Bringing parks and conservation to the Maasai

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

I always feel nervous when I’m meeting with the Maasai. They are tall, imposing figures, swathed in deep blue and red tartans as they wait like statues beneath shady acacia trees leaning against kingly-wooden staffs. Although I speak Swahili, their tribal language of Maa is an impregnable mystery to me. It bubbles and rolls with l’s and o’s and r’s. I can say “hello” and “thank you” and well— that’s just about it. In this patriarchal society, women stand in the background as the caretakers of children and cows and the mixers of cornmeal and tea. Setting up a series of introductory meetings with our warrior-tribe neighbors made my stomach feel squishy for days ahead of time. Not only because I am a female outsider, but because I felt I wasn’t offering them much.

Gideon and I had devised a program to bring wildlife sensitization to remote villages. Using a tok-tok (a little farming cart) and solar-power projector we could host “eductainment” nights in the Maasai homesteads. We would show documentaries using Swahili and Maa translators, as well as footage from the local area and community to make the movie night not just entertainment but immediately relevant to their lives. Afterward we could ask the communities more about their thoughts and beliefs about the environment and the wildlife they share it with.

I figured we might not make ground-breaking strides in conservation awareness, but we might make wildlife education more accessible and locally relevant. Most native Tanzanians have never been able to afford a safari tour. They can’t rent a Land Rover and cruise through the prohibitively expensive parks. Many of these Maasai elders have lived alongside a national park their entire lives, and never had the ability to venture inside. Although we can’t pay the fare for every community member we could try something new and bring the parks and the conversation to them.

This brings me back to the root of my initial anxiety. I couldn’t offer them money to fix leaky roofs, microfinance credit to repair elephant-damaged fences or jobs to stabilize their lives on the edge of the sun-swept plains. I could offer them a connection to nature for the sake of its intrinsic worth. As we walked around the boulder-studded sand to the village government buildings for our first meeting I silently hoped that would be enough. With me were Gideon and Joseph, our milling machine manager who is Maasai, well-imbedded within the local community, and thankfully tetralingual. We waited outside the dusty meeting building, on plastic chairs under the scraggly thorn trees. A Maasai elder crouched under the shade of the office building said hello and promptly began quizzing me on Swahili. He gestured to the dirt, the trees, the goats walking by— “hii ni nini…sema hii…semahuyu” — say the word for this, say this, what’s this. He laughed in surprise with each of my answers. Ardhi, miti, mbozi. I often feel like a talking polar bear here: people are caught off guard to see me so far from my natural habitat (in their experience, a tourist hotel) and even more surprised to hear me speak not just any language, but theirs.

Finally, we were called inside. We introduced ourselves and launched into an English-Swahili-Maa mash-up of our pitch. I nervously emphasized that there would be no promise of jobs, of money, of anything except for community movie nights and conversation. The village executive smiled as the translations reached him: yes, this would all be fine. He was grateful that someone was taking the time to create such a program, to become involved in the community, and to go through the correct chain of command to gain permission for our project. Would we join him at the general meeting after lunch? Of course, the only natural answer was “yes”.

A few hours later Joseph and I trudged through the thick beige silt northwards, away from the main road and beyond towards Maasailand. Beneath a grove of trees sat twenty or so Masaai elders, balanced on lake-stones and concrete bricks. Among them were a few “Swahili people” as they refer to non-Maasai Tanzanians. I learned via Joseph that this wasn’t just a tribal meeting but one for the entire surrounding village of Baraka. I smiled to myself, because that meant that despite my skin, clipped accent, and foreignness I technically belonged. I own a small plot of land in Baraka, adjacent to our children’s home. I hope to one day build a little traditional house there. I am also a villager. With a burgeoning claim to belonging I felt slightly less awkward and self-conscious.

Suddenly the crowd turned to face the west, near where the tufts of forest meat the dust-dunes. Through the waves of grassland-heat I could make out the tall, royal figures descending over the bluffs. Warriors. The Maasai are an age-class oriented society, where boys move through several social categories as they grow older. Each category has a name, associates rights and duties. Like the land they live in, Maasai life is governing by seasons. Approaching us now was a band of men in their late teens and early twenties. The Moran. These warriors guarded the cattle and tribal groups from harm and are quite imposing with their long, braided manes and glinting metal headdresses, stark-white beaded belts and spangled cuffs. They moved forward in clusters of thirty or so, striding with long-legged steps and spears hefted on bare shoulders. Spiking their weapons into the dirt, they came to sit with us under the trees. Now the meeting could begin.

After a roll call and short discussion of local politics, the chairman called Joseph and I to enter the middle of the crowd and present ourselves and program ideas for approval. I took a deep breath and started to speak, pausing intermittently for Joseph to translate. After a few minutes of introductions, the elders began clapping.

“They are very happy” the chairman said via Joseph. This made me more nervous than excited.

I leaned closer to my translator and hissed “You told them no benefits, right? No money, no jobs, nothing. Just activities and conversation” More than anything, I was afraid of overpromising, of miscommunications or damaged hopes that could impede future conservation education programs. “Yes, yes” he said, and we reiterated together that this was merely the first attempt at such a program here, and was just for sharing movies, and through the conversation that followed thoughts and perceptions of life alongside the wild animals here. We agreed that in addition to visiting villages to show our documentaries I would spend each Sunday morning merely talking to people; The elders wanted me to understand their culture, their society, and their beliefs.

I smiled and agreed. “But I desperately need you men to teach me some Maa, because my Swahili is decent but my Maa is pathetic.”

Joseph translated and the group laughed. We agreed to begin the first Sunday of October and go from there. I asked to teach me their views and values, and to share what they believed where the greatest challenges they faced. I couldn’t solve their problems but I’d like to listen and to share their concerns with a larger audience where I could. I explained that while for now I could only continue this for two months, I would love to expand the work in the future if possible. No one else is working with the Masaai surrounding Manyara. Regardless of where this initiative would end, I do believe it is beginning in the right place. First by building a solid relationship with the community and inviting them to help shape and direct its course.

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