Challenges faced by Maasai cattle herders

Challenges faced by Maasai cattle herders

There are challenges faced by Maasai cattle herders in Kenya. For one, greedy investors have taken away a significant portion of their land from them for commercial purposes without any compensation. Secondly, circumstances compelled them to cultivate the ground that they once considered sacrilege as they associated land to cattle. Thirdly, they fear that their the government force their children to attend schools against their wishes. The first one leads to economic prosperity, the second one leads to a sustainable livelihood, and the third one leads to raising an educated generation. At first glance, the intervention to bring about change and help them integrate into the modern society seems innocuous. However, the underlying currents reveal that the Maasais feel that government impose these changes on them without their knowledge or consent. A deeper look into these factors may provide a better understanding of the issues.

Land grabbing

Maasais are notorious for routinely ignoring international boundaries as they graze their cattle across the open savanna along the Kenya-Tanzania border. This daredevil attitude and nonchalant manner have led to the romanticizing notion that they are living at peace with nature. For many Westerners, the fierce, proud, handsome, elegantly tall, and graceful of bearing Maasais are the “noble savage” of Hollywood. However, the grazing lands of the Maasais and their territorial expansion have drastically reduced in recent times. The government took large chunks to create game reserves, private ranches, and farms, wildlife parks or hunting concessions. The government reckons that Maasais keep too much cattle. One threat came from game hunters in northern Tanzania. Here, they burnt villages and brutally evicted thousands to provide a company with more land for game hunting. They only left the least fertile and the driest areas for the Maasais.

Restricted access to land uses challenges their traditional ways. Droughts have made the situation worse. The Maasais who have been living with the land for hundreds of years feel left out of the equation. The government did not consult them. Hence, they have demanded grazing rights for their cattle in the nearby pastureland. But it seems like their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Alternate mode of subsistence

Despite the changes brought on by government intervention, they keep having as many cows as possible. The plot sizes in the areas are not big enough to graze herds of animals. So, less land and more cattle have led to overgrazing which in turn have resulted in environmental degradation and erosion. This has forced them to resort to farming. As a result, more of them recently have grown dependent on other food products such as maize meal, potatoes, rice, and cabbage. Those who live near crop farmers have started cultivation as their secondary mode of subsistence despite the fact that traditionally, farming was considered a sacrilege by the Maasais. And the sustainability of their traditional livelihood remains to be seen.


Since Kenya’s independence, the school participation rates have climbed dramatically. The increase is because of less and less security in their traditional livelihood. Maasais now have grown to rely more and more on cultivation as their secondary mode of subsistence. Therefore, modern education has become a necessity not only for survival but also to remain competitive. However, senior Maasais see few possible rewards for it and therefore little reason for formal schooling. Hence, academic studies were of use only to those involved in religion, politics, or agriculture. There is an underlying fear among the Maasais of losing their children to Western schooling.

Education takes out the village

Education is never to be feared. See what happened when the system afforded him the best education. The outlook of the whole community changed. Following the terrorist attack on the twin towers in the US, a Maasai by the name of Kimeli Naiyomah who went to Stanford University rallied up the elders and members of his community. He narrated to them the events for the first time of the attacks which killed 3,000 innocent people. He described to them the massive fires and the pitiful sight of people jumping from skyscrapers. For many, the skyscraper was an enigma.

The community donated 14 head of prized cattle to the US people as a gesture of sympathy and compassion for the pain they were going through for their lost loved ones. The animals were handed over to the deputy head of the American Embassy in Kenya in a village near the Tanzanian border. At the ceremony, there were Maasais in traditional red robes and jewelry. The gift touched the hearts of many Americans with its honest simplicity. The US Embassy reciprocated by donating 14 scholarships to needy youth in the community. With Maasai women thumping up and down and cowbells jangling, the reciprocation ceremony ended. The US today supports various projects within the Maasai community.


Adaptation to rapid economic and social change is the greatest challenge the Maasais face. Increased land encroachment threatens their traditional way of life. Sooner or later they would have to address integration into the modern economies and political systems. As a result of the challenges faced by the Maasai, there are many support groups. Non-governmental organizations work in collaboration with these groups to implement sustainable solutions for education, survival, and growth through empowering Maasais and building upon their existing economic and cultural context. The Maasais are considered to be typical cattle herders of Africa. Population growth, development strategies, and a shortage of land have declined cattle raising. However, for many traditional Maasais, cattle are still “the breath of life.”


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