The Cattle Economy of the Maasai

The Cattle Economy of the Maasai

The Maasai people of East Africa built a pastoral way of life around their cattle, but the modern market economy has threatened to override the economy of bovine exchange.


3 - 12


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Economics


Maasai Woman and Cattle

While Maasai men are responsible for protecting and herding the cattle, women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children.

Photograph by Ton Koene
While Maasai men are responsible for protecting and herding the cattle, women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children.
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The Maasai people of East Africa live in the Great Rift Valley of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Their traditional way of life is centered on cattle. In their worldview, the creator god Enkai sent cattle sliding down a rope from the heavens into their safekeeping. The cattle herding practices of the Maasai are central to their way of life. Unfortunately, these practices have become increasingly threatened in recent decades.

Since arriving in the Rift Valley four centuries ago, the Maasai have lived a migratory lifestyle based around their cattle herds. Maasai women are in charge of milking the cows. Warriors—traditionally, young men and older boys—are responsible for protecting the cattle from predators such as lions, cheetahs, and leopards. They also are in charge of herding the cattle to water sources and pasture land. The herds roam to new areas with the changing of the seasons. This practice gives heavily grazed grasslands a chance to regrow.

No Part Is Wasted

Historically, the Maasai depended on their cattle to provide all of their primary needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Their traditional diet relies heavily on milk and dairy products, lean beef, fat, and blood. Several cooking utensils and drinking bowls are traditionally made from cattle rib bones and horns. Cowhides have often been used for bedding materials. They are also good for walls or roofs of temporary shelters. More permanent houses include a plaster made from cattle dung and urine. For many years the Maasai clothed themselves in garments known as shuka, made from cowhide. Some still use its leather to make sandals.

Cattle serve as the key currency in traditional Maasai society, in place of money. Cattle are sold and bartered in many kinds of exchanges involving goods and services.

Families seek to build up large herds to show their wealth and importance. The Maasai have no central political structure, so it is common for cattle to change hands as a way of strengthening ties between clans, which are extended family groups. Cattle are almost always part of a young woman's marriage price, delivered by the groom to the bride's family. Men may take more than one wife if they own enough cattle. A community will offer one or more cows as a gift to a young warrior who exhibits exceptional bravery. Payment in cattle may also be demanded as a fine for dishonorable or criminal behavior.

The Importance of Land

In Maasai tradition, land is viewed as a common resource. It is shared equally and protected carefully.

The Maasai have long tried to protect their independence and unique cultural heritage. This has been true since the time of British rule and remained true when Tanzania and Kenya became independent countries. In recent years, the greatest threats to the Maasai way of life have arisen from the spread of the commercial market economy.

The Maasai's traditional barter system is organized around the currency of cattle. It has given way to a money-based economy and to concepts of property quite alien to traditional Maasai culture.

Specifically, a shift toward private ownership of land has greatly undermined traditional Maasai methods of caring for cattle. Vast areas of savanna that were once shared in common have been broken into separate, privately owned lots. These lots have also been put to new uses, including private ranching and agriculture. The end of joint land-ownership has created new levels of economic inequality among the Maasai. With greater competition for access to pasture land, much of the available land has been overgrazed. This has resulted in shrinking herd sizes.

The Maasai's Future

The Maasai have also been pushed out of large stretches of territory that have been turned into national parks and wildlife reserves. In recent years, the Maasai region has become a popular destination for safaris and wildlife tourism. As a result, Maasai herders are barred from many tourist sites at most times of the year. This has led to the loss of important grazing and water sources located within these sites. The result has been major disruptions to cattle migration patterns.

Thus, the future of one of Africa's proudest and most fiercely independent peoples is now gravely endangered. With their traditional livelihoods threatened, many Maasai have taken up other ways of making a living. Some, for example, have taken up farming, while others are working in the tourism business. The global economy of money and privately owned land appears to be replacing the traditional, cattle-based Maasai economy.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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