Tanzania: Shrinking pastures threaten Maasai culture (by Zenzele Ndebele, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Tanzania)

| October 15, 2012

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The Maasai people are known for being pastoralists. But that could change in the near future if nothing is done to protect their land.

Sixty-four-year old Stephen Lessinga is a Maasai who grew up in Longido village. He has always enjoyed traditional rights over a large area of grazing land, and used to own a number of livestock. Three decades ago, he left Longido for government work in Tanga, on the coast. When Mr. Lessinga retired two years ago, he returned to his village to find that the local district assembly had subdivided his land and given it away.

Longido village is 80 kilometres north of Arusha, close to the Kenyan border. Many Maasai families live here in their traditional huts. Maasai men can be seen in their red robes, walking the dry and dusty plains with their livestock. The land is Maasai pastoral land, governed by tribal land rights. Maasai do not have land titles or certificates.

However, over the years, thousands of acres of pastoral land have been set aside by the government for schools, clinics, game parks and camp sites. In 2007, Longido became a district, and the government began constructing district offices and buildings. These developments have encroached on traditional grazing land and now threaten the basis of Maasai culture and livelihood – their cattle.

For the past two years, Mr. Lessinga has been struggling to get his land back. He has talked to the district commissioner many times. He has engaged a lawyer, and has attempted to fight his case in the courts, but without success. He says he will continue fighting for his land: “I was born here and I have nowhere [else] to go. I have seven children who are all grown up now and they also need a piece of land.”

Lessinga is not the only Maasai with land problems. Many Maasai men believe that increasing development means that soon they will have no place to graze their cattle.

Oyare Lemarle Olekambuni is a Maasai elder, and Mr. Lessinga’s brother. He remembers that when he and his brother were young boys, there were few people in the area. Now the population has increased and there are schools and hospitals. Mr. Olekambuni welcomes development in Longido because children can now attend school. The problem with these new buildings, he says, is that they block traditional grazing routes. He says that when they tell the authorities to make space for their cattle, no one listens.

Olengunin Marle also lives in Longido. He says that the community’s cattle are losing weight and value because there is inadequate grazing land. He explains that in the dry season the cattle walk long distances looking for water and pasture.

Mr. Marle says Maasai in Longido have to accept development because it is happening everywhere. He says, “I did not go to school, but I have to send my children to school because … we don’t even have the land to keep the cattle.” But he is determined to defend his rights, and states, “We will try to stop these people from taking all the land.”

Kamakia Mathew Kuyan is one Maasai who still has a good number of cattle. But he worries that the government does not consult or involve them when they take their land. They are simply told it is government policy.

Mussa Kichumu is the District Land Officer for Longido district. He defends the government’s actions, and explains: “The aim of the district council is to bring service closer to the people. The Maasai people should not be worried because we want to make sure that the land is used sustainably.”

Mr. Kichumu says the council always consults local people on land use issues. He agrees that the land available to the Maasai is shrinking. But he believes that without proper land use planning there will be more land conflicts.

The Maasai are the one people in Tanzania who have maintained their traditional culture in the face of colonialism and inter-tribal fighting. But the Maasai way of life will remain under threat if no measures are taken to protect their land. Mr. Lessinga defends his right to land and will continue his fight. He says, “I am even prepared to take this issue [to] the president if these people do not want to listen to me.”