For our last grand adventure/field component as a group, the ten of us hopped into safari vehicles to go to Amboseli, a national park about four hours south of Nairobi. The park was established in 1974 and covers 151.4 mi2 of traditionally Maasai land. As students going to an area largely economically supported by tourism, we experienced a variety of situations in which we adapted to, questioned, and debated our understanding of our experiences. Throughout the week, we had discussions and interviews with farmers and community members, we went on two game drives through the national park (lions and tigers and… ostriches[?] oh my!), visited a “cultural manyatta”, and did a 24 hour homestay with a Maasai family. Our experience was interspersed with hotel pool swims, tire shoe shopping, and DOOM!-ing all of our belongings. No adventure is complete without a little DOOM! Insecticide©, right?
As land availability has decreased, due to the breakup of group ranches and larger populations, Maasai have less land to graze their livestock on and many have turned to a mix of pastoralism and agriculture. We had an opportunity to learn about the challenges of agriculturists living in the area first hand. Most of the farmers we interviewed did not actually own the land, but were crop sharers. This means that the landowner leased out his land, many times to a middleman who paid for the lease, seeds, and pesticides and allowed the farmers to work the land in exchange for a certain percentage of the profit. The area we were in used generators to pump water from the small river to their crops, and never ran out of water because of their positioning so far upstream. The main challenge that farmers faced was ELEPHANTS. Being so close to Amboseli, the adorable elephants regularly go out of the National Park at night and feast on the delicious vegetables that the farmers had been so meticulously taking care of. If elephants do come, the farmers must resort to making loud noises, shining flashlights, and lighting firecrackers to scare away the elephants. Since there is no compensation program, these farmers can lose their entire income for the growing season (3-4 months). The most effective way of keeping the elephants out is by electric fence. The farmers discussed that the government should provide fencing for either the park or the farms because of the problems the government park has caused for them.
After a morning of interviewing farmers, we made our way down the road to visit a “Cultural Manyatta”. Cultural Manyattas are a site that the Maasai in the area have created to earn an income off of the tourist industry that is rampant in the region. These manyattas are a traditional homestead, consistent of approximately 15 cow-dung homes, and a boma to house cattle. The manyattas are set up in a circle with the homes around the outside, with the boma in the center. There are multiple reasons for this, two of them being protection from lions, and for health reasons because of how wet the center of the manyatta gets during the wet season. Who knew a barrier of acacia branches and dung homes would hold off the “king of the jungle”?
The Maasai in the manyattas create an experience for the tourist to learn about their culture and way of life, greeting you with a welcome dance and jumping competition, and then seeing you off with a market of their beaded goods. When we pulled in, the group of Maasai men and women welcomed us to dance with them, and challenged the boys to take part in their jumping competition. Our new Maasai friends joked about the boys’ lack of jumping ability- guess we’ve got something to work on, eh boys?!
After welcoming us to their manyatta and praying, we were brought into the homestead and taught about some of the natural medical remedies they have for everything from Malaria, to digestive issues, to low libido. After our medical lesson, we toured the homes, and had group interviews with the manyatta site members. On our way out, many of us bought beadwork from the women that we danced with in the beginning of the visit. Beading is something that only women do, and allows them to have a means of income to help support their households, and give them more economic autonomy.
While in Amboseli we had the chance to experience how most tourist’s live in Kenya. We stayed at the Kibo Safari Lodge and slept in “luxury tents” that were mostly filled with tourists from Europe and North America. When the safari’ers weren’t out enjoying Amboseli National Park, they were taking refuge from the hot sun and swapping stories about their quests to see The Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino) which were the most sought after animals by recreational hunters, but has now transitioned into a fun sightseeing challenge.
On our second day in Amboseli we excitedly woke up with the sunrise, grabbed a quick breakfast and eagerly loaded into our two Safari style Toyota Land Cruisers and were on our way. Before we entered the park we were greeted by several grant’s gazelle and twigas, also known as giraffe, and many local Maasai selling souvenirs such as necklaces and animal carvings at the entrance. We spent the morning and afternoon in awe looking at countless numbers of elephants buffalo, wildebeest, waterbuck, reedbuck, baboons, ostriches, warthogs, giraffes, zebra, thomson’s gazelle, grant’s gazelle, hippos, flamingos, and birds that were completely foreign to us. We even saw several hyenas and a lion! It was picturesque seeing all of these animals in their expansive landscape with the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.
Our travels to Amboseli happened to be in the dry season, so there was not much vegetation in relation to the herds of animals, with a few exceptions of swampier areas where the Kilimanjaro snow melt collects. Much of the landscape was bare soil, and in some areas there was hardly more than a few trees or shrubs in eye sight. We learned that this is due to the large number of animals that the environment cannot sustain. The National Park can sustainably hold a population of 400 elephants, but the population has skyrocketed in recent decades to over 1600 (they are forced to raid the farmers’ fields so that they have enough food). An adult elephant can knock down five trees a day, which has converted the environment into a grassland. As a result, the grazers populations have increased and they have overgrazed the environment. All of this has led to a strain on the environment and topsoil erosion that causes the dust devils that vortex around the park.
Then the day came, and we went off roading to bush, eagerly seeking out our new families. We went to this homestay in groups of two and each group was given a translator since families mainly speak their ethnic language of Maa. We were dropped off at the entrance of the manyatta and were immediately welcomed by our Maasai homestay mother with a cup of chai and later to our homestay father.
Many rural Maasai practice polygamy as they have historically done and my homestay father had two wives. The wives each had their own house for themselves and their children in the manyatta and the father takes turns sleeping in between the two houses. Each of our homestay mothers cooked separately for themselves and their children and both worked together to complete tasks to keep the manyatta running.
At our homestay we were able to experience a day in the life of a traditional Maasai and help them with daily tasks. The Maasai have rigidly gender segregated duties, so the girls helped collecting water from a natural spring in the ground, gather firewood, cook, and clean. The boys spent most of their time herding cattle and finding new pastures. In the end we all were instructed on how to make the distinctive Maasai bracelets and necklaces and a couple lucky people even got to help reinforce a house by spreading the cow dung and ash mixture onto the house walls.
We finished out the week with interviews of community members. Groups of community leaders, educated women, traditional women, agriculturalists, and pastoralists answered our various questions about everything from irrigation techniques to thoughts about FGM.
Here are some of the most interesting things we learned from the groups:
- When asked about modernization, the group of pastoral men said that they would ideally be 50% pastoralist and 50% agriculturalist. They are not bitter or put out by the change in their traditional ways of livelihood, but rather are adjusting and finding new ways to live and be happy.
- The strong relationship between the Maasai and their cattle was/is amazing. No matter how “modern” the group becomes, everyone will always still have at least one cow. “We are not Maasai without our cows”
- Pastoralists who are also agriculturalist frequently hire out people to graze their cattle. Children now go to school at minimum through primary level, keeping them in the classroom rather than out with the livestock, leaving a gap in the labor force that must be compensated by changing work for the adults, or hiring out to graze livestock.
- When one sees images of the Maasai people, they frequently see an image of a bare breasted woman covered in beads. In reality, historically and modernly, women are always covered, and do not bare their breasts. This image was created by the western world, and is not actually representative of the Maasai people.
- The maasai shukas (blankets) were actually brought by the Scottish missionaries in the late 1800s.
- Another identifier of the Maasai is the circular or lined scars on their cheeks. This is a burn scar that was used as a technique to keep flies out of their eyes which could otherwise spread a disease that could blind them. The circular scars we have seen here in Kenya identify a Maasai as a Kenyan Maasai. If a Maasai has three vertical lines instead, he/she can be identified as Tanzanian.
-Laura and Aidan