Skip to content

Protecting pastoralism for the world

Last July, the Maasai, an ethnic group of traditionally pastoral people in northern Tanzania, were attacked and kicked off their homeland by their government.

Last July, the Maasai, an ethnic group of traditionally pastoral people in northern Tanzania, were attacked and kicked off their homeland by their government.

Their villages were burned, women were raped and children were lost in the ensuing chaos, according to several Tanzanian and Kenyan newspapers and NGOs.

The clash, which took place around the town of Loliondo in Tanzania’s northwest, was not the first time African governments tried to clear their lands of people. The Maasai have been pushed off their lands for decades in an effort to depopulate the Serengeti, making it suitable for rich foreign tourists.

This time, the clearing-out was being done for the Orthello Business Group, a United Arab Emirates company connected to the Royal Family of Dubai, which had signed a lease in 1992 with the Tanzanian government. Orthello, the lease said, was entitled to some hunting grounds for well-to-do Arab sheiks in the Maasai’s homeland.

“The Maasai did not want to move,” says Emmanuel Ole Kileli, 35, who visited Whitehorse and Haines Junction last week to talk about his people’s plight.

“They are angry and normally they don’t go until the government forces them.”

The clash in Loliondo made brief headlines and sparked a parliamentary investigation in Tanzania. But even a fair resolution of the dispute wouldn’t solve all of the Maasai’s problems.

They face pressure from many sides; from a government forcing them to live in villages, to the environmental degradation of their lands, to the destruction of their traditional ways.

The world is closing in on the Maasai.

“It’s really a big fear when we send children to schools and the elders say, ‘Oh my God, the Maasai culture is deteriorating,’” said Ole Kileli, who attended one of the government schools himself.

Ole Kileli represents a crossroads for his people. His organization, Ereto Maasai Youth, has built water-collection structures in Maasai communities and plans to import more basic social services. The work of the organization’s 30 or so members are creating a future where the Maasai determine the rate of the world’s influence on their lives, rather than the other way around.

“(The Maasai) are scared and they are watching (their culture) go away,” he said.

The gulf between what the Maasai want and what the world wants can be traced to one difference - their pastoral lifestyle.

In a clash played over again throughout history, the semi-nomadic traditions of one people are under attack by population groups that have surrounded them. The Maasai have been forced into villages - which means a lot more than just being told to live in one place. Their entire way of life, from judicial decisions to their sense of social purpose, revolves around near-perpetual motion.

“Movement is a strategy to cope with the environment,” said Ole Kileli. “If we live in a village, we won’t be able to survive without the movement.”

The Maasai have slowly been contained in smaller and smaller areas in Tanzania.

“We usually move with animals, but now movement is no longer allowed in the country,” he said.

“The land is becoming small. There are many people now who are land users and are in competition with us.”

The government has had a tough love approach to their complaints - a common conflict between semi-nomadic people and those established in cities.

“The policymakers themselves don’t know the life behind pastoralism so what I’m doing now is I’m having projects in my area to try to help people,” he said.

As the Maasai have been centralized into villages, Ole Kileli is seeking to strengthen their social services in the hope of protecting their culture. His programs have received funding from the United Nations Environmental Program.

They’ve also received the attention and help of the Kesho Trust, a community development organization begun by Yukoner Bruce Downie and Bob Peart. Downie is organizing Ole Kileli’s trip across Canada, which began with a stop in Ottawa and will finish with a tour of Western cities.

“Through the collaboration (with the Kesho Trust), I have implemented one project, a rainwater-gathering project,” he said. “The Maasai normally live in a dry area where there are no wells so they use to travel a long distance for water.”

With the help of Kesho, the organization has built 30 water tanks but needs more.

But centralization can only go so far. Pastoralism runs deep in Maasai culture and Ole Kileli wants more geographic freedom for his people.

“There is a conflict with the pastoralists and the government and the government always wins,” he said. “Pastoralism adds less to the government’s income; investment must come from outside of the country.”

It doesn’t take long to see how ingrained the Maasai’s biannual migrations are in their lives.

Across East Africa, there is a dry season and a rainy season, said Ole Kileli.

During the rainy season, the lowland is dry and the highland is wet. When the season reaches its peak, the pastoralists have to leave the highlands because of increased risk of infection and floods.

The Maasai must move with their herds of cows, sheep and goat to less naturally irrigated land. The animals too, depend on moving around. If kept in one place, they quickly degrade the land.

The herding is not up for compromise; it ensures survival.

“We need to keep these animals because we don’t know what’s next,” said Ole Kileli.

In turn, the animals are the foundation of the Maasai’s laws, who use them as barter.

“For instance, if I beat you and there is blood, I have to pay a sheep for your blood,” he said.

Animals are also used as dowry, he said.

The Maasai are acutely aware that their world is falling apart.

“The children are mixing with other tribes,” he said. “(The elders) are crying, they love our culture.”

Ole Kileli is working with his people to teach them Tanzania’s land laws.

“They’re just moving around and having grievances in their hearts that the government is doing bad things to us, but they never argue because they don’t know where to argue,” he said.

There are other attempts to legitimize pastoralism in the eyes of the government. A new documentary, A Place Without People, traces the history of the Tanzanian government’s sacrifice of the Maasai for tourism dollars.

And the Mara Conservancy, a donor and community development group, is making progress in convincing government that pastoralism helps the land regenerate and that the buggy-riddled game reserves need herd animals to replenish the soil.

Like Ole Kileli, they seek to manage the Maasai’s relationship with the world, importing things like biogas heating. But they are also trying to put an end to human rights abuses in traditional Maasai life, like female genital mutilation.

There may be hope for a workable relationship between the Maasai and the world. They don’t perceive utilizing tools that are not traditional, like rainwater collection, as a bad thing.

“They’re happy because they have stability now,” he said.

Ole Kileli himself is a symbol of how to change the Maasai without eliminating its traditions.

“The culture will remain because they feel that,” he said. “I feel that. I go to school and I’m still going to school. But I really like my culture and I will never destroy it.

“Every Maasai has this feeling of their culture. Whether or not the have a BA or a PhD, they still have this feeling because it is a nice culture. It is a rich culture.”

The loss of the Maasai would be a loss to the world, he said.

“It has a value because it really still has those traditions,” he said. “They’re still holding onto the tradition and you can learn the tradition. You can learn the richness. It’s something good for someone who wants to explore.”

Contact James Munson at