The mystery of morans: Why Maasais don’t eat fish, chicken

Maasai herder
  • Forcing Maasais to abandon pastoralism by design or default is like forcing a left-handed child to use his right hand
  • You cannot move a Maasai by force from pastoralism to pure capitalism without disenfranchising him.
  • Cultures never stop responding to market forces. Some elements of culture will stubbornly persist

The political heat generated by the call by Nasa luminary Raila Odinga to Maasais not to sell their land to outsiders requires careful analysis — beyond elections — as there is more than meets the eye regarding attachment to cultural wealth in a capitalistic society.

I have been to the east — particularly in Rombo near Kilimanjaro — where the Maasai border the Taita; and Sultan Hamud, where they have mixed with Kambas. I have also been to the west where Kilgoris borders Kisii and Kipsigis.

That stretch of land is enormous, yet it’s a fraction of their original land. Colonialists evicted Maasai from as far as Uasin Gishu and Ol’ Donyo Sabuk.

This means that combined with Laikipia and Samburu, they owned a big chunk of Kenya. Maasais are mainly pastoralists and the few urbanised ones still engage in cattle keeping or trade.

Pastoralism is supported by communal land where they are free to move around and graze as they wish in their group ranches.

The former group ranches have been subdivided into small plots owned by individuals. The craze for individual land has caught up with the communal and conservative Maasai who now sell their share of communal land in the open market.

The assumption among Maasais is they only need a small portion of land because they can graze far from their homes. But shortly, they will have no grazing land as new owners fence their plots. This is the point when Maasailand will be the new frontier for ethnic clashes.

Urbanisation has always been associated with development. Development here is being the process that creates progressive growth, positive change on the physical, economic, and social components.

 The desired end of development is an improvement in the level and quality of life of a population. Sustainable development, a new push by the United Nations, seeks development with minimal damage to the current environment while retaining some resources for future generations.

A 2015 report by Foresight Africa puts Africa second to Asia in the rate of urbanisation at an annual rate of 1.4 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

Urbanisation is proof of wealth and development, but not all urbanised countries are wealthy. The high rate of urbanisation is not sufficient proof of wealth or development.

This year, Kenya has suffered food shortage, or rather maize shortage. Maize is our staple food, but land that can produce maize is shrinking because of urbanisation and subdivision.

We have large tracts of land owned by pastoralist Maasai that we are leaving at the mercy of buyers without farming intentions or capacity to create wealth from real estate projects. What if we empowered Maasais to produce quality beef for export?

Kenya Meat Commission has been a song since the Grand Coalition Government took over in 2003. Money has been pumped into it but growth has been slow if any. This is where I quote from The Mystery of Capital by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to buttress the argument that Maasais must shape up into capitalism or ship out.

Soto, who published his influential offering in 2000, is giving reasons why capitalism seems to be developing the West and not Third World countries.

I concur with Soto that the key to ending poverty is property ownership but only if the poor can use their property to generate further wealth (not sell it for cheap), and the law must guide and support this.

This is where culture comes in. Sustainable development is only achievable if any form of social progress is pegged on the culture of the people.

Asians have proved that adopting new ways of life does not mean leaving the core of who you are as a community. Forcing Maasais to abandon pastoralism by design or default is like forcing a left-handed child to use his right hand.

When solving a complex mathematical equation, the rule is moving from the known to the unknown. You cannot move a Maasai by force from pastoralism to pure capitalism without disenfranchising him.

Policies must be put in place to enable Maasais to optimise pastoralism by producing high-quality beef and dairy products and, maybe, later offer them stakes at the Kenya Meat Commission.

Culture matters to economic outcomes, but cultures in turn never stop responding to market forces. Some elements of culture will stubbornly persist beyond the time they can be explained by current economic parameters.

 In the long run, however, cultures show a fluidity that will astonish some cultural determinists. E.L. Jones, the British-Australian economist and historian writes in her 2006 book, Cultures Merging, that culture “ghostly transit through history” is much less powerful than non-economists often claim, yet it has a greater influence than economists usually admit.

The Maasai who include the Samburu and Ichamus believe that they came to earth from heaven with their cattle with instruction from God to look after their cattle and the environment.

This is core to the Maasai, more of a divine purpose than a way of life. Their customs and rites revolve around cattle and their environment. They don’t cut down trees but pick dead wood that has fallen to the ground for firewood.

They also don’t eat game meat, including fish and birds, chicken and all. Maasais are also big on clan ties but all these are slowly being eroded by modernisation in the name of being retrogressive.

The way out for a balance is to retain group ranches but subdivide them in such a way that individual settlement plots are concentrated in one area and a large tract left for communal grazing.

One can sell individual plots but not his share of grazing land. Another thing is to increase the rate of transition from primary school to tertiary colleges among Maasais.

As it is, cattle, early marriages and moranism takes precedence over education. You don’t expect such a community to have an equal understanding with a buyer during land transaction and transfer. They will always be short changed.

Raila Odinga said that Maasais should not sell their land and Jubilee Party hawks called it incitement. The truth is somewhere in between.

Greed covered behind willing buyer willing seller or adopting consumerism in the name of capitalism will not develop Maasais beyond what their cattle have done.

Leaving them at the mercy of market and urbanisation forces is laying grounds for future conflicts.

— The writer is a geologist who comments on social issues.

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