When we think about the Maasai, the images that typically appear in our minds are of tall, beautiful, dapper people wrapped in the very recognisable red-blue checkered Shuka fabric that Haute Couture brands love to rip off. However, there is a more sombre and somewhat tragic side to this community than meets the eye. You see, although the Maasai is the poster child of Visit Tanzania campaigns due to their unique physiques, their land looks and is even more spectacular, and now, a number of forces are conspiring to take it away from them.

The entire great lakes area are all Maasai lands. All the territory above and below that too. Think of all the typical areas that tourists flock to for the Great Migration, spectacular views and world-class game reserves: Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, etc.. This spectacular territory is also where you will find the mountain known as Ol Doinyo Lengai, a sacred pace for the Maasai, believed to be where God resides.

The Maasai culture is often sold to people as a good reason to visit Tanzania. However, for the Maasais themselves, there is little love coming their way.

The Maasai are frugal and very spiritual people who live in perfect symbiosis with nature. They herd cattle, goats and sheep although they typically use a lot of their livestock as a symbol of wealth and family health rather than for eating. They have cohabited with the rich diversity of animals around them for hundreds of years, harvesting from nature and the animals around them only according to their needs.

Maasai lands are spectacular and sought after today because they have always been well looked after. The careful management of how to interact with wildlife, how to graze cattle, where to build homes and other similar rules and traditions has been a textbook masterclass in nature conservation.

A Maasai girl brings some grass and earth to make a paste for plastering.

However, there is one thing about Maasai customs that modern society hates: communal customary tenure. The Maasai, like many indigenous communities around Africa, have always managed their land under communal customary tenure systems. People take from nature only what they need and so, everybody has access to water, land, trees, grass, animals and so on as and when they need it. This practise does not enjoy legal protection because according to the Tanzanian Constitution, all land is vested in the president as a trustee on behalf of the beneficiaries who are citizens. In other words, in Tanzania, one cannot own the plot that they occupy outright.

The Tanzanian government has used the principle of eminent domain to kick many Maasai off their land. In the Ngorongoro conservation area, there is a mix-use system where Maasai are allowed to live and graze their cattle, but the government can evict them at any time if their land is needed for something else. The more the government wants foreign currency, the more it grants licenses in Maasai territories. The most recent beneficiaries of exclusive hunting zone permits are members of the Qatari ruling family.

In the past, the Maasai dutifully complied with eviction notices –mostly – whenever they were issued. However, that is beginning to change. Since the dawn of the 2000s, the Maasai are refusing to move from their lands. This is leading to clashed with the police.

Climate change is putting further pressure on the Maasai. Recently, their watering holes have been running dry. During the last drought event that hit the Horn of Africa in the late 2010s, the Maasai lost cattle in some places due to drought conditions. Rangeland is also dwindling. This is heightening tension every time the government fences off areas for the issuance of hunting permits.

There are better ecotourism alternatives that the Tanzanian government can adopt to protect but the Maasai and the environment. However, indigenous communities have the impression that government people in faraway places are making bad decisions on their behalf and treating them like children.

In the next few months, we are going to be paying close attention to thefight for survival of indigenous communities like the Maasai.

In the following interview, we asked Oleshangay Joseph, lawyer and activist, to tell us more about the Maasaia and the pressures that they currently face on many fronts.


Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are Ethnic Nilotic tribes inhabiting Nothern and Central Tanzania as well as Southern Kenya. They live in or along the most known parks in both countries that include Serengeti, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire, Mkomazi, Mikumi in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya. While it is not clear as to when the Maasai arrived in present-day Tanzania from the north, it is believed that they arrived between the 13th to 16th centuries. By the eighteen century, Maasai occupied a large area that ranges from areas lying 1°N. lat., and 5° S and the meridian of 33° and 39° E. longitude. (cited from Through the Maasailand by Joseph Thomson1887).

Maasai children in a village

Today, the Maasai occupy less than 30% of the land they occupied in the18th century at the height of their expansion. Since the establishment of Serengeti National Park, the first in Maasailand, in 1940, there has been a growing movement among conservationists and the Tanzanian government to confiscate more Maasailand for filming, tourism and hunting.  

What is their relationship with nature and how does it influence their way of life?

The Maasai are monotheistic, i.e. they worship a single deity called Enkai, or Engai. Engai has a dual nature in two races (colours) Enkai Narok(Black God) is benevolent, and Enkai Na-nyokie (Red God) is vengeful. For their spirituality, they have set sacred areas that are exclusively used for spiritual purposes to worship their deity.  

The Maasai communities depend on nature for their livelihoods and survival. To the Maasai, Land for example is not only a plot but a defining feature of spirituality as in the case of Oldoinyo Lengai (God Mountain), Loormalasin, and Lemakarot, sacred sites all in Ngorongoro District. In these areas, the Maasai worship God and practise their spirituality. The Maasai of Ngorongoro for example use the Ngorongoro crater floor from endoinyo e rumbe, endoinyo enkitati,enkoitoi oo Itwati, Sama and Enkoitokitok as traditional and cultural sites for performing rites of passage ceremonies in which teenagers become women and men.

This entails the confirmation of each age grade during traditional ceremonies known as Enkipaata (at an interval of 18 years) of the coming of the new age groups. The year 2023 is the commencement of the new Maasai age group and so, an Enkipaata is going to be held soon.

What role do the Maasai play in the culture and preservation of the environment?

The Maasai have established cultural norms that compel every member of society to nature conservation. For example, a Maasai person will never cut a big tree from the trunk (buttress or bole) and anyone who violates this norm is punished by Maasai society. Punishments are enforced by the elders.

The Maasai use only tree branches and not the entire tree to build houses, make fire for cooking and heating, build fences for their homesteads and other requirements. This ensures that the tree survives and they can harvest from it according to their needs for many years.

Again, the Maasai have declared that some trees are holy and should not be harmed in any way. This includes the Iretet. The Iretet is used only for prayers. It cannot be cut down for fire making, building houses or anything else. Other trees are important because they have medicinal value to the Maasai and therefore the community will protect and never use the same unless for medical factors. Through these customs, the forest is protected and nature preservation is enforced by community standards and moral authority.

The Maasai nomadic lifestyle is also a mechanism to allow nature recovery time and ensure that there is no overexploitation of resources. They move from one place to another to give nature time to recover. This prevents environmental degradation and any other detrimental impact on their well-being as a community

What else do the Maasai do to protect the environment for their own survival as well?

The Maasai protect nature in many other ways. Wildlife is protected, because according to the Maasai, they are second cattle after the ones that they keep at home.  The Maasai have a rule that wildlife should not be consumed by the community. Unlike many African communities, they do not consume game or bush meat. This is why the term Ndorobo exists –it was invented as an insult to people who hunt wild animals and consume game. The person who eats game is despised by the Maasai and so everyone tries to avoid that.

Describe a typical Maasai homestead and Maasai community

The Maasai normally divide their community into four main areas including a home, a place to tend to young calves and two grazing areas for the rainy season and dry seasons. It is forbidden to build in the grazing areas. It is also forbidden to graze one’s livestock in the area reserved for the dry season during the rainy season and vice versa.

To Maasai however, wildlife has no restriction in accessing these areas during any season.


How do the Masai teach their children about their environment and its importance?

The Maasai generally teach their children through folklore transmitted from one generation to the next.  Part of Maasai folklore focuses on the role of nature in community interaction and survival.  Again, as the kids grow, they are assigned to tend the family cows or assist parents with home chores.  Each child is progressively taught the importance of nature in dealing with the assigned activity.  Children are taught about animals, plants, medicinal and poisonous trees and the importance of nature in rainmaking, matters of cultural and spiritual values, etc.

How does climate change affect the Maasai communities?

The Maasai do not control the resources in their own territory and this unfortunately affects their ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Institutional barriers caused by laws and government policies limit access and control over traditional lands and natural resources.

In many areas inhabited by Maasai, essential infrastructure like water, sanitation, disaster response and health care is severely lacking and this handicaps the ability to respond to and mitigate climate-related threats. Another area that relates to climate change and the Maasai is traditional medicinal plants. The Maasai primary medicines are derived from trees, shrubs, stems, and roots and can be used in a multitude of ways to cure or prevent diseases.  With an unchecked distribution of land to game hunters and with the effects of the climate crisis, this natural medicinal mechanism stands to be impacted.

The Maasai in Tanzania are already undergoing trauma from unprecedented land confiscation by the state leading to removal from their homelands, and loss of traditional cultural practices. Climate change is worsening this trauma in many ways because land takes more time to recover and some plants are disappearing.

The death of livestock in Maasai areas in recent years due to heat and drought has been unprecedented. We are already seeing changes in our lifetime. Being pastoral people, the Maasai need rainfall and adequate grass resources. Failure of rainfall for Maasai literally means a death penalty as cattle that are the source of food, money, a symbol of culture, faith and wealth may be wiped out by the inability to access grazing land and water.