Maasai lessons to the world on managing multiple crises

Sunday July 5 2020

The Maasai people. Climate change poses a major

The Maasai people. Climate change poses a major challenge for the Maasai due to their herding economy that thrives largely on stock mobility (inset). PHOTOS/CITIZEN 

By Martin Marani, Sylvia Rotich and Mikkel Funder

One of the big questions sparked by the coronavirus crisis is: How do communities and societies best navigate a fast-changing and unpredictable world faced with multiple crises around climate, environment and health?

These challenges can be local, regional or global, and are worth examining to understand how different communities confront them. Scientists working on the Rights and Resilience (RARE) research project have been studying the responses of the Maasai of southeastern Kenya to these crises.

Many segments of the population at the local level in Kenya are currently struggling with three intertwined crises: Climate change, locusts and the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

Climate change is a global phenomenon that is characterised by a general rise in the temperatures of the earth surface and the sea as a result of humans emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Climate change is particularly concerning because it is believed to be a precursor to numerous problems such as droughts, floods, declining farm yields, and increasing water scarcity. It is an overbearing threat to human lives and livelihoods.

Long before climate change became a modern-time human concern, desert locusts had been known to ravage Africa. Swarms of billions of insects can eat away thousands of hectares of croplands and other green vegetation, leading to problems such as food insecurity and scarcity of livestock fodder.
The destruction may also cause landscape changes that could lead to conflicts over natural resources.
In recent times, the world has been attacked by coronaviruses: the SARS Coronavirus (SARS-Cov) that led to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in November 2002; the MERS Coronavirus (MERS-Cov) that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in September 2012; and the novel SARS Coronavirus-2 (SARS-COV-2) that was first identified in December 2019 in China’s Wuhan City and is responsible for the Coronavirus disease-19 (Covid-19) pandemic.


These are some of several other coronaviruses that have potential to attack and sicken humans.

SARS-Cov reportedly disappeared in 2004 while MERS-Cov continues to make sporadic but localised attacks around the world.

Of the coronavirus attacks, the ongoing SARS-COV-2 has had the most impact in terms of geographic coverage, number of humans infected, and deaths.
Like a colossus, it has literally spread across the world, threatening whole economies, lives and livelihoods.
Some analysts argue that its effects may also inevitably impact world politics and peace.

The big question is: How do people get around a crisis that is characterised by combined attacks from climate change, locust infestation and coronavirus? This has been the situation in some parts of Kenya since the outbreak of Covid-19 in December 2019 at a time when the country was already facing climate-induced floods and swarms of locusts.

The Rights and Resilience (RARE) research project has followed up on how Kenyan pastoralists handle such a complex situation.

Among others, the study has focused on the Maasai, the world-renowned cattle herders whose rustic lifestyles are often portrayed on film and television in a romantic light. In fact, the Maasai are active participants in modern society, and are trying to cope with the challenges (such as a changing environment) of the modern economy while maintaining their cattle culture and lifestyle.

Climate change poses a major challenge for the Maasai due to their herding economy that thrives largely on stock mobility to reach seasonal pasturelands.

As Kenya’s climate becomes more unpredictable, with frequent droughts and more intense floods, the Maasai are constantly grappling with the question of how their cattle, goats and sheep can get enough fodder and water.

Their households also need adequate food to get them through seasons whose impacts they can hardly envisage. Drought-flood cycles have meant that crops rot and the livestock get more diseases during flooding; and households run out of food and herds get decimated due to shortage of fodder in times of drought.

There is also a whole issue around intergenerational change. While older Maasai folks have held onto their herding culture despite challenges such as climate change, the younger generation seems to be attracted to trappings of the modern market economy.

Though many may not completely abandon herding entirely, Maasai youth are increasingly pulled towards the perceived comfort of city life, and given a chance they would probably not hesitate to convert most livestock assets into other holdings that are compatible with city life.

Climate change is therefore impacting not only the Maasai lifestyle but also individual mindsets, with probable far-reaching consequences.

On March 13, Kenya announced the first coronavirus infection in the country. At the time, Maasai land was also experiencing heavy rains (and associated floods) as well as one of the worst locust infestations that had been ravaging much of eastern Africa since 2019.

While floods cause crops on the fields to rot, locusts often destroy vegetation that livestock consume as fodder. This means that post-locust seasons are characterized by fodder scarcity and Maasai herds could starve at a time when there may also be disease outbreaks.

Drought-flood cycles are linked to climate change, but the connection with locust infestations is still unclear even though both events contribute significantly to food insecurity among the Maasai.

An outbreak of diseases like Covid-19 necessitates urgent government measures to protect people and the economy, but such actions could alter the survival equation for the Maasai in many ways.

One such measure is restricted movement of people that comes in the form of curfews and lockdowns. For the Maasai herder who needs mobility to access distant pastures, these measures disrupt movement (which usually occurs many times at night) and failure to reach pasture and water at the right time.

It may mean a lack of adequate time to reach a fellow Maasai age mate’s kraal to spend a night and access important services like food and drinking water. Further, it may even mean that pasture and water reconnaissance groups that go ahead of migrating herds take long to send back reports, thereby putting herd movement in jeopardy.
Other actions

Other actions like closure of livestock markets depress household incomes, which may cause families to sell their livestock on informal markets at lower prices, thus growing poorer. Curfews and lockdowns may also put enormous pressure on herders, especially from their families back home.

On the whole, official measures to control Covid-19 may only exacerbate an already dire situation, especially in instances where multiple events such as climate change, locust infestation and coronavirus disease act together.

So how are the Maasai herders handling such a disastrous complex situation? As specialists in dealing with crises and unpredictability, cattle keepers are meeting the new challenges creatively by drawing on three basic strategies: mobility, diversification and adopting new ways of managing scarce resources.

Mobility, a long-time key strategy in Maasai pastoralism, has been used to access distant pasture and water, sometimes across international borders. In response to climate change, some Maasai have expanded this strategy to move to new places and to remain mobile in other ways, for example by letting young people take jobs in the city.

Mobility is no longer just about herds and herders; it now involves family members leaving the comforts of home to travel to urban centres (many times quite distant or even across borders) in search of wage labour.

Income from such work can come in handy especially during droughts and scarcity when remitted to families to pay school fees, meet medical costs, and buy food or even water. In periods of abundance, mobility can be a key source of money for restocking, herd growth and home improvement.

Though work-related mobility is not a new phenomenon among the Maasai, it is certainly on the rise, probably an indicator that more households are getting more stressed by climate-induced factors. It may also mean that herding alone may no longer sustain increasing households and hence a complementary income becomes critical.

Additionally, many Maasai are trying to diversify their finances so that there are different income streams to pool in times of a crisis. For example, through education, wage labour, small businesses, and the sale of new agricultural products in connection with traditional livestock and crops are opening up as extra income streams.

This provides more revenue opportunities, and when one income fails, another can be depended upon. Diversification therefore reduces vulnerability, increases resilience in the face of unpredictability.

Arguably, supporting diversification could wean the Maasai from relief and put them on the path to a stronger pastoralist economy and sustainable development.

Finally, the Maasai are developing new ways of organising how they manage scarce natural resources. Changing land tenure has led some to invent new or reinvent versions of traditional principles, such as joint agreements on the management of grass and water according to certain rules, thereby making it easier to get by with fewer resources. For example, households may merge herds and share herding labour to reduce costs and free resources.

Some have also made new agreements about when to move their livestock to certain pastures and wetlands within or beyond group ranches.

Others have abandoned the past collective principles to embrace more individualised property rights, which they believe strengthens their ability to cope. The latter has probably been motivated by changes in land tenure from communal to individual ownership across most of the Kajiado Maasai.

For example, many Maasai households now grow grass on individually owned or leased lands and make silage for their herds, which is a form of ranching. Some increasingly prefer to keep their livestock in paddocks most of the time, and use their land for individual farming purposes, which is a radical change in the way Maasai manage their land.

The big city of Nairobi neighbouring Maasai lands has also caused changes in mindsets as more people now see a better future not just in the vast lands and herds but also in greater interaction with the urban economy to overcome crises.

The strategies of the Maasai illustrate a major point, namely that resilience is not just a question of surviving a crisis and then returning to ‘normal’, but about using the experience from each crisis to develop and change resource utilisation, economics and organisation. It is about using experience to continuously innovate for a changing environment and increasingly more complex situations.

The Maasai situation also shows how important it is to bring people’s own experience-based knowledge about “what works here” into the game of living with unpredictability. Though the Maasai strategies make good practical sense, they are often met with skepticism among many scientists, planners and policy makers who do not always fully understand tacit approaches to resource planning and crisis management.

Yet studies show that expert-based solutions are not necessarily successful when adjusting to unpredictability, scarcity and complexity. Drawing on different forms of knowledge and providing for a democratic dialogue that allows tapping into dynamics of tacit knowledge may lead to better solutions for the Maasai as they adapt to the new reality.

Finally, lessons from current multiple crises illustrate the need for integrated thinking, across not just crises but also scales. The coronavirus crisis has made it difficult to fight the locust plague, and has also hit some of the strategies otherwise used by the Maasai to adapt to climate change.

While climate, locusts and coronavirus may seem like a rare combination, they have not only hit the national economy but also specific communities such as the Maasai even harder. Movement restrictions threaten Maasai social systems and livelihood strategies, which are founded on mobility, among other things. Thus, crises in climate, environment and health can all play together.

Challenges cannot be resolved separately as science, policy and practice attempt a better understanding of such complex situations.