Kenya's Maasai herders take jobs and farm crops to cope with change

Collaborative research between Kenyan Maasai communities and a researcher from Canada’s McGill University has identified how these semi-nomadic herding communities are changing to cope with changing climate and land tenure systems. Results of research conducted during a great drought in Kenya’s Maasailand and other regions from 2007 to 2009 show that more and more Maasai households are diversifying their livelihoods and making use of ‘strategic mobility’ to cope with changing land tenure systems.
In a presentation last week of research findings at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus, in Nairobi, Kenya, John Galaty, of McGill University, noted that ‘the Maasai community is dealing with the aftermath of the long drought, which devastated their livelihoods, by making more opportunistic use of their land, by diversifying into cropping, by keeping fewer and faster growing animals and by taking on paying jobs.’
In studies done across nine sites in Ole Tepesi, Maji Moto and Elangata Wuas in Kenya’s Kajiado and Narok districts, researchers found that members of the communities who diversified into agriculture had higher chances of maintaining their livelihoods during droughts than those who relied on animals alone. The research looked at the experiences of higher, medium- and low-income households.
Well-known methods used by the Maasai to cope with drought—such as splitting herds, keeping fewer animals and moving stock to find water or grass—are still in use. A closer assessment of mobility patterns showed that pastoralists with external sources of income could afford to keep their animals in one location during drought because they were able to buy and bring in feed and drugs for them. The poorest members of the community were hurt the most by drought because they were forced to move their animals in search of fodder or water. The study also disclosed that the richer members of the community hired their poorer neighbours to herd their animal stock to better grazing lands while they themselves pursued other livelihood options.
Galaty said that the movement of animals by the Maasai is never haphazard. ‘The Maasai just don’t start to move once the drought bites,’ he said. ‘We found out that most people moved their animals based on social relationships. People were linked to relatives or friends who lived in areas where pasture was still available. Others relied on word from other parts of the region that pasture was available before starting to move. In such cases, conventional boundaries were not enforced and people openly shared “private” resources. Some even moved their animals into Tanzania, where they were welcomed by the Maasai who live there.’ The research also showed that stock movement by members of Maasai group ranches was also well planned and coordinated.
Nonetheless, the increasingly popular subdivision of Maasai communal lands into private holdings, often with little consultation with the communities concerned, is greatly restricting the traditional mobility of these herding communities. Individuals are increasingly enforcing their rights to private ownership, and use, of land in both Kajiado and Narok districts. Such privatization of land threatens Maasai pastoralism by disrupting the well-established ‘mobility’ mechanism they use to cope with periodic drought.
An earlier (not yet published) study by David Nkedianye, a Maasai graduate student with ILRI, on the effects of the 2005 to 2006 drought on Kenyan Maasai indicates that land privatization and large movements of animals can weaken the ability of households to cope with drought. For example, at times in this drought the Kitengela Maasai rangeland, although it received relatively good rainfall, had the greatest number of livestock deaths because of an influx of livestock brought to Kitengela by herders from other Maasai communities in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Staff of ILRI’s People, Livestock and Environment Theme, who are conducting livestock research in these same Maasai lands, hosted Galaty and organized for his presentation.

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