Moses in the Wilderness

One man’s story might hold the key to the survival of the Maasai

By George Monbiot. Published in Geographical magazine July 1994.

Had Moses not straightened up, grinned and taken my hand, I would never have recognized him. For the man I had first met in the savannah village of Enkaroni, dressed in a red cloak, sandals and beads, carrying a club, now wore a double breasted suit, a gilt pin in his tie, a handkerchief in his breast pocket and shiny black shoes. A furled umbrella leant against his chair. He closed the drawer of the filing cabinet, answered the telephone, then fetched me some tea. As he sat down behind his desk I watched the unfolding of a strange and hopeful new chapter in the history of the Maasai.

Running down lions and killing them with spears, fighting other tribes and other sections of their own tribe, stealing cattle and wives, the nomadic Maasai were the antithesis of the Victorian concept of a decent and well-ordered society. One of Africa’s most effective fighting forces, occupying enormous regions of Kenya and Tanzania, they were also a threat to Britain’s ambitions in East Africa. Were it not for the rinderpest and smallpox that devastated their population in the 1890s, they could well have prevented colonization.

But the British, throughout their administration, continued to regard the Maasai as a threat and their nomadism as worthless and destructive. To make them useful and to integrate them into civilized society, both the British and the Independent Kenyan government believed, the Maasai’s migrations must be stopped and their land divided into private farms. They began a process that has come to threaten the very existence of one of Africa’s most remarkable peoples.

Knowing that the Maasai would not accept the outright privatization of their land, in 1968 the Kenyan government introduced an intermediate stage. The savannahs were divided into “group ranches”: areas of land deemed to belong to a particular community, overseen by a small committee of elders. The plans were deeply flawed. Committee members soon started using their power to take the best lands for themselves.

As the ordinary Maasai saw that their grazing grounds were disappearing, they started grabbing land as well, and many group ranches rushed into a chaotic and inequitable privatization. In some places committee members, local officials and government ministers have each taken as much as 30,000 acres, leaving the ordinary Maasai with either nothing at all or a just a tiny scrap of barren land.

It is now clear that the process the British began was based on a grave misunderstanding. Unlike the farmlands of Britain, the savannahs of East Africa are not steadily productive, but go through spectacular cycles of abundance and dearth. Survival there requires a surrender to the savannah’s demands. Herd numbers must be built up as high as possible during good seasons, so that some livestock will survive the droughts. The animals cannot stay in one place but must follow the rains to find good grazing. Maasai nomadism is probably the most productive sustainable use to which the East African savannahs can be put.

Not all Maasai communities have succumbed to privatization, and in some places people are still fiercely resisting the division of their lands. But for many of the nomads it is too late. As the land has been subdivided, communities have split. Wealth that was shared by everyone has concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people. Confined to one small patch of land throughout the year, the cattle of many of the ordinary Maasai die of starvation when the rain moves on. Thousands of destitute nomads have left the savannahs for the cities. Their land is bought up by businessmen, many of whom plough it for barley or wheat, destroying the rich grass swards, the forests, the dewponds and the flowering shrublands on which the Maasai once subsisted. The savannahs are becoming a no man’s land.

I first met Moses Mpoke in the community of Enkaroni, as it was entering the final stage of dissolution. I had watched the graduation of the last group of warriors the community would ever support. A white ox had been sacrificed, the long dreadlocks of the warriors had been shaved and the kudu horn whose sound brought their wild years – and their community – to an end had been blown. The Maasai were angry, sad and confused. They knew they had been cheated, but they were not sure who to blame.

He was a slight, eager, intense man of 28, with a small head, protruding teeth and a wispy moustache. He spoke so fast that it was often hard to follow him, but when I watched him talking to the other junior elders, I saw that he was confident and well-respected.

Moses’ father had been rich enough to send him to secondary school: he was one of the few at Enkaroni to have been fully educated. When the group ranch had been divided, Moses had secured 76 acres, a little more than the average. But he soon found that, as he could not move his animals and the land was too dry for arable farming, even this property was not sufficient to support him and his small family. He travelled to Nairobi, where a cousin of his was working, and after some trouble secured a job as a filing clerk. Moses worked there during the week and returned to Enkaroni at weekends. I soon began to see that the pattern of his life seemed to offer some hope for the survival of the Maasai.

Moses shared his office with two well-dressed young women, who sat behind a desk typing and answering the telephone. Twice while he was talking to me one of the women asked him to get something for her. The smile would die on his face and he would leap up, scurry across the room and rummage in a cabinet. He later confessed that he could not stand being told what to do, least of all by women. He disliked the work but, he said, it gave him the means to remain a true Maasai.

On a Friday afternoon, after work, I met Moses outside the university and drove first to the slum on the outskirts of the city where he shared a tiny room with two other men from Enkaroni. It was so crowded that two of the men had to sleep in one bed, but he felt safe and happy here. When they had shut the door on Nairobi it was, he said, as if they were back in one of the houses at Enkaroni. Without the other Maasai, the city would be a nightmare.

Twenty miles before we reached Enkaroni, we drove up to a hospital. Moses’ younger brother had just been treated for malaria there, and Moses had to pay the doctor for the chloroquine.

“A very powerful drug,” he said. “Without it my brother would have died.”

“What type of malaria was it?”

“Plasmodium falciparum, a bad variety. He caught it because he stole three goats from a man, and the man bewitched him. I had to go to the prophet to get some special fruits, to undo the witchcraft.”

I stared at Moses: I thought he was pulling my leg. But he looked earnest and thoughtful. Surely, I asked him, it was the chloroquine that cured the malaria. Yes, he said, the chloroquine and the magic fruits.

We ducked through the gate of Moses’ corral. His nephews and nieces came out of the houses and dipped their heads so that we could lay our hands on their hair, then stepped back, giggled, and ran indoors. His mother, an ancient lady with grey stubble on her head and layers and layers of bead necklaces, smiled shyly then disappeared into a house made of sticks and cow dung. Moses, in his suit, holding his umbrella, followed her and emerged a few minutes later in his cloak and sandals. Some of the other junior elders of Enkaroni arrived. Laughing and touching fingers, Moses was soon lost among them.

Watching them, I remembered how hard this community had tried to adapt its culture to the demands of Kenyan society. The period of being a warrior had been cut down from twelve years to just eighteeen months, releasing the young men for education or employment, and the ceremonies had been skillfully edited to fit into the school term. Though the sparse environment in which they lived could scarcely support it, by selling cattle and, in the wetter places, planting crops, they had tried to make the cash the government said would help them to become modern Kenyans. Yet Kenya had made no attempts to accomodate them.

While they were being forced to abandon their traditional life, scarcely anything – no adequate training, education or opportunities – was being put in its place: for many of these young men, I knew, the only foreseeable future was as atoms in the human sea of Nairobi’s stiking slums. Yet the Maasai had so much to offer, so much energy and innovation. Forced by their environment to experiment, to take risks, , to keep learning throughout their lives, they were swift to grasp new languages and principles. Had development been organized for their benefit, rather than just for the businessmen and politicians, all these people could both have kept their identity as herders and become involved on their own terms in the affairs of the rest of the world.

When night had fallen we sat on a bed of sticks and cow hides drinking curdled milk. I asked Moses if he preferred this house to the room in Nairobi.

“In Nairobi my room is cleaner and there’s no smoke. The bed is more comfortable than it is here. But I prefer being here. I feel safe. My friends are always visiting me, you can never be lonely for a moment. And I am glad to be with my family. The best thing would be to have a brick house, here in Enkaroni. Then I would have the best of both worlds.”

“So which is the real Moses Mpoke, the man in the cloak or the man in the suit?”

“This is the real Moses Mpoke, but the other one is also me. In the week I can live in the city and be comfortable; at weekends I can live here and be comfortable. The city has not stopped me from being a Maasai.”

I remembered what Moses had told me about his brother’s malaria: he could believe simultaneously in both the Western way of treating the disease and the Maasai way: the one did not have to exclude the other. It was possible to live with a foot in both worlds, and to use the money and experience of the city to make life in the savannahs more secure.

He told me that he had been saving his money, ever since he had moved to Nairobi, to set himself up as a cattle trader. When he had the £300 he needed, he would give up his job and move back here, buying cattle from the other Maasai and hiring herders to drive them to the markets outside Nairobi. The trade would not make him rich, but would keep him among the cattle and the people with whom he felt at home.

Moses is leading himself out of the wilderness of the city and back to the land of his forebears. Where he goes, others are beginning to follow. In some places the Maasai are putting their divided land back together again and buying degraded fields the wheat farmers have abandoned, in the hope that they will gradually regenerate as pastures. New Maasai organizations are forming to contest the theft of their land. Other people, like Moses, are using paid employment to supplement their herding.

These, of course, are only partial solutions. They do not address the fundamental problem of being confined to one spot, a problem that will only intensify as the population grows. The pressure for the division of the savannahs has increased as corrupt politicians and businessmen see just how lucrative land alienation can be. Maasailand has the lowest number of school places in Kenya, so employment is very hard to find. But what Moses shows is that at least some of the Maasai can survive, even where the very foundations of their economy have been destroyed.

At dawn I watched Moses drive his cattle out of the corral and across the flowering pastures. As he walked he began to whistle, throwing the sound over the heads of his cattle. They pushed slowly through the grass, grazing to the tune that would lead the Maasai back into the lost savannahs of no man’s land.