The Maasai once ranged across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.
They followed the seasonal rains and available grazing with their cattle and they had (and still have) strict cultural restrictions regarding shooting the wildlife, living almost exclusively on their own livestock — cattle and goats.
But over the years they have slowly seen their ancestral lands diminish in order to provide more pristine hunting grounds for a luxury Dubai-based organisation.
Maasai activists say that the latest proposal, which reduces the land available to them by a further 40%, will simply destroy their livestock and their way of life.
“A Maasai is good for a tourist’s photograph, useful to carry your bags to the camp or even to guide you to see the animals,” Tanzania’s first ever elected Maasai MP Moringe ole Parkipuny commented bitterly.
However, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete has gained a reputation for dismissing the nomadic Maasai lifestyle as “not modern or productive”.
But livestock rearing is valuable for the Maasai. A recent economic analysis determined that the disputed area generates at least $3m (€2.3m) annually from livestock production.
Yet no matter how much beef these pastoralists might raise, they cannot hope to compete with the vast amounts of money the government garners from tourism and the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) of the UAE in particular.
It has been reported that their well-heeled clients include Britain’s Prince Andrew and members of the United Emirates royal family.
Guests are flown in on 747’s to a private airstrip in Arabiya, their remote ranch near the village of Ololosokwan. This camp and the many acres they have leased from the Tanzanian government are constantly patrolled by armed guards.
Ironically, it might now be Maasai women — generally struggling under a mighty workload and very few rights and who are not expected to speak in public — who may save the day.
A recent mass protest by angry tribal elders fell apart and was rescued by over a thousand Maasai women who arrived to organise their own sit-ins. Trucks full of soldiers dispersed huge numbers of the demonstrators.
But the Maasai women were not so easily put off. Dressed in traditional costume and defying both their patriarchal culture and the ban on gatherings, they held sit-ins and debated whether they should go to court or march on the well-guarded OBC camp.
Paulina Pere, a mother of four, walked for two days to be a part of it.
“I live on this land,” she said. “I gave birth to my children on this land and when I die, I will go inside this land.”
The Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) is one of the most highly regarded NGOs in the area. Programme director Jill Nicholson told me about some of the challenges the Maasai people face.
*Jill, the areas PWC work in are rural and in some cases, very remote. What is life like for the Maasai women who live there?
>>“Maasai society is patriarchal and polygamous. Women have a subordinate position and few rights. They are marginalised in matters affecting the development of their communities. They don’t own or control any property and generally, they are expected to keep to domestic roles. This makes life very difficult for women and especially at a time when their society is under threat because of increasing incursions into their traditional lands.”
*On what legal basis, have the government authorities opted to annex these lands?
>>“The director of wildlife has legal powers to grant hunting permits for game controlled areas, but has no legal mandate whatever regarding the villages that are on this land. OBC were given hunting rights in a highly controversial manner, without any consultation with local communities.
“Today the Maasai are more aware of the importance of education. Education means freedom, solutions to the many challenges they face. They want their own lawyers, teachers, doctors.”
*Emanyate, the school PWC runs, aims to help with this, I believe?
>>“We do. Unfortunately, the Maasai communities are continuing to invest more in educating boys to higher levels than girls.
“A lot of work still needs to be done around girls’ education. It is vital that we rectify the lack of educated and professional Maasai women to fight for gender equality and against patriarchal household structures.”
*How difficult is it for Maasai girls to attend school?
>>“Very difficult in many cases, unless they have sponsorship. Early pregnancy is one barrier they face. Research undertaken in 2011 by PWC found that “mornas”, or young Maasai warriors, are specifically tasked by the community elders to get young girls pregnant so they are forced to drop out of school. There’s also evidence that families bribe teachers to fail girls and force them out of school.”
*It must take a lot of courage for the girls to overcome all this?
>>“Girls who do make it often face alienation from their families. Girls like Zubeda who spent two years trying to raise the money for fees, including selling beads to the tourists.
“Her mother was supportive but her father was not. He wanted her to be married so he could collect the dowry. She’d given up when PWC invited her to attend sponsorship selection interviews. But her father kept notification of this invitation from her.
“When she found out, Zubeda walked 15km to the school in the hopes that she would be given another chance. And she was and is doing very well. But at the same time, she is very sad because now her father has disowned her.”
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