The indigenous Maasai people of East Africa live in the Great Rift Valley of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai built an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with their cattle herds. In their worldview, the creator god Enkai sent the cattle sliding down a rope from the heavens into their safekeeping. The herding practices of the Maasai, central to their cultural identity, have come under tremendous pressure in recent decades.
Since arriving in the Rift Valley four centuries ago, the Maasai have lived a migratory, pastoral lifestyle based around their cattle herds. Young warriors—traditionally, men and older boys—are responsible for protecting the cattle from predators and herding them to water sources and pasture land. The herds roam to new areas with the changing of the seasons, a practice that allows heavily grazed grasslands to recover.
Maasai women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children. In Maasai tradition, the land is viewed as a common resource, to be shared equally and protected carefully.
Cattle as Food, Shelter, and Currency
The Maasai have historically depended on their cattle to provide all of their basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Their traditional diet relies heavily on milk and dairy products, lean beef and other meats, cattle fat and blood, on which they depend for their salt intake. Several cooking utensils and drinking vessels are traditionally made from cattle rib bones and horns. Cowhides have often been employed for bedding materials and for the 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 fundamental currency in traditional Maasai society. Families seek to accumulate large herds to demonstrate their wealth and status. Cattle are sold and bartered in many kinds of exchanges involving goods and services. The Maasai have no central political structure, so it is common for cattle to change hands as part of diplomatic relations between clans. Cattle are almost always part of a young woman's price for marriage, 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 cattle as a gift to a young warrior who exhibits exceptional bravery. Payment in cattle can also be demanded as a fine for dishonorable or criminal behavior.
Commercialism Is Infiltrating Maasai Life
The Maasai have long sought to protect their independence and unique cultural heritage. This has been true from the time of British colonialism, through the establishment of independent Tanzania and Kenya in the early 1960s, and into the 21st century. 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 highly developed barter system, organized around the currency of cattle, has given way to a money-based economy and concepts of property quite alien to traditional Maasai culture.
Specifically, a shift toward private ownership of land has had a drastic impact on the Maasai and their traditional methods of caring for their livestock. Vast areas of savanna that were once shared in common have been subdivided. They have also been put to new uses, including private ranching, agriculture, and commercial development. The end of communal land ownership created new levels of economic inequality among the Maasai. With greater pressure and competition for access to pasture land, much of the available land has been overgrazed, resulting in a reduction in herd sizes.
Safari and Tourism Encroachment
The Maasai have also been pushed out of large stretches of territory that have been designated as national parks and wildlife conservation reserves. In recent years, the Maasai region has become a popular destination for safaris and wildlife tourism. As a result, Maasai herders are now barred at most times of the year from accessing important grazing and water sources located within these sites. This has brought about major disruptions to cattle migration patterns.
The future of one of Africa's proudest and most fiercely independent indigenous societies is thus gravely endangered. With their traditional livelihoods threatened, many Maasai have taken up other ways of making a living, such as farming or working in the tourism business. The global economy of money and privately owned land appears to be replacing the traditional, cattle-based Maasai economy.