunting. This brings into question their real motives regarding the tribe. Do “civilised” people hunt for sport rather than necessity? Are the Maasai just a misunderstood people, or is their way of life truly detrimental to the wildlife of the region?

One American woman who visited Kenya as a child, when asked about her view of the Maasai people, simply stated, “They drink the blood of animals.” Even the Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, views a nomadic lifestyle as “not productive.”

Perhaps if societies reached out to the pastoralists in an attempt to understand them, they would not have such strong objections. Perception of a people dictates what is deemed “ethical” in dealing with them.

If the Maasai are viewed as completely barbaric, the public will be more welcoming to a subtraction from their vital resources. Yet, even if the Maasai were to become integrated into mainstream Kenyan and Tanzanian society, what skills could they offer the “civilised” world when all they know is their semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyle? Even game reserves and safari lodges have been accused of not hiring a sufficient number of locals, when they are the ones who know the land the best.

Often, conservation organisations see a problem from the outside and come up with ‘solutions’ without understanding the full implications of their proposals. Tribes that live in a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings do not understand “conservation,” because existing sustainably is a way of life rather than an individual concept. Preserving chunks of land and calling it ecologically sustainable is still coming from the mentality of parcelling out space and putting boundaries on land, which got us into the ecological mess we are currently in.

If people and governments made an attempt to understand and openly admit their underlying ideologies, rather than rejecting differences deemed “wrong” or “uncivilised,” a lot more progress could be made with protecting spaces. Yet, transparency in motives has to be the impetus for such a movement. Once it is admitted that one entity favours profit for the sake of bolstering an economy, and the other states that the number of cattle they raise determines their status, every party involved can begin on a clean slate.

Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy


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