Pastoralism in Africa

  • Africa is home to more than half of the world's pastoral people .
  • Over 22 million Africans depend on some form of pastoral activity for their livelihood , even today.
  • They include communities like Bedouins , Berbers , Maasai , Somali , Boran and Turkana .
  • Most of them now live in semi-arid grasslands or arid deserts where rainfed agriculture is difficult
  • They raise cattle , camels , goats , sheep and donkeys ; and sell milk , meat , animal skin and wool
  • Some also earn through trade and transport , others combine pastoral activity with agriculture and others do a variety of odd jobs to supplement their meagre and uncertain earnings from pastoralism .
  • The lives of pastoralists in Africa have undergone significant transformation over the colonial and post-colonial periods , much like those of pastoralists in India .
  • We’ll discuss these changes by looking at one pastoral community - the Maasai .
  • East Africa is home to the majority of the Maasai cattle herders , 300,000 of whom reside in southern Kenya and another 150,000 in Tanzania .
  • We will see how new laws and regulations took away their land and restricted their movement .
  • In times of drought , this had an impact on their lives and even changed the way they interacted with one another .

Where have the Grazing Lands Gone?

  • One of the problems faced by the Maasais is the continuous loss of their grazing lands .
  • Maasailand , before colonialism, covered a sizable territory that spanned from northern Kenya to the steppes of northern Tanzania .
  • As European imperial powers scrambled for control over Africa in the late nineteenth century, the region was divided into colonies
  • An international boundary was established between British Kenya and German Tanganyika in 1885 , cutting Maasailand in half .
  • The Maasai were forced into a narrow area in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania as the prime grazing lands were gradually taken over for European settlement .
  • About 60% of the Maasai's pre-colonial territories were lost.
  • They were limited to an arid zone with uncertain rainfall and poor pastures .
  • From the late nineteenth century, the British colonial government in east Africa encouraged local peasant communities to expand cultivation .
  • Pasturelands were transformed into cultivated areas as cultivation grew .
  • In pre-colonial times , the Maasai pastoralists dominated their agricultural neighbours both economically and politically but by the end of colonial rule , the situation had reversed .
  • Large areas of grazing land were also turned into game reserves like the Maasai Mara and Samburu National Park in Kenya and Serengeti Park in Tanzania .
  • Pastoralists were prohibited from entering these reserves , and they were also not permitted to hunt or graze their herds there.
  • Very often these reserves were in areas that had traditionally been regular grazing grounds for Maasai herds .
  • For instance, the Serengeti National Park has created over 14,760 km. of Maasai grazing land.  
  • The Maasai were limited inside a narrow region of land that was under strain due to the loss of the best grazing pastures and water resources .
  • Continuous grazing in a small area meant that pasture quality deteriorated.
  • Fodder was always in short supply . Feeding the cattle became a problem.

The Borders are Closed

  • In the nineteenth century, African pastoralists could move over vast areas for pastures .
  • When the pastures in one place were exhausted they moved to a different area to graze their cattle .
  • The colonial authority started placing different limits on their migration in the late nineteenth century.
  • Other pastoral groups too were also forced to live within the confines of special reserves like the Maasai .
  • The boundaries of these reserves became the limits within which they could move . They were not allowed to move out with their stock without special permits
  • Permits were difficult to get without trouble and harassment . Those found to have broken the regulations received harsh punishment .
  • Pastoralists were not allowed to enter the markets in white areas .
  • They were frequently forbidden from engaging in any kind of trade .
  • Pastoralists were viewed as dangerous and primitive by white settlers and European colonists , with whom any interaction was to be minimised .
  • However cutting off all links was never really possible , because white colonists depend on black labour to bore mines and, build roads and towns .
  • The new territorial boundaries and restrictions imposed on them suddenly changed their lives.
  • This adversely affected both their pastoral and trading activities
  • Earlier, pastoralists not only looked after animal herds but traded in various products .
  • Although the constraints imposed by colonial control did not completely ce ase their trading , they were now subject to a number of restrictions .

When Pastures Dry

  • Drought affects the life of pastoralists everywhere. 
  • Cattle are likely to starve if they can't be transferred to places where there is feed available when rainfall is insufficient and meadows are dry .
  • Because of this, pastoralists are typically nomadic and move from one location to another .
  • This nomadism allows them to survive bad times and avoid crises .
  • But starting with the colonial era, the Maasai were confined to a fixed region , kept inside a reserve , and forbade from travelling in pursuit of greener pastures .
  • They were cut off from the best grazing lands and forced to live within a semi-arid tract prone to frequent droughts .
  • Large numbers of Maasai cattle perished from malnutrition and disease during these years of drought because they were unable to move their herds to locations with suitable pastures. 
  • According to a 1930 investigation , the Maasai in Kenya owned 171,000 donkeys , 820,000 sheep , and 720,000 cattle . Over half of the cattle in the Maasai Reserve perished in just two years of extreme drought , 1933 and 1934 .
  • As the area of grazing lands shrank , the adverse effect of the droughts increased in intensity .
  • The frequent bad years led to a steady decline in the animal stock of the pastoralists

Not All were Equally Affected

  • As elsewhere in Africa, in Maasailand too, not all pastoralists were equally affected by the changes in the colonial period .
  • In pre-colonial times, the Maasai society was divided into two social categories elders and warriors .
  • The elders served as the ruling body , convening in councils on a regular basis to make decisions about the community's affairs and resolve conflicts .
  • The warriors consisted of younger people, mainly responsible for the protection of the tribe .
  • They defended the community and organised cattle raids
  • Raiding was important in a society where cattle was wealth
  • The dominance of several pastoral clans was established by raids .
  • When young men demonstrated their manliness by robbing the cattle of other pastoral tribes and fighting in battles , they were accepted as members of the warrior class .
  • They were subject to the authority of the elders .
  • To administer the affairs of the Maasai , the British introduced a series of measures that had important implications .
  • Chiefs for different sub-groups of Maasai , were appointed and were made responsible for the affairs of the tribe
  • Restrictions were imposed on raiding and warfare .
  • The traditional authority of both elders and warriors was adversely affected .
  • The colonial authority frequently chose wealthy chiefs , who would amass wealth over time.
  • They had a regular income with which they could buy animals , goods and land.  
  • They provided loans to their needy neighbours who required money to pay taxes .
  • Many of them began living in towns and became involved in the trade
  • To take care of the livestock , their wives and kids remained in the villages .
  • These chiefs were able to endure the destruction of both drought and war .
  • They could purchase animals when their stock was low because they received both pastoral and non-pastoral income .
  • But the life of the poor pastoralists who depended only on their livestock was different
  • Most often, they did not have the resources to tide them over bad times
  • They lost almost everything during times of conflict and famine .
  • They had to look for work in the towns .
  • Some eked out a living as charcoal burners , and others did odd jobs
  • The lucky ones got more regular work in the road or building construction .
  • Two levels of social transformation took place in Maasai society.
  • The typical age gap between elders and warriors was first challenged, although it did not completely disappear .
  • Second , a fresh line of demarcation between prosperous and impoverished pastoralists emerged.
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Davneet Singh

Davneet Singh has done his B.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He has been teaching from the past 14 years. He provides courses for Maths, Science, Social Science, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science at Teachoo.