When I decided to travel to Kenya, I centered my documentary for Global Storytelling for Global Development around understanding the beauty of the Maasai culture. I couldn’t have been more excited about spending time with the people and learning about their traditions, rituals and daily life.
The Maasai are the most well-known indigenous ethnic group in East Africa and live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. Originating from ancient lands and simpler times, the Maasai can trace themselves back hundreds of years, and the way they live today, still reflects both when and where they came from.
Visiting the Maasai
Standing proud in the savannah with their red blankets and painted shields, the Maasai people have become one of the more widely known tribes of East Africa — the Maasai shield is even featured on Kenya’s national flag. It’s not uncommon in Kenya to see the Maasai in their traditional dress, not only in their villages, but also in the streets of the cities. They are divided into clans, and hence, communities, in southern Kenya in the Maasai Mara.
This division of communities, though, does not take away from the value these people place on unity. And as a nomadic tribe, the Maasai operate with the mindset of a global citizen, moving from one country to another, understanding this planet is comprised of various cultures and embracing each culture doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your own.
While filming the documentary, I found the children most delightful, and enjoyed watching them connect with nature — be it running barefoot around the land; dodging cows, sheep and goat dung; or herding animals all while smiling, laughing and reveling in their happy energy.
Today, the Maasai are losing some of their traditional ways. The two most important changes for them are education, which is almost mandatory for the future, and female circumcision, which is now illegal in Kenya. The biggest challenge to their nomadic lifestyle is drought, the reduction of their lands and the ability to roam from pasture to pasture for grazing their animals — their livelihood.
I learned a lot while staying with the Maasai, and these insights changed my perception forever. As we all continue our quests for your cultural belonging, I thought I’d share a few of those lessons here:
- You Can’t Hide From Globalization/Westernization.
No matter how hard you try. No matter how much you believe in your lifestyle. No matter how much you cherish your traditions. You can, however, still maintain your culture’s traditions alongside changes. The Maasai, for example, are experiencing Westernization — just about every household now has use of a cell phone — but they manage beautifully to never give up their own traditions. As global citizens and nomads, we are doing the same. We embark on a journey and dive our whole selves into the new culture we choose to live in, but we cannot forget the customs and cultures we come from. For me, being Austrian and living in the U.S., United States culture is sometimes a stretch; but this is just what globalization is.
- You Must Build Cultural Wealth
The Maasai prayer always starts: “May God give me children and cattle.” Those are two things the Maasai see as essential — cattle is a synonym for wealth in the Western world. Maasai men understand that to get married they need cattle, and after that, they need even more livestock to provide for the family. Maasai know that the decisions they make will affect the number of cattle they accumulate, and the cattle they accumulate, will influence the success of their clan and boma. Global citizens like us may not trade with cattle, but we build a community around our cause and our friends, and the new culture we live in becomes our clan. Living a culturally fluid life and gaining friends in this new culture creates cultural wealth.
- The Massai are Nomads — But So are We.
Well, technically they’re semi-nomadic. They move themselves and their livestock to the tune of a communal land management system based on seasonal rotation. The reason? It’s seen as much more sustainable than the “take, take, take” attitude of many developed countries. The nomadic way of life goes back to the roots of all human history, which makes the Maasai extra special. They, and a handful other peoples across the world, are our last living link to our distant past.
- Never Give Up.
Through repression and years of struggle, the Maasai always find a way to be true to their beliefs and customs, and that’s something we can all learn from. People are taught from a very young age to look to others for guidance. Social norming is an important part of childhood — you figure out how to act in relation to everyone else. The problem begins when you extend that process to include something as personal as your life’s purpose. Listen to your gut; it is right most of the time.
“We embark on a journey and dive our whole selves into the new culture we choose to live in, but we cannot forget the customs and cultures we come from.”
I am grateful for this enriching experience, which will continue, as I see how I can support spreading the word about the Maasai people — with them, you’ll find the richness and qualities of a nomadic mindset, a mindset global citizens must have, as well.