by .
Published on: Apr 23, 2007
Type: Opinions

Seki Solonka has a wind-worn face that bears the mark of the 20 or more years she has been tending livestock. She owns 160 hectares where her 30 head of cattle graze. She also admits to having as many goats as sheep. But asking a Maasai how much livestock they actually have is like asking a stranger how much money they have in their savings account. It is rude.

For the Maasai, a persons entire self-worth is wrapped up in the livestock they own - cattle, goats, and sheep.” Livestock are just everything,” explains Alex Nkedienye, a maasai who also works as a community facilitator in charge of a Kitengela project working to conserve rangeland diversity.” They are medium of exchange; it is how we pay for things; how we pay our debts. It is our prestige, our standing in society. If I want to take a bride, I must pay for her in cattle. We bond our friendships by giving sheep and goats. When we exchange gifts, we exchange livestock. And all the ceremonies in a Maasai’s life focus around issues of cattle. The meat, the milk that cattle provide, these are things that sustain a family, that sustain our culture.”

But the traditional pastoral lifestyle of the Kitengela Maasai is under threat. The Maasai community nearest to Nairobi, Kitengela is feeling the encroachment of Nairobi’s urban sprawl and pollution, and of a new, cash-driven society that is buying up pastoral lands and pressuring the Maasai in ways their forefather’s could never have imagined. Unique to the Kitengela equation is Nairobi National Park, where ingress and egress for wildlife is becoming ever more constrained by urban sprawl. The wildlife using the corridor surrounding the park now increasingly moves through adjacent Kitengela.The lions follow and often find the Maasai livestock to be easy pray. Until recently, there seemed little hope of keeping the Maasai from retaliating.

The maasai have always been in conflict with lions and other large predators.” In the wet season, when the zebra and wildebeest move out of the park, the lions try to follow and if they don’t find zebra, they will kill our cattle,” says Alex.” The Maasai always retaliated and killed the lion because our belief is that if you don’t kill the lion, the lion gets habituated to killing the livestock. Domestic livestock is not wild, it’s more docile. It’s easier for the lion to kill.”

Maasai culture has, in fact, been intricately linked to the killing of lions. There came a time in a young mans life when passage to manhood required that he team up with others to kill a lion. “In the last 10 or 15 years this practice has stopped in this area because of a growing emphasis on sending children to school. The more schooling young men receive, the less likely they are to follow the traditional path to manhood,” explains Alex. But other encroachments on Maasai culture and society have not been ameliorated by more education.

Things in Kitengela started going wrong for the Maasai when the land they owned together was parceled out in an ill-conceived loan scheme during the mid-1980s.Once the land was broken up, parcels started disappearing. Some people sold off their land to quarrying, others leased to people who wanted to build nice homes on the outskirts of the city. Suddenly there wasn’t enough space for livestock on roam, and the Maasai found they could not protect their animals in times of drought.

“When you have more land, you can move from place to place when there is no rain,” says Alex. With the kind of fences that went up, with the new presence of people less tolerant of the pastoral lifestyle, came more difficult. Maasai are very exposed to the vagaries of nature, like rainfall, and if in times of drought they cannot get better pasture areas, they will lose livestock-the essence of their culture and very survival. When this happens, the repercussions can be dramatic.

The Maasai have an abiding respect for wildlife. Apart from retribution against lion, cheetah, and leopard that kill their livestock, they feel they are the original “proprietors” of wildlife. But the reduction of pasturage in Kitengela area means that wild herbivores are increasingly competing with livestock for limited forage. The Maasai blame some of these problems on the Kenya Wildlife Service, which, they feel, does not maintain the park well. “From records we know they used to manage the park very well,” explains Geoffrey Ntapaiya, a young maasai active in the Kitengela community.” But inside the park now, you find very tall, inedible grass. It hasn’t been cut, so the herbivores will move out of the park to where the grass is much shorter, since it has been mowed down by our animals. The lions follow, and every time they come out, the lions kill cattle and are then killed by the maasai. The conflict is still there.”

“For the past four or five years there has been a debate whether to fence the park,” says Geoffrey.” There are people who want to fence it off, arguing that the animals will remain inside there where the tourists will be able to see them more easily. But in reality, the park is part of a larger ecosystem, and was never meant to stand alone. If you fence the park, you lose an important chunk of that ecosystem, interfere with the natural movement of the animals, and, in fact, endanger their existence.”

The answer to the Kitengela community has been to retie some of the knots undone in their pastoral society when they became land owners. Now the younger generation has organized community groups .And the groups are tackling issues that only two years ago seemed intractable. That was when the Kitengela Ilparakuo Landowners Association (KILA) was formed to give voice to a people who felt they were not being heard by the Kenyan government or the Kenya Wildlife Service.”People began to realize there was only so little they could do as individuals,” says Ntapaiya. ”Many important issues facing the maasai require a collective effort to succeed .This is a reorganization of a formerly organized community, people coming together and trying to have a single voice, where they can deal with common issues, issues that cut across from those of land to natural resources that are shared, to political issues, to having a political voice to lobby the government. And many of these issues pertain to wildlife.”

But the younger Maasai also have an entrepreneurial eye on the country’s greatest asset-wildlife ecotourism. They are meeting with potential developers to see what they can do bring tourists to Kitengela by making eco-friendly havens for the wildlife. “Ecotourism is a way for us to give back to the community. People are already coming to Kitengela to see wildlife. So we should take on the challenge for tourists to see the wildlife here, and bring money to the local people. It has been eye opener for the community to see that they can make money from the wildlife by protecting it,” says Nicholas Mateiyo, KILA’s secretary.

The patterns revealed in Kitengela are consistent with some important global trends, such as the contraction of pastoral lands and an expansion of agriculture. There is cropping going on where cropping never was before; more and more pastoralists are settling down because of the availability of schools, healthcare, and so forth. This trend is associated with changes in land tenure, a way of communal lands and towards private land ownership, and with a notable decrease in the number of livestock per person (livestock population are more or less stagnant, but the number of people has been increasing rapidly).As these changes progress, the viability of livestock ownership as the sole means of survival is declining, pastoralists are becoming poorer, and their lifestyle is becoming much more tenuous. This pattern is not unique to Kenya or East Africa, but is also being seen in other parts of Africa. There are ways to more accurately map these land use changes and better understand how agro pastoral systems may change due to trends such as increasing population pressure, mounting pressures to diversify income resources, climate change, and other factors.

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