The secrets of a people
Perhaps the name of no African tribal people is better known in the West than that of the Maasai. But knowledge rarely goes beyond the name. There is generally little understanding of their customs and traditions, where they currently live or what distinguishes them from other peoples.
Public opinion is only familiar with the empty name, reduced to pure folklore as a symbol of what is imagined to be the “most authentic” Africa, together with lions, zebras, coloured masks and little else.
The Maasai are an extraordinarily ancient Nilotic people. To this day they live in the highlands on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, where they apparently arrived from the Nile valley some 500 years ago. A people of transhumant livestock breeders, today they are often sedentary. Cattle are at the centre of their way of life, and they once sufficed to maintain it, both as food and as a medium of exchange. (Milk and meat are the Maasai’s favourite foods, as shown by their drink, saroi, made of milk and blood mixed.)
In ancient times the Maasai land was divided into a series of areas of collective ownership, so that they all had access to the main sources of livelihood, starting from water. Some Maasai clans, as we mentioned, have now become sedentary (especially in Kenya; the Maasai are divided into twelve major clans). They now combine raising cattle with farming.
Maasai society is organized into male age-groups. It should be emphasised that every change of age, from initiate to warrior (the morani, whom Walter Bonatti described in a report in the 1960s), from maturity to old age (as well as the moments of birth and death), is celebrated with collective religious rituals. The Maasai do not have leaders, but each group refers to an oloibon (or laibon), a spiritual guide. They are monotheists, trusting in the only god Enkai, as well as in guardian spirits who are rather like Christian guardian angels.
Though it is not evident at first glance, the Maasai have several enemies. Among the most threatening are hunters from the Loliondo region, in the far north of Tanzania, a strategic point for intercepting the great migrations of animals. Maasai villages have been gradually expropriated and razed to the ground by the local authorities, the men and women evicted by force to encourage the establishment of large hunting companies, such as the Otterlo Business Corporation (owned by the royal house of the United Arab Emirates), or luxurious safari agencies, such as Thomson Safaris. In almost all cases, these immense companies act with the more or less overt complicity of the local government, in both rich countries and poor, even though they are more conspicuous in the latter.
In 2006 Thomson Safaris absorbed the parastatal Tanzania Conservation Limited, which in the 1980s acquired some 10,000 acres in today’s Ngorongoro district. (The purchase was contested by the Maasai.) This is the location of the famous nature reserve and here the Maasai should, according to Tanzanian law, be able to live and move freely.
This has not always happened – quite the contrary. Both Otterlo and Thomson have been involved in numerous legal disputes over the years, all concerning the lawfulness of their possession of the Maasai territories, as well as the methods by which these spaces are governed. Otterlo, for instance, has been accused of destroying hundreds of villages and repeatedly inflicting violence on their inhabitants. The European Parliament protested and the Tanzanian government intervened, recently announcing the eviction of Otterlo and in early 2019 arresting its CEO Isaack Lesion Molle.
Many of the ancient tribal territories have now been replaced by farms and cattle breeding. The Maasai are increasingly confined to the most arid and sterile areas of the country, with great suffering for their livestock. The livelihood of the population has become increasingly precarious over the years.
In 2010, some Maasai communities, supported by the organisation EarthRights International, sued Thomson Safaris, accusing it of fraudulently occupying several thousand acres of their land, as well as committing various abuses against the indigenous peoples, who have been barred from access to water with the complicity of the local police.
But perhaps the most painful factor is the Maasai people’s progressive loss of identity. Many have ended up wearing what was once their authentic face as a sort of mask. Some have found work on the coast, in the tourist areas, on the nearby island of Zanzibar. Here they play the Maasai character, entertaining guests in the resorts, performing their dances, allowing themselves to be photographed in traditional costumes. Some have rented (at very high prices for them) small shops on the beach, where they sell small handcrafted items, souvenirs, fabrics, bracelets and necklaces to foreign tourists. Still others take seasonal jobs as caretakers, delivery workers and waiters in the various hotels.
The wonderful landscape of the Serengeti is a popular destination for tourists from around the world. It is the ancestral home of the Maasai people. The home from which efforts are being made to evict them, despite the many proclamations of a commitment to the contrary by the government in Dodoma. Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Tanzanian economy, but the system of safaris, big game hunting (some Hemingway novels and stories come to mind), and amusement parks are destroying the life and culture of one of the oldest and most fascinating tribal peoples in Africa.
In short, this is nothing more than the usual, daily struggle between the old and the new world. The old is being crushed, humiliated, forced into a grotesque caricature of itself, forced to occupy arid and sterile lands and denied the means of sustenance. The second hounds it tenaciously following the perfect holy laws of the market.
What is striking about this people is their sad and penetrating gaze. But not defeated. Those eyes are proud, proud to belong to the Maasai people.