In debates over the role of the Maasai in the history of East African pastoralism several questions recur that are central to our understanding of how economies and societies of the region emerged and were transformed. First, when and in what way did the practice of specialized pastoralism first arise in East Africa and become consolidated as an organized system of production? Second, when and how did communities of Maa-speakers expand and move southward to occupy much of the East African Rift Valley region, and how was this expansion related to their, specialized pastoral organization and technology? And, thirdly, when and by what process did Maasai territorial units coalesce and a distinctive Maasai identity or ethnic consciousness emerge? Much of the evidence bearing on these questions is fragmentary, coming as it does from the diverse disciplines of historical and comparative linguistics, archaeology, oral history and anthropology, whose methods and assumptions do not always mesh.
This chapter will deal not only with what is known about the history of specialized pastoralism and Maasai expansion but also with the debates about how current knowledge should be construed and interpreted. For instance, it is evident from the cultural geography of the recent past that, by the mid-nineteenth century, Maa-speaking peoples inhabited a vast area stretching from north of Lake Turkana in what is now southern Ethiopia through Kenya to central Tanzania. The Rift Valley itself provided a north-south axis of Maasai occupation and a corridor for their expansion. The Rift Valley region, however, comprises a more diverse economic geography. It is transected by the actual semiarid valley but includes highland forests and plateaus, and it is integrated into a single system through mobile resource use or trade (Waller, 1985b). But does the current Maasai distribution represent the outcome of an expansionary intrusion throughout the Rift Valley region of a discrete people over a relatively short period of time or a more diffuse and osmotic process whereby a language and a culture spread through previously existing communities, with the emergent societies assuming different forms depending on the social and linguistic fabric of those assimilated? And did Maa-speakers develop highly specialized pastoralism and then introduce it into East Africa through their expansion, or did they merely adopt and refine the specialized pastoral practices of their predecessors?
While cattle occupied a central position in the pastoral economy and, therefore, in struggles over definitions of ‘ being Maasai’ in the nineteenth century, land and markets have increasingly became the central resources and arenas in the twentieth. The establishment of African reserves, in both the highlands and the plains, sharply restricted Maasai access to pastoral resources and put them increasingly in competition with Highlanders seeking fertile agricultural land on the plains. As available land became increasingly limited, it came to be seen more as a resource which could be appropriated by individuals rather than as a communal territory containing resources for all (see Campbell, Chapter Twelve). Increasing penetration of the market has also provided Maasai with an outlet, albeit an uncertain one, as they now sell both catde and labour for cash. The implications of their integration into a wider economy for what it means to be Maasai are enormous, as we are only beginning to understand. For, if catde have been critical in defining Maasai views of themselves and have been the main means of mediating relations between themselves and others, what does a future bode in which land and market relations — privately conducted — replace catde — held in communal trust and widely shared — as the primary economic resources?
Waller examines the early stages of this process under colonialism, as control over land became in itself as significant for Maasai survival as access to catde had been hitherto. As scarcity of land in the highlands pushed increasing numbers of Kikuyu farmers to settle in Maasailand, Maasai fears over losing land encouraged them to cooperate with colonial authorities to restrict the immigration of outsiders. At the same time, however, the increasing difficulty of maintaining their pastoral economy encouraged Maasai to accept individual Kikuyu as client cultivators and even to adopt farming themselves. Maasai responses to outsiders were thus conflicting. On the one hand, they seemed to acknowledge colonial ideas regarding their ethnic exclusivity while, on the other, they continued to interact with Kikuyu and protected individual Kikuyu clients from removal by the colonial authorities. This resulted in continual negotiation over stereotypes.
Although occasionally having to deviate from ideal social, cultural and economic practices, and even to abandon Maa speech, the Maasai peoples typically were the dominant party in interactions with their neighbours in the nineteenth century. Impressed by their ‘cattle complex’, military system, religious structures and a host of other cultural features, large numbers of outsiders were peacefully absorbed into Maasai society. In addition many other outsiders — occasionally entire communities of them — were swallowed up by Maasai advances as they came to control much of the central Rift Valley and the adjacent uplands.
A survey of contacts between Maa-speakers and the Turkana and Karimojong communities of the Ateker branch of the Eastern Nilotes, however, presents a study in contrast. Far from being overrun and absorbed by Maa-speakers, it was Ateker who predominated in these contacts, sometimes defeating Maa-speakers militarily and often absorbing them linguistically and politically. The means by which Ateker — especially the Turkana — were able to displace and/or assimilate their Maa-speaking neighbours throughout much of the nineteenth century emanated from a complex period of dynamic territorial expansion. Typical of such expansions elsewhere in Eastern Africa, that of the Turkana was intricate and multi-faceted, sometimes involving only a rather subtle territorial drift, but punctuated at frequent intervals by interactions, borrowings, adjustments, conflicts and assimilations. Again quite typical of similar expansions, the Turkana were to evolve an ever changing sense of selfhood and corporate identity from the experience. To paraphrase Turton's observation on the Mursi: the Turkana ‘did not make a journey; a journey made them’.
And yet, as will be shown in this chapter, two closely interrelated factors appear essentially to have underlaid this complex process. The first of these was favourable economic circumstances, entailing an early development of a ‘new pastor alism’, with wider patterns of transhumance supported by efficient commercial networks, and later by the emergence of a more diversified pastoral economy. As we shall see, these circumstances gave Turkana a distinct advantage over their neighbours, especially in times of severe ecological stress and major epizootics. The second factor, the successful waging of inter-ethnic conflict, was derived largely from the evolution of a more efficient military organization. Ironically, this evolution stemmed in part from ideas and institutions initially borrowed from Maa-speakers, but then creatively adapted to meet the demands of a changing political and cultural environment.
Ethnicity & Identity in Context
The term ‘Maasai’ is currently used to mark two different cultural realities, the first being the gamut of Maa-speaking people and groups in East Africa, the second the set of central and primarily pastoral Rift Valley Maa-speaking sections for which the term marks their distinctiveness. The first represents an ‘objective’ notion of ethnicity (that is, the subjectivity of external observation), used to describe the extension of a language and cultural community, such as ‘The Russians’, ‘The Serbo-Croatians’, ‘The Rendille’, or in this case the community which emerged out of the complex process of the Maa expansion. The second, which involves the complex and ‘subjective’ world of ‘ethnic’ politics presented from a particular point of view, is ambiguous, contextually variable and often contested; this is the ethnic usage of ‘White Russians’, Serbs versus Croats, ‘pure laine’ French Canadians, ‘White Rendille’, and Maasai ‘proper’. Barth's (1969: 13) suggestion that ethnicity involves how a group defines its ‘most general identity’ appropriately’ focuses less on the history of linguistic and cultural diffusion and more on an anthropology of signs, used to constitute and delimit boundaries of affinity. What is, of course, culturally problematic and politically at stake is just where the line of ‘most general identity’ should be drawn, and how its content defined. The inclusion and exclusion of individuals and groups tends to be historically contingent, dependent on the context, circumstances, motives and aims of interaction, so ethnicity — as well as other orders of identity — tends, in Cohen's words, to be ‘situational’ (1978: 388).
In the long run, whether a group tends to be ‘inclusive’ or ‘exclusive’ in its subjective interactions will likely influence the growth and spread of a cultural or linguistic community. In East Africa, the Rendille say they ‘sort people out’ and, since ‘they discriminate, segregate and differentiate’, they have ended up a small community (Schlee, 1989: 49). In contrast, the Maasai, and other groups such as the Somali, have tended to be ‘assimilative’ (Waller, 1985a: 367), as the tide of the chapter implies, and this may be one aspect of their historical expansion and growth.
If Maasai commonly saw themselves and were seen by others as ‘People of Catde’, then the designation ‘Agricultural Maasai’ would seem to be a contradiction in terms.1 Given the degree to which Maasai social relations and cultural values were a function of pastoral economy, Maasai social institutions should have been dysfunctional to an agricultural economy whose needs for organizing resources, production, and labour were significantly different. Given also the cultural arrogance expressed by pastoral Maasai towards others, it would seem equally remarkable that non-pastoralists would have embraced such values as their own.
We have already seen, however, that Maasai embraced a number of such perplexing paradoxes (see Spear, ‘Introduction’, this volume). Peoples of the Rift were highly specialized economically, and yet such specialization necessitated widespread economic interdependence if each people was to live successfully in its own ecological niche. Huntergatherers, farmers, and especially pastoralists each relied on others for many of their basic necessities. High degrees of ethnic differentiation generated by economic specialization were thus balanced by inclusive cultural categories that facilitated social and economic interaction among different groups. Thus Kisongo pastoralists, Okiek hunter-gatherers, and Arusha farmers all participated to some degree in Maasai social institutions together. Expressions of cultural superiority and exclusivity by some were countered by shared values and institutions that encouraged the inclusion of others.
These inherent paradoxes of being Maasai have usually been viewed from the perspective of pastoralists and have given preference to the pastoral way of life. It was the pastoral economy which needed access to others; social exclusivity and inclusion operated on terms favourable to and dictated by pastoralists; and hegemonic Maasai culture was pastoral culture. Given military dominance of the plains by pastoralists in the nineteenth century, such a perspective makes some sense, but it does not help us to understand what being Maasai meant to those who were not pastoralists. How and why did they seek to maintain their identity as Maasai?
At the beginning of this century, S.L.Hinde, one of the first administrative officers among the Kenya Maasai, published a book entitled The Last of the Masai (Hinde and Hinde, 1901). His counterpart in Tanganyika, Moritz Merker, concluded the first serious ethnography of the Maasai with similarly gloomy views (Merker, 1910: 351):
The process of settlement… will probably be accomplished slowly, but with appalling sacrifices of human life and by the destruction of the tribe as such. A small section, who are now richest in stock, may … continue to live as nomads, or the poorest, by way of agriculture, may become nomadic again and graze their herds in enforced peacefulness. But even these will then have ceased to be Masai, for a Masai with a shepherd's staff and pipe is a Masai no longer.
Hinde's and Merker's dismal prophecies have been echoed in many subsequent accounts, and now, almost a century later, Hinde's title itself has been revived on the cover of yet another glossy book for tourists (Amin and Willetts, 1990). While Hinde and Merker believed that the Maasai would be swallowed up by agriculture and inter-breeding, later writers have blamed sedentarization, education and the encroachment of capitalism for their impending, but regrettable, demise.
Why this predisposition always to see the Maasai — and, indeed, ‘real pastoralists’ generally — as a dying breed? Partly, no doubt, it stems from a mixture of romantic nostalgia and fashionable guilt, but it also suggests that western observers have always had a far more rigid attachment to the outward trappings of ‘tribe’ than the ‘tribesmen’ themselves. Few have questioned whether the Maasai, whose passing they deplore, are not simply one particular manifestation of a general, enduring but highly mutable and varied identity which they happen to observe on the point of its apparently becoming something else. Maasai themselves were clearly more optimistic about their future, as Merker himself continued (Merker, 1910: 351):
In the face of such expectations for the future, it affects one almost painfully when one hears how firmly the Masai believe in the restoration of their might …
Historians have not always appreciated the vital contributions which archaeology and linguistics have made to the study of East Africa before the nineteenth century. The history of Maasailand could not indeed be written without data provided by field archaeology, since usable oral traditions relating to the period before 1800 hardly exist. This chapter explores the history of the Rift Valley and the adjacent highland areas during the second millenium AD. It concentrates on the pre-Maasai pastoral tradition, especially that developed by the Sirikwa, who were essentially the ancestors of the modern Kalenjin groups of the Western Highlands of Kenya, and on the growth and influence of agricultural and hunting communities, including irrigation agriculture, within and to the east and west of Maasailand. It suggests an interpretation of the expansion of the Maasai as, essentially, the development of a ‘Maasai’ identity across the high grasslands in recent centuries — in effect, the ‘Maasaiization’ of Maasailand.
Comparative linguistic evidence suggests an early Maasai expansion from the region near the south end of Lake Turkana, close to that occupied by the Maa-speaking Samburu in the nineteenth century (Sommer and Vossen in this volume). This is indicated by linguistic geography, by two persuasive observations in particular. First, since the Maa tongue belongs to the Plains (Eastern) division of Nilotic, and all other branches of that division lie in north-western Kenya and adjacent parts of Uganda and Sudan, the separation of the ‘Maasaian’ branch must have occurred somewhere in or close to the south-eastern edge of that broad zone. That could have happened up to a millennium ago. Second, there is apparently more basic variety between the Maa dialects north of the Equator than between those to its south, indicating that the southward expansion is relatively recent. A fairly short span of time — perhaps two to four centuries — is also suggested for these movements by the sheer expanse of territory occupied by speakers of a single language whose dialects are mutually intelligible. This rather shallow time-span is enough to satisfy other attempts to construct a chronology for the central Maasai sections in particular, by calculating from the succession of their named age-sets or from the genealogy of their ritual leaders (loibons).
Telelia expressed her world-view on which the present chapter is based towards the end of 1976, It was the most critical period of a severe drought made worse by the spread of East Coast Fever along their herds which killed off most of the calves. I had begun my fieldwork among the Matapato Maasai at the village where Telelia's husband, Masiani Ole Chieni, had three wives. She was the fourth and most senior wife, who was living at the time at a warrior village (manyata. pi. many at) four miles away. This was one of three self-governing manyat set up in Matapato, ostensibly to defend the herds in the area, but serving also to separate young men, murran, temporarily from their fathers. Several years earlier, Telelia had been taken away by the murran of the manyata to accompany her youngest son and a foster nephew along with other selected mothers of murran. No-one could visit the manyata without first obtaining permission from the murran there. Telelia's oldest son Kinai ('Nasira's father’) negotiated this permission for me and it was with him that I first met Telelia inside her hut at the manyata. She was slightly built, although with a resilient vigour in her conversation and movements that gave few concessions to ageing or to hunger caused by the drought. On her shaved head there was just a hint of grey stubble, and her face showed strong, lined features with an extraverted expression. She seemed to merge easily into the company of the other women there, all displaying a string of beads from one ear that identified them as manyata mothers. Telelia was probably the oldest among them. From comments in her narrative, she would have been about 63 years old.
I next met her back at her husband's village as the drought became steadily worse and food became scarcer. Masiani himself had just moved away with one of his wives and the bulk of his herd in the hope of finding better conditions for the cattle elsewhere.
We shift focus now from ‘becoming’ to ‘being’, from the broad outlines of Maasai history to some of the detailed processes through which Maasai and others have affirmed and negotiated their identities. Our focus continues to be on instrumentality — how and why ethnic ideology is evoked, especially in situations regarding others; for ethnicity, by its very nature, presupposes an other in defining not only who one is, but also who one is not. That said, however, it is precisely the apparent ‘primordiality’ and Naturalness’ of ethnicity that provides its evocative power, establishing apparent fixed ground rules and also the limits of the moral community. But norms are rarely unambiguous or noncontentious. Once established, they provide a new language of struggle as people seek to articulate, uphold, and dispute moral values. Ambiguity, in turn, leads to negotiation as people seek to establish exclusive moral boundaries (i.e. ethnicities) which then become the subject of further disputation by parties contending over their definition. ‘Becoming’, it seems, never ends, for, just as people seem to come to be, struggle commences anew to determine and control their new bases of social reality.
Spencer's and Telelia's chapters put forth normative views as seen by Maasai, even as they acknowledge that individual everyday reality could, in fact, be very different. The anomalous presence of married murran and their wives in the manyata is a dramatic case in point. Spencer focuses on one such normative value, time, to show how Maasai socially construct themselves in the highly elaborated structures and attendant values of their age-sets. Formally progressing through life corporately with one's peers in an age-set, Maasai men move both chronologically and morally from self-abnegating warriorhood to serious, self-interested patriarchy, internalizing the values of Maasai society in the process. His analysis reveals the degree to which Maasai self-identity is embedded in their most fundamental values, and demonstrates why one of the most open and frequent means of non-Maasai to enter Maasai society is through participation in the age-set process by which even Maasai themselves must become Maasai.
The dynamics of identity formation and change among the Maaspeakers, and of their relations with outsiders, have been re-evaluated in recent years. Emphasis has shifted away from the delineation of neat ethnic boundaries towards a concern with the ways in which such boundaries are first drawn and then maintained, adjusted or even dissolved; and it is in this context that the processes of community formation and change can best be examined. Formerly, the Maasai, in particular, were seen as the type of a self-consciously exclusive ethnic group rigidly devoted to a highly specialized form of subsistence which generated cohesion within the community and served to mark it off symbolically, economically and socially from others. They now appear as a prime example of adaptation and ethnic mutability, pursuing strategies of accumulation and survival within a regional economy which included a variety of local communities with different but interdependent modes of subsistence.
Much of the impetus for re-evaluation has come from the study of the Maa-speakers during their expansive phase in the nineteenth century when boundaries between different Maa-speaking communities and between pastoralists, cultivators and hunters in the Rift Valley region were permeable, constantly shifting and subject to continuous redefinition. Individuals and groups moved between different communities and economies, altering their identities as they did so. Communities were able to absorb — and to shed — members easily and rapidly in response to changes in the availability of resources and in the demand for labour (Waller, 1985b).
With the establishment of colonial rule after 1900, the era of expansion came to an end. Communities which had previously had shared economic interests and, in part, a common ideology of growth were now being separated by divergent patterns of development and by different experiences under colonial rule. In the process, identities that had once been complementary now came to symbolize norms and values that could be perceived as being alien or opposed (Galaty, 1982b). Identities also became more exclusive and, in some cases, bitterly contentious. Imprecisely drawn boundaries hardened and became policed borders that divided rather than united communities on either side.
This chapter examines the process of becoming ‘Maasai’ for those that are born as Maasai within the Maasai area. They have to learn to identify themselves as such, giving a sense of purpose and meaning to their existence: an orientation that is bound up with an awareness of the continuity of their society. To become a Maasai is to develop a world-view with the concept of ‘ Maasai’ at its centre. The notion that as members of a territorial section (such as Keekonyokie, Kisongo, Matapato, etc.) they belong to a Maasai federation of sections, is of course an important feature of this world-view. However, this is part of a broader cosmology extending beyond territory and the erratic course of the seasons to a sense of being and becoming in time. This is especially true of their age system which structures their existence. With their age system intact, the Maasai have a culturally defined sense of time encompassing the life course of men, pervading aspects of womanhood, and linking directly with their oral traditions of earlier times. It is useful at this point to outline this system using a series of models that apply to different aspects of the process of ageing in Maasai.
Models of the Maasai Age System
In describing any system of age-organization, it is necessary to distinguish between age grades and age-sets. Age grades are the successive statuses to which individuals are ascribed in the course of their lives. An age-set comprises all those within a broad range of ages who are formed into a group of peers with their own separate identity. Maasai women do not belong to age-sets, but at marriage they are in effect promoted to a higher age grade. All Maasai men belong to an age-set following their initiation, and with their peers they pass as a body from one age grade to the next. If one imagines a queue climbing up a ladder, then this replicates the age system, with each successive climber representing an age-set and each rung an age grade (Spencer, 1976:153-154). Among the Maasai, climbing onto the bottom rung of the ladder represents initiation for individual youths as they become members of their age-set, and thereafter they climb together as an age-set. Towards the top of the ladder, the leading climber represents the oldest surviving age-set.
Recent developments among Ariaal and Rendille pastoralists of northern Kenya illustrate the continuing influence of Maasai culture on surrounding peoples. This chapter discusses the spread of the Maa language among Rendille in the contemporary context of pastoral sedentarization and market integration.
The Ariaal, along with Samburu and Elmolo of Lake Turkana, are the most northerly of Maa-speaking peoples. Numbering between 7,000 and 9,000 people, Ariaal herd camels, cattle, goats and sheep between Mount Marsabit and the Ndoto Mountains in Marsabit District, north-central Kenya. The Ariaal form a cultural bridge between Samburu cattle pastoralists (pop. 70,000) and Rendille camel pastoralists (pop. 15,000), and speak both Samburu (a dialect of Maa) and Rendille (a Cushitic language related to Somali).
Paul Spencer (1973) first described the Ariaal as a product of the larger Samburu-Rendille alliance, which was based on the non-competitiveness of their herding environment, their mutual defence against common Turkana and Boran enemies, and, most importantly, the outmigration of Rendille men and women into Samburu society via Ariaal. Spencer proposed that Rendille outmigration was a result of demographic pressures where their human population grew at a faster rater than their camel herds and where their rules of inheritance (by primogeniture) impoverished second and third sons. Poorer Rendille men joined Ariaal settlements near the highlands to take up cattle and small stock production, while women from the essentially monogamous Rendille married more polygynous Samburu and Ariaal men as second wives.
Since Spencer's research in the late 1950s, the Rendille and Ariaal have undergone substantial change in residence and economy. They, as other northern Kenyan pastoralists, have experienced political disruptions following Kenyan independence in 1963, including the shifta civil war in the 1960s, devastating droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, the growth of permanent towns around Christian missions distributing famine-relief foods, and, most recently, the arrival of large-scale international development projects including UNESCO-Integrated Project in Arid Lands. Attracted to growing towns by physical security and mechanized wells for their livestock, Ariaal and Rendille have benefited from new opportunities in wage labour, commercial entrepreneurship, and access to schools and health care.
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