Skip to main content
Blog post main image
  • Sustaining Cultural Life of Kenya in a Conservancy

    After a week’s vacation visiting a friend in Nairobi’s hectic urban landscape, I found myself in a dust-green classic safari truck driving across the stunning, dry landscape of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. I had been invited to visit the Maa Trust, a community-based organization just north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. In the driver’s seat was Marias Ripau, a manager at Maa Trust. He was in Nairobi to visit his family, then picked up supplies and three new staff members before making the trek back to the Mara.

    About halfway to our destination, the paved roads came to an abrupt end. Under his breath, Marias mumbled, “I hate these roads,” as we hurdled into the rough terrain. Then he turned to me with a smile. “Enjoy the free massage!”

    In the great open lands north of the Maasai Mara, nine conservancies have been established through collaborations between Maasai elders and conservation specialists to protect land and wildlife, offering alternative livelihoods to locals. The land is owned by Maasai men who lease it to a number of camps in each conservancy, generating income for their community. In return, the locals are moving off the leased land and into surrounding areas. The large unfenced conservancies have been so successful in sustaining biodiversity that more conservancies are in development.

    When we finally arrived to the Maa Trust, the night sky opened up to a terrible storm, taming the dust and transforming the dirt roads to little rivers. According to my four Maasai travel companions, the rainy season is now completely unpredictable—a dangerous impact of climate change in the region. In the last stretch of our eight-hour drive, as we were digging and pushing to free the jeep from the mud, Marias warned me to look out for the hyenas—he meant for safety rather than wildlife viewing. Either way, an adventurous delight and trembling fear rose inside me.  

    Maa Trust
    The Maa Trust Headquarters consist of this main building, a workshop/boutique, and a handful of tents and huts where guests and employees can stay.
    Photo by Anne Pedersen

    The Maa Trust slogan, displayed in the headquarters on a poster of a lion, reads Maendaleo Tenkaraki Ing’uesi, or “development because of wildlife.” Under this motto, they aim to build sustainable development for communities in the Mara ecosystem through the support, acknowledgement, and acceptance of wildlife. Maa Trust believes that the ecosystem can only survive with support from the locals, and they emphasize the connection between wildlife and social and economic development opportunities through water and sanitation projects, honey and beadwork production, education, healthcare, and research.

    I was curious to learn more about their approach to community engagement and how cultural heritage figures into their overarching conservation and development goals. For example, how do Maasai goals for sustaining their culture fit within the conservancy model?

    In my work as a cultural heritage professional, I had never engaged with an organization that focuses primarily on conservation. I was intrigued but cautious of their approach, which acknowledges human dependency on nature. In my field, we focus first and foremost on people and their cultural heritage. Would the emphasis on conserving wildlife overshadow the needs of the people? Are the benefits for wildlife also benefits for the Maasai? Do benefits to wildlife outweigh potential disruptions to the locals’ everyday lives?

    Maa Trust CEO Dr. Crystal Courtney generously took time to speak with me about their work, explaining how many of the changes in the community and impacts on the land are caused by extreme population growth. Nationwide, Kenya’s two percent population growth rates raises concerns for sustainability. Among the Maasai community, that rate is more than ten percent.

    Not long ago, the traditionally nomadic Maasai herder could easily own over 1,000 cattle. Today, sheep and goats are more common. While each herder today tends less cattle, the increase in population and the addition of other livestock is hard on the land. Both the wildlife and natural environment suffer. Maa Trust’s educational programs on family planning and alternative livelihood projects are designed to address these issues.

    Maa Beadwork
    The bright colors in Maa Beadwork bracelets each have significance, representing blood, the sun, or the green terrain.
    Photo by Anne Pedersen

    Aside from land leases, Maa Trust’s largest alternative livelihood project is Maa Beadwork. From its start, Maa Beadwork addressed a major gender issue: that only Maasai men would benefit directly and financially from the leases. On the first morning of my visit, as I sat at the shaded communal table in the headquarters enjoying my freshly made mandazi (fried bread) and sweet milk tea and listening to the wildebeests, the most colorfully dressed women began to appear—seemingly out of nowhere—in the rugged green landscape.

    These women were some of the 430 beadworkers from the surrounding area, hired by Maa Beadwork to make a mix of traditional Maasai and contemporary jewelry, accessories, and household items, which the Trust sells at camp stores. To ensure equity and avoid obstructing the traditional run of the household, one woman from each household is appointed by the village elders. The women I met were a select group who deliver finished products and learn new designs and techniques to teach the larger group.

    While leases and beadwork have provided new sources of income, the results in the community are not all positive. Families are no longer pressured to sell their livestock for immediate needs, so the number of animals quickly grows. Although rotational schedules permit livestock grazing in the conservancies, some locals feel there is not enough space outside the conservancies for their animals to graze, and some try to “cheat” their way into the protected land. Others concerned with protecting their own grazing areas have put up fences, which disrupt wildlife migration routes.

    Why don’t herders sell some of their livestock? Why not ease the workload? A little extra can be safe padding in the case of disease or drought, but I wondered if there was another explanation.

    Traditionally in Maasai communities, a large herd shows wealth and provides important nutritional security, but it can also be a way to maintain a cultural connection. Many cultural identity indicators inherited from a different time morph into new meanings or expressions, depending on different needs of the modern day. In periods of rapid transition, there can be solace and stability in knowing who you are and where you come from. This could provide an explanation for the desire to keep a large herd, graze the lands freely, or even—albeit a bit macabre—kill lions and other predators threatening their livestock.

    The amount of land has not decreased, but it is increasingly controlled. While it is turned into wildlife and nature reserves, the local population and their need for land grow. I discovered it was bit of a laugh among the local Maa Trust how tourists are so fond of driving on terrible roads to look for lions, giraffes, zebras, and elephants. Although the conservancies have built a model of low-volume, high-value tourism and dramatically reduced the number of safari tours, I still wonder if the concept of protecting ecosystems fully resonates with the local population.

    With income from both herding and the Maa Trust’s alternative livelihood projects, the Maasai are differentiating and building their wealth. When they hold onto herding, is it a safety strategy? Perhaps they feel the leases and beadwork jobs will not last, or perhaps they do not identify with them. Herding, in contrast, is more than an occupation. It is a cultural identity that has been passed on through generations of Maasai, something that is deeply understood, something that connects them. With the changes in their surroundings, do they feel this identity is contested and hold tighter to what they fear losing?

    As the Maa Trust understands, the key to a successful sustainability model for land, wildlife, and people is to have all parties represented. Our goal at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is to focus on people with a sensitivity toward what our cultural pasts and presents mean for how we wish to live our lives now and in the future. I think the Maa Trust are doing incredible work to make sure the Maasai benefit from the conservancy agenda, but I believe that we at Folklife can support an intercultural dialogue that recognizes our shared responsibility to sustain not only the land and wildlife but also each other—equally.

    I would like to see a plan that gives as much consideration to the local Maasai and where they wish to thrive as it does to the land and the wildlife—a plan that gives both space to live, tools to grow, and the support needed to sustain their cultural life. As more conservancies continue to form, such a plan is urgently needed.

    Anne Sandager Pedersen works with the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative, which started in 2016 with programs around the world. Among other subjects is a focus on building sustainable livelihoods rooted in communities’ cultural heritage.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.