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Building Bridges in the Bush

Pastoral land use has been a part of the East African landscape for over 3,000 years. As recently as 500 years ago the first ancestors of the Maasai, or “the people of the cattle,” moved into Kenya, dependent on livestock for subsistence. This nomadic people sustained their livelihood through mobility, moving in accordance with the availability of natural resources for livestock. Living without the present-day constraints of land ownership, the Maasai faced only the limitations of the weather and their abilities to utilize the environment. Since colonialism, however, the Maasai have struggled to maintain a traditional lifestyle.


When colonists arrived in 1900, smallpox, drought, and rinderpest crippled Maasai society and psyche. Implementing sophisticated herding practices, the Maasai moved from region to region, refusing to live as agriculturalists or game hunters—though during droughts they occasionally killed and ate wild animals. British colonialists viewed Maasai reluctance to take up agriculture as a sign of backwardness. Falsely perceiving pastoral lands as under-utilized, colonists justified the seizure of productive lands through force, fraud, and law, pushing the Maasai into marginal areas. The “packaging” of land in colonial Kenya marked this era, as boundaries separated European land from African, cultivated land from “wilderness.”


Thus with legal and military support, missionaries and colonists pushed Native peoples into enclosed reservations in semi-arid regions. Many Maasai tribes were forced north into present-day Laikipia, separated from Maasai tribesmen who inhabit southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. As historian E.M. Uka states, “What Kenya saw one-hundred years ago was the coming together of two different civilizations. But their chances were not equal. To survive, many Kenyans were forced to adapt to the colonial civilization, while their resources came to be linked to the economy of the modern Western state and world market.”


Becoming His Father’s Son


Erick Ole Kasana is a 33-year-old Maasai man born in Laikipia, Kenya. He grew up as the youngest of three children, the son of a blind man. As a child, Kasana attended primary school naked, studying with his classmates under an acacia tree. Learning to speak Kiswahili and English in the mornings, he herded his family’s cattle in the afternoons. When he went away to secondary school, he returned home on holidays to be a warrior—to throw a spear, to sing and dance, and to walk long distances without water. Though he read English and studied math, Kasana participated in his culture with pride, honoring the strength of his community and the integrity of its traditions.


Kasana’s father was his hero. Although blind, his father saw injustice among his people. When conflicts arose, Kasana’s father was often called to arbitrate. Kasana led him through the bush to Il Polei elders’ meetings, where his father spoke with fairness. He was respected as a voice of honesty, evenhandedness, and guidance in the Il Polei community. To Kasana, his father’s decisions demonstrated respect for the community and were a source of his own sense of identity.


Yet Kasana says that those who called his father a friend and community leader often took advantage of his blindness. Some traded him unhealthy goats; others cheated him when he bought sugar; and even family members served him undesirable pieces of meat. Watching these injustices as a child, Kasana grew protective of his father. But though Kasana’s father encouraged his son to look after him, he told the boy not to be resentful of other people’s weaknesses. Instead, he demanded that Kasana respect all community members just as he respected his father. Today Kasana continues to empathize with disadvantaged community members, looking out for their interests while also considering the interests of all.


When Kasana was 18 years old, his dying father called him to his bedside and told him that he would not die. He said he would fall asleep, but remain alive because he lived in Kasana. Kasana’s father wanted to pass on the responsibility of being a voice of justice and clarity in the community. Today Kasana recalls this memory with vividness, as it inspires and sustains him in his work.


Based on the respect people afford him in his community, Kasana is clearly a leader. But he holds no formal titles. He is not an elder on the council, and he does not serve as a group ranch representative in regional politics. Rather, he is the confidant and close friend of the chief, Stephen Putunoi. More than that, he seems to be everyone’s friend. People seek out Kasana when they need advice, and they respect his counsel.


Meeting a New Community


In early 1999, rancher and tourism operator Peter Silvester approached Kasana to work as a liaison between his private ranch, Loisaba, and their neighboring Maasai group ranch, Koija. The Silvesters had a business interest in building a relationship with Koija community members, but in their estimate, they had not met anyone who could build solidarity between Loisaba and the Koija community. Kasana had a reputation for communicating (in English, Kiswahili, and Kimaasai) in a meaningful way with community members and private ranchers alike. He seemed a perfect fit for a community development and conservation coordinating position—except that he was not from Koija.


Kasana was thrilled but apprehensive about taking this position. Although Koija neighbored Il Polei, where his home and family were, he was not sure whether his community would miss his leadership. Loisaba responded by offering Kasana a motorbike so he could commute to and from Il Polei. He could also use the bike to travel between Koija and Loisaba. The Silvesters also offered to provide Kasana with a radio system and to build him cement-walled, tin-roofed quarters in Koija for nights when he needed to stay over.


Logistics aside, Kasana was most concerned about how he would be received in Koija. He did not feel that he had any right to coordinate community development for his neighbors. Kasana told the Silvesters that he would need three or four months before he could consider working for them. He used that time to visit the home of every Koija group ranch member—if not once, then a couple of times. He introduced himself to men, women, and children, talked to them about their lives, told them why he was there, learned about the community dynamics, and began to gain their trust. In a few short months, the chief of Koija was seeking Kasana’s counsel as often as that of the chief of Il Polei.


Partners in Tourism


In the dry season of 1999, Erick became the community development coordinator for the Koija Maasai community. He worked with Koija to build development partnerships with Loisaba, the private ranch leased by one American and two British expatriate families who run a cattle operation and tourism business. Loisaba sought to partner with Koija to protect and extend its interests in high-end tourism. While benefiting its closest Maasai neighbors, it also has its own tourism interests to preserve.


In its brochure, Loisaba prides itself on spectacular animal life that is “wild, free, and exhilarating” to observe. It provides guests the chance to stay at its central lodge, or in the bush at a chain of Star Beds—four-poster beds on raised platforms with the equatorial sky as a ceiling. Guests may awaken to find elephants swimming in the pools below them. Maasai guides escort tourists in Land Rovers to view wildlife or visit the Koija group ranch where they can watch warriors dance for a nominal fee. Maasai guides also slaughter and roast fresh goat, providing tourists an opportunity to learn about the ways of the people “to whom all this wonder is normal, logical, and everyday,” says the Loisaba brochure


The brochure describes the Koija Maasai as full partners in the tourism operation, such that guests’ visits not only conserve the environment but also pay for the education and welfare of the people who call this area home. Loisaba’s brochure states:

Loisaba is outstandingly beautiful, its abundant wildlife is truly wild, and it is comfortable beyond measure. It is more than that however: it is an area where visitors and residents, humans and wildlife, researchers and game trackers collaborate to guard and defend a unique corner of Africa—each one benefiting from the others to keep it the exceptional and sublime place it is today.


This “partnership” approach to tourism is thereby a marketable asset, as Loisaba’s tourism operation works with those who historically suffered from safari tourism in the region.


Loisaba calls this approach to conservation and development “natranomics.” As Peter Silvester explains, natranomics is the combination of nature, people, and economics in the form of privatized conservation for economic profit. As witnesses to failing community-based conservation projects on other Maasai group ranches, Silvester and others at Loisaba see natranomics as a market-driven approach to conservation and development that incorporates a business partnership (instead of a nonprofit donor relationship) with the Koija community. Looking to investors, rather than nongovernmental or government agency donors, Loisaba follows a venture business model that it describes as dynamic in its income-generating activities. Silvester says that this model focuses on community initiative, investment, and interdependency, rather than a community’s dependency on funding from a donor organization.


In addition, Loisaba provides for its overall success by diversifying its partnership activities with Koija, in case one or two of these entrepreneurial ventures fail. For example, Loisaba works with Koija on agricultural projects such as beekeeping and an experimental sisal farming program. Loisaba has also helped facilitate lucrative cottage industries among the Koija women’s and warriors’ groups, such as beadwork, leather tanning, and furniture building. Most importantly, Loisaba invites the Koija Maasai to participate in its tourism operation—as guides, drivers, cooks, dancers, and bonafide business partners. Loisaba has also provided a loan to Koija to develop its own Star Beds accommodations, so that tourists may take walking or camel safaris from the Loisaba Star Beds to Koija Star Beds. Silvester believes that it is not luxury accommodations that attract tourists, but immediate access to wildlife. As such, tourists pay the Koija Maasai $50 per person to visit their land, and $30 per person per night for Star Beds accommodations.


With its economic lifeline invested in wildlife safaris, Loisaba possesses a significant interest in maintaining high wildlife numbers. From a business perspective, it is in Loisaba’s best interest to maintain a healthy relationship with the Koija community, though the Silvesters also express personal concern about their neighbors’ well-being. Peter Silvester admits that Loisaba cares about Koija’s land management because wildlife cannot differentiate the boundaries between the ranches. If, for example, the Koija Maasai’s livestock holdings out-competed wildlife for resources, and wildlife numbers dwindled, Loisaba’s tourism operation would be threatened. To encourage conservation, Loisaba recommended to the Koija community that the $50 per person entrance fee onto its land be invested in reducing habitat damage, soil erosion, and species destruction.


To maintain its status as a “good neighbor,” Loisaba has also established a nonprofit arm of its operation called the Loisaba Community Trust (LCT). Money generated through tourism circulates back to the Koija Maasai through LCT, in support of educational, veterinary, and health care developments. Since working with Loisaba, Koija has built a local dispensary, cow dip, and new school. Each year four new youth (two girls and two boys) receive LCT scholarships to secondary schools in the region, and LCT also supports the primary school teachers who have recently received the highest educational rating in all of Laikipia. LCT additionally assists women in generating their own income—separate from that of their husbands—through beadwork.


In the mind of Silvester and his business colleagues, the Star Beds project allows the Koija Maasai to demonstrate their “real” economic interest in tourism on their own terms, while being supported by Loisaba with management, infrastructure, and marketing skills. He also projects that if another Laikipiak Maasai community wanted to invest in its own Star Beds project, it could adopt Koija’s model. Multiple Maasai communities might then work together as a series of Star Beds franchises that depend on each other and each other’s clientele—tourists who would move on safari from one Star Beds accommodation to the next.


To realize the ideals of Loisaba and the LCT, the Silvesters recognized early on that it would benefit them to work with an individual in Koija who could facilitate clear communication, mutual understanding, and a healthy partnership between Loisaba and the Koija community. They thereby sought someone with excellent communication skills; someone with the ability to bring local groups with disparate interests (such as warriors, elders, and women’s groups) together in solidarity; someone with the “wisdom” to encourage the community to reinvest in its own development through the income generated from tourism, agriculture, and cottage industries. Loisaba discovered Erick Ole Kasana.


Reaching Out, Remaining Maasai


Today Kasana builds internal partnerships between the women, warriors, and elders of Koija. He lives in the strikingly untraditional cement house that Loisaba built in Koija for whoever serves as the community coordinator. It is located along the main thoroughfare of the group ranch, and as such, Kasana receives many visitors, keeping track of community happenings and conflicts. Yet he is quick to note that this house is not a holy house, and that Maasai visitors cannot take food or practice ceremonial traditions here, since it is not made from acacia branches and cow dung. He dismisses the idea that other community members might be jealous of his Western accommodations, and adds that his “real” house is in Il Polei, and his brother takes care of it for him.


In Koija, Kasana helps organize the women’s and warriors’ groups, and works on all other community partnerships with Loisaba. He coordinates meetings between stakeholders, and he deals with conflicts by providing guidance and facilitating mutual understanding. For example, when Koija women felt that Loisaba was not paying them enough for “perfect beadwork,” Erick served as a go-between, explaining to Loisaba why the women deserved more for the quality of their work. They compromised on a fair price. As an open communicator and resourceful problem-solver, Kasana not only coordinates the women’s enterprise but the development of educational scholarships, veterinary care, the warrior’s federation, a community water project, the elementary school building project, agricultural ventures, and the Star Beds operation.


Kasana encourages Koija community members to reinvest their profits in the community rather than splitting all of it into individual shares. For instance, he helped the warrior’s federation design a budget through which each warrior receives a small percentage of profit. As a group, the warriors then reinvest their remaining profit in educational scholarships for Koija children, and most recently, the building of the new elementary school. As Kasana predicted, the warriors’ financial contributions motivate them to remain personally involved in Koija community development projects.


Kasana recognizes that the Koija community is largely dependent on Loisaba for business management and marketing skills. The women’s beadwork enterprise, the warrior’s federation and dance troupe, and the Star Beds operation depend on Loisaba to provide a tourism market. Because its tourism infrastructure is designed for a high-end market, Koija does not currently have its own means to advertise or bring tourists on its own. Although they see themselves as Loisaba’s business partner, the Koija Maasai also recognize the limitations of this partnership.


Koija is also dependent on the LCT to feed money and technical support into the community to assist its educational, veterinary, agricultural, and water projects. In its work as a “good neighbor,” the Loisaba Community Trust has established a donor relationship through its community development projects. Though LCT attempts to avoid creating expectations among Koija group ranch members, the depth and diversity of its investment in Koija communicates that Koija development depends on Loisaba.


As such, Kasana works to prevent the “dependency dynamic” from destroying the integrity of the Koija-Loisaba partnership. Kasana endeavors to build meaningful relationships between all stakeholders, so they are not seen as objects of aid, or as objects of poverty, but as people deserving of trust, respect, and understanding, with good intentions, hopes, and dreams on all sides. For instance, Kasana tells people at Loisaba stories about Koija community members, and visa versa. That way, Kasana explains that each party comes to care about each other’s lives and problems. Kasana also invites Loisaba families to share in Koija celebrations so that everyone has a chance to get to know one another in what Kasana calls a “true neighborly way.”


In plain terms, the families at Loisaba adore Kasana. Although they treat some of their ranch workers as workers, they treat Kasana as a peer. For example, they invite him to dine with them on Sunday afternoons, the celebrated weekly meal among Loisaba families. Kasana manages this position gracefully, since he also considers many of the Loisaba workers as his equals, and does not wish to generate resentment for being accepted in a way that they are not. After he has dined with the families, Kasana often spends an hour in the workers’ quarters. He may join them for a plate of roasted goat, reflecting on his dislike for Western food. This action subtly communicates that he has not been “lured” by Loisaba families or their ways. As much as he appreciates and cares about Loisaba, Kasana seems to say, he is Maasai.


In this sense, Kasana is savvy at navigating delicate social and political situations in which he is placed between Loisaba families, Maasai community members, and outside development workers. He offers each of them their due respect. He uses his sense of humor to dispell tensions and to remind people of their common ground.


Advising His Koija Neighbors


Kasana is the grease that keeps the gears in motion within the Loisaba-Koija partnership. He works to alleviate miscommunications and misinterpretations between parties. He is skilled at identifying Koija community members’ false assumptions about Westerners, as well as Loisaba families’ myths about the Maasai—and he does all he can to dispel those myths. He also communicates Maasai knowledge about the local environment and land management to Loisaba families, in order to help them work with Koija in ways that respect indigenous culture, belief systems, and land use practices, while benefiting them through community development.


This process depends on Kasana’s ability to identify and represent the interests of different parties within the Koija community. As a result of his empathic and approachable nature, and central location, many group ranch members—women, elders, and warriors alike—regularly turn to Kasana to express their concerns and gain his counsel—not only about Koija-Loisaba partnership projects, but about their health, political concerns, or family conflicts. His door is always open. The chief seeks his advice on political matters. Women complain about the conditions under which they are making beadwork. Neighbors stop by to tell Kasana about their in-laws. Mothers bring sick children in the middle of the night. Elders come to recount stories from the past. Warriors describe their latest ploys in the bush. Kasana helps where he can, transporting the ill to the Nanyuki hospital or addressing local disputes. Although exhausting, Kasana is grateful to serve in this role—not just because he is good at it, but because he sees it as his responsibility, the shoes his father left for him to fill. Kasana also recognizes that his liaison work with Loisaba puts him in a position of power, and as a result, he takes the responsibility to address people’s concerns and represent their interests seriously.


Kasana also uses his leadership role to encourage people to take care of the land and wildlife. He reminds people of the relationship between wildlife and community development. The Star Beds operation, the women’s beadwork enterprise, the warrior’s federation—all depend on Koija’s ability to draw tourists to large wildlife numbers. Although Kasana does not fault individuals for looking after their cattle, Kasana enforces elders’ agreed-upon land management plans and encourages them to set aside as much acreage as possible for wildlife. Yet Kasana is aware that theory can differ from practice. For instance, when facing drought and crippled livestock holdings, Kasana reported that his community disregarded conservation measures. Some households had lost up to 50 percent of their goats and cattle. In search of resources, the community opened the wildlife preserve to herding. Livestock numbers continued to decline, and the community ultimately asked ranchers at a neighboring private ranch for use of grazing lands. As for wildlife, herders scared ungulates from grazing areas, and warriors hunted zebra for meat. Troublesome predators that killed 16 goats in one household alone were not tolerated during this trying time. Faced with unproductive land and little water, the Maasai ignored their recently pledged conservation objectives in the struggle to maintain their livelihoods.


Yet under the grassroots leadership of Kasana, the Koija community communicates these concerns to Loisaba as problems emerge. Loisaba then works with Koija to determine solutions. This partnership is one of interdependency, in which Koija has not only been given technical assistance, but business power. Koija generates community empowerment by investing in and running its own successful tourism ventures, through which individuals reinvest in community development, thereby generating more collective power. Although its businesses do not yet function as autonomous operations, their early success provides inspiration for community members to remain active in the development process.


Kasana is the bridge that spans the cultural gaps and communication problems between Koija and Loisaba stakeholders. Kasana keeps the momentum in motion by working to create solidarity between individuals with different interests. Whether he is mediating disputes, communicating concerns, solving local problems, or listening to stakeholders’ frustrations, Kasana supports the continual development of projects, generating motivation among community members and moving the process along with Loisaba’s managerial assistance. For instance, when Koija warriors ran into a building problem at the Koija Star Beds, Loisaba immediately visited the site and provided technical support. As a result, Koija does not operate “stagnant” projects but harnesses collective local commitment and reliable technical support to see development efforts to fruition.


Facing Challenges of Leadership


However promising, Kasana faces many challenges as a leader. To begin with, he is alone in his work as the Koija community development coordinator. There are no other community leaders who play a similar role to support him. At times, an abundance of people inundate Kasana with issues and concerns, and he has limited resources to cope and respond to their problems. Although Kasana at times enjoys this position of power—for example, he explains that when he makes a decision, he does not have to seek approval from a committee—he also believes that he must develop a protégé, another grassroots leader who can work alongside him. He is also interested in providing leadership training workshops for dynamic individuals on other Maasai group ranches. But for now, he is stretched enough.


The group ranch as a whole also faces its own dilemmas. Koija’s neighbors to the north have grown resentful of their success in community development and now overrun the group ranch on a regular basis. Invading members of other Samburu and Maasai tribes graze their livestock on Koija property. When confronted by Koija warriors and elders, these neighbors complain that Koija has an abundance of resources, while they have none. They refuse to return to their own herding areas until provoked with violence. Kasana believes that Koija must soon find ways to help their neighbors benefit from tourism, conservation, and development. Otherwise, Koija will expend its resources to defend itself, rather than share its good fortune with its neighbors.


Another tension that Kasana navigates is the fact that not all Koija community members share an interest in development. Some know little about its conservation objectives and instead denounce the development that has ensued in the past four years. In particular, some elders see development as detrimental to their quality of life. One mzee (old man) remarks:

It used to be that people had “properties” [referring to cattle]. Nowadays, “properties” are few. People sell cows to buy things. ... People bring money to buy soap and sugar and clothing. We used to make those things ourselves. They are more expensive to buy, more difficult to find. Poor people cannot afford to buy them, and the wealthy don’t share money like they once shared food and clothing. Now the new economy oppresses people.


Another woman says that in the “old days,” mothers were taken care of, but now children “let them suffer because they are selfish with money.” She blames the leadership in the community for bringing monetization and development to Koija’s traditional way of life. She also notes that as the economy has shifted, knowledge of the landscape and land use practices have changed—stockholders now buy salt for their cattle rather than herding them to salty areas near riverbeds. For some Maasai, the transition between capitalist and traditional economies is a problem.


Yet the youth in this heterogeneous community, particularly educated youth, are enthusiastic about the prospect of development. Although proud of Maasai heritage, they view “modernization” as a part of their shifting identity. One 20-year-old man, who recently opened his own shop (one of a total of four shops in Koija, all built in the past three years), proudly remarks, “We know who we are, and [for that reason] we are slow to develop. But development is good.” Those that share this view see ecotourism as a step toward modernization and privatization, a step ahead of other neighboring Maasai communities. And regardless of disagreement, all group ranch members are required to live with wildlife in order to receive the “benefits” of tourism.


Kasana faces many dynamic dilemmas in his work as a grassroots leader. But despite these challenges, he has not lost heart, because he has come to trust and love the people with whom he has built relationships. He believes that the integrity of these relationships will ensure creative solutions to future problems, as long as all stakeholders continue to communicate and attempt to understand one another; and he is sustained by the faith and memory of his father. As the builder of many such bridges, Kasana sees his grassroots leadership role as a privilege and honor.


Kate Botham is a Harvard University graduate student who studied, lived, and worked with the Laikipiak Maasai in 1998 and 2001. She also served as director of the first annual Bridge-Builders Conference at Harvard University in February 2003. She is currently writing six ethnographic case studies on grassroots leadership in a globalizing world.

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