Noolterito Yenko brushes her teeth with a stick, a common practice in many parts of Africa where the cost of a toothbrush and toothpaste is out of reach. A simple diet with little sugar or processed foods has been radically changed by tourists who give chocolate and candy to Maasai children, causing serious problems in a community with few dentists.
Kenya – Long Read

Turning lion hunters into teachers

Photo by Ton Koene

Kenya – Long Read Turning lion hunters into teachers

Hello Kenya, where the Maasai have been carrying on their traditional way of life for centuries, tending the cattle given to them by their god, but facing increasing pressure from the outside world. A Maasai girl might now dream of studying in the capital of Nairobi, while a young warrior can still show his bravery by hunting for lion, but make a living by serving cocktails to tourists.

Julio Etchart
Julio Etchart

Just outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Rinka offers me a lift on his flashy Chinese motorbike, covered with FC Barcelona stickers. “Come for a ride. I will show you the Big Five without you paying a fee for the park,” he says. The prospect of having a close encounter with a pride of lions or a rhino from his unshielded back seat makes me feel a trifle vulnerable, even with a Maasai as a driver, so I decline the kind offer.

Traditionally, a Maasai murran (warrior) could only marry after joining a lion hunt to show his strength and courage. Still famed for their bravery, the tribe are no longer allowed to hunt in the reserve that bears their name. Even so, a group of murrans will still secretly spend the night deep inside to chase down a zebra or antelope, even though eating such meat is taboo. Everybody knows but all the park rangers are Maasai too.

“A lion will sometimes go outside the park boundaries and we are then allowed to kill it,” says Rinka. “They come for our cows as it is an easy supper for them.” At 28, Rinka is an experienced boda-boda chauffeur and knows the region like the palm of his hand. The name comes from English “border-border” and originated from a need to transport people across the long no-man’s-land between the Kenyan and Ugandan border posts. Nowadays, it is the fastest-growing business among the young men in this area.

The Maasai live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. Traditionally a semi-nomadic people, they were forced to settle down into reservations by the British colonial authorities after the building of the Mombasa-Kampala railway at the end of the 19th century. Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep are still their primary source of income, so children are brought up as herders and shepherds, but now increasingly find other work in Kenya’s large tourism industry.

I ask Rinka when and why he abandoned his time-honored ways. “When I was 18 I realized I had to move on,” he says. “I have too many siblings, and we didn’t have enough cattle for all of us to survive. So I took a job as a guide in the reserve but it didn’t last very long because I only had primary school education and my English wasn’t good enough for them. So I persuaded my clan to sell two cows to put a deposit for the motorbike and now I am able to earn enough for myself and give some money to my family to help my younger sisters to go to school. I want them to do well, so they can go on to higher education in the cities.”

I could go on to clerical college

I meet Sharon Sanayian, a teacher at the school in Losho where Rinka’s sisters go. Sharon’s and her salary and housing are paid for by the Maasai-American Organization, a small US-based charity, since the government’s budget cannot pay for enough teachers in the district. When I arrive, she is helping one of her pupils, ten-year-old Margaret, to catch up with her English and Math. The girl is very excited to be able to broaden her horizons beyond the rural and domestic chores that are expected of her. “If I improve my grammar and writing skills, I could go on to clerical college and try to get a job in the civil service,” says Margaret.

“My parents were educated,” says Sharon. “My mother is herself a schoolteacher, so they encouraged me to go to teacher training college. I did my practice in other parts of Kenya, but I was determined to come back here, to serve my community. I try to persuade local parents to get more of their girls to come to school, and I believe I am succeeding, as a role-model for them but it is an uphill struggle. The older generation is very conservative in their views and always favor boys over girls, but that is slowly changing.”

I put that statement to the test when I pay my respects to Chief Nangiyoo Momoni, in the Oliolomutia ward, right at the edge of the Maasai Mara. Now in his late 80s, he has been a cattle herder all his life. He never went to school and, although he is aware that more girls are now attending classes, he is adamant that their place is in the homestead of loaf-shaped round dwellings made of mud, cow dung and thatch. The chief now lives with his fourth wife, who beckons me in and offers me a cup of sweet chai tea.

The Maasai literally live among cows, sheep and coats. Their houses are built from dried cow dung, the animals sleep in and around their huts and fresh cow dung is everywhere; in and outside their huts. Cow dung is even inside the bedrooms and children walk in bare feet through the manure. Life can seem unchanged for centuries but I ask the chief and his wife about those changes they must have witnessed over the last decades, from the Mau-Mau Uprising against the colonial power, to independence under Jomo Kenyatta and the turmoil of the tribal tensions over the last decade.

“It was essential to push out the white rulers,” says Momoni, “but I have misgivings about the centralized policies of the successive post-independence governments. They have effectively marginalized small tribal groups like ours, giving preference to the majority Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups.”

This put an end to their pastoral existence

The biggest change to their way of life was the passing of the Groups Representatives Act in 1968. Realizing there was not enough land for the Maasai to settle in individual plots, the government encouraged them to form “group ranches” and establish control over blocks of grazing land. This put an end to their former pastoral existence, opening up opportunities for education and growing crops, but the fixed boundaries made them susceptible to drought; when no rain fell, they had nowhere to move their herds. Many Maasai also took advantage of lucrative offers to sell the land to developers wanting to start private game reserves or hotels.

Other big changes are driven by the changing world around them. Pressure from human rights groups may soon stop the custom of female circumcision, while the teaching of Christianity is bringing polygamy to an end. Education sends Maasai youths away to colleges in large towns or cities, from where many do not return.

There are other pressures from tourism. Playing pool in a local bar, I meet Wayne, a 21-year-old Maasai who works in the “cultural village” inside the Maasai Mara, showing off his traditional costume to tourists and trying to sell them trinkets. He is quite happy with his lot, saying it is preferable to the long, lonely days as a shepherd that most of his mates have to endure.

“I’m very popular with the foreign ladies,” he says. “Maybe one of them will marry me, so I can travel the world like you do.” Fair enough, I say, and if you did that, would you one day come back? “Sure I will, with lots of mixed-race kids, to set up my own safari company, and employ my own family. It will be a great success!” While talking, he loses his concentration and I beat him to the last ball, pocketing the black.

The young boys here herd the animals while the older boys do absolutely nothing all day, except perhaps dance for tourists, which has become a major source of income. Because girls have so much work to do in the house from a very young age, many do not attend primary school but the boys are also often kept back as the Maasai consider herding cows and work in the house priorities. Very few continue to secondary education.

It is common for young girls to marry older men. Both girls and boys are circumcised at puberty and are then considered ready for marriage, which is arranged by the fathers. His decision for a daughter is often based on economic interests and it is therefore common for young girls to be married with older men. It is a custom some younger people are starting to resist.

The ceremony itself has a deeper meaning

The following day, I am invited to a feast in the village of Siana, about 5 km from the reserve. The sacrifice of a goat is a great occasion in this impoverished region, done only on special occasions. In this instance, it is to celebrate the high school graduation of 18-year-old Martine Odupoi. The ceremony itself has a deeper meaning for the men here. Those who killed the goat then drink its blood, thus cleansing themselves and their families of any evil spirits that may haunt their relatives and loved ones.

The whole community enjoys the banquet, sharing every part of the animal and then making a broth from the leftovers, which is combined with millet beer and then passed around in small cups as a toast to good luck in the future.

Martine’s future is clear: she can’t wait to start teacher training college in Nairobi. Inspired by Sharon, she wants to complete her degree and come back to share her enthusiasm with her Maasai people. “Sharon has been a pioneer, since we didn’t have many female local teachers before she started working in Losho Primary,” she says. “I want to follow in her steps and also try to encourage young girls to improve their lives through education. But we need more help, since our central government does not do enough.”

She is also following in the footsteps of her brother Joseph Odupoi, a 22-year-old student of international development at Nairobi University who has come home to enjoy his sister’s success. They have both had the benefit of an educated father who encouraged them to study. “I was naturally keen to go to higher education when I finished secondary school, and I got the right grades, too,” says Joseph. “But we all have large families and it was hard to leave my mother and sisters and little brother behind. My father died when I was 17, so I became the head of the family. But everyone agreed to invest in my education, and the clan sold three cows to pay for my fees and stay in Nairobi. I have almost finished my degree now, and I am also working part-time with in the capital, so I am slowly able to repay the great trust they put on me.”

It was so different 40 years ago

Nashiluni, 50, is Joseph and Martine’s mother and she is delighted for her elder son and daughter to move on to study in the cities. Unlike her late husband, she did not have the chance to go beyond primary school, and she is adamant that the whole family should try to remedy that.

“It was so different 40 years ago,” she says. “We were just becoming an independent nation, after a bloody rebellion that killed so many people and divided all our ethnic groups. The Maasai was probably the most backward – up to this day – of all the main tribes of Kenya. It was the Kikuyu and the Luo who always had the best jobs and education, so it was a struggle to go beyond primary school. The secondary and high schools were all in the cities, which were far away and expensive for us. We lived in a different world! Now at least we have local secondary schools and thanks to tourism we are more exposed to the outside world.”

One of the butchers at the feast is Ole, 19, who seems an exception to this passion for education among his age group. He is adamant he wants to remain a herdsman in the countryside. “Most of my friends have left or work in tourism or driving, but I like it here,” he says. “I’ve been to the big towns and when they see you are a rural youth they try to rob you or rip you off. I’m proud to be a Maasai, and to be able to stay here and help my elders.”

However, education sometimes comes to you. Paul Chelule is a science teacher at the school in Oliolomutia, and he is sharing his knowledge on modern methods of preserving food with his class.

“It is a very relevant subject,” he says, “since the local community relies on the consumption of milk, dairy products and meat for its subsistence. There are regular outbreaks of a mild form of cholera and diarrhea, which are related to bad preservation of foodstuffs. Most Maasai homes do not have refrigerators, so they rely on time-honored methods of smoking and salting their produce. But the new generation is losing the skills of the elders, and a lot of the time they don’t do it properly or thoroughly, so we are keen to teach them that. All these kids help at home in the afternoons and they are very involved in the whole process.”

We have to make teaching relevant to their needs

Head-teacher Joseph Ngaruthi agrees. “We have to make the teaching of sciences and even of English relevant to their everyday needs,” he says. “The Maasai rely on agriculture and tourism for their survival, and the students that come to us from dozens of small hamlets in the region participate in their communities’ economy and also want to work as tourist guides, so we try to give them lessons on food science and extra language vocabulary that they can use in the hospitality industry.”

One Maasai already working in the tourist industry is Joseph Sengeny, 35, who has a job at Kicheche Mara Camp. “I became a guide because I love nature and born in the outdoors,” he says. “I grew up in Aitong and went to sleep each night hearing hyenas, lions and jackals. My earliest memory is herding my father’s cattle within meters of a herd of elephant. Maasai tradition is fundamental to how I work. Some say that our cattle forms an uneasy truce with the wildlife, but both Maasai pastoralists and wildebeest herds go back thousands of years. I have no intention in letting anything get in the way of this. Every day I dress in traditional Maasai robes to go to work, I cannot imagine wearing anything else.”

Joseph is optimistic about finding a way to balance the tensions between the old way of life and the new. “The Maasai are now understanding much more that wildlife are our meal ticket,” he says. “Our land is important but without the wildlife we will just be farmers, and probably poor ones at that. If we look after the other animals apart from our cattle, everyone benefits – the tourists, the animals and ourselves. I wish that this view was completely widespread, but this will take time.”

Joseph is typical of a new generation who embrace the benefits of change while remaining proud of their roots. “Maasai have laptops and cell phones, this is a necessary change,” he says. “Just because we may wear clothes dating back centuries, does not mean we are barbarians. However, it is critical that tourism facilities treat us and animals sensitively, otherwise it is not sustainable. Of all the reasons I work at Kicheche, this is the most important.”

In the olden days, the Maasai used to have an end-of-the-world myth which spoke of an ‘iron snake’ that would one day crawl across their land. The advent of the railway, and, later, of tourist buses, fulfilled that ancestral prophecy, but they have managed to retain their identity and dignity against the successive evils of colonialism and marginalization.

The new generation is keen to keep their uniqueness while adjusting to a fast-changing world. They have survived in a hostile environment for thousands of years and I have no doubt they will continue to do so.

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