Part 1: Blessed, Cursed Land: Ngorongoro Crisis Shocking But Not Surprising
I have gathered information, opinions and experiences from a variety of sources throughout the course of the crisis last month to try to distil my thoughts on the situation in the Loliondo and Ngorongoro Conservancies.
What unites the two separate but similar conflicts of human/conservation/tourism are the Maasai. This is the common factor that stands out most, putting the speakers of Maa living in Loliondo and Ngorongoro (both larger than the nature reserves they are named after) at the center of a complex problem. People and land, wildlife versus the state.
I learned that conservation in Tanzania is an issue in itself.
Both Loliondo as part of the Serengeti system and Ngorongoro Conservation Area as they are today are well documented from pre-colonial times. Far from being the “original occupiers” of these lands, the speakers of Maa are travelers who have found people like the Datoga already living in Ngorongoro Crater.
Every tribe in Tanzania has one Origin story, very few can say this with absolute confidence that where and who they are now is what “always was”. But I respect a good social construct: 100 years of doing things a certain way is enough time to call it “culture”.
Why the Maasai? Because, as I said, Europeans had a romantic view of shepherds. I can understand why. If you were to visit my people of yore, I don’t think we’d be all that impressive outside of the courts of kings. Our traditional barkcloth is brown. Our screams sound like a cry of mourning. We are bovine people who used to sing to our animals and know everyone by name and temperament. We have beauty in our songs and dances and appreciation for love and romance. All of this is not good fodder for movies like Out of Africa.
The pastoral life is dramatic in comparison. Brightly colored clothes, rituals with shock factor, all the “freedom to roam” spending time gore lions instead of bending over beans and sorghum plants? Dude, I see.
Their way of life is not like that of the peasants, said the colonizers. They will have no impact on the ecosystem, the colonizers said. They will remain noble savages forever, the colonizers imagined.
The first to roll their eyes at the idea was, of course, the recently independent Tanganyikan state, which has – to this day – resolved the tension between its Idea of proper land stewardship, Maasai rights and lucrative conservation with tourism.
And you know who is perfectly aware of these tensions and contradictions and can use them to their advantage? The Maasai.
You may know that they are citizens of Kenya and citizens of Tanzania. Sometimes both, I imagine – and why not? But they are not savage and that nobility is more of an aspiration just like the rest of us who have traditions to uphold.
You know who I haven’t asked about the current situation in Ngorongoro and Loliondo? The Maasai in my life. And there are some. I don’t know why, but since I’ve been in my 20s I’ve gotten along particularly well with Maasai men.
The Morans I meet have finally stopped closing asking me to marry her as I now look about half my age. The elders seem amused by my habit of volunteering to join “male” rooms, and regularly offer to make me junior female as a joke and compliment. At times I became familiar enough to know the real name of a Maasai and what it meant. And some Maasai I know live among us, wearing sharp suits and practicing highly skilled, highly paid jobs.
All this to say: It is strange for everyone in Tanzania to continue with the trope of the noble savage to be saddled up as part of this recurring conflict between the Maasai, the state and conservationists over the use of the land of Loliondo, Ngorongoro Crater and elsewhere.
It is disingenuous to think that some are not for profit Maasai actions in recent years have been the exploitation of credulous, if well-meaning, human rights defenders – I am one of them.
The more I learn about this situation and its history, the more uncertain I become of how I feel about what to say, let alone what should be done.
Look your way
I am a romantic at heart and always will be. But in times of strange emotional manipulations and troubles, I tend to look to King Suleiman and wonder: how would he deal with this?
In this case, I tend to blame the government of Tanzania and the speakers of To ask Tanzania Maa: So you both claim this land as your property to stay healthy and well? Then cut it into pieces and let it die.
Whoever protests the hardest that it should be given to the other whole is the mother.
Tanzania, Tanzania… twakupenda kwa moyo wote. (Verse one)
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: email: [emailprotected]