Travelling from Nairobi to Arusha takes us through Maasailand, which straddles the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai with their distinctive dress and beautiful jewellery are for many one of the iconic African tribes. However their uneasy relationship with the modern world provide a fascinating lense through which to think through some of the issues around development. The Maasai are essentially nomadic cattle herders, their herd (often cows / goats) are their wealth and are referred to as the ‘breath of life’. It was their fierce defence of their cattle from lions and other alpha predators that led them to value courage and bravery highly. This also contributed to their reputation for being fierce warriors. In the 18th Century – trade caravans moving inland from the east coast would cross Maasai territory with trepidation.
When the British replaced the Germans as the colonial power after the First World War they were fascinated and perplexed by the Maasai. They encouraged them to adopt European practices of education and medicine but also wanted them to keep their traditional culture, moving them and hoping to contain them to a reserve in Southern Kenya. Sadly the Maasai were seriously weakened by the inadvertent introduction of rinderpest ( a bovine disease) which wiped out 80% of their herd. Also weakened by inter-tribal fighting their are now estimated to be 150,000 Maasai in Kenya and an equivalent number in Tanzania. With many now moving away from the nomadic lifestyle they are now living in villages and have adopted more modern ranching and farming techniques. A large amount have moved to the cities of Arusha, Dodoma and Dar es Salaam where they are often employed as security guards.
Modern urban life can be quite cruel to them, often mocked and looked down upon by modern citizens of East Africa, it is not unusual for the Maasai to live a sort of double life – some time spent back in their villages in traditional dress and then moving into the cities and working in western dress. Uneasily straddling these two cultures….. modernity, mobile phones, wages and bank accounts on one hand, or spears, jewellery, traditional dress and bartering. Travelling along the highway which links the two countries you get tantalising glimpses into these two worlds. Also you certainly can experience some full on bartering at the border crossing of Namanga. These fleeting encounters with Maasai give you a lot to ponder about. Certainly the modern world has much to offer, and some of the traditional customs – the high rates of FGM are appalling, however are we not more rushed, more stressed and more unhappy? Should we loose our traditions so quickly? With the majority of the world now living in cities, what life are we creating for ourselves? Writing this I remember a very interesting discussion with a couple of young professional Indian women in the back of rickshaw in Bangalore who were strongly against wearing jeans. They persuasively argued in favour of the Sari. All the indications are that the Masaai will be slowly sucked into modern urban life, at what cost? Is this really development?