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Pastoralism in Africa

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Pastoralism and pastoral livestock production are very important to the livelihood and economy of Africa’s semi-arid areas. Due to long-term climate change, around 7,000 years ago; it spread throughout Northern Africa as an adaptation to the constantly changing and unpredictable arid climate. Pastoralism in Africa is practiced in 43 percent of the landmass. 

More than 22 million Africans rely on some type of pastoral activity for a living. Among them are Bedouins, Berbers, Maasai, Somali, Boran, and Turkana. Today, the bulk of them live in semi-arid grasslands or dry deserts, where rainfed agriculture is difficult. They raise cattle, camels, goats, sheep, and donkeys, and sell milk, meat, skins, and wool. Some augment their meager and uncertain earnings from pastoralism through commerce and transportation, while others combine mobile lifestyle activity with agriculture.

The lives of African pastoralists changed tremendously over colonial and post-colonial times. From the late 19th century, the British colonial government in east Africa started expanding land under cultivation. As cultivation expanded, pasturelands turned to cultivated fields and this brought a number of problems for the pastoralists and their lives became tough.

Maasai Tribe

The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group found in northern, middle, and southern Kenya, as well as northern Tanzania. They are one of the most well-known local populations in the world due to their proximity to the several wildlife parks of the African Great Lakes, as well as their peculiar rituals and dress. Except for a few elders in rural regions, the majority of Maasai people speak Swahili and English, the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania. In exchange for a charge, many Maasai tribes in Tanzania and Kenya allow visitors to their communities to learn about their culture, customs, and way of life.

Maasai Tribe Activities

Maasai Tribe

The Life of Maasai Community

Being solely semi-nomadic and pastoral, the tribe live solely off the land and move to new areas after depopulating their surroundings. Until Europeans arrived, Maasai almost owned most of the fertile lands in Kenya. To be born as a male in the Maasai tribe means to be born into one of the world’s largest great warrior cultures. The tribal warriors are celebrated often through rituals and ceremonies.

The culture is mainly patriarchal in nature, the result of which most women live a life of cultural oppression and poverty. Mostly denied the Right to Education, Maasai women only follow the rules of tradition. Despite all, a sense of sisterhood and positivity engulfs Maasai women. Being monotheistic, they worship one god- Engai or Enkai.

Maasai tribe mostly wears a red dress, known as “Shuka”, along with beaded jewelry. They co-exist with wildlife, Maasai tribe refers to their homes as large areas of land. Their shelters are loosely constructed and semi-permanent.

Issues of Maasai Land

Issues of Maasai were as follows:

  1. The constant loss of their grazing areas.
  2. During colonial times, Maasailand was divided in half in 1885 by an international boundary drawn by British Kenya and German Tanganyika.
  3. Due to this, the best grazing fields were gradually taken up for white settlement, and the Maasai were forced to relocate to a narrow area in southern Kenya and in northern Tanzania.
  4. The Maasai were limited to an arid region with variable rainfall and poor pastures after losing over 60% of their pre-colonial territory.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the British colonial authority in East Africa encouraged indigenous peasant populations to develop farming. As agriculture flourished, pasturelands were converted into cultivated fields. In pre-colonial periods, the Maasai pastoralists controlled both economically and politically their agricultural neighbours. The situation had flipped at the end of colonial control.

Other Issues

African pastoralists were able to migrate over wide territories in quest of pastures in the nineteenth century. When the pastures in one location became depleted, they relocated their cattle to a different location to graze. The colonial authority began imposing different limits on their migration in the late nineteenth century.

Maasai, were obliged to reside within the boundaries of protected reserves. These reserves’ boundaries became the bounds within which they may now move. They couldn’t depart with their livestock unless they got special permission. Permissions were likewise difficult to secure without a great deal of trouble and intimidation. Those who were found to have broken the rules were severely punished. Their issues were:

  1. Pastoralists were denied access to markets in white areas and were barred from engaging in any type of trade-in in many areas.
  2. Cutting off all linkages was impossible as colonists had to rely on black labor to drill mines, and create roads and villages.
  3. Pastoralists’ lifestyles were drastically altered by the new territorial borders and restrictions put on them which affected both their pastoral and commerce enterprises.
  4. Earlier, pastoralists not only looked after animal herds but also traded in a variety of things. The constraints imposed by colonial rule made them subject to a number of restrictions.

Loss of Grazing Lands and Its Effects

Large tracts of grazing land have also been converted into game reserves, such as Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Samburu National Park, and Tanzania’s Serengeti Park. Pastoralists were not permitted to enter these reserves and were not permitted to hunt or graze their herds. These reserves were located in locations that had served as regular grazing grounds for Maasai herds. The loss of the best grazing areas and water resources put a strain on the Maasai’s short tract of land. Continuous grazing in a small space inevitably resulted in a decline in pasture quality. There was constantly a scarcity of fodder. Feeding the livestock became a recurring issue.

Effect of Closed Borders on Pastoralists

The pastoralists could not move freely after the colonial government began imposing various restrictions on their mobility. Special permission was required to move beyond the boundaries and it was difficult to get permits without trouble and harassment. Those found guilty were severely punished. Pastoralists were not allowed to enter markets in white areas. In many areas, they were not allowed to participate in any form of trade. Europeans saw the pastoralists as dangerous and savage. However, whites had to depend on black labor to bore mines and build roads and towns. The restrictions affected both their pastoral and trading lives.

Effect of Dried Pastures

When rains fail and meadows dry up, cattle are likely to starve unless they can be relocated to areas where feed is plentiful. That is why pastoralists have always been nomadic. Because of their nomadism, they are able to survive harsh times and avoid crises.

However, beginning with the colonial period, the Maasai were confined to a specific area, contained within a reserve, and banned from roaming in search of pastures. They were separated from the greatest grazing pastures and forced to live in a semi-arid region prone to periodic droughts. Because they were unable to relocate their livestock to pastures, a substantial number of Maasai cattle died of famine and disease during the drought years. As the area of grazing areas decreased, the severity of the droughts grew. Not all pastoralists in Maasailand were equally affected by colonial-era events. Before colonial times, the Maasai civilization was divided into two social groups:

  • Elders: The ruling group consisted of the elders, who met in councils on a regular basis to discuss community issues and resolve problems. The warriors were primarily young men in charge of the tribe’s defense. They staged cattle raids and defended the community. In a civilization where livestock was valued as a form of wealth, robbing was important. Raids were used to assert the power of many pastoral groups.
  • Warriors: Young males were recognized as members of the warrior class when they displayed their manliness by raiding the livestock of neighboring pastoral villages and participating in battles. Nonetheless, they were subject to the elders’ authority.

To handle the Maasai affairs, the British enacted a number of measures that had far-reaching consequences. They appointed chiefs from various Maasai sub-groups to be in charge of the tribe’s affairs. The British imposed various raiding and combat restrictions. As a result, both elders’ and warriors’ traditional authority has been damaged.

The chosen leaders of the colonial government usually prospered over time. They were able to buy animals, goods, and land since they had a consistent income. They made loans to poor neighbors who needed money to pay their taxes. Many of them began to settle in towns and engage in trade. These chiefs were able to survive the damage caused by war and drought. They could acquire animals when their herd was reduced since they possessed both pastoral and non-pastoral income.

Poor pastoralists who lived only on their animals lacked the resources to deal with adversity most of the time. During periods of conflict and famine, they lost almost everything. They were compelled to seek employment in the towns. Some made a living as charcoal burners, while others worked odd jobs. Those who are fortunate may be able to find more regular work in road or building construction.

Rituals to Become Maasai Warriors

There are 6 Maasai rituals to become warriors. The following are mentioned in brief below:

  • Enkipaata: It is a circumcision ceremony symbolizing the transition into the next age- set, prepared, and organized by the father. Happens between the age of 12-16 years and the first coming-of-age ceremony of the Maasai boy. Paint his face with white chalk and shave the head.
  • Emuratare: Most important initiation elevating the boys from childhood to adulthood. Planning takes 4 months during which each will prove that is ready by exhibiting signs of a grown-up, by carrying a heavy spear or traveling by himself at night.
  • Olomaylo: This is a daunting task to know how courageous they are. The task is to fight a lion and escape it.
  • Emanyatta: The formation of Emanyatta was selected randomly by the Maasai prophet, which is a warring camp consisting of 20-40 houses. 10 days ritual takes place.
  • Eunoto: At the dawn of the day of Eunoto, wearing loose clothing, young Masaais run to their homestead with an aggressive new attitude and put act as if they have come to raid.
  • Orngesherr: The selected camp of 20 or more houses. It marks the transition of a junior elder to a senior elder. The warrior status elevates to a more responsible elder.

FAQs on Pastoralism in Africa

Question 1: What happened to Maasailand in 1885?


The colonial powers were scrambling for territorial possessions in 1885. Maasailand was divided in half by a border between British Kenya and German Tanganyika. The Maasai lost 60% of their pre-colonial territory.

Question 2: What does the title ‘Maasai’ mean? What did they depend on for subsistence?


The word ‘maa’ is derived from the title ‘Maasai.’ Maa-sai translates as ‘My People.’ The Maasai are a nomadic and pastoral tribe that rely on milk and meat for survival.

Question 3: State one measure introduced by the British to administer the affairs of the Maasai.


They chose Maasai chiefs from several sub-groups to be in charge of the tribe’s affairs, and the British imposed numerous raiding and warring restrictions.

Question 4: What is meant by kafila?


During the winter, when the high mountains were covered in snow, the pastoralists resided in the low hills of the Siwalik range with their herds. Their cows were fed by the dry scrub woodlands here. At the end of April, they began their northern march to their summer grazing pastures. Several houses banded together for this journey, establishing a kafila.

Question 5: According to environmentalists and economists why are nomadic pastoralists the important communities?


Nomadic pastoralists are important communities because they play a vital role in forest protection. Herders provide important goods such as milk, ghee, and wool to people.

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Last Updated : 26 Oct, 2022
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