Climate challenges undermine a fragile Maasai culture
Seventy-seven year-old Takiata Kariankei tends to his cattle in East Africa. Recent erratic weather - droughts and downpours - has seriously challenged the Maasai's age-old semi-nomadic traditions. Photo © Siegfried Modola
April 4, 2013
Pastoral Maasai have thrived for centuries in East Africa's Savannah. But western pressures are undermining that semi-nomadic lifestyle, and increasingly erratic weather – droughts one year, downpours the next – threaten to erode their culture.
A collaboration with PRI's The World
By Faun Kime
The Daily Climate
NAROK, Kenya – The most recognizable cultural group in Africa may be the Maasai. Living mostly in Kenya and Tanzania, their everyday attire of brightly colored fabrics and elaborate beaded jewelry, set against the backdrop of the African Savannah, have seared their identity into the minds of every traveler to the region.
The Maasai warriors were so fierce, their people were able to defy slavery. To this day, it's a rite of passage to kill a lion when a young man becomes a warrior. This brand of virility and masculinity is also defined by the number of cattle in one's herd.
But the Maasai’s profound cultural and economic ties to livestock are threatened by a series of relentless droughts, which have wiped out more than 50 percent of their herds.
"There is a big change," Takiata Kariankei, a 77-year-old pastoralist and family patriarch, said via a translator. "Droughts didn't used to kill a lot of cattle but now bad droughts are coming and reducing the numbers dramatically."
There are many pressures on the Maasai culture: The allure of a Western lifestyle, the compulsory education that has moved young pastoralists from the fields to classrooms, the fragmentation of communal land into private ownership.
Within the span of one generation, the culture and traditions of the Maasai are at risk of morphing into tourist pageants, as younger children and families walk away from the semi-nomadic lifestyle. Climate change may not be the main driver, but as East Africa dries out, there's little question that it's accelerating that transformation.
© Text by Faun Kime 2013. Photos by Siegfried Modola. All rights reserved
Faun Kime is a California-based filmmaker and journalist who has recently returned from three months in Kenya.
The report was done in collaboration with PRI's The World. The Daily Climate, a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer at email@example.com
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