The Battle for Cattle


"Yantai!” shouted Jane Kamuasi from the inside of the candle-lit kitchen.

Playing outside with her brothers by the light of a small headlamp and the countless stars, Yantai heard Jane tell her to get some vegetables for the evening meal. Moments later, the wooden door to Jane’s modified mud-and-cow-dung home pushed open. Yantai’s delicate frame and bright eyes appeared through the darkness; she was carrying a handful of plum tomatoes and a shallot.

Yantai had gone across the yard to the Kamuasi’s more modern metal sheeting house to fetch the vegetables. There, my companion, Mike, and two other men were watching the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament—Togo vs. Congo—on a small black-and-white television powered by roof-top solar panels. Jane and I finished cooking the sukuma wiki (finely chopped kale with garlic and tomatoes) on a metal charcoal burner, and cut the corn-flour ugali. Then we stepped outside into the dark night to bring the supper to the men watching television.

We placed the food containers onto the coffee tables, and I said hello to Jane’s visitors: Francis Sakuda, executive director of the Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO), and John Partishou, a friend, huddled in a red plaid shuka, or blanket. Before searching in the hutch for the bowls and spoons, Jane lowered her head for Francis to touch the top—a sign of greeting and respect offered to members of the same clan and elders.

After everyone had served themselves, the TV suddenly flickered into black and white fuzz. Kindalele, Jane’s eldest son and TV fix-it wizard, got up to adjust the battery to no avail. It died moments later. We would have to wait to see a newspaper before learning the score. The candle lantern cast shadows about the room, and for a moment, silence enveloped the plywood-walled room.

But the family was used to the vagaries of their improvised system, and easily switched to conversation. Soon we were deep in a discussion about U.S. government policy at home and abroad. “We saw pictures on TV from the hurricane in New Orleans,” Francis said. “What a terrible tragedy for all those people.” Then, reflecting on the ongoing drought that has crippled East Africa, he observed, “They have too much water, and we don’t have enough.”

They were all surprised that the U.S. government did not do more to address the suffering caused by the hurricane. I said that the U.S. government faced a great deal of fury and criticism from African American leaders who felt the slowed response was based on their racial identity. “The Kenyan government response regarding this drought has been poor, too,” remarked Francis, leaving unspoken the stronger parallel: The government response has been poor because of the Maasai’s cultural identity. In Kenya, pastoralists are viewed as backwards, and their lands viewed as fallow, despite the fact that pastoralists, who represent 25 percent of the population, produce 80 percent of the country’s meat and an estimated 40 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product. And because they are seen in this light, they receive far less help than they need. Despite mobilizing some food and water resources, the Kenyan government has not been successful in preventing deaths or providing enough for its people facing starvation, disrupted living conditions, and a crumbling economy.

Maasai culture is intimately tied to livestock. Cattle are not only used for milk, blood, and meat, but also are an integral part of the spiritual and cultural Maasai way of life. One Maasai elder explained to me that if you do not have a cow, you have no respect, no voice in the Maasai community. The Maasai have a belief that all of the cattle in the entire world belong to them, and the gift of a cow is the most sincere gesture of sympathy. After the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, the small village of Enoosaen gave 14 head of cattle to the United States embassy—double one of the Maasai’s lucky numbers, seven. In their traditional council-of-elders justice system, a person would be fined 149 cattle for committing a murder, an unfathomable punishment.

In a culture like this, a man watching his cattle die of starvation during a drought is not just watching his food source or his income drop; he is watching his value as a man vanish. That idea was brought home to me when I expressed some irritation at seeing the men sitting around watching TV while the women did all the cooking. John Partishou said, “Because the cattle are not here, you are not able to see what the men really do.”

The cattle were not there because too many had died in the drought, and Jane’s husband, Daniel, had moved them close to Nairobi, a day’s drive from the Kamuasi’s village of Ilnarooj. The village is one of six in the Olishaibor community, on the fringe of the Great Rift Valley in the shadow of the Ngong Hills. As we sat talking in the Kamuasi’s boma (homestead), Daniel was in Nairobi, having walked two hours to the nearest city to catch a bus. He was checking on his remaining cows, goats, and sheep. In the course of the nine-month drought Daniel had lost 10 cattle and 6 sheep, out of an already small herd at home. Jane said that watching the cows perish brought a terrible sadness to their family—it’s like the loss of a family member, she said.

“The drought is really affecting us—we depend on our livestock, but now because the livestock have gone [to Nairobi] we can’t depend on them for milk,” said Joyce Tunta, another member of the Oloshoiboi community.

As hard as the drought has been for the Maasai in Oloshoiboi, though, it is far worse for those in the forest highlands of central Kenya. There, Maasai have uprooted their families to live in temporary camps around Mount Kenya, hoping to find viable pasture in the higher, wetter country. That hope has not panned out.

John Tingoi, the Program Coordinator for a local community-based organization, OSILIGI (meaning “hope” in Maa) took Mike and me to visit the Mount Kenya camps, about four hours north of Nairobi. Turning off the paved road, we bounced along the dirt and grassy ruts for a while, then stopped just before we reached the camps. My stomach lurched from the stench of rotting flesh. From the truck, I could spot the sinew, muscles, and bones of at least eight carcasses decaying in the heat of the sun. For fear I would be sick, I could not get out of the truck; but John and the others were eager to show Mike the carcasses burgeoning with maggots. They wanted us to understand up-close the impact of the drought and the effects of their relocation to the forest. Mike later commented that he could taste the rot on his tongue.

About 300 Maasai and other pastoralists from Samburu and Laikipia districts were living within this region of the forest. Fifty or so homes were set up just on the outskirts of a grassy clearing. Many had walked for days, some for weeks, in search of pasture. One man from Samburu had lost 150 head of cattle from starvation on the way to the forest, where the grass is short and dry, but abundant. They had no where else to turn.

John pulled up to the temporary home—a makeshift tent of tarp and blankets enclosed by a fence of thorn bushes—where he and his family had been living for two months. Unlike typical Maasai home sites separated by a good 15 or 20 minute walk, the temporary camps formed a small Maasai city.

The ground sank as I stepped out of the truck and tiny dried goat droppings fell into my sandals. We were inundated with swarms of flies.

John introduced me to his young girls, who were playing in the goat pen we were standing in. John’s youngest girl came up to me to say, “Supa,” and bowed her head for us to greet her. She tried in vain to shoo the death flies from the corners of her mouth and eyes. We walked through the pen and to the fence enclosing their temporary camp. John’s wife was cooking tea on the fire. When she got up to say hello to us, flies buzzed around the area, clouding their tent. John said that above all else, keeping warm was the most difficult part of living here, especially at night when the temperature drops to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. He said that many people in the temporary camps have been sick, and he was concerned about his young girls.

On the day I visited, the government was implementing a one-time livestock-purchasing program to help provide some income for the struggling herdsmen. I talked to a group of Maasai through the translation of John Tingoi’s. Many believed that the government support is helpful, but it is not enough.

Nkidayu Kereti Sururu and Lenguar Meretuni Leruso said that moving to Mt. Kenya is a mixed blessing—there is plenty of pasture, but the change in climate at the higher elevation has stressed the animals, which are dying of pneumonia and other diseases. The cold nights also make the cows more susceptible to East Coast Fever, a fatal disease carried by ticks, and even healthy cows are not interested in drinking the frigid river water.

Moving to Mt. Kenya is also risky, Leruso said, because the Maasai don’t have proper access to a market to sell their livestock. He explained that agriculturalist tribes in Kenya take advantage of the drought-plagued Maasai, buying the meat for much less than what it is worth. Typically, a cow is worth approximately 18,000 Kenyan shillings, but now they are only selling for 10,000 Ksh, or less. On top of that, he said, prices for basic goods have increased in the area. “Many of the herders are starving,” Lenguar said.

The group collectively complained that the government was not purchasing the weak cows, as they had promised, and were instead buying their best cows, the ones that were more likely to survive the drought. John Elipa, from the Kenyan Agricultural Development Corporation, said that the cows bought from these pastoralists would be taken to ranches, fattened, and resold, to create a revolving fund for drought relief. He emphasized that the program helps in the short term as well, because the Maasai who sell a few cows can afford to buy food for their families.

John said that he is eager for the rains so he can return to his permanent home in Doldol, a small, mostly Maasai community. The only road to Doldol, approximately 60 kilometers north of Nanuki, is bordered by an electric fence. In 2000, the last year of severe drought, more than 11,000 cows died on this road on their way to Mt. Kenya. John said many were enticed by the grass on the other side of the fence and electrocuted.

As we drove down this road, John pointed out a great clearing in the distance, where the grand graduation ceremony for the young moran (warriors) used to take place. This was Maasai land, roughly 1 million acres that once served as the cushion for droughts like this one, but it was coerced from the Maasai to make way for white settlement in British East Africa at the turn of the 20th century.

This land, part of what is known today as the White Highlands, has been the root of contention between the Maasai and the Kenyan government since independence in 1963. “The Maasai experienced the biggest colonial land rip-off in all of Africa,” said William Ole Ntimama, Maasai Minister of Parliament for Narok North.

With the stroke of a pen on June 15, 1895, Maasai land became part of British East Africa. Using force, intimidation, and coercion, colonial officials succeeded in signing two agreements with Maasai representatives, the first in 1904 and the second in 1911. The 1904 agreement removed the Maasai from the most fertile lands in all of Kenya, paving the way for white farmers and agribusinesses. The lands ranged from the great swamp around what is now Nairobi, to the plains around Mount Kenya, to the volcanic rich lands around Lake Naivasha and Nakruru. Today, the volcanic soil and cool rains surrounding the lakes are used for floriculture and coffee and tea plantations. The Maasai’s former lands are home to an array of national parks, including Hell’s Gate and Mount Kenya.

In exchange for their best grazing resources in the Central Rift Valley, the Maasai secured two permanent reserves, one north of the railway line in Laikipia and the second south in what are today Kajiado and Narok districts. Similar to American Indians, the Maasai were hoodwinked into giving up their best lands in exchange for a reservation—convinced that it would ensure the right to the reservation for eternity. But as in the United States, white settlement in the Rift Valley increased, and pressure for Maasai land in Laikipia grew. More coercion, back-door deals, and schemes by both British officials and Maasai leaders led to the second treaty of 1911, which forced the Maasai at gunpoint to exchange 4,500 square miles in the northern reserve for 6,500 in the more arid Southern Rift Valley. In mirror to the Trail of Tears experienced by American Indian groups in the early 1800s, hundreds of Maasai perished from exposure during this grueling trek across the Mau escarpment. Livestock died by the thousands. Some Maasai in Laikipia refused to move and hid amongst other groups in the neighboring Mokogodo forest, passing as Il-Dorobos, or people without cattle. James Legei, who also works with OSILIGI, said, “Only recently [within the past 20 years] have Maasai in the south realized that Maasai are still living in Laikipia.”

The Mau Mau rebellion, a largely Kikuyu movement, successfully fought for sovereignty in 1963. From the very infancy of independence, the Kikuyu majority established a firm grasp on Kenyan political power. Kikuyu agricultural-based ideologies fit into the policies of land use the British had established, and Kikuyu leaders quickly replicated the colonial systems they fought to drive from Kenya.

A delegation of 10 Maasai traveled to the Lancaster House Conference in London in 1963 to participate in negotiating the terms of decolonization and to advocate for the return of the Northern Highlands to Maasai communities. The delegation issued a written plea: “It is as a direct result of having been induced to leave the best-watered and most fertile areas that the Maasai have endured the most recent disastrous famine, following drought and flood . . . Being confined to marginal areas of rainfall, whenever the rains fail, [Maasai] are the first to suffer.”

The fledgling Kenyan government had the opportunity to redistribute Maasai lands after independence, but instead bowed to British pressure to keep the highlands for the elite. As a result, the former Northern Reserve lands today are owned by no more than 40 descendents of the white colonialists and are bordered by electric fences. They are home to several five-star tourist lodges and seasonal multi-million dollar celebrity ranches. The land is full of grass, trees, and an abundance of wildlife. John Tingoi commented that if the Maasai tried to graze their cattle on their former lands, they would be shot.

Colonial settlement and land appropriation eroded the southern reserve as well. Since 1911 the British Magadi Soda Company has extracted thousands of tons of soda ash from Lake Magadi in the center of the reserve. Revenues from the ash, used to make glass and detergent, have not supported community development or education. The Masai Mara, probably one of the world’s most famous game parks, was etched out of the southern reserve in 1974. Ben Ole Tongoyo from Touch of Love Integrated Development Program comes from Maji Moto, a community adjacent to the park. He says that a percentage of the park revenue goes to the community, but that there is no accountability from an independent party. “Most of the money pads the pockets of the local officials and never reaches the grassroots.”

Population influx into the already arid southern Maasai lands has resulted in long-term impacts on the land and the environment. “Weather patterns are changing,” said Francis Sakuda. He said that Oloshoiboi once flourished with a great diversity of wild animals. Now, only a few herds of giraffe and an occasional leopard grace their lands.

Governments in Africa don’t want to explore the indigenous question because the few elites who have power are benefiting from indigenous exploitation, John Tingoi said. Officials claim that “all Africans are indigenous” because governments are complicit in dispossessing indigenous peoples from their lands and resources. Tingoi said that when other Kenyan tribes, like the Kikuyu, arrived in the Rift Valley they found Maasai, who been living there for hundreds of years.

Maasai red shukas and colorful beadwork grace the covers of tourism books of East Africa and postcards throughout Kenya. This image of the fierce and proud warrior is appropriated, bought, stolen, and sold by the majority of mainstream Kenyans, tourism companies, and conservationists without any real benefit to Maasai communities themselves. The government purports to embrace their culture, but the Kenyan government does not support or respect their pastoral way of life. The Maasai are continually pushed to the margins of Kenyan society without adequate access to healthcare, sanitation, and water resources, education, information, or transportation services. It is a direct result of their continued colonialization by the rest of Kenyan society that the Maasai claim indigeniety.

From Jane Kamuasi’s house in the Ngong Hills, it’s a 45-minute hike across the rocky terrain and down a steep slope to the closest spring. On a typical week, Jane fetches water twice or three times for her family. On our way down, we met numerous groups of women coming and going from the spring. Some were lucky enough to have donkeys; others, wearing no more than flimsy tennis shoes with no laces, were carrying seven or eight gallons of water in a jug with a head-strap. Some of the women had walked for three hours to get to the water source.

The spring amounted to no more than a trickle of water into a puddle of mud. Donkeys and goats were drinking from the same source, separated by a small mud dam. To ensure our health, Jane made sure that we would not drink this water, but most people don’t have that luxury. Two weeks later, she said that the puddle had dried up. The women were then forced to walk even further.

Traditionally, the Maasai would move with their families and cattle to the areas that receive more rainfall; colonialism and the market economy have changed this nomadic way of life. But they are still steadfast in keeping their traditions and language. “The Maasai have been so successful keeping their traditions alive,” said Samuel Mushokia Muchiri, a Kikuyu. “That’s what makes them indigenous—they have not conformed to the ways of the West like so many of the other tribes in Kenya,” he said.

The government knows that the Maasai are indigenous—they just don’t want to recognize it in policy, said Tingoi. Ruth Emanikor, a Turkana woman who works with the Indigenous Information Network based in Nairobi, said that Kenyan government officials are afraid to decentralize resources because with empowerment comes agitation for additional rights. But, she said, it is clear they need to implement a law recognizing indigenous peoples. And that is what the Maasai are pushing for. Instead of waiting for the government to enact policies supporting their children’s’ education, infrastructure development, and civic education, communities are taking matters into their own hands.

The constitutional referendum process in November 2005 proved to be the perfect opportunity for Maasai to mobilize action, create a political base, and begin to push for their rights. “For the first time, Maasai communities voted as a block [to defeat the draft constitution],” said Mary Simat, the chairwoman of Maasai Women’s Empowerment and Education Development. The draft constitution would have posed a serious threat to Maasai and other pastoralists’ land rights because the government would be able to claim lands that were “idle.”

The constitutional referendum process also motivated various Maasai organizations to formulate a strategy for reclaiming their lands in the Northern Reserve. They formed the Maa Civil Society Forum with the express purpose of opening a dialogue to redress historical wrongs committed against the Maasai during the colonial period and perpetuated after independence. “All of the Kenyan governments have been hostile to the Maasai,” said Ben Ole Koisaba, the chairman of the forum. The Maasai have been powerless for too long, and there are no safety nets for this drought in Maasai land, he said.

Back at her boma, Jane Kamuasi said she is proud to have voted in the recent constitutional referendum. Francis Sakuda said, “Jane is a role model to other women in Oloshoiboi. She has shown other women who have families that they too can become educated and work to improve their community.”

Lisa Matthews is the Program Officer for Cultural Survival.

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