Sunday, 6 May 2007

About Maasai and other pastoralists in Tanzania

When I first time entered our then to become house, I met a Maasai in the laundry; I was surprised, to say the least. There he stood, in his colourful toga like dress, silver jewellery, long plaited hair, a knife and the obligatory stick. The lady broker that accompanied me remarked that for “decoration” purposes it would be quite nice to have a Maasai... Indeed, many of the young men work as guards in Dar es Salaam, or sell their bead work to tourists in Zanzibar, as a surrogate of their young men “warrior” years they are supposed to spend far a away from their community, originally in the steppe, before returning experienced and ready to marry.

We met some of these young Maasai in a small traditional restaurant on the beach of Zanzibar – when their neighbours got served some fish, they moved as quickly as they could to the far corner of the restaurant to avoid smell and appearance – their thing is meat!

Their real life still takes place in the steppes, however, due to expanding agriculture and urbanisation, not without conflicts. And Maasai are still feared by many. Historically, they had conquered what later on became Tanzania from the North and incorporated so many other tribes, that there is no typical Maasai face feature left. They were only stopped on their raids deep down in the South of Tanzania by the Hehe.

I became aware of the relevance of the pastoralists' issue in Tanzania on my very first journey through the country. Along the roads from Morogoro via Dodoma to Arusha, big clouds of dust above the flowing backs of slim shaped Zebou cattle and funny looking white sheep with black heads seamed the roads, several 10'000 animals that crossed our way, in search of pastures and water, water and pastures, the two key resources the pastoralists restlessly are searching for, and from finding them in time virtually depends their life on. Pastoralists, or in many cases more adequately named agro pastoralists - as many also do some farming - represent about a quarter of the rural population in Tanzania, but graze their animals on proportionally far more extensive lands. To say that they occupy these lands would be wrong – increasing pressure on their grazing grounds due to alternative occupations by farmers, expanding settlements, wild life or – often illegal – hunting parks, all result in shrinking pastures, with the Maasai pushed away. This land issue has become a political issue all over Eastern Africa.

Maasai are amazing. You would drive along extensive open countryside, with grass as long as a meter or more, and all of a sudden wigging sticks and spears would glance out of the grass, shoulders in red cloth quickly moving – the treachery of a group of Maasai walking or rather running through, what we would call a pit full of lions.

Under a canapé tree in the middle of nowhere, no huts and no other signs of settlement anywhere close, dozens of Maasai men would sit in a meeting to discuss an important clan issue, and only god knows how far they have been walking to the place, and how far their way home will be. They all have a home, they are not homeless, as we tend to perceive them. Less mobile members of the family stay in the hamlet, of which a family or clan can have several ones. Greater movements are planned years ahead, and the result of carefully taken decisions of the community.

They are an exotic people to say the least, to fellow Tanzanians as well as foreigners. Many Maasai men are not really wearing clothes, but wrap themselves in bright red and violet blankets around their shoulders and waists, and always wear a stick or a spear. Their sandals are made of coarse profiled tires, the straps made of the inside lining, fixed only with a few small nails. The soles somehow keep the roundish shape of the original tire, and a Swedish company claims that these shoes are not only cheap but also healthy, and is imitating them now, for good money. Men and women are having big holes in their ears to wear extensive silver and bead jewellery, and even when wearing western cloths the holes in their ears immediately identify many Maasai. Women can wear extensive jewellery, with wide necklaces made of beads, but more often you would see them nowadays on tourist markets. Many of the Maasai men and women are lacking a front tooth, which is said to be another sign of identification.

Maasai feel misunderstood, especially by policy makers in the capitals and Dar es Salaam. And indeed fellow Tanzanians have little chance to get to know them. There are numerous pastoralist tribes and clans, but they all are collectively addressed as Maasai. Fire, a traditional mean to re-establish pastures, well planned ahead and set only at the end of the dry season towards the end of the day, when the winds blow into a favourable direction, have been banned by governmental policies. The archetype fear of the settled ones, in agony to loose their stocks and harvests, has been predominating. In some villages, zero grazing models to keep cattle inside all day are now propagated, leaving absolutely no room to pastoralists.

The sign of a spear

If contacts to Maasai men are limited, they are even more limited to Maasai women. Still, many Maasai live in polygamous set ups, with husbands having five to eight wives. It is said that if a Maasai man finds a spear rammed into the soil in front of his doorstep, a fellow Maasai men is “visiting” one of his wives, and he is expected to leave them alone. These traditions have led to a massive spread of HIV/AIDS. Polygamy is said to be part of a survival strategy. Only a huge network of family and other relations allows survival in case of limited water and pastures after an exceptionally dry season, and water and pastures are all the Maasai depend on. Though being married to many families with pastures and water holes in different locations becomes a viable strategy.

Female genital mutilation, which is now fought by some powerful Civil Society Organisations, only some years ago touched upon 80% of the pastoralist tribes’ girls. Some claim it cultural heritage that has to be respected, yet pain and risks these women have to go through are beyond imagination. It is amazing that men and women publicly talk about so called FGM.

There are other alarming gender issues. Women Maasai, as well as many other Tanzanian ethnics, in case they divorce or become widows, often loose their complete economic basis to male relatives. Since the new land code of 1999 has been assuring the right of land ownership to women and men, things are slowly improving. The customary law, which is prevailing in many rural communities to governmental law, and thus a tribute to the multi ethnicity of Tanzania, disadvantages women to a high degree. Again, the strategy of survival is to prioritize by all means the male line of the family.

Yet, there are clans and clans, families and families, where the role of women differ from one to the other, to the better or worse of the women. There was this young married woman returning to her family with her baby child, because she could not stand any longer to live in her husband’s clan. The family sat together, and the elder accepted her to stay. Yet she was asked to identify her new husband, that – to everybody's surprise or not? – had been waiting just around the corner, ready to marry her on the spot; The elders had decided so despite the ex husband's family to come and claim for compensation for the lost wife, in cattle;
"My cattle do not go around"

When pastures or water get scarce – only one or the other is not sufficient for survival – Maasai start to move, in search of these resources. Their most mobile elements of the community are the so called "warriors", young men. They go out for survey, and return to the community and the elders’ council, that will take a decision on where to move next. From one community the warriors were sent out to another traditional hamlet of the clan, in search of better pastures and more water. They returned only with the message, that this hamlet had been plundered for fire wood by a neighbouring village, and diseases would be abundant there, but no pastures and water. So they were sent out again into a different direction, and found a place with abundant water and pastures, but numerous lions and still diseases. My Maasai friend of the clan was then requested to go and buy syringes to apply vaccines, tires for new shoes to go the long way, bells to put around the cattle’s necks to chase away the lions, maize as a food stock and torches and soon the move started!

When in shortage of pastures or water, Maasai enter into negotiations with other clans, having been blessed with better rainfalls, or a borehole, always aware that next year they will be asked the same favour in return. Or they enter into barter with farmers, for crop residues, or access to their water resources. There is a lot of conflict potential, understandably. It is about life or death. There are not only different laws, governmental, customary and the Muslim Sharia, but also different traditions on who should enforce it. If a Maasai clan reaches another clan’s water resource, they will be allowed to stay and water their animals minimum a night, maybe more. But if they do not leave after an agreed deadline, first their women and girls will be stolen, and then their cattle, and finally the curse would be put upon their men, the ultimate punishment in a Maasai culture.
In the desperate search of water and pastures, their cattle would trample across farm land and raise conflicts with the non Maasai. "My cows do not go around" has become a political slogan, expressing not only the challenge of co exiting, but also the fact of dwindling pastoral resources.

But it is not only men in conflict with each other, but also the Maasai are in competition with wild life. On ponds and rivers, Maasai shepherds water their animals next to elephants and buffalos, they strive through lion spotted grasslands day in and out, always wearing a spear or a knife – that is said to kill even an elephant when thrown like a propeller aiming to cut off their trunk - for self defence. Yet, it is the water they compete most for. And when Maasai water their cattle on a throgh, they always leave it with "water for the night", as thus the wild beasts in search of water will do far more damage to them.

The dry season lasts about four months; the better the rain season was, the more it is bearable. The dry standing grass is what the Maasai animals will have to live on until the next rains will fall, and the water in the ponds and rivers the liquid to go with. Shepherds drink only when their cattle are drinking, and this can be as rare as every third day, and the water can be pretty dirty. Maasai shepherds are loosing weight during the dry season, restlessly walking in search of pastures and water, and to carry the spear at all times becomes an increasingly heavy burden. When nobody can see it, the lightened men start to pull it behind them, yet they are supposed to carry it at all times in an upright position. They fast, when they have to fast, and they eat, when they can eat, incredible quantities of meat.

When in the training centre, where I met with Maasai from all over Eastern Africa, vegetables were served for dinner, my fellow pastoralist claimed that there was “no food” for dinner. In a restaurant the twelve pastoralists with three Europeans went for farewell, we ordered eight kilograms of beef, five kilograms of goat and three chickens, yet some people in the end complained about not having had sufficient meat. I understood that eating and drinking small portions throughout the day and every day is a luxury pastoralists for thousands of years did not enjoy. To survive one had to eat as much as possible when food was available!

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