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The Maasai

A proud and independent people of the Nilotic ethnic group, the Maasai live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. The Maasai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers with a population of between half and one million people, depending on the source. The majority of the Maasai live in Kenya.

It is thought that the Maasai left their home in the Nile valley around the fifteenth or sixteenth century, reaching the Great Rift Valley and down into Tanzania between the seventeenth and late eighteenth century. At one time, Maasai land covered a huge stretch of territory that ran between what is now northern Kenya and central Tanzania. In the late 1880s, already under great pressure from foreign influence and inter-tribal warfare, the Maasai were deeply affected when rinderpest struck their herds; the reduced grazing led to more woodland which encouraged breeding of the harmful Tsetse fly. The Maasai were also hit with drought, famine, smallpox and cholera. In 1910 they lost even more of their homeland (already bisected by the Kenya/Uganda railway) as they were forced out by settlers and in the early 1960's they lost yet more territory during the government land redistribution programmes (including the creation of the Maasai Mara National Reserve).

The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists - rearing cattle and travelling to reach new grazing pastures. The cattle are fundamental to the tribe's survival and the Maasai believe that their God Enkai granted all cattle to them for safe-keeping when the earth and sky split. The cattle serve many purposes: their milk and blood is used for food; their hide is used for mattresses, shoes and other accessories; their dung is used for plastering hut walls; their (sterile) urine has some medicinal and cleansing qualities; their meat is rarely taken for food (but may be used during ceremonies and in times of famine). Cattle are a major sign of wealth and exchanged during marriage (to pay for brides) and also traded for other livestock, cash, beads, clothing or livestock products such as milk and siege. Traditionally, Maasai do not believe in cultivating the land as it is then no longer suitable for grazing. In fact, it is the Maasai's pastoralist lifestyle - coupled with the fact that they do not kill wildlife for meat - that is main reason that the Mara Ecosystem is still teeming with wildlife.

The Maasai clans live in a kraal or enkang - a village with a cattle pen surrounded by a fence of acacia thorns to prevent predators (and rival tribes) from attacking the cattle. An enkang is usually constructed no more than a few kilometres from a watering hole or other water source. Traditionally, enkangs are shared by an extended family, however it is not uncommon to see one occupied by a single family.  The Inkajijik (huts) are loaf-shaped and made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow's urine. The Maasai have a distinct social structure. The women are responsible for building the huts as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle, cooking and looking after the children; the warriors are in charge of security; while the boys are responsible for herding livestock. The elders are the advisors for day-to-day activities. Every morning before livestock leave to graze, an elder who is the head of the enkang sits on his chair and announces the schedule for everyone to follow.

The Maasai are one of the Africa’s best-known tribes: tall and elegant people with a proud history and culture. Despite immense outside pressures they have survived and it is a fundamental aim of the Maasai Mara Conservancies to ensure that well-managed tourism benefits the Maasai people; that their traditions are preserved; and that the communities thrive. (Sources: Wikipedia, masai-mara.com, maasai-association.org, afrodiseum.com).

The Mara Ecosystem
 

The Maasai Mara Conservancies are located adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve in the northern-most section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers some 25,000 km2 (9,700 sq mi) in Tanzania and Kenya. The terrain is primarily open grassland with seasonal riverlets. The western border is the Siria Escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, which is a system of rifts some 5,600 km (3,500 mi) long, from Ethiopia's Red Sea through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and into Mozambique.

Wildebeest, topi, zebra, and Thomson's gazelle migrate into and occupy the Conservancies, from the Serengeti plains to the south and Loita plains to the north-east, from July to October or later. Herds of all three species are also resident.All of the "Big Five" (lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and Black Rhinoceros) are found in the Mara and hippopotami and Nile crocodiles are found in large groups in the Mara and Talek rivers. Leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, and bat-eared foxes can also be foundand there is a growing population of African Wild Dog. The plains between the Mara River and the Siria Escarpment are probably the best area for game viewing, in particular regarding lion and cheetah.

As in the Serengeti, the wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the Maasai Mara, and their numbers are estimated in the millions. Around July of each year, these ungainly animals migrate north from the Serengeti plains in search of fresh pasture, and return to the south around October. The Great Migration is one of the most impressive natural events worldwide, involving some 1,300,000 wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson's gazelles, 100,000 Topi, 18,000 elands, and 200,000 zebras. These migrants are followed along their annual, circular route by hungry predators, most notably lions and hyena.

More than 470 species of birds have been identified in the Mara, many of which are migrants, with almost 60 species being raptors. Birds that call this area home for at least part of the year include: vultures, marabou storks, secretary birds, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, long-crested Eagles, African pygmy-falcons and the lilac-breasted roller, which is the national bird of Kenya.

A study funded by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and conducted by ILRI between 1989 and 2003 monitored hoofed species in the Mara on a monthly basis, and found that losses were as high as 95 percent for giraffes, 80 percent for warthogs, 76 percent for hartebeest, and 67 percent for impala. The study blames the loss of animals on increased human settlement in and around the reserve. One of the main aims of the Maasai Mara Conservancies is to halt this trend. By opening up a larger, intact habitats for those animals on the decline, and a larger buffer zone for the National Reserve, populations of threatened species will once again grow. (Source: Wikipedia).

 


Maasai mother and son in brightly coloured 'shukas'
Maasai mother and son in brightly coloured 'shukas'

 

Maasai women collecting firewoo
Maasai women collecting firewood

 

The traditional Maasai dance
The traditional Maasai dance

 

The annual wildebeest migration
The annual wildebeest migration

 

Zebra and wildebeest on the Mara plains
Zebra and wildebeest on the Mara plains

 

The Lilac-breasted Roller - the national bird of Kenya
The Lilac-breasted Roller - the national bird of Kenya