Cattle are the traditional partners of the Maasai people of East Africa. One of the most vibrant indigenous societies on the continent, the pastoralist Maasai built an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with their cattle herds in the Great Rift Valley of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. In their worldview, the creator god Enkai sent the cattle sliding down a rope from the heavens into their safekeeping. The herding practices of the Maasai, central to their cultural identity, have come under tremendous pressure in recent decades.

Since they arrived in the Rift Valley's savanna four centuries ago, the Maasai have lived a migratory, pastoral lifestyle. Warriors—traditionally, young men and boys—are responsible for protecting the cattle from predators and herding them to water sources and pasture land. The flocks roam to new areas with the changing of the seasons, a practice that allows the grasslands to regenerate. Maasai women are in charge of milking the cows as well as looking after the home and children. In Maasai tradition, land is viewed as a common resource, to be shared equally but under careful management that ensures its sustainable use. During severe droughts, for example, grazing may be extended into marginal lands that would otherwise be rarely used.

The Maasai have historically depended on their cattle in meeting all of their basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Their traditional diet relies heavily on milk and dairy products, lean beef and other meats, cattle fat, and blood, on which they depend for their salt intake. Several cooking utensils and drinking vessels are traditionally made from cattle rib bones and horns. Its hides have often been employed for bedding materials and for the walls or roofs of temporary shelters. More permanent houses include a plaster made from bovine dung and urine. For many years they clothed themselves in garments known as shuka, made from cowhide. Some still use its leather to make sandals.

Cattle represent the fundamental currency in traditional Maasai society. Families seek to accumulate large herds to demonstrate their wealth and status. They are sold and bartered in many kinds of exchanges involving goods and services. The Maasai have no central political structure, so it is common for cattle to change hands as part of diplomatic relations between clans. Cattle are almost always part of a young woman’s bride price, delivered by the groom to the bride’s family. A man may take more than one wife if he is wealthy enough—and this wealth, of course, is denominated in cattle. A community will offer one or more cattle as a gift to a young warrior who exhibits exceptional bravery, and by the same token, payment in cattle may also be demanded as a fine for dishonorable or criminal behavior.

The Maasai have sought to protect their unique cultural heritage and autonomy from the time of British colonialism through the establishment of independent Tanzania and Kenya in the early 1960s and into the 21st century. In recent years, the greatest threats to the Maasai way of life have arisen from the spread of the commercial market economy. Their highly developed and ritualized barter system, organized around the currency of cattle, has had to give way to the wider commercial economy founded upon nonindigenous concepts of property and value.

Specifically, a shift toward private ownership and titling of land has had a drastic impact on the pastoral Maasai and their traditional methods of caring for their livestock. Vast areas of savanna that were formerly managed collectively have been subdivided and put to new uses, including private ranching, agriculture, and commercial development. The demise of communal land tenure created new levels of economic inequality among the Maasai. With greater pressure and competition for access to pasture land, much of the available land has been overgrazed, resulting in a reduction in herd sizes.

The Maasai have also been displaced from large stretches of territory that have been designated as national parks and wildlife conservation reserves. The Maasai region has become a popular destination for safaris and wildlife tourism, bringing modest economic benefits to the area. However, Maasai pastoralists are barred at most times of year from accessing important grazing and water sources located within these sites, bringing about major disruptions to cattle migration patterns.

The future of one of Africa’s proudest and most fiercely independent indigenous societies is thus gravely endangered. With their pastoral livelihoods threatened, many Maasai have taken up other ways of making a living, such as farming or working in the tourist trade. The global economy of money and land appears to be supplanting the Maasai economy of bovine flesh.

The Cattle Economy of the Maasai

While Maasai men are responsible for protecting and herding the cattle, women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children.

Noun

the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

autonomy
Noun

independence.

barter
Verb

to trade goods and services for commodities instead of money.

colonialism
Noun

type of government where a geographic area is ruled by a foreign power.

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

currency
Noun

money or other resource that can be used to buy goods and services.

denominate
Verb

expressed in a specific monetary unit

diplomatic
Adjective

skillful and respectful in dealing with people or communities.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

graze
Verb

to feed on grass, usually over a wide pasture.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

migratory
Adjective

organisms that travel from one place to another at predictable times of the year.

pastoralist
Noun

herder.

safari
Noun

trip to investigate, hunt, or photograph big game animals.

savanna
Noun

type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

traditional
Adjective

historic or established by custom.

wildlife
Noun

organisms living in a natural environment.