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Maasai in Kenya

  • The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in the South, along the border with Tanzania. The Maasai speak the Maa language, a member of the Nilotic language family, related to Dinka, Kalenjin and Nuer languages. Population of Maasai people has been reported as numbering 1,189,522 in Kenya in the 2019 census, compared to 377,089 in the 1989 census. The exact figure is unknown, as many Maasai view official census as a way to discriminate against pastoralist groups, so an unidentified number of Maasai people refuse to participate or deliberately provide false information.

  • The mid-19th century saw the greatest expanse of Maasai territory, which during this period covered almost all the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south. In 1852, there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in what is now Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the ‘Wakuafi wilderness’ in what is now southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the Kenyan coast.

    Some Kalenjin peoples, including the most numerous subgroup – the Kipsigis – also live in the South. Unlike the Maasai, the Kipsigis have largely abandoned their traditional pastoralist culture and become agriculturalists.

    The Maasai have faced intense pressures to leave their ancestral lands from successive groups of invaders and settler colonial forces. Under colonial rule, great swathes of Maasai land were confiscated for use by Europeans, a practice that continued under Jomo Kenyatta, who dispersed Maasai lands to agriculturalist peoples.

    The Maasai fared better under Daniel arap Moi, himself a pastoralist, and many Maasai became staunch supporters of Moi’s KANU party. A string of droughts have put intense pressure on the Maasai and led them into conflict with neighbouring peoples over water sources and grazing grounds, including clashes with the Akamba, Kipsigis, Kikuyu, and Kisii from 1999 to 2007.

    Straddling the border with Tanzania and featuring a distinctive culture, the Maasai have also come under pressure from a tourist industry that exploits Maasai culture and brings few proceeds to the local community. Maasai girls and women face the added threat of female genital mutilation (FGM). A survey by the Kenyan Ministry of Health in 1998 showed that around 90 per cent of Maasai girls and women are subjected to FGM, much higher than the national average of 38 per cent. A Maasai-founded refuge in the town of Narok, Maasai Education Discovery, has provided refuge to girls fleeing FGM since its foundation in 1999.

  • In 2006, Maasai herdsmen drove cattle into the Maasai Mara game reserve to protest against what they claimed was a corrupt allocation of 4,000 acres of park land to an elite Maasai developer.

    Maasai in Kenya have also suffered serious blows to their culture due to large-scale interventions and expropriation by the government. Hell’s Gate National Park, in the Rift Valley and near Lake Naivasha, is the traditional home of Maasai communities. The area has strong spiritual and cultural significance for the community. There has already been displacement of Maasai occurring in the area, but the government’s development of the US$1.39 billion Kenya Electricity Expansion Project (KEEP) led to the further resettlement of approximately 1,200 Maasai. Those affected criticize the fact that the land available for resettlement is much reduced and not suitable for grazing.

    The joint financing of the project by the World Bank, European Investment Bank and other donors, totalling US$330 million in international development assistance, prompted Maasai representatives to lodge an inspection request to engage both the World Bank’s Inspection Panel and the European Investment Bank’s Complaint Mechanism in October 2014. In an unprecedented step, the accountability mechanisms of both organizations undertook a joint investigation into the negative impact of the energy project on Maasai livelihoods and way of life. In July 2015 the report was released, confirming that noncompliance with the World Bank’s Indigenous People’s Policy due to involuntary resettlement and inadequate supervision by the Bank had caused widespread harm. It also concluded that this damage could have been avoided had the project’s implementers engaged in a ‘culturally compatible consultation and decision-making mechanisms’, further involved the community elders in planning and possessed a greater capacity to engage in the Maa language. The World Bank approved an action plan in February 2017 following mediation, although the affected Maasai communities remain very critical about the lack of adequate consultation, compensation and livelihood opportunities in their new location.

    A series of rapidly accelerating droughts have left pastoralist communities more and more vulnerable. Pastoralists have also been struggled with the risks associated with climate change. Many of these communities are already dealing with the consequences of global warming – but national governments, such as Kenya’s, have yet to identify long-term strategies to help them. Crucially, pastoralist communities need to to be consulted on adaptation processes, and for an end to development policies which pushes communities to settle in resource-poor areas.

    Environmental issues

    Competition among nomadic groups over cattle and grazing combined with periods of drought have perpetuated a way of life close to subsistence and seldom far from conflict – though most efforts at economic improvement have failed by upsetting the precarious equilibrium between people and resources. Conflict in Somalia has caused further widespread disruption, and the great availability of firearms has exacerbated traditional and more recent enmities.

    Conflicts over natural resources have increased as communities – particularly Maasai – compete for diminishing water, pasture and food resources. In 2011, the government declared a national disaster as Kenya suffered the most severe drought in decades, which affected over 5 million people. After three years of poor rains, severe drought returned to Kenya again in early 2017. Another national disaster was declared, with 23 out of 47 counties facing insufficient rainfall.

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