Culture and sustainable growth: Case for the Maa community

The assumption among the Maasai is that they only need a small portion of land because they can graze far away from their home. Soon, however, they will have no land to graze their cattle because new owners who will purchase land from current speculators will fence off their plots of land. This is the point when Maasailand will be the new frontier for ethnic clashes.



The political heat generated by recent call by NASA Coalition presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the Maasai in Kajiado not to sell their land to outsiders and subsequent commentaries by Kibe Mungai, an advocate of the High Court and social commentator and Dr David Ndii, an economist and NASA’s strategist, has led me to write this article. I have had the privilege to do some work in groundwater across Maasailand. I have been to the east in Rombo near Kilimanjaro where the Maasai border Taitas, Sultan Hamud where they have mixed with Kambas and to Kilgoris in the west where they border the Kisii and Kipsigis.

The stretch of that land is enormous yet it is a fraction of their original land. Colonialists evicted Maasai from as far as Uasin Gishu and Ol’ Donyo Sabuk. This means that combined with Laikipia and Samburu they owned a big chunk of Kenya. All through this area, Maasais are mainly pastoralists and the few who have opted for the urban life still engage in some sort of cattle keeping or trade. Pastoralism is supported by communal grazing land where they are free to move around and graze as they wish in their group ranches. I have always admired the ways of the Maasai; unfortunately the buzz is that their culture is retrogressive.

I noted something on my way to Sekenanie gate of Maasai Mara Game Reserve through Loita Plains and Ngoswani. A herd of wildbeasts was confused because land on one side of the road was fenced so they were forced to rush back to where they had come from. The former group ranches have been subdivided into small plots owned by individuals. The craze for individual land has caught up with the communal and conservative Maasai. Whenever someone has been given his share of the communal land, the willing buyer, willing seller has always come in. There is nothing that stands in the way of an individual who wants to sell his piece of land at a price of his choice.

On the way to Namanga south of Kajiado town, land has changed hands from the Maasai to outsiders so much so that there are large areas where no single Maasai owns land. The assumption among the Maasai is they only need a small portion of land because they can graze far away from their home. What they do not understand is that soon they will have no land to graze their cattle because new owners who will purchase land from current speculators will fence of their plots of land. This is the point when Maasailand will be the new frontier for ethnic clashes.

Urbanization has always been associated with development. Development here is being the process that creates progressive growth, positive change on the physical, economic, and social components. The desired end of development is improvement in the level and quality of life of a population. Sustainable development, a new push by the United Nations seeks development with minimal damage on current environment while retaining some resources for future generations.

A 2015 report by Foresight Africa puts Africa second to Asia in terms of rate of urbanization at an annual rate of 1.4% between 2010 and 2015. Urbanization is proof of wealth and development but not all urbanized countries are wealthy. High rate of urbanization is not sufficient proof of wealth or development. This is where Africa is missing the point on capitalism and Kibe Mungai, writing in the Saturday Nation of June 24, alluded to it but still supported it fully.

This year Kenya has suffered food shortage, or rather maize shortage. Maize is our staple food but land that can produce maize is shrinking with time because of urbanization and subdivision. Here we have large tracts of land owned by pastoralist Maasai that we are leaving at the mercy of people who buy but have no intention or capacity to create wealth from it except building real estate in future. What if we empowered the Maasai to produce quality beef for export?

Kenya Meat Commission has been a song since the grand coalition took over in 2003. Money has been pumped into it but growth has been slow if any. This is where I quote from The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto that Kibe Mungai used to buttress his push that the Maasai must shape up into capitalism or ship out. Soho is giving reasons why capitalism seems to be developing the west and not the Developing World. Lawyer Mungai based his push on capitalism being the dominant ideology so there is no choice. I agree with Soto in his book that the key to ending poverty is property ownership but only if the poor can use their property to generate further wealth (not sell it for cheap) and the law must guide and support this.

This is where culture comes in. Sustainable development is only achievable if any form of social progress is pegged on the culture of the people. Asians have proved to us that adopting new ways of life does not mean leaving the core of who you are as a community. Forcing the Maasai to abandon pastoralism by design or default is like forcing a left handed child to use his right hand. They may be obliged to change but they will not be the best in using the right hand.

When solving a complex mathematical equation, the rule is moving from the known to the unknown. You cannot move a Maasai by force from pastoralism to pure capitalism without disenfranchising him. Policies must be put in place that will enable the Maasai to optimize on pastoralism by producing high quality beef and dairy products and may be later give them stakes in the Kenya Meat Commission.

There are two aspects of cultural heritage that are evident all over the world; tangible and intangible. These are the visible (tangible) diversity of expressions and creative industries while the intangible heritage is more of the inbuilt value system. So on a broader look, culture encompasses a people’s way of life, what you can see and what is hidden. There is always unseen software running what you see as hardware of culture.

The failure of many countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the set year of 2015 is a good justification that capitalism development does not serve developing nations. This has led to a shift in thought, from project oriented development goals to investing in people hence the shift to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The development of Maasai should be in such a way that the current generation does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The unit of culture is the individual, and modernization research has tried to deal with the struggle between ‘who we want to be’ and ‘who we are allowed to be’ as this is the place where the individual and culture meet. Personal identity is negotiated, both psychologically and through social interaction. People speak to culture and culture speaks back to give us socialization of an individual within a culture. If development can find a seat in this conversation and decode the interaction, then a society will transform as opposed to only a few individuals. So the approach must focus on individuals as much as the community.

Culture matters to economic outcomes, but cultures in turn never stop responding to market forces. Some elements of culture will stubbornly persist beyond the time they can be explained by current economic parameters. In the long run, however, cultures show a fluidity that will astonish some cultural determinists. E.L Jones writes in her book Cultures Merging that culture “ghostly transit through history” is much less powerful than non-economists often claim yet it has a greater influence than economists usually admit.

Rwanda was the only country in Africa to achieve MDGs by 2015. Many people will quote the no nonsense approach of strongman Paul Kagame but few will tell you that Rwanda’s incorporation of cultural values in its policies had great influence in citizens taking ownership of the goals. These values are; ubudehe – mutual assistance, itorero – civic education and imihigo – performance contracts; which is drawn from an ancient tradition where warriors used to make pledges to the king about what they intended to accomplish in war.

India and Indians prove the correlation between culture and the law in terms of spirit and letter. The letter of the law is always an end product of the spirit of the same law just like the intangible and tangible sides of culture. The success and resilience of Indian economy and Indian entrepreneurs all over the world is a by-product of a strong individual and communal culture. Indian immigrants all over the world have made a fortune even in the middle of the poverty in developing countries. The influence of family, culture of introspection, meditation and reflection are the unseen hand behind Indians perception of business.

The Maa community, including the Samburu and Ichamus believe that they came on earth from heaven with their cattle with instruction from God to look after their cattle and the environment. This is core to the Maasai, more of a divine purpose than a way of life. Their customs and rites revolve around cattle and their environment. They don’t cut down trees but pick dead wood that has fallen to the ground for firewood. They also don’t eat game meat of any kind, including fish and birds. Maasais are also big on clan ties but all these are slowly being eroded by modernization in the guise of their culture being retrogressive.

The way out for a balance is to retain group ranches but subdivide them in such a way that individual settlement plots are concentrated in one area and a large tract left for communal grazing. One can sell individual plots but not his share of grazing land. Another thing is to increase rate of transition from primary school to tertiary colleges among the Maasai. As it is; cattle, early marriages and moranism takes precedence over education. You don’t expect such a community to have an equal understanding with a buyer during land transaction and transfer. They will always be short changed.

Raila Odinga said that Maasai should not sell their land and Jubilee Party hawks called it incitement. The truth is somewhere in between. Greed covered behind willing buyer willing seller or adopting consumerism in the name of capitalism will not develop the Maasai beyond what their cattle has done. We must lay down structures and policies that will propel the Maasai to prosperity without them losing their identity.

Leaving them at the mercy of market and urbanization forces is laying ground for future conflicts. The next generation will not understand why they are landless yet their forefathers once owned about 50% of Kenya. We still have time on our side to right some wrongs instead of propagating the injustices the colonialists did to us at the turn of twentieth century.