Can the Maasai survive modernity?

Can the Maasai survive modernity?

The semi-nomadic people still roam East Africa, but modern life is taking its toll on their traditions

maasai warriorMaasai have never been afraid of adapting to modernization, but now it threatens their traditions.

I see my first Maasai on the drive from Matema to Iringa in Tanzania.

Bedecked in the blood red robes synonymous with the tribe, he's hard to miss as he ambles along the road, seemingly oblivious to the traffic flashing past.

Then we're past him, he's a dot in the rearview mirror, but after two months on the road in Africa I at last have a first sighting of a renowned Maasai warrior.

At least, I think he's the first.

As I'll eventually discover, land politics and industrialization are forcing many Maasai into the cities, to work as security guards, construction workers and hawkers, abandoning their traditional livelihoods as modernity comes to East Africa.

Perhaps my cab driver from the airport was a Maasai, too?

Maasai tribe's 'last stand' to keep land from game hunters

My trip, and a surreal chat around a campfire with three warriors, telling tales of lion killings and other glories while throwing back local beers, sheds light on the plight of their people.

Difficult history

In the 1800s, the semi-nomadic Maasai warrior tribe dominated much of the Great Rift Valley. The Maasai's formidable presence was checked toward the end of the century by an outbreak of rinderpest, an infectious viral disease that decimated their cattle herds and led to widespread starvation.

maasai warriorsMany Maasai now work as security guards, construction workers or hawkers as they try new ways to earn a livelihood.

Thereafter, aggressive British colonization resulted in the Maasai losing more than 50% of their land, forcing them to farm the region’s less fertile scrublands.

Two and a half centuries later, roughly 500,000 Maasai, many of whom still abide by the tribe’s wanderlust traditions, roam back and forth over the Tanzania-Kenya border, despite government efforts to stop them.

But even this tradition is starting to change, as I find out while sharing beers with three Maasai men.

maasai in kenyaBaobob Valley Camp employs ex-Maasai herdsmen as security guards.

I stop for the night at Baobab Valley Camp (+255 686 12132) at the foot of the Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania.

I meet Will, a sad-eyed Englishman, and co-proprietor of the campsite, enjoying a nightcap by the communal campfire.

Maasai now campsite guards

After sharing the story of my Maasai-spotting experience earlier that day, Will’s face cracks into a smile and he nods across the fire.

Three Maasai warriors stare back at me through the flames.

They're dressed in traditional attire, armed with killing sticks (small clubs carved from the knot of a tree) and slender, sharp spears.

maasai spearWeapon of choice for nomadic Maasai men.

They don't speak English, but Will translates: these three, like many of Tanzania’s Maasai, have lost their herds and traditional grazing grounds to corporate farms.

They now work as security guards at the Baobab Valley Camp, where they receive a small salary and free reign of the camp’s extensive grounds.

They're full of stories, such as, when the topic of conversation turns to their weaponry, how to kill a lion.

Each of them, at the age of 15, had been required to kill a lion as part of a traditional Maasai coming-of-age ritual.

Under the guidance of their chief, boys will track a lion and surround it. The chief then chooses one of the boys to step forward to make the kill.

maasai safariMany Maasai traditions, such as a ceremony involving young men tracking and killing a lion, are now outlawed.

"Right. But how do you actually kill a lion?" I ask.

"You hold a stick that is sharp at both ends," Will translates. "Then wrap cloth around your hand. Then you put your hand into the lion’s mouth. It will bite down on the stick. Then you kill the lion with the spear. It’s very easy."

Ah, yes. Of course it is.

This initiation ceremony has been outlawed by the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments, and so remains a remnant of a bygone Africa.

City work

During my travels I meet Maasai police officers, Maasai construction workers and Maasai salesemen hawking merchandise on the beach -- though how authentic these "Maasai" are it's hard to say; they wear sunglasses and Stetsons.

At one point I give a Maasai called "John" a lift through Amboseli National Park.

maasai man"Ole," working at a safari lodge, is one of many Maasai to have taken on non-traditional jobs.

Another explains how the Maasai are adapting to modern Africa.

"It’s been difficult," says Lmeei Lekashira ("Ole" to his friends), an affable Maasai who I meet at the stunning Solio Lodge on the Solio Reserve, tucked between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains.

"The Maasai people want to remain nomadic and many are still dependent on their livestock, which means they are required to move to new pastures," Lekashira continues.

He explains how a Kenyan law giving equal rights to women, while imperative in many Western cultures, has had an adverse impact on Maasai society.

"Maasai want their children to be educated and so the families and children remain behind to attend schools," he says, explaining the greater need for education in a modern Kenya.

"This can cause a divide in families," because it upsets the traditional semi-nomadic roles of Maasai women and men.

For more information about Maasai people and culture, see the Maasai Association, a non-profit organization based in Kenya.

Oliver Robinson is a freelance writer, covering the really important aspects of life (food, drink, travel).

Read more about Oliver Robinson