The Maasai tribe has maintained its proud culture since it moved into Kenya from Egypt and Ethiopia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their red-checked shukas and elaborate jewellery are a picture of beauty and age-old traditions. But are modern-day pressures putting this near-iconic tribe at risk?
A way of life under threat?
I’m standing within a Maasai community in rural Tanzania. The matriarch has invited us into her home, made from clay and cow dung. It feels dark, hot and airless. After watching her family perform a traditional Maasai dance for us, I swap email addresses with 22-year-old Elia, which given the circumstances feels a little surreal.
Like his family, Elia was born in this boma (family compound) far away from any hospital, roads or civilisation. The nearest you’ll get to the modern world are the safari lodges that fringe the Serengeti National Park. They occasionally bring tourists like us here, intrigued by their folklore.
But the white Converse trainers that poke out beneath Elia’s traditional Maasai clothing offer a clue to his less-traditional lifestyle. Unlike his elders, Elia was schooled in English. He was also the first in his family to attend university in Arusha.
Before colonial rule, East Africa’s indigenous population thrived. Most of western Kenya was considered Maasai territory and this semi-nomadic community grazed their cattle freely. But treaties were signed and European rulers took ownership of swathes of land.
Today other modern-world pressures are, in many ways, pushing the fierce Maasai warrior to the brink. The Maasai Association goes as far as to say their ‘culture is quickly eroding at the expense of civilization.’
And while this family cannot afford to send all of Elia’s siblings to university, people like Elia, who has an email address and is a member of a Maasai WhatsApp group, is perhaps a glimpse at the modern Maasai’s future.
‘We are facing many challenges, the land is being taken by investors and my family are slowly being squeezed out,’ he says. ‘We also had a drought this year and many goats and cattle died.’
Aside from the very real threat of climate change, the occupation of land by private investors puts further pressure on this tribe who traditionally rely on the escarpment to graze their cattle. What’s more, efforts to preserve Africa’s wildlife in many ways conflicts with the Maasai’s determination to preserve their pastoral culture. Is it naïve to think that wildlife, tourism and native tribes can all co-exist?
Tourism and the Maasai community
One socially-conscious travel group, Gamewatchers Safaris, is making progress in tackling the issue. They’ve spent the last 20 years developing private areas, or ‘conservancies’ on the edges of East Africa’s national parks which helps bring wildlife back into areas threatened by intensive farming and non-sustainable practices. They lease the land from the Maasai for their eco-friendly camps and employ them as wardens, rangers and staff.
‘We aim to make it worthwhile for people in the communities adjacent to the parks,’ explains Gamewatchers Safaris CEO Jake Grieves-Cook in an open letter. ‘We also help in obtaining funds for the training of Maasai students at a local guiding school and we assist in securing funds to strengthen livestock enclosures for farmers.’
And while some believe that tourism is the root of many problems for the Maasai, Elia believes that intervention from the Western world can help, if handled in the right way.
‘People who visit us and don’t take the time to understand our culture can say very negative things about us,’ he says, ‘but tourists who want to learn about us can help.
‘I didn’t want to attend school when I was a child and some elders would tell us to hide from teachers who came to our village. But one day some European teachers talked to us about the benefits of education and I was inspired.’
James John Mwamgunda, the reservations manager at Nimali safari lodge, close to Elia’s village, also explains how tourism can help with the fundamental needs of communities.
‘Many children who live in Maasai villages are malnourished,’ he says. ‘The lack of clean water is a serious issue for them. Some tourism companies like Nimali train the local people to operate a portable water drilling rig which can be transported into remote areas where water wells are badly needed.’
Embracing the modern Maasai
But will these fundamental needs ever be met? And if they are, is it possible for the Maasai to just ‘fit in’ with modern society?
In an article written by Linda Poon for NPR, she describes the Maasai as a forward-thinking community who are ‘caught between spears and cell phones’.
But for every Elia who alternates between his student and traditional lifestyle, there are thousands of other tribal communities who struggle to make the transition.
‘I always wear traditional clothes when I return to my village, but Maasai families worry about the girls as [once they move to the city] sometimes they stop leading the traditional life,’ says Elia. ‘Often they won’t speak the native Maa language and they stop behaving like us.’
What does the future hold?
‘I was joking with my grandmother and told her I’m going to marry a white girl and she said okay, okay. It’s no problem, they are not forcing me into any particular way of life,’ says Elia. So is the Maasai culture a way of thinking rather than a way of life?
‘Through the Maasai association at my university, I meet and talk about my culture,’ says Elia. ‘I would like my children to grow up and speak the Maa language but it’s about [preserving] our principles and beliefs, not about the houses we live in.’ He adds: ‘My family just want me to be happy.’