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Indigenous people

Climate change threatens Africa's Masai

Persistent droughts have forced Masai cattle herds to the brink of starvation. For these legendary warriors, the next battle means combatting climate change through education and adaptation.

Masai shepherds goats
Photo: picture alliance/Kai-Uwe Wärner

Kenia Massai mit Viehherde

Deep in the heart of Amboseli National Park, on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, men and women gather beneath the canopy, in a large forest clearing. They are the Masai and they travelled here form across the region for the annual Enkang oo-nkiri ceremony - or meat eating ceremony. They wear distinctive Masai beading; their hair and bodies are decorated with a red earthy pigment, ochre. The women wear large beaded discs around their necks.

In the middle of this festive gathering, a Masai elder - Ole Ntimama - meanders between the young warriors. He has distended earlobes, long braided black hair and a red Masai blanket draped over his upper body. He lines up the young men who have been chosen to kill the ceremonial bull. This event grants young warriors the right to eat meat in the presence of women - but the honor is becoming less and less tangible, as the Masai must shift their traditions away from meat, simply to survive.

A group of Masai warriors at the meat eating ceremony Photo: Andrew Wasike

Young warriors celebrate the right to eat meat in the presence of women - but climate change is turning meat into a rarity

According to the Masai, God - or Enkai - made them the custodians of the world's cattle. But Ole Ntimama says changing weather has made this job harder than ever before.

"The cows I have lost to drought compared to the cows I have sold are far too many," said Ole Ntimama. "It's a normal sight to see dead cows littering the landscape in these tough times."

Catastrophic changes

The rainy season has become short and unpredictable. Grass doesn't have time to grow before the next drought comes, which means the cattle have nothing to eat. Some Masai herdsmen end up walking for weeks to find pastures for their cattle. Others slaughter their herds or sell off their ancestral land, in order feed the families. Ole Ntimama blames the changing climate. He said it has been a catastrophe not only for the Masai but for the land.

"The cows at times do not produce a lot of milk because of water shortages caused by severe droughts, which claim their lives," Ntimama said. "The grass is also not sufficient for all our animals, and we keep many animals. Water is becoming so hard to find, and in some places grass has completely stopped growing."

Masai men herd cattle for 'meat eating fest'
Photo: Andrew Wasike

Often, Masai must sell livestock below value or slaughter them just to survive

The Masai are pastoralists - they live from a diet based on milk, blood from their cows and meat. But lack of rains has left their animals too weak to produce milk. So the Masai are starting to eat porridge made from cereals that they have to buy. Climate change is threatening their entire way of life.

"Meat is no longer our staple food," Ole Ntimama said. "We now need money to buy food when droughts occur and only use the cows strictly for milk."

Learning to adapt

Beatrice Lukelesia is a program officer from Masai Women for Education & Environment Betterment. She says everyone here is feeling the effects of climate change - including the women.

"Their husbands go in search of better pastures and water for their animals," Lukelesia said. "The animals are the only source of food, and they go with the men. Climate change contributes to the feminization of poverty among the Masai."

Masai women grouped together at the village entrance
Photo: Andrew Wasike

Women remain in the villages while men herd livestock to pastures - which are becoming harder to find

With their knowledge of resource management handed down through the generations, the Masai are considered natural custodians of the land. But the rains have degraded their quality of life significantly.

"The Masai used to be a wealthy tribe with individuals owning over 500 cows each," Lukelesia said. "The severe droughts have reduced these numbers drastically."

Beatrice Lukelesia and her colleagues work in Masai villages, teaching them skills to help them cope with climate change. They have taught Masai women how to convert cow dung into biofuel, so they can be self-sufficient and they aren't dependent on logging for fuel.

Ole Ntimama says that learning new coping methods is vital to the Masai's survival, even if it means abandoning tradition.

"We just need to adapt to survive," Ole Ntimama said. "The best way I have found to cope with this is to sell my animals just before the drought strikes. Then I am able to feed my family. It doesn't matter if I have sold them at a loss."

Help from Kenya?

Lukelesia hopes Kenya's new constitution, which was signed into law three years ago, will help protect both the Masai and the land. The constitution calls for an equitable division of natural resources and a reduction in greenhouse gas production.

"The Masai have been educated on ways to cope with the erratic weather changes," Lukelesia said. "They now practice village land use plans that include zones for grazing so their animals have enough feed, and they have also started practicing farming and rain catchment."

Despite the challenges, Lukelesia said the Masai are strong warriors, who will survive this latest challenge to their existence. She says their role as guardians, protecting the wild land and the forests is vital.

"The Masai were known as fierce warriors who even successfully defied colonization," Lukelesia said. "Nobody can attack the forest knowing such a people patrol the forest to prevent poaching or logging."

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