The fate of centuries-old Maasai way of life is on a delicate balance as the worst drought in 40 years threatens to wipe out part of its cherished pastoralist heritage.
With their livestock gone, many other cultural values will be eroded, especially those associated with generational continuity like marriage and payment of dowry.
So intimidating and helpless is the situation that people are turning to fishing and other economic activities that were out of context before as families have lost their entire herds, taking them to the brink of despair and disillusionment as it is the only culture they have known their entire life.
With nowhere to turn to and as a last resort, they try to find buyers for the skinny remnants of their formerly prestigious stock in vain. So they are left to die to the last and strongest of them.
A visit to Olergesailie village in Kajiado West, one of the worst hit, attests to the long suffering. Anyone who has been there before will tell you how life has changed.
There is sorrow written all over the faces of the inhabitants, which can be felt even in the hushed tones they converse in. You can easily see it has been long since they ate a decent meal as their skinny frames radiates older age than they really are.
On a normal day, the centre is lively bursting with activity; full of crowds and animals. It is now dry and dusty with only a few donkeys with pricked ears, perhaps wondering what might be the matter.
Charles Leshore is the director Maa Museum and Centre for Indigenous Culture and has worked with the pastoralist community for years. He was behind the recognition of Olergesailie village as the best tourism village in the world by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Leshore now works with Keekonyokie Elites Association which has been documenting effects of the drought to find a long-term solution.
He says the community has lost hope on pastoralism as rich families have been turned to beggars.
“The people would have been in the fields grazing or in markets selling their livestock, but this day they are at the centre for they have nowhere to go to,” Leshore says.
Two senior Maasai elders, Julius ole Saitaga and Emmanuel ole Saitaga, say they have never experienced anything like the drought in living memory.
Emmanuel, probably in his 70s, says he was a wealthy person respected in the village, but is now a pauper as he depends on well-wishers to survive. He lost all his livestock.
Part of his wealth is his children, whom he declines to number as it is an abomination in the Maa culture.
The remaining eight cows, for which he has been buying hay from Kiserian town more than 50 kilometres away, are weak and wasting away at home for the feed has become too expensive to buy and transport.
“I have been struggling to keep my children in school, but sooner I will have nothing to keep them there,” he said.
The elder has thirteen children in school.
Julius, a father of twenty children from three wives, has only four surviving cows.
“We have nothing to feed on. Our only source of income is lost, and the price of livestock has dropped by more than half,” he said, his arms folded across his emaciated frame.
In his homestead, a weak skinny cow lies down behind the manyatta. It is clear its bones will shortly be scattered like the many skeletons around the homestead.
The elder may be suffering and depressed but he must show he is in control; he is the head of the family and leads the village – so must not show signs of weakness.
He has a young girl who dropped out of grade six. The girl opens up and tells me that the parents lacked school fees as the parents are unwilling to talk about it.
She is just one among many in the county who have been left to the wiles of nature.
Only 85 per cent of learners have reported to junior secondary (JSS), with many pupils yet to join due to lack of fees.
Oletepesi Primary School is among those that have recorded dropouts, numbers showing that from 540, a hundred have dropped out in 2023.
Wild animals have also died of starvation.
“A boy who was bitten by a zebra as he tried to lift it up is receiving medication,” he reveals.
In a bizarre incident in Kajiado South, baboons invaded Kimana Girls Secondary School, making away with foodstuff and other items from the dormitories. The hungry baboons overpowered the school workers who tried to stop them.
Kenya Wildlife Service indicates that the Amboseli ecosystem lost 6,093 animals to the drought between June and November 2022, including 127 elephants, 93 giraffes, 3,872 wildebeest, 1,395 zebras, 131 Thomson’s gazelle, 174 Grant’s gazelle, 106 impala, 52 buffalo, and 93 endangered Maasai giraffe.
The Maasai have never known fishing, but necessity to survive has pushed them into this economic activity. Six people have since died as hippos in Ewaso Nyiro River attacked them, probably due to their inexperience.
Some residents have resorted to charcoal burning to survive, which aggravates the situation more.
The County Government of Kajiado has been providing flour for porridge for lower grades, but the other children have to pay to eat.
Most parents cannot afford and they also trudge to school over lunch hours to beg for food, which the children are eager to share.
The two elders said they are ready for a radical cultural shift if that could be the lasting solution. They are now asking the government and well-wishers to drill boreholes, repair existing ones and encourage some other forms of economic activity to keep them alive.
They are ready to venture into farming and would like to have water points for irrigation as their traditional ways of life are not sustainable.
Climate change activist Vivian Looremetta, who distributed food in Keekonyokie, said the elders who have lost their livestock need counseling to overcome their depression.
The activist also recommends educating the community on alternative ways of livelihood such as hydroponics, which can feed human beings and cattle at less cost.
By Obegi Malack
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