In 2019, I was presented with the opportunity to lead an academic study into the lives of one of the most emblematic tribes in the world, the Maasai. Accompanied by a videographer, Gus Cross, and a Professor of Anthropology from the University of Nairobi, Dr Tom Ondicho, we set out to produce an ethnographic baseline report and documentary film on a Maasai community in Kenya.
Equipped with a camera, drone, clipboards, pens and a voice recorder – nothing could prepare us for the 2 weeks that lay ahead and the learning that would follow. Nestled under the majestic, yet imposing Mt Kilimanjaro, straddled like a horseshoe around Amboseli National Park, lies an area the size of London, circa 1,500 km². With its tongue-twisting name, Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch, swiftly shortened to OOGR, we braised ourselves for a bumpy 4x4 excursion into the interior of this conservancy with a facilitative & non-prescriptive lens.
Upon arrival we were met with our local guide and partner who led us to the first boma, a Maasai village built in circles, fortified by cow dung and acacia branches. What immediately struck me was our hosts' ease towards visitors, and almost altruistic hospitality. Within a few minutes, we had settled into a traditional feast and local delicacy, goat, attended by the village elders. After a gluttonous episode, we were led to an ornate display of handcrafted beaded jewellery created by local women.
These particular settlements, named ‘cultural bomas’ are strategically positioned to pick up tourist traffic from 5* star hotels and safaris exploring Amboseli National Park. Here was a tribe, long heralded for their survival instinct, adapting their livelihoods from traditional pastoralism to tourism
The weeks that followed were spent working our way towards the heart of this ancient land. Stopping in villages to interview women, morans (young warriors), children, teachers and chiefs, we started to build a picture of the rich Maasai history. As a fearless nomadic tribe, widely known for hunting East Africa’s plains, the Maasai would travel vast distances in search of fresh pastures, once a renewable resource. Their livestock, thread in a delicate balance with wildlife and nature, conserved and replenished the ecosystem. As a symbol of wealth and serving as a critical insurance policy, large families were carefully curated leaving a rich tapestry of human life across the savannahs. Now, with land subdivided and cut off by parcels of privately-owned land, increasing population, livestock numbers and climate shocks, life is becoming more difficult.
The untold story is that we have been hunter-gathers for 99% of our genetic history. A specie co-existing with the natural world and whose survival was based on the ability to read weather, the stars and species around us. This human connection to nature was coined ‘biophilia’ by Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson. It is rooted in our evolution and by spending time with this tribe, it came alive and immediately made me crave for it again.
Shuffle forward to present day. My Amboseli trip has opened a floodgate of learning and in particular, an exciting new appointment as a Trustee of CHASE Africa. As a charity, their development approach supports and promotes community-led family planning, sexual health education and natural resource management in rural communities. Growing from very humble beginnings, starting as a tree-planting initiative in the Rift Valley, they have reached new heights with their smart outreach programmes. Realising that positive impact is best achieved by local organisations who are embedded within and trusted by the local community, they are able to unlock huge potential. Currently, CHASE Africa provides funding and services to 9 local NGOs across Kenya and Uganda working towards a shared vision.
Communities like the Maasai are on the frontline of what the West has only recently understood as ‘our civilisation’s greatest challenge’: climate change. We watch as ancient societies, dependent on scarce natural resources, are stripped of their livelihoods with the absence of seasonal rains, rivers and rich forests. Coupled with Covid-19 and the pressure of modernisation, these tribes have very few tools left at their disposal. Navigating this alone has repeatedly proven fatal, as the world has shown little mercy.
Analysing this deeper, it seems that the yardstick for successful and sustainable NGO interventions is their ability to preserve, or (re)instate community rights and culture. By equipping and empowering the most vulnerable in society we can create permanent change. This model of development is a step away from creating a dependency culture, towards greater autonomy. Enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution are the rights to free education, information sharing and basic health services – yet so often, we see examples where these are threatened.
In an age of disinformation, local communities and NGOs are at the vanguard. A common misconception CHASE Africa face is the idea of women becoming ‘barren’, ‘cancerous’ and ‘sterilised’ through forms of contraception. Even though it is the right of women to decide when they want to have children and more, how many. Sadly, a young mother is invariably stripped of her formal education, often leading to a life of destitution. These false beliefs are often shared among men, who see family planning as a cultural barrier. However, time and again we see that with the right stewardship and support, opinions can change.
As I read through CHASE Africa's Partner Reports, I was overwhelmed with positivity. Here are real-life examples of marginalised communities overcoming life-changing issues, in the backdrop of a pandemic that brings developed nations and their societies to a halt. It is a clear testament to the strategy and hard work of CHASE Africa and their partners. Operating through the outreach of Community Health Workers (CHWs), locally appointed and trained by the Ministry of Health, we have seen mobile and even motorbike clinics continue to provide locals with primary healthcare services, family planning services and information about environmental conservation and natural resource management.
For example, Big Life Foundation, an organisation I know well from their operations in Amboseli, have managed to reach over 13,000 people each quarter with crucial information on health and sexual reproductive health. This is up from 7,000 per quarter in 2019. What’s more, they have seen a 92% increase in the number of women under 19 years of age taking up family planning from Q2 to Q3 2020. These are not just numbers; this is a community adapting and overcoming challenges.
As I reflect on my time with the Maasai, it is their readiness and capacity to make change that has a lasting impression. Adopting this predisposition is our only chance for survival in these uncertain times. We have has a lot to learn here, in particular how to live within our means and take care of nature around us. The clock is ticking, we need to act fast if we want to continue co-inhabiting our planet with fellow species. The question is, are we ready to make necessary changes to our behaviour? Greed and self-interest govern too much space. I thank CHASE Africa for presenting me with the prospect of continued learning and helping make positive change.
Edward Pycraft, Keystone Legacy
Photo: Gus Cross