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Heartbreak on the Serengeti
FEBRUARY 2006
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Heartbreak on the Serengeti (continued)
By Robert M. Poole
Photographs by Randy Olson
To the Maasai it's the place where the land runs on forever, but beyond the protected core of this iconic landscape, the land is running out.

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The troubles in Robanda have deep origins, dating from the creation of Serengeti National Park in 1951, when Tanganyika, as Tanzania was then known, was still a colony of Britain. The Ikoma people, a Bantu-speaking tribe of hunters, were booted out of the new park so that they would not interfere with its animals. The displaced settlers came to roost a few miles away in Robanda, where they made the transition from hunting to farming, put down roots, and watched their population flourish. "We've already been moved once before," said Mosaka. "Nobody is eager to move again."
 
It is easy to see why. Although Robanda is poor, the village thrums with energy and pride, with barefoot children racing through dusty streets, and women squatting beside braziers, making tea and fried maandazi bread on a Sunday morning. Hawkers tout fresh tomatoes and bananas at open stalls, while a contingent of grease-stained men, muttering like surgeons, gathers under a ficus tree to work on the village tractor—all to the constant, thudding rhythm of muscular women pounding millet with a massive mortar and pestle.
 
Across the street a cell phone goes off, playing "Jingle Bells," and Kenyatta Mosaka, a gangly man in green shorts and a Statue of Liberty T-shirt, comes drifting into view on his black bicycle. The vice chairman of Robanda stops to greet neighbors and to gossip with patrons at the Millennium Y2K Everything You Need Shop.
 
"It's a good place to live," said Mosaka, propped on his bike while soaking up the benign pageant of life swirling around him. Just beneath the surface, though, tensions boil in Robanda. Determined to crack Robanda's willful habits, the Grumeti Reserves has stepped up its anti-poaching patrols in the region. Nobody in Robanda wants to admit to poaching meat or firewood. Asked about these practices, Mosaka said he knew of no such activity—then he smiled sheepishly and jabbed at his arm as if punching a vein. "Of course if you take some of my blood here, you may find evidence of wild meat in my system."
 
On several occasions, the Grumeti antipoaching patrols have clashed with villagers, who allege that they were beaten and, in one instance, raped—charges that officials from the Grumeti Reserves dismiss. "The charges are absolutely ill-founded and totally untrue," said Brian Harris, supervisor of the antipoaching squad.
 
"Look," said Labuschagne, "you've got to maintain your boundaries in places like this. You've got to put the law down." If that does not work, he said, it may be necessary to build fences around the park's western boundary to separate elephants and other wildlife from growing human settlements.
 
Fences were unknown to the pastoralists like those who first appeared in Greco-Roman literature around 200 B.C. These free-ranging sub-Saharan people went where they pleased, revered their cattle, subsisted on milk and cow's blood, and buried their dead "to the accompaniment of laughter," according to those early accounts. By the 18th century the Maasai had established a strong presence in the Great Rift Valley, where they controlled much of the interior and stamped the land with their own descriptive names. Perhaps the most famous of these was the word they chose for the heart of their homeland, siringet, "the place where the land runs on forever." The Serengeti.
 
Hope must have seemed as boundless as the horizons for Maasai who lived there. They knew no equals, followed the seasons, delighted in fighting, and deferred to no man. Believing themselves to be God's chosen tribe, entitled to all of the cattle on Earth, they cheerfully raided other tribes to enlarge their own herds, and their reputation for fierceness taught neighbors to give the Maasai a wide berth. Arab slave traders avoided their area, as did the earliest European explorers.
 
The Maasai remained aloof and self-sufficient until the age of Victoria, when drought, disease, and trouble brought them low. Thousands died from a cholera epidemic in the 1880s, followed by an outbreak of smallpox in 1892. Then a plague of rinderpest, a bovine viral disease, wiped out most of the Maasai's wealth and nourishment overnight, and civil wars diluted their grip on the region.
 
Little fight remained in them following World War I, when the British consolidated their grip on Kenya and took control of Tanganyika. On the Serengeti, the British took the first bites out of Maasai holdings in 1929, establishing an 800-acre (323-hectare) game reserve for hunting, which became the basis for Serengeti National Park. Maasai continued to live there until 1959, when repeated conflicts with park authorities over land use led the British to evict them.
 
"They paid us nothing," said Ole Serupe, the only surviving Maasai elder who was party to discussions with the British. "We were told to move because they wanted to make a place for the wild animals," he said. A frail old man in three blankets and orange tennis shoes, he now lives with his extended family and a contingent of goats in a fly-specked compound outside of Endulen, a Maasai village on the edge of Ngorongoro's Crater Highlands.
 
"We refused to move," Ole Serupe said, "because the Serengeti had been the home of our mothers and fathers. Our cattle loved the place. It was a place that even a human could love," he recalled, looking at me through eyes clouded by years in the African sun. "But they made us go. Because I was the senior man among the elders, it was from my hand that they took the Serengeti."
 
Sitting on a low stool by his hut, Ole Serupe recalled how the British had promised him new land in exchange for the move. "They said we would get a better place to live—one with good water and grass."
 
The Maasai got nothing of the sort. The British peeled off a 3,000-square-mile (7,800-square-kilometer) parcel to the east of Serengeti National Park and created a new home for the pastoralists in 1959. Designated the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, this reserve encompassed the desolate lands around Olduvai Gorge, the arid plains contiguous to the Serengeti, and a portion of the Crater Highlands, including the Ngorongoro Crater. An experiment in multiple land use, this new territory was to be a refuge for Maasai and their herds, for exceptional wildlife, and for the development of tourism.
 
Almost 50 years into that experiment, it would appear that wildlife and tourists are thriving in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but that the Maasai are struggling. Theirs is the old problem—too many people and too few resources, the same hard calculus that has caused so much conflict on the Serengeti's western borders. Numbers tell the story: The Maasai population has grown fivefold in the conservation area, from around 10,000 in 1954 to more than 50,000 today. At the same time they have less territory, having lost the most fruitful part of their new homeland in 1974, when they were evicted from the crater floor. Constrained by these and other developments, the Maasai face an uncertain future, hemmed in by Serengeti National Park to the west, by Ngorongoro Crater to the east, and by growing communities all around. Because their grazing range is limited, they have been unable to enlarge their herds to match their growing population. The result is that their wealth—still measured in livestock—has evaporated with the years, from an average of more than 26 cattle, goats, and sheep per person in 1960, to five for each Maasai today. They are forbidden to supplement their pastoral existence by farming on any scale larger than a subsistence basis out of fear that more intensive cultivation will degrade the area's natural habitat.
 
Bruno O. P. Kawasange, natural resources chief for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, worries that the growing Maasai population blocks migratory corridors connecting the Ngorongoro Crater with the Serengeti, an important conduit for lions, wildebeests, zebras, and other animals traveling between the two areas. "We want to make sure that these corridors remain open—especially for the lions," said Kawasange. To make room for the big cats and other wildlife, some 250 Maasai households will be moved.
 
"We can't support large-scale agriculture in the conservation area," explained B. M. Murunya, the authority's tourism chief. "Conservation does not go along with agriculture." Given how farming and development have encroached on parks and reserves in northern Tanzania, this seems a reasonable concern, but it does little to reassure the hard-pressed Maasai.
 
"The wildlife gets better treatment than the people here," said Francis Ole Syapa, a Maasai living in the windswept foothills of the Crater Highlands, where we sat in a zebra-striped hut and watched the clouds boil up from ruined volcanoes. Syapa was expressing a sentiment I heard from many Maasai. "The area is supposed to be not just for the wildlife," he said. "That's why it was established as a multiple-use area. Understand? We Maasai should be allowed to have our own plan to protect the wildlife, to develop tourism, and to decide how the people's lives can be improved here. As it stands now, we have no real say." Syapa pointed out that Maasai hold no key positions within the conservation authority, and that only one serves on the group's advisory board—this, despite his people's overwhelming numbers in the region. "We live here on the land, but we cannot plan for ourselves how to use it. We don't have the same rights as other Tanzanians," he said.
 
Surely, I suggested, the community must benefit from the millions of dollars flowing to the region—Tanzania's top tourist attraction.
 
Syapa gave me a long, searching look, followed by a longer silence. He took a swig of Kilimanjaro beer, placed the bottle on the table between us, and spoke with great deliberation: "I really don't have the information," he said, "but I can tell you we don't see very much of that money here."
 
This was painfully obvious down the red-dirt road in Endulen, a Maasai village of cockeyed plank shacks that looked as if they might blow away on the next wind. So did some of the people in this town of 8,000, which suffers from tuberculosis, malnutrition, and malaria, according to doctors at the region's only hospital. "We also get brucellosis, which comes from drinking unboiled milk, fractures from fighting, and quite a few injuries from buffalo attacks," said Jeanine Heeren, a doctor in Endulen's 80-bed missionary hospital. She also reported that HIV had made its appearance in Endulen, a sign that residents of this community were venturing into the world and bringing new problems to the village.
 
Endulen was busy, though. Women with shaved heads and jangling silver necklaces picked through oranges and onions in the market, where a butcher in a red robe and baseball cap hung glistening slabs of goat meat in his stalls, watched closely by a pair of hopeful dogs. Warriors with spears led cattle down a path to Olndogom River, which flowed through town.
 
Half the village seemed to be in and out of the stream—women washing clothes and spreading them to dry on thorn trees, children fetching buckets of water for the school, herders waiting in line with donkeys and cattle for their turn at the stream. Some of the herders, I learned, had walked three or four hours to get here, a rare source of fresh water.
 
"Nobody could survive without it," said a Maasai who had lived his whole life in Endulen.
 
The village draws its water from the river because the government has built no infrastructure in this region, which grows bigger and more established with each passing year—with or without government help.
 
"We have been waiting for water for 50 years," said Raphael Ologolie, an elder I met on the outskirts of Endulen. We sat on the ground outside his neatly fenced compound and talked, Ologolie, sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin, cocooned in a red blanket so that only his head was visible. "Since the Maasai were first moved out of the park, the government has been making these promises—to bring water, to bring schools, to bring health care. Our people are going hungry. They come to my house every day asking for food—a little cornmeal, a little salt, a little sugar, but it's never enough. Nobody has kept a single promise to the Maasai."
 
For its part, the government says that it will do nothing to encourage permanent settlements in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is supposed to be occupied by Maasai nomads living lightly on the land.
 
"The idea that pastoral people, people who are moving from place to place, will have a fixed source of water and other amenities that the settled communities have, well, we can't provide those things," said Samson S. Mkumbo, chief manager of community development for the authority. "For those Maasai who want to make the shift from the nomadic life to farming, we are seeking an area outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area." 
 
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