THE MAASAI HERDSMAN
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
It's a sunny Sunday morning in Tigoni, very rare to say the least. Abraham, a Maasai herdsman from Kajiado, is grazing his cows, along the road. It is a sight we have grown used to, Maasai men herding their large flocks, along roads, in open fields, basically anywhere pasture can be found. We don't give much thought to it. We don't know where they are coming from, or where they are headed, we don't know where they spend the night, or what they eat, we don't bother to ask either.
Abraham, standing tall with his colourful Shuka draped over his shoulders and his herding stick gripped firmly in his hand, looks like a character out of a MARVEL movie. Assuming Marvel movies highlighted real-life superheroes. At first glance, Abraham looks like a very intimidating man, he turns out to be super friendly and very chatty.
"I left Kajiado in June when the drought worsened," he says, "that's where my family is." We are surprised to hear that Abraham has not seen his family in over three months. It is not out of choice, he has to find pasture for his cattle, lest they die and he bids farewell to the only source of living he has ever known. He is hopeful that it is going to rain soon. Only then can he go back home. Meanwhile, this is what he has to do to ensure the survival of his cattle and his family. The journey from Kajiado to Limuru took him eleven consecutive days. "When it gets dark, we stop and find somewhere to sleep," and no, not a hotel room or a lodging, someone has to watch the herd. Abraham spends the night out in the open with his cattle. "Usually, there are two or more herdsmen in the flock, so we start two fires to mark the perimeters of the herd, and we take turns to keep watch through the night." Can you imagine walking all day, and then having to sleep outside, in three or four-hour intervals, only to wake up the next day and do the same thing all over again, for eleven days?
Abraham looks out into his herd of 103, all heifers and calves. "The bulls we leave at home to hustle, " he says, "we only bring the females and the small ones." Very interesting, turns out, gender roles apply to cows too. Abraham tells us that he had 104 cows when he left home, one was hit by a vehicle on the very first day of their journey. You might think, "It's just a cow" but the Maasai attach a lot of value to their cattle. These cows are not only a source of food but also a central part of the economy, social structure and relationships.
"A cow is as good as a man."
He goes ahead to narrate an obviously heartbreaking incident that took place two years ago. "I had been grazing my cows in a rather "posh" neighbourhood," he says, his expression grim, "and someone had complained about the cows and warned us not to come back. I did not pay much attention. It's just grass. The next day I returned with my cows to the same spot. I lost fifty cows. They had sprayed the grass with pesticide." Our hearts sink. This is not the kind of stuff that makes the news, not when we'd rather hear propaganda about wheelbarrows and six thousand shillings magically appearing in our M-Pesa accounts. Leading a nomadic lifestyle in a radically modern society is hard enough on its own, for someone to then poison your cattle is just plain evil. And for what, to maintain their well-manicured lawns? How on earth did we get here?
The Maasai people are known for their rich culture which has stood the test of time. They have resisted the urge to adopt a more modern lifestyle despite increasing pressure from a rapidly growing economy. The nomadic lifestyle they have known and practised for thousands of years is increasingly becoming more and more difficult. With all the construction going on, there is less and less land for grazing. There are more cars on the roads and little regard for the animals crossing. Even in their own home, villages are being burnt and people evicted to make room for "elite tourism".
Then there's climate change. Weather patterns are unpredictable. When Abraham leaves his home, there is no certainty of when he can return. The rainy seasons are short and the grass barely has time to grow before another dry season strikes. Where is humanity in the face of climate change? Rather than focusing our energy to combat climate change, we are busy making the lives of those who are most affected by it even more difficult. Although many Maasai people have stirred away from their nomadic life, their culture is still an important part of their existence and should be preserved by all means. For some, like Abraham, this remains to be the only way of life they have ever known, why should they have to fight so hard to preserve it?
Fun fact, many major towns in Kenya were named by Maasai herdsmen as they moved around with their cattle. For instance, the name Nairobi comes from a Maasai phrase, "Enkare Nyrobi" which translates to "cool waters" Others include, Nakuru, Eldoret and my personal favourite Limuru which originates from the Maasai word "Ilmur" which basically means "donkey dung". There is a humility lesson for all my Limuru people. Your town was originally known for donkey dung, the cold is definitely an improvement. Point is, the Maasai were herding on that land long before nice lawns were planted, long before all these roads were constructed. So, think about that next time you get annoyed because the cows are taking too long to cross the road.
What Abraham wishes more than anything, is that the rains would come, so that he can go home to his family. That is something, even a brave Maasai warrior has no control over. The saddest part is that the people suffering most from the effects of climate change are the ones who have contributed least to it. It is the cars that hit the cows and the industries we have built on pasture land that have landed us here. We can turn things around by collectively making environmentally conscious decisions. If things don't change, this might be the last Maasai generation to live a traditional nomadic lifestyle, and it won't be by choice.
As we speak, we are experiencing a late onset of the rainy season. Even more problematic, The Kenya Meteorological department has issued a warning that the country will receive poorly distributed rainfall. As if it is not enough to have depressed rain, The KMD also expects incidences of storms and flash floods. This will be the fifth consecutive failed rainy season, a devastating reality for the millions already suffering from the drought. Things are not looking good.
This is a call to all Friends of Creation. While environmental conservation is important and holds a central place in our hearts, it is the people that come first. Millions of Kenyans, not just those from nomadic communities are suffering from the devastating effects of this persistent drought. It's time to come together and take care of each other, time to be friends, not foes.