Pastoralists in Africa

Changes in the Lives of Pastoralists

The availability of pastureland decreased drastically. This resulted in continuous intensive grazing of the remaining pasture. Unlike in the past, the lack of seasonal movement of pastoralists did not allow time for the natural restoration of vegetation growth. This created shortage of forage for animals and the animal stock deteriorated. Most of the cattle died due to shortage of fodder.

Some of the pastoralists reduced the number of cattle in their herds. Some others discovered new pastures. For example, when the Raikas could no longer move into Sindh after the partition of 1947 they began to migrate to Haryana in search of new pastures. Some rich pastoralists began to buy land to settle down and gave up their nomadic life. While some of them became peasants, some others took to more extensive trading. But the poor pastoralists had to borrow from moneylenders in order to survive. Most of them finally lost their cattle and sheep and became labourers. They began to work in fields or in small towns.

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Over half of the world's pastoral population lives in Africa. Even today, more than 22 million Africans depend on some form of pastoral activity. Bedouins, Berbers, Maasai, Somali, Boran and Turkana are some of the pastoral communities of Africa. Most of them live in the semi-arid grasslands or arid deserts. They raise cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys, and they sell milk, meat, animal skin and wool. Some also earn through trade and transport. Some others combine pastoral activity with agriculture. Many others do a variety of odd jobs to supplement their earnings.

Maasai: The Maasai are cattle herders and they mainly live in east Africa. 300,000 Maasai live in Kenya and about 150,000 live in Tanzania.

Effect of Colonisation

Before the colonial rule, the Maasailand stretched over a vast area from north Kenya to the steppes of northern Tanzania. The European colonial powers began the slicing up of Africa in order to get control of the African continent during the late nineteenth century. The Maasailand was cut into half in 1885. An international boundary separated the British Kenya and German Tanganyika. During the First World War, the British took the control of Tanganyika. Due to these developments, the Maasai lost more than 60% of their pastureland from the pre-colonial period. They were now confined to an arid zone with poor pastures and uncertain rainfall.

From the late nineteenth century, the local peasant communities were encouraged by the British government to expand cultivation. While the Maasai used to dominate their agricultural neighbours before the colonial rule, the situation had changed now.

Large areas of grazing land were also turned into game reserves, e.g. the Maasai Mara and Samburu National Park in Kenya and Serengeti Park in Tanzania. The Maasai could no longer hunt nor graze their animals in these areas.

Kokoland Herders: The Kokoland herders traditionally moved between Kokoland and Ovamboland in Namibia. They sold skin, meat and other items in neighbouring markets. The new system of territorial boundaries restricted their movements and stopped their activities.

Closed Borders

With the redrawing of borders, the movement of all the pastoralist communities was severely restricted. They were required to get special permits in order to move. Getting a permit was often difficult. People were severely punished for violating the rules. They were also not allowed to enter the markets in white areas. They were viewed as savage and dangerous by the Europeans and hence every effort was taken to minimize the contact with them.

When Pastures Dry

Before the colonial rule, seasonal movement was a time-tested way to tide over the periods of drought in a particular area. Since the movement was restricted, so a large number of Maasai cattle died because of starvation and disease in the years of drought. In 1930, the Maasai in Kenya possessed 720,000 cattle, 820,000 sheep and 171,000 donkeys. Within just two years of severe drought (1933 and 1934) more than half of the cattle in Maasai Reserve died.

Not All were Equally Affected

During pre-colonial period; the Maasai society was divided into two social groups, viz. elders and warriors. The elders formed the ruling group. They met in periodic councils to decide on the affairs of the community and settle disputes. The warriors consisted of younger people who were mainly responsible for the protection of the tribe. They also organized cattle raids. Since cattle were the wealth hence raiding was an important aspect of their life. A boy had to prove his manhood by successfully raiding for cattle.

The British introduced a series of measures to administer the affairs of the Maasai. Chiefs were appointed for different sub-groups of Maasai. The chiefs were made responsible for the affairs of the tribe. Several restrictions were imposed on raiding and warfare. This led to erosion of authority for both elders and warriors.

A chief appointed by the colonial government often accumulated wealth over time. They could now buy animals, goods and land. They also lent money to the needy. Many of them began living in towns and involved themselves in trade. Thus the chiefs became more powerful.

The poor pastoralists did not have resource to tide over the bad times. Many of them had to migrate to towns in search of livelihood. Most of them continued to do odd jobs. Some lucky ones could get regular work in road or building construction.

Thus, a new distinction between the wealthy and the poor developed in the Maasai community.

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