Pastoralists facing realities in southern Kenya: Grace’s story and vision

"My education was paid for by selling cows" says Grace, the only Maasai and woman manager in an Eco-tourism camp, in Southern Kenya. But Maasai pastoralists are facing today a lot of challanges, because of climate change, land demarcation and huge herds of cattle with no land to graze. Conservancies look like a double-edged sword. What should they do to survive?

27 december 2017 - Grace Sorimpam Osoi, 36 years old, the only Maasai and woman manager in an Eco-tourism camp, Maasai Mara game reserve, narrates her experience of the challenges facing pastoralists today and the need for adaptation to ensure a sustainable future.

“I have great respect for my community and our life in pastoralism. I was lucky enough that my parents managed to persuade my grandfather that I should be educated. I first went to school under a tree, where we used our fingers and sticks to write in the dust. This was before the missionaries came, bringing with them the resources to build facilities and now children have much better opportunities.  My education was paid for by selling cows. I owe everything I am to my parents and the cows they sold to finance my schooling. Later on, I was sponsored through hotel management school in Nairobi.

Today, my community is facing a lot of challenges, with long droughts, too little land and huge herds of cattle. Climate change is visible to us here, as we used to have 2 seasons of rain, but now the rain has no pattern. Maasai traditionally have always had huge herds, some having up to a 1000 heads of cattle. We are also a polygamous society, so it is frequent for a man to have 3 wives, and each of them to have about 5 children. Land gets divided among the male members of the family. Now with family numbers growing and land not increasing – we are facing huge challenges.

In the past, people used to move. We heard that it had rained in the north, and we would head out with our cattle to graze over there. Now with the Government’s policy of land demarcation, we have title deeds. We have been allocated demarcated land and we need to survive on that. So far, the land has not been taken from us but once you have your own title deed, you can do what you want and some people, unused to a cash economy, have sold or leased their land to others (non Maasai) and now they don’t know what to do. Land is being fenced and even the corridors that used to be left for animals, including wildlife, to pass are being closed off.  Demarcation for us was a big mistake and is bringing conflict to the Maasai who used to live in harmony. Now conservancies are coming in – there are currently 9 conservancies in the Mara. It is a good system – in a way - as it allows the Maasai to lease their land, getting some income that they can invest, without selling the land outright. In this way, it provides security, but on the other hand, once land is given to a conservancy, if the person still has big herds of cattle, they don’t know where to go.

We are at the interface of tourism, conservancies and pastoralism – and this is causing conflict every day. Tourism is the country’s biggest foreign currency earner and the game parks and reserves belong to the government. When people graze their animals in the parks, they are fined 10,000/- per herd (approx. Euro 100), and their animals are kept in enclosures until it is paid.  On the other hand, when the Maasai signaway their land to conservancies, if they own big herds, they have nowhere to go and no power over the situation. This leads to conflict, as with demarcation and fencing, we can’t move. In the times of our grandfathers there was nothing like this. If it rained – you moved in that direction. Now we’re stuck on our own fenced plots.

Also in the past, some people would cultivate crops growing beans, potatoes, wheat, maize, but now with climate change it is very difficult. They prepare the land and wait for the April rains which never come and everything dies.

There are many other considerations to be made. In life, we have seen a lot of changes; peoples’ lifestyles are changing. In 2005, tourism was good; in 2007 it declined due to politics and security issues. Look at the Mara – where there are currently 140 hotels and camps - if the Government doesn’t try to control the numbers of people and hotels, there is going to be a big problem. It is not possible to sustain the ecosystem in this way. Also in terms of the Maasai community, the Maasai Mara as a game reserve has introduced a cash economy that previously wasn’t there. With cash available, townships are mushrooming, with bars and prostitution. This behavior is totally new to the Maasai – and as I said – we are a polygamous society – so you can imagine what that means in terms of HIV. Our culture is totally changing.

There are other issues, such as the government’s free, compulsory primary education policy (which is about to be extended to secondary education) – but which in reality is not free as you have to pay for books and uniforms. I am in favor of education for all – as it is the only thing that you can give a child. If you give them a cow, they can sell it, if you give them brains, they have them forever. Even if education is affecting our culture (as once you learn to read and write, it is difficult to return to our hard way of life), I would never tell a Maasai not to be educated nor to leave their cows. I have respect for cows that provided me with an education. What we need to do is to find a more sustainable way to improve our standard of living.

For Maasai culture and life style to survive in any way, we now need to change our way of doing things.  We need to understand that with the demarcation of land, fencing and lack of mobility, coupled with drought, climate change and population increase, we need to change our strategy to survive. For me, the solution is for the Maasai to reduce their herd numbers. I would never say that they should give up their cows, but the way we keep cows needs to change. I think we should have few dairy cows that can provide milk for the family and sell the remaining milk for income. Then we should have some cows for beef that would also provide income.  We should keep them on zero grazing, and this we could do within the demarcation of land that we have.  This is the only responsible, sustainable way to live. If we don’t accept to plant trees on our land to help bring the rain, and if we continue as we are now, in 10 years, the Maasai will have no cows.

There are people already doing this, they are selling milk that we are buying despite the fact that we have cattle of our own.  These people are not suffering.

As a Maasai woman, I hope to live as a role model for Maasai girls and others. I belief in women’s empowerment and I have trained girls to become mechanics, drivers, cooks, hotel staff, etc. I aim to prove that women can do what men can do if given a chance to explore their ability.  This is very important to me.

To conclude, I would like to say, if you ask an old Maasai man, they know exactly what is going on, but they need to take action if we are to survive. Otherwise our cattle are gone.

How long does it take for people to understand what is happening in their real realnaked eyes?”


(an interview by Lucy Wood)