A Maasai warrior on the plight of his people
Boston — The short rains have started. Women patch dung into the roofs of their homes. And, as they have for centuries, herders in red togas drive their cattle onto the greening savanna. But the Maasai of East Africa's Great Rift Valley are themselves being herded. It isn't the rain that is pushing them on. Once again, other men want their hand.
Like the big game that steal to maasai watering holes during the night, the fearsome modern age has crept up to demand the surrender of a whole culture.
These 300,000 to 400,000 seminomads graze their livestock in Massailand, their traditional range which straddles Kenya and Tanzania. But the world can't tolerate nomads, as Maasai warrior Tepilit Ole Saitoti now realizes:
"Governments all over the world don't like nomads, because nomads are hard to control," he said in a Monitor interview. "They become a government within a government." Saitoti and photographer Carol Beckwith want to be certain that this remarkable way of life is accurately recorded before it vanishes entirely. So together they have produced the recently published "Maasai" (Harry N. Abrams,
The Maasai believe God gave their original ancestor a stick with which to herd cattle. Now they tend an estimated 3 million head. Cattle, which are they very basis of their pastoral culture and the measure of their wealth, are involved in every ceremony. Each child is given a cow, a ewe, and a female goat. A young Maasai knows 70 words to describe the colors and color patterns of a cow and the names of 30 varieties of grass.
The Maasai are self-sufficient and enjoy a strong sense of community, ironically free from strains such as famine or loss in battle, the usual catalysts for the kind of social disorganization they now face.
"But the Western world is not a fair game; it's one-sided, gun against spear, " Saitoti says.
Saitoti is hurling his spear of education. As a boy he did not want to go to school. "My mother had died. There were 36 of us and I thought my father had chosen me because he was afraid to send any of the other children whose mothers would protest. He said if he sent someone who was not close to the family then they might not return. But I was close to the family and he knew I would return."
He kept running away from school, which cost the family a fine of five oxen. This fine was lifted after the child reached eighth grade, at which point his family wanted him to drop out and come home. But by then he knew he had "reached a point of no return" and didn't want to quit.
"I had tasted something which I wanted to pursue to the end," Saitoti says. "Education gives you hope of another culture. My inner self was fighting. You are sort of assured that your culture will have to give in, whether you like it or not. I knew better find a way to help my people."
The way has not been easy.After achieving warrior status and recognition for killing a lion that attacked his father's herd, Saitoti became a ranger and guide for the Tanzanian National Park Service. His title role in the 1972 National Geographic film "Man of the Serengeti" brought him to the United States on a lecture tour.
Disliking what had been written about his people and wanting to write his own book, Saitoti earned a bachelor in fine arts degree in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston. He then did graduate study in environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, where he completed a master's degree.
"Now I'm on this other side. I'm in a position to help the Maasai more, to tell the world who they are. But it is a responsibility I would have always had -- to the Maasai society, and especially to my family. Now I see Maasailand as a whole, and not just Maasailand, but Africa, and I see the world. If Maasailand were being invaded, as a warrior I would play my part to defend it. I would sacrifice my life. But now, my horizon has been widened, so has the problem, and so has the responsibility."
For Carol Beckwith, a sense of responsibility meant living with the Maasai for years.
"The Maasai don't like to be photographed, so Saitoti had a very conflicting time with himself. It was difficult negotiating; explaining photographs, trying to explain to the elders what we were doing. And the Maasai are very sensitive to invasions of their privacy and to what people are looking at when they come in clicking cameras, so I tried to do it as gently as possible.
"Sometimes I overstepped my boundaries. Other times I would wait too long and miss images. I tried to divide myself between relating as a human being and relating as an artist with a tool to make a record of the culture. I had terror in my heart sometimes as I pulled my camera out. I wanted to capture pictures that were real and natural. I didn't want people aware of me. So I felt the more time I could give to developing contacts, the more chance I would be able to record honestly the traditional way of life.
"Time for me was seasonal, initially -- dry season, rainy season. This then broke down to rites of passage, ceremonies that mark movement from one stage of life to another. Then it broke down to a kind of family level of time. I lost consciousness of looking at the clock; I would look up at the sky. In order to continue, I had to lose consciousness of how many days it would take to do something."
Tourists barreling along in buses heading for game parks are not so unobtrusive as they turn their lenses on the Maasai. Where tourism is an important industry, these picturesque herdsmen almost serve as a living museum. Rituals already bend to these economic pressures. Women begin dancing when the tour bus approaches. A giraffe may command a longer look. Yet, as change gnaws at Maasailand, Saitoti says his culture will be remembered.
"It is a very strong culture which has been protected through time. It is still vibrant. We have a code which can be used by contemporaries to the betterment of the world. Something unspoiled has come completely to the 20th century."
The distance between Nairobi and the southern plains seems much greater to Saitoti than does that between Nairobi and Los Angeles, where he now lives. "You have to think many times if you know you are going from Ngorongoro to Arusha by foot. You have to think properly."
When he returns to East Africa, he finds society "changing from African into a while man's world. You have an African imitating a white man, and falling short."
In contrast, "a Maasai knows completely his life. Whenever I meet him, I'm his equal, even after a college education." Fellow Maasai, who can sing to the birds and distinguish a glance brackish water from pure, ask, "How is the white man?" But Saitoti can't explain satisfactorily the disillusionment he has seen in cities or how people are starving even as an unprecedented quantity of food is produced. He prizes what he learned tending cattle.
"When I went to study to become a ranger they said: 'Just give him the books. He already knows the subject; he is learning the words [in English]."
He would leave Ms. Beckwith in the care of his sister or other family members while he went with other warriors and their livestock.
"I have to show my parents that although I have gone to school, it hasn't changed me. They try to be very patient and say, 'Well, this is a spoiled warrior.' But I must not take advantage of them. It's still me. School is not going to steal away what I am.
"I explain things to them. I told my father, 'Do you know, man has landed on th moon?' and instead of saying, as I expected he would, 'No, not on such a symbol of heaven,' he said, 'The most difficult part was to leave the ground.'"
Controversial treaties in 1904 and 1913 resulted in large concessions of Maasai grazing land for the establishment and later expansion of European settlements. By 1961, Edwards Mbarnoti, chief of he Maasai, declared, "If Uhuru [black rule] means anything, it means we are going to be treated like human beings and not like animals."
Saitoti keeps remembering these challenging words. After Julius Nyerere became president of Tanzania he dismantled all the chiefdoms because he considered them a threat to a united nation.
"I see his position completely, and he was right," Saitoti says. But it was the right strategy at the wrong time. "Mbarnoti was saying we don't want independence now. We are not ready. Other tribes will dominate us. Our land will be taken away from us." Nyerere should have met Mbarnoti's challenge and not let other tribes dominate the Maasai, as Saitoti thinks has happened with the land issue.
No longer a chief, Mbarnoti is just an elder in Maasailand and Saitoti knows him quite well.
"If Mbarnoti could go to Nyerere today and say: 'What is the position of my people now, after 20 years of independence? What levels is their development? How many are going to secondary school? How many are graduates?' . . ." That statement by Mbarnoti about being treated like human being stands "like a sentinel," Saitoti says.
Maasai cattle cant't come into national parks, which encompass land traditionally shared by the wandering herders and game. Sometimes a Maasai will break this law if he is willing to pay the fine of perhaps five cows. But when the game migrate, the government says the Maasai can't prevent the game from coming into the Maasai grazing ground.
"For the first time the Maasai have started to hate wildlife. And it's because of poor government planning. Maasai and wildlife have tolerated one another through time. Now it's a double standard.
"Agriculture will take the wildlife andm the Maasai. It cannot tolerate the two. The only solution is peaceful coexistence between the Maasai and wildlife, which the ecology of the area has adopted. When the grass grows taller, it attracts more zebras," Saitoti explains. "The wildlife comes first [with the government] because it pays more tax than we do."
To validate his claim that the Maasai have a noble character, Saitoti tells of "Maasai-itis," as the colonial British government dubbed a peculiar complaint.
"They decided that only upper-class British officers should be sent to be commissioners in Massailand. If you find a noble savage, you must be a bit nobler than he, and they had to get their best to be administrators in Maasailand. As soon as [the administrators] saw the Maasai way of life they were on the nomads' side," and therefore not vey effective. This left the British sighing that laws would never be effective in Maasailand, because "'each time you send one of these blighters in, he defects.'"
Because other ethnic groups left a strictly tribal way of life only two generations-ago, one might expect them to approach the Maasai with a greater sensitivity than was presented to them. But as so often happens in a developing country, the response, is more complez.
"It's amazing," Saitoti remarks. "If you say in Kenya, 'Oh, you look like a Maasai,' it's really a compliment. Sometimes people will lie -- 'My great grandparents were.' But the Maasai is not educated, so sometimes when a Maasai is on a bus someone will say, 'Oh don't get ocher [clay used as a body paint] on me.' They want to puch you away, but they are scared because [you are] a Maasai. So there is envy and the contradictory feeling that [you] are just poor, naked people."
Maasai who live in Nairobi might drive every weekend to Maasailand. Those who still roam the rangeland may trickle into the city, particularly for medical treatment. The state discourages many activities vital to warrior status, and has banned manyattas (the warriors' encampment, where the government feared they plotted subversion) and cracked down on cattle raiding. Raids, classified as thievery by officials, are based on the idea that all cattle belong to the Maasai by divine decree and therefore they are merely reclaiming their rightful property.
Many Maasai have switched to cattle buying and trading. They aren't very good businessmen, according to Saitoti, "because they end up buying cattle that they don't sell." As they near elderhood, "they use their money to buy cattle to start a herd. A Maasai's intention is always to make money to buy cattle, even with those who are working. If you talk to a Maasai who is lawyer he will say, 'I've never touched my cows. I've never sold any of my herd since I went to school. Whatever salary I get, I buy more.'
To some extent the Maasai have joined the monetary economy. When they have a specific expense, such as school fees, they sell a cow. There are auctions of cattle, but they always wait to sell until the need is imminent. The barter economy is also being affected for the first time, Saitoti points out.
"Now when you take a big oxen to market you get four animals in trade, where traditionally you got one heifer or two 2-year-old oxen." His parents still prefer the old deal, however, which they consider fairer.
"Maasai are a highly egalitarian society. While not socialist, no extreme disparity is evident. 'The fingers all get the same blood, though each one each a different size,' a Maasai proverb says. Everyone gets food. A Maasai will not thank you if you give him food, because they think everyone should have acess to food. They will say thank you if you give them a dress, but that is not a must," Saitoti explains.
It is inconceivable to them that such essentials as land or food would be the exclusive property of someone.
Saitoti remembers singing as a schoolchild on independence day in Tanzania, but what has since been told him about that day makes him laugh proudly:
"The British had been ruling Maasailand indirectly through our leaders. The Maasai had known the white people had more power but they had not been interfering, and the Maasai were always ready to rebel if they thought [the power] was being abused. So when independence came and people were shouting 'Uhuru,' Maasai asked what black rule was."
"'Was it never before? Were we not always independent?' the Maasai did not know, except for those few leaders, who were very lonely. And the same thing is happening now. We have a few leaders who know that the machinery of power can be abused."
Nyerere has appointed a Maasai prime minister, but Saitoti says, "He is just a facade, window dressing." And he deplores the lack of a teacher training college to inspire the Maasai.
Saitoti says that the wildlife, a resources of Maasailand, does not bring income to the Maasai the way that the coffee growing in Kikuyu land brings money to the Kikuyu.
The money that comes from wildlife "should develop Maasailand first. Should we build a high school? Should we help the cattle? Should we build a through for water to make our life easier? We are protecting this resource for the whole nation. Just because nobody owns those animals, which kill our children, trample our cattle, cover our grazing ground. So we take the pain but we don't take the fruit."
As long as the Maasai were living in a large area of land, their nomadic life helped maintain an ecological balance, but with relentless encroachment on this territory, overgrazing was inevitable.
"For years we have always had rotation ground, with the highlands for high potential grazing and the plain for low potential grazing, which is only during the rainy season. We alternate between the two. We don't go to the lowlands during the hot, dry season because grass won't have sufficiently deep roots, and as soon as the cattle walk through, the wind comes, and that's the end. But the agriculturalists are claiming the highlands now, so we are being forced to stay in the lowlands, even in the harshest months when we never would have. So the land goes, and we go. Thd land dies, and we die," Saitoti explains.
A Maasai's entire life is governed by rules, and he is remarkable for his respect for authority. Saitoti's occasional stage fright in speaking to large American audiences on his lecture tour pales compared with the awe with which he observed the Maasai eleders' olkiamam (council), "because of how I heard these gentlemen talking," he says. "They are so knowledgeable -- not even in Whitehall could they judge like that." He explains their way of judgment:
As Saitoti remembers it, the defense's logic of "My stomach made me steal" followed the Maasai proverb "If a vulture would ever find food in the sky, he would not come down to earth.
Each elder has his say.
"Was there not another way? A vulture lands, but knows where to land -- a tree, or splash in water. You have landed int he mud."
The defense might agree but ask, "Where is the mud now?He was forced in conflict, beyond his ability. He has come to us to ask for mercy."
No vote is taken. Punishment is never imprisonment but fines of cattle. When a clear consensus is reached, the meeting closes as it opened -- with paying.
"You hear people judge like that and each one is logical, original, creative, and sensitive," Saitoti says.
The Maasai are not allowed to kill lions, but do so all the same to protect cattle. Saitoti says that as long as they use the spear they don't endanger the species, since it is the more powerful gun that threatens nature's balance. The government urges them not to kill a lion if it attacks their herd, but to report it and be paid compensation. But a Maasai's concern is not merely for monetary loss.
"We love our cows as we love children," Saitoti declares. "We will not wait for compensation but will repel the attack."
At times, there is evidence of a black paternalism which is growing impatient , sometimes embarrassed, about the Maasai. Saitoti says it is understandable, since "people always identify with the conqueror, not the conquered." Before the embrace of Maasailand becomes a stranglehold, they must find their own future.
Saitoti considers it too save the culture, but maintains that the people can be saved if they can keep their land.
"It is no longer the Western world dictating, really. It is a culture which has become so big it is just rolling. And it will break people who are weak or in its way. The Tasmanians were completely destroyed -- one species of mankind.
"Whatever happened to the Indians, the Maoris, the Aborigines, should not happen to the Maasai. Let the Maasai change in their own place. I have changed. My brothers and sisters are in another century. As long as their economic base, which is their land, as long as they are able to keep that, held independent, they will change. . . . But if overnight the land is pulled from underneath them, then they will disappear like the Maoris.
"They still have their own economic base. They are not yet beggars. The murder of Maasai children going to school has increased from when I went. The pace is becoming very hasty. And only because that land is wanted to grow wheat."
The government has asked the World Bank for millions to grow wheat in Maasailand, calling it "empty land." But is not the protein from cattle as important as the protein from grain? the Maasai wonder. And why couldn't the World Bank help them develop their herds? "Why shouldn't you discourage the seller from even selling it, by helping him develop it to improves his stocks? So it is a biased game."
A Maasai doesn't reckon how anyone could sell what he considers belongs to God. "Men with money come during dry season, when you are starving, when you are vulnerable, and say, 'Why should your children die? Give me this little porv tion, I give you this much.' He gets money from the bank, buys cheaply, puts up a nice residence there, and hires the Maasai as his security guard. It's genocide," Saitoti says. "It's happening in Brazil now, and it's happening in Maasailand for the first time."
The government is conscious of it, feels guilty, but justifies it by saying: 'We are building Tanzania.' I don't mind if you are building a nation, as long as you are not building it at the expense of [a people]."
The brightest hope would exist if the impetus for change were coming from within the Maasai themselves as well as from without. With their land and their dignity intact, this pastoral people would cleverly do the right thing for all concerned, Saitoti insists. He cites his own experience, an educated Maasai who is welcomed among them, as an example of their willingness to adjust.
He says the world needs a comprehensive bibliography of any recorded information about pastoral, nomadic peoples and how well they have adapted, from the reindeer herding Lapps in Sweden to the current radical attempt by Maj. Gen. Muhammad Siad Barre to resettle Somalia's nomads as fishermen.
"What ways have succeeded? One could make a comparative study and open it to all other pastoralists everywhere. And there should be a lawyer specializing in land," Saitoti points out. "And embarrass the government. Put something in the paper, because the government will be slow. And if you see that the problem is that the Maasai are not getting chances in school, then you put it in the paper. But you work from a professional point of view rather than an emotional or governmental point of view, because that will succeed by facts," he adds.
"And tell the World Bank -- if you know that this project is going to destroy the whole of the highlands at the expense of the people who are already established there -- 'How dare you give money to these people? If you are going to develop a particular region, do so for the people living in the region. If you think this land is good but not intensively productive, develop the stock. Develop along the lines it already is following.' Why change the people's needs? The Maasai are among the best veterinarians in the world."
Saitori currently works in conservation, but he warns, "It's a mockery to conserve animals and plants if you cannot conserve your own.
The Maasai follow their cattle over land they have traversed for centuries, with a casualness about international borders that frets the Tanzanian and Kenyan authorities. "Maasailand is still remote, but we are looking over our shoulders more than ever before," Saitoti says.
The Maasai are very religious, and Saitoti counts it a shame that only the warrior has been portrayed. The Maasai pray to one god, Engai, who is referred to as male and female.
The Maasai believe God has helped them to live in harmony with nature, and they believe God now will help them live in harmony with modern man. But they wonder if they will be able to help God this time, as they think they must.
"You pray to God but you help God to help you," Saitoti explains. Overhearing the women praying to be guided when faced with Western ways, Saitoti was so touched he cried. "Echoes were exploding in my head. Why should it change? Who as that right?
"The race will survive and the world will benefit to even have a race of man called Maasai -- noble as they are," Saitoti says.
"If they did disappear now, at this level of development, it would be not only an embarrassment -- it would be treason to the world."