A Case Study of the Maasai Indigenous Peoples of Kenya

Contributed by Daniel Salau Rogei

Situational Problem

The Maasai, like many other indigenous people, are losing their language at an alarming rate to the detriment of their indigenous knowledge, environment and future generations. In June-August 2010, I was involved in a study that involved surveying the indigenous people of Africa, done across ten countries in south and central Africa to establish the social, economic and political status of the indigenous peoples in relation to the trends at the global level.

The research culminated into a documentary called “Indigenous Voices” (www.triballink.org). My observation is that many of the indigenous people we interacted with often feel lost when their language is dead. Among the Maasai, indigenous knowledge is orally passed from one generation to another. A language is the medium through which such essential complex indigenous science is passed in various forms including but not limited to oral stories, songs, poems, proverbs among others. A young generation masters the skills and practically applies them in diverse fields such as inter-personal relations or human-nature relations, and they draw spiritual divinity from them.

Modern day challenges posing a threat to indigenous people’s language, culture and traditional knowledge include globalization forces such as social-economic integration, formal education system, resource nationalization/dollarization and worst of all, climate change.

Social-cultural and Environment Impact

Land is the prime resource of the Maasai, just as it is with many other indigenous people. It carries all other resources inherent in it, both visible and invisible. It is a voluminous book with inexhaustible information. The sages bear the age-old wisdom to interpret, make sense of such knowledge and apply it for prosperity. The overarching principle is that humans are subject to human nature and we can only derive wisdom, food, spiritual nourishment and wellbeing from it and pass it on to subsequent generations.

The elders are the custodians of this treasure and legacy, tested and approved by the generations before and they are obliged to pass it on to the younger generations. When a sage dies, it is like losing centuries-old collections and publications in a burning library! It cannot be business as usual. The conventional development approach is unsustainable and detrimental. Its adverse effects are real and visible. Some of them contribute to diminishing resources, desertification/climate change, poverty conflicts, diseases and reduced average life-span.

Practical Actions

The best approach to address these challenges in a more sustainable way is through local community-driven initiatives. A participatory research project is underway and its findings shall culminate in the establishment of a community resource center dubbed as the Centre for Indigenous Language and Cultural Studies. The rationale is to tap the language and indigenous knowledge when it is still alive and document it via other forms, including publications, photocopy and digital media.

This resource shall not only be documented for posterity but shall be propagated through teaching and dissemination to compliment the oral media. The sky is less than the limit in this endeavor and we foresee to have a full-fledged college for indigenous studies!

This project has the potential to be scaled up and replicated for the benefit of other indigenous people of Kenya, Africa and the whole world who are on the verge of losing their identity and biocultural values. It will go a long way in actualizing and operationalizing the efforts and achievements made by indigenous people’s processes at the global level.