By Lemomo Ole Kulet
The Maasai folklore tells of a time when the earth and the sky were joined together, until they were suddenly torn apart with only the wild fig trees left as bridges between the two.
As a gift to the Maasai, Enkai-Narok the black god who is good, generous and benevolent god personified by wind and rain sent herds of cattle down through these trees to the earth.
To the Maasai cattle are sacred and a direct gift from the heavens. Grass is also considered a blessing and sacred.
The significance of grass in manifesting Maasai rituals according to Johnmark Kamakei is re-told in Maasai legends. Any-time the Maa people pass near the wild fig tree known as engaboli in Maa dilect they would honour it by placing handful of grass between the its roots thus indirectly honouring enkai-Na-rok as reverence to the source of their herds.
Grass is of great, importance in the life of a Maasai. It is so vital that it has acquired a semi-sacred characteristic such that it was held in the fist as a sign of peace and similarly held is used for blessings during rituals.
Joseph Malit explains, “The Maasai would spare the life of anyone who held up a tuft of grass during their raid on the other tribe. No Maasai was willing to break the ground, even to bury the dead within it for soil was sacrosanct on the account of its producing grass which fed the cattle which belonged to God”.
It was this grass according to the renowned Maasai legend that made the Maa community climb up Kerio Valley escarpment in its search. According to the legend the Maa people had found themselves in a crater like country surrounded by inaccessible hills and escarpments. One season the rains failed and great suffering resulted, with people and cattle dying. During this drought it was observed that birds used to come down the steep escarpments bringing along green grass and leaves which they used for making their rests.
The elders met and decided that the birds must be getting the grass from areas beyond the escarpment where the rain had fallen. Because of the grass Maa people begun what was to be latter known as the great ascent which not all managed.
The Maasai way of life has created an intimate association over the years with the natural grasslands, and their primary interest has been preservation of fauna and flora. From time immemorial the Maasai have relied on plants for nutrition as well as medicinal substances. For this reason plants have become most revered and treasured among the Maasai. To the Maasai God is recognized as a creator of the forests, mountains, lowlands and highlands and is prayed to be both men and women. God is believed to dwell not only in the heavens but also in the thick forests, rivers and beneath the earth. This explains the spiritual significance the Maa community attach to forests especially the Mau forest which forms the basis of its very livelihood.
Novelist H.R. Ole Kulet explains; “Medungi is a Maasai word that means ‘that which shall not be cut’. A true story is told about a section of the main forest Narok county called Medungi. The Maa ancestors, through cultural edict prohibited the cutting of trees in Medungi forest. That was a symbolic of environmental conservation that was meant to protect the forest and its surrounding water catchment areas that were a source of rivers; Narok, Sikinterr, Siyiapei, Enkare-Ngusur and others”.
He continues; “It was said that if a tree in the forest was cut, it would scream and cry out with pain like humans would do. Instead of sap oozing from the cuts, the trees would bleed red blood that would flow into the rivers and reddened the river water”.
He notes that for centuries the Maasai feared that curse and they all gave the forest a wide breath.
Recently, however, he notes; there emerged a reckless generation that ignored the interaction of language, culture and environment. They called culture archaic and the preservation of the forest untenable. They descended upon the forest, cut the trees, cleared the undergrowth and planted food crops. They laughed when the trees did not bleed. Little did they know that they disregarded the cultural wisdom at their own peril. Soon soil erosion sent red soil into the rivers and they turned red. There were no grass for the cattle and there was no water for both humans and animals. The trees were yelling: you should not have cut us!
That’s how the relationship between the Maasai and the forest is. The Maa people depend on the land they occupy. Their whole social structure, livelihood and cultural identity are entwined in varied ways with their environment. Without enough land the cattle will die, and subsequently Maasai culture as well.
Lemomo is a PhD student at JKUAT,he writes on Maa cultural issues.