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Kenya Diaries: Day 11, Part 4 - Interview with a Maasai Man, Part 3

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 20:21:05 PM PST


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This post covers the last 20 minutes of my conversation with Sidney, a Maasai man who was kind enough to speak to me at his home in Kajiado, Kenya. Previous parts of this interview can be read here and here.


Sidney with two Maasai women and me. The women dressed me up like a proper Maasai.

Jill Richardson :: Kenya Diaries: Day 11, Part 4 - Interview with a Maasai Man, Part 3
In this section, we were wrapping up a discussion of the Maasai diet. He had just described the historic Maasai diet, and I asked him about something he'd mentioned, that farmers now barter with the Maasai, trading perhaps butter for maize. I asked if maize was historically part of the diet.

To put his answer in context, in recent decades, Maasai land changed from communal ownership to individual landholdings that could be sold. Once some Maasai began selling land to people of other tribes, suddenly the Maasai found themselves living alongside sedentary farmers.

It had to get in because when we started getting these other communities coming on board [inaudible] then ugali [corn porridge] was the first foreign food that came to us. [inaudible]

JR: Do you know when that began?

SQ: I remember in school, we were told, when Kajiado started opening up, just after Independence [1963], that is when we started consuming it in a big way. We had been forced by circumstances earlier, during droughts, to take the yellow maize [U.S. food aid]. When we lost - like in 1961, when we had the worst drought in Kenya, Maasais lost most of their livestock, that was the time when -

JR: Was it foreign aid?

SQ: That was American aid. It was the Kennedy era. Kennedy airlift to Kenya. The relief airlift to Kenya. The American food came.

JR: You noted it was yellow. Kenyans don't eat yellow maize?

SQ: They don't eat yellow maize. These days they don't bring yellow maize. And when it has come, like last year when it came, people rejected it. There was a whole major demonstration. We don't want, first of all, we don't want yellow maize. Second of all, we don't want GMO maize. There's a big debate even up til now about allowing GM maize to come into this country. And Kenyans have a big, big beef with the U.S., saying that, "Why are they bringing us GMO food? We don't need it."

JR: So you don't want GMOs?

SQ: Oh no we don't want GMO food.

JR: Why not?

SQ: I mean, surely what we are seeing in this country is that our local seeds are just being messed up. And why do we need to lose our indigenous seed maize and other seeds to take Bt cotton and others when we can still do ours naturally, we can still do ours organically. Why do we need to accept that? And of course, I know this is debate by AGRA [the Gates funded group Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa], that oh, GMO food is going to eradicate food shortages and that's a load of bull.

Because what you need to do in this country, what we need to do in this country, is just to adopt the right technology. Israel has done it! Israel is a much smaller country. Many areas that are dry - I've been there! Why are they able to do drip irrigation on a very big scale, they are feeding themselves and exporting.

This country [Kenya] - they claim 50% of this country is arable but they are only looking at from the situation of highlands and water masses all over. But we do have water masses that are not helping us in any way. Lake Victoria is bigger than the size of Israel - plenty of fresh water! They're not making use of it.

A note on this. Before Kenya was an independent nation, Egypt and Sudan signed a deal dividing up all of the water from the Nile between them. Because the Nile originates from Lake Victoria, which borders Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, and from another tributary in Ethiopia, all of those four nations are denied any water from the Nile's tributaries.

Naivasha, plenty of fresh water, but who's making use of that? The flower farmers who are foreigners! The local communities are not even accessing fish. Fisherfolk are no longer earning a living from Lake Naivasha. Because they cannot access the lake for one. Secondly, the lake is polluted because of all those flower farms that are taking water and getting their stuff out. The pesticides go back into the lake. So, like last year, lots of fish died. And the government had to suspend any fishing. Unfortunately, because of the corruption in this country, if our government today would just ban any direct intake of water from Lake Naivasha, and ensure that there was proper disposal of any water that has been used with those chemicals, but who cares? Who's doing it?

The impact of the land changes - land use in Kajiado. As we go back to Nairobi, we are going back together, I will show you. All those houses you see, the greenhouses you see, they are flower farms there. They don't have a proper disposal system. The stuff just goes directly into the ranchland. There's a river that used to flow at a place you passed called Isinya. It's no longer flowing, because these guys decided to uptake the water. There are several boreholes along the riverbed. That river is now dry. It's not flowing. And at the end of it all -

Here are photos of what he's talking about:


Isinya "River"


Isinya "River"


Maasai Flower Farm, an enormous operation near Kitengela, on the road from Nairobi to Kajiado


Same flower farm, zoomed out

Sidney then talked about how the livestock are exposed to the pesticides coming from the flower farms.

Of course it affects your cows. Once, they take all the contaminated water, with all those pesticides. How many have died? We've lost several! I know an old man who lost 60 cows at one go. They took the water from there, with all those chemicals, and they just died.

JR: I saw that river, and it was dry. Was that formerly a source of water for cattle that is now unavailable?

SQ: It is unavailable. Because they are sharing that water with the flower farms and -

JR: And the flowers are for export?

SQ: And the flowers are for export. There is also horticulture, food for export.

JR: Who owns the flower farms?

SQ: They are owned by the big men in this country. By the former president, by the current Minister of Internal Security [George Saitoti], most of these ministers own those farms.

JR: So the former president is Moi? And he owns a lot?

SQ: Moi owns a lot! I'll show you a whole big range of area where he's doing that and he's also doing wildlife farming.

JR: Wildlife farming? What's that?

SQ: What he's doing is that he's keeping some ostriches that are eaten. Some crocodiles are eaten. Yeah. There is a restaurant. And it is illegal according to our Wildlife Act - that's my area, I am a specialist there. Kenya, we are not allowed by the law to game farm. You're only allowed to keep for purposes of photographing. We don't allow sport hunting like you do in the U.S. We don't allow any consumptive use. We can only allow, as per the law, cropping, for scientific reasons. Cropping, or culling, for scientific reasons.

JR: So that's when there's too many of an animal, more than the land can support, so some are killed?

SQ: Yes, but because that encouraged, we did do a pilot for some time, it encouraged poaching. It encouraged sport hunting, so that was also banned. So only the Kenya Wildlife Service is authorized by the law to do that. And in most cases these days, they don't cull. They translocate...

JR: Let me ask about the wildlife and the cattle and the goats. Do Maasai, as pastoralists, have to deal with the animals?

SQ: It has been a very challenging one, because for one - I and Josphat were involved in reviewing the Wildlife Act recently. That is Josphat Ngonyo. We were appointed by the President to go around the country and get views from Kenyans. That was 2005, 2006, all the way up to 2007. And we came up with brand new laws that would ensure that the communities who host wildlife benefit from these wildlife. That they are compensated for loss of their livestock, crops, and consoled for the loss of life because many people are killed. But unfortunately for us in this country, because we have a strong pro-hunting lobby, beginning from your country as well -

JR: From the U.S.?

SQ: From the U.S. Safari Club International. Those guys just want to kill for the sake of it. They are big in South Africa, they came here, they sponsored a lot of members of Parliament, they went to South Africa, they came back, they shot down our bill in Parliament. Right now they are trying to shoot it down because we went and regrouped and came up with a new one. The government has taken up that one...

The biggest challenge we face right now is compensation. Is not a guarantee. If you lose a loved one, you are not guaranteed that you'll get any compensation or consolation. But I would say we've lobbied strongly for loss of life to be moved from when we were paying people 30,000 shillings, I do not know how many dollars it is [US$360] - peanuts - to 200,000 Kenyan shillings now [$2400]. But the Kenyans we met in the country were like minimum we want one million shillings [$12,000] for loss of life. And for permanent disability because surely once you have those kinds of impairments for life, you'll never be anything else... so that one and loss of life, the same.

JR: Which animals are most dangerous to your cattle?

SQ: Well, the most dangerous to the cattle, the lion first. And then we have the leopard. And for our goats and sheep, the cheetah. And the wild dogs. Terrible.

JR: How about for humans?

SQ: For humans, the elephant in areas like the Mara and Amboseli where elephants are many. The rhino and the buffalo. And those ones, like the buffalo, are mostly in the areas where we do some horticultural farming. You know, they like bush, dense areas, where there is water nearby. So people get that problem. Then also of late, the other worrying one are the different snakes. Very dangerous ones. They keep on attacking people. This is mostly in very hot areas like where we are going. There's a hill and there are very many stones.

JR: Like the cobra, the black mamba?

SQ: Yes, here we have the cobra, the black mamba. And the one that is very dangerous to our goats and sheep is the python. That one has actually swallowed a lot of goats.

JR: Full grown goats?

SQ: Yes, they will swallow a whole goat. Big ones... But they are not very prone here. But there are some areas, particularly in the north of Kenya. Northeastern. That is where they have those problems. But in terms of snake bites, there are not as many here as in the coast.

JR: How would you protect your cattle?

SQ: I'll tell you unless it is a young kid attending the livestock, if it is a full grown man with the livestock, it is difficult for the lions to attack.

JR: Why?

SQ: They know we kill them.

JR: So they are afraid.

SQ: They are afraid of Maasais. I mean, there was this ritual killing of the lions. Every other year, warriors would go hunting the lion. And it was part of moranism, part of warriorhood. And unless you kill a lion, you're not man enough. So we have had that.

JR: When did that end?

SQ: That has not ended officially, but it has been reduced, because the KWS [Kenya Wildlife Service] has become very tough... But they still do it in far flung areas... But generally, I would say in 90% of Maasai land, it's not happening. The government is now there. The KWS is there.

JR: In the U.S. we've heard quite a bit about drought conditions in the Horn of Africa, mostly impacting the Somalis. Has that impacted the Maasai?

SQ: Oh yes. Drought has affected us many times. Let me just put it this way. Why does drought affect us more than others? It does because for one, we are so much dependent on our livestock and we haven't yet adopted agricultural farming. So when you lose your cows, you lose your means of livelihood. Because you are dependent on livestock even for you to be able to access services.

A traditional Maasai man would have to sell a goat or a cow or some to buy food because we don't grow any food. Everything you buy! So when drought affects us, when drought hits us here and you lose your livestock, you now, just, you have nothing. Because you didn't have some acres of maize that you could have harvested and stored and then when you don't have livestock at least you have food. But here, you're dependent on these livestock. So livestock takes care of medical bills, takes care of other needs. So when you don't have that, poverty.

But in areas where they do agricultural farming and some areas neighboring us here where they do agro-pastoralism, like in Machakos further in, you know them, they can adapt. Because they lose this, but during the year they have the a piece of land under crop and they preserve the crop, the excess they sell, so they still have some money. But us, just like the Somalis, we are all pastoralism, we do not engage in agricultural production.

And then the worst of it all, even other than agricultural production, we are also not involved in other economic activities. We are not involved in business, for example. Maasais are very poor when it comes to business. The only business they excel is the trade of livestock. That, they are number one. They actually - this Kajiado area we are talking about - takes care of the needs of 80% of the beef needs and meat needs of Nairobi. It's here. We have the biggest slaughterhouse... Which we have been campaigning for a long time and now the government has agreed to put up a tannery. So all the hides and skins that the slaughterhouse handles every day will be processed right there, value added.

JR: When you have a cattle ready for slaughter, do you take it to the slaughterhouse yourself and then receive the meat, or do you sell it to a company as a live animal and the company has it slaughtered and markets the meat?

SQ: There are two ways. Somebody who is not in that trade would just go to the market and sell a live cow. Get your money and that's the end of the story. But there are also those who are brokers, who come in and buy from you, get them slaughtered, put them into trucks, and take them into Nairobi to butcheries. Then there are those who come to buy at the slaughterhouse...

At this point, Sidney and I had sat talking for a full hour. Then, a few things happened. A few Maasai women, Sidney's neighbors, were passing by and they spotted a mzungu [white person] - me! So they stopped in to see if the mzungu would like to buy any beautiful Maasai handicrafts. Such as, for example, this lovely belt:

I bought a few items - although not the belt - and then asked them to pose for a photo.

The other thing that happened was that our tea arrived. I swear, Kenyans might love tea even more than the British do. So my driver, who had been wandering around for the last hour, joined us and all three of us had tea together.

For previous diaries in this series:
Travel and Arrival
Day 1, Part 1: Elephants and Giraffes and Crocs, Oh My! (Part 1)
Day 1, Part 2: Elephants and Giraffes and Crocs, Oh My! (Part 2)
Day 2: Kibera, Nairobi's Enormous Slum
Day 3, Part 1: From Nairobi to Thika
Day 3, Part 2: Helping Women and Farmers Out of Poverty (G-BIACK)
Day 3, Part 3: G-BIACK's Livestock
Day 3, Part 4: Grow Biointensive (G-BIACK)
Day 3, Part 5: Traditional Kenyan Food and a Visit to a Farm
Day 4, Part 1: Del Monte Pineapple
Day 4, Part 2: Robert's Farm (G-BIACK)
Day 4, Part 3: A School for Special Needs Young Adults (G-BIACK)
Day 5, Part 1: One More Morning at G-BIACK
Day 5, Part 2: Sustainable Ag and Rural Development Initiative (SARDI)
Day 5, Part 3: Workshop on Nutrition, Farming, and HIV/AIDS
Day 6, Part 1: A Small, Biointensive Farm (SARDI)
Day 6, Part 2: The School That Broke My Heart (SARDI)
Day 6, Part 3: Farming in a Wet Region, Part 1 (SARDI)
Day 6, Part 4: Farming in a Wet Region, Part 2 (SARDI)
Day 7: Nairobi
Day 8, Part 1: Wildlife and Poachers
Day 8, Part 2: The Machakos Market
Day 9: Removing Poachers' Snares
Day 10: Removing Poachers' Snares
Day 11, Part 1: Intro to Pastoralism and Maasai Culture
Day 11, Part 2: Interview with a Maasai Man, Part 1
Day 11, Part 3: Interview with a Maasai Man, Part 2

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