Richard Davis: The Maasai duality


There are a number of diverse cultural groups in Kenya. Some might label them "tribes", but they really are unique ethnic cultures within the evolving country of Kenya.

Our Guilford Church group focused on the Kikuyu in the village of Kaiguchu where we spent three days sharing food and conversation while also attending ceremonies and continuing to strengthen the years- long bond that was established when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathi, made connections with the Guilford Community Church.

Our travels also took us to the Maasai Mara National Park, but before we entered the park for two days of wild animal viewing we took a tour of a Maasai village. The Maasai have tried to maintain their cultural identity despite pressure from their British occupiers and now, the Kenyan government.

According to the Maasai Wilderness Preservation Trust web site, "The Maasai have not fared well in modern Africa. Until the European settlers arrived, fierce Maasai tribes occupied the most fertile lands. The Maasai struggled to preserve their territory, but their spears were no match for armed British troops, and their lawyers never had a fair chance in British courtrooms. In 1904, the Maasai signed a first agreement, losing the best of their land to the European settlers. Seven years later, in 1911, a very controversial agreement was signed by a small group of Maasai, where their best Northern land (Laikipia) was given up to white settlers With these two treaties, the Maasai lost about two-thirds of their lands and were relocated to less fertile parts of Kenya and Tanzania."

It would be foolish to paint a picture of 21st century Maasai with a broad brush. Some have stuck to their traditional dress and way of life and others have chosen to more fully enter the world around them.

The village that our group toured has feet in both worlds and that made some in our group feel a bit uncomfortable as we paid the equivalent of $20 a piece for a tour of the village by Maasai warrior John, who had a facile command of English.

In order to be called a Maasai warrior a man has to kill a lion. John told us that the government no longer allows his people to hunt lions, but they may kill them if a lion kills one of their livestock. In order to rise to the exalted state of warrior, current day Maasai men will bait the lions with cows in order to provide an aspiring warrior with enough cover to keep within the law, according to John.

John answered our questions and led us into one of the village's homes. We sat in semi-darkness and absorbed a bit of the ambience of Maasai life. As the tour ended we were led into a circle of what was a Maasai version of a tourist marketplace. A wide variety of Maasai handiwork was on display for sale and we were followed around from table to table and pressured to a high level of discomfort to buy, buy, buy.

Although we learned that income from tourism is an important revenue stream for the Maasai, we felt that they had embraced the modern marketplace with too much zeal. That was confirmed as we sat in our vans before entering the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve. Maasai women flocked to our windows and gave us their version of the hard sell.

I tried to rationalize the Maasai hard-sell experience by drawing comparison to the Vermont tourism industry. There are many similarities, but there is not much of a comparison to be made in terms of cultural dilution. I was trying hard to understand the historical context of Maasai life in two very different worlds. Perhaps comparison to native American history would be more apt.

A description on the Maasai Association web site helped to explain some of the pressures the Maasai face. "The Maasai economy is increasingly dependent on the market economy. Livestock products are sold to other groups in Kenya for the purchase of beads, clothing and grains. Cows and goats are also sold for uniform and school fees for children. The entrepreneurial spirit is something new in our society."

They go on to explain" in the 1960s and 1980s, a program of commercializing livestock and land was forced on us initially by the British and later by the government of Kenya. The new land management system of individual ranches has economically polarized our people The largest loss of land, however, has been to national parks and reserves, in which the Maasai people are restricted from accessing critical water sources, pasture, and salt lick."

Sadly, they conclude that" The future of the Maasai is uncertain at this point. One thing, however, is certain that the Maasai culture is quickly eroding at the expense of civilization." And some of us felt that we were helping to increase that erosion.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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