Crossing the dusty plains, draped in red and black cloth with a stick in hand to control unruly cattle, Maasai men continue to leave the village in search of jobs, while women are left to fight for their land.
A dispute between the Maasai and the Tanzanian government is being led by village women. With long beads hanging from her neck and earlobes, Mareitwei Nguyu looks stoic. She’s a 38-year-old mother of six from the Maasai village of Loliondo.
“It is very true that women are organizing this movement and they are at the forefront. This is partly because what we have seen already. Children are dying of hunger and it is women who are struggling. Most men have migrated into town and left women with children,” she said.
Loliondo borders Serengeti National Park, Tanzania’s number one tourist attraction, famous for its abundance of wildlife. The region is a crucial path for migrating animals between Serengeti and Masai Mara in Kenya.
“We are very frustrated, because if the government takes this land out of our hands, our children will die of hunger. And it means all livestock will die and we will be landless,” she added.
Due to its location between Serengeti park and the Ngorongoro crater, a Loliondo game controlled area was established by the government. Earlier in 2013, the government announced its proposal to take 1,500 square kilometres of this land to convert into a wildlife corridor. This would prohibit the Maasai’s cattle from grazing and accessing water.
Nguyu and other Maasai women were fed up with being treated as second class citizens in their own country. They organized a contingent to visit Dodoma, Tanzania’s political capital, and requested a meeting with President Jakaya Kikwete, which was turned down by the president’s office.
In it for the long haul
“We are going back home to develop a complete strategy on how we can fight this battle, even if it takes a long time. But the determination and the willingness and the resources are there. And we are going to sell our cows to continue with our struggle. We won’t stop until we get our rights,” Nguyu said earlier this year.
According to Tanzania’s Protected Network Act, covering 24 per cent of the country’s land surface, game controlled areas are for wildlife hunting purposes. The 2009 Wildlife Conservation Act restricts human activity, settlements, agriculture and livestock grazing in these areas.
Stephen Kebwe is the member of parliament for Serengeti district. He reiterates the fact that government technically owns all land in Tanzania.
Going back in history, to 1959, the colonial British government in Tanzania kicked the Maasai out of Serengeti to make way for a burgeoning tourism industry. In 2013, tourism is a major contributor to the country’s economy and yet the Maasai continue to live in abject poverty.
The Pastoral Women’s Council has represented Maasai on land issues in Ngorongoro district since 1997. Its Loliondo coordinator, Timothy Yaile, believes the government is clearing the land to make way for further business interests.
Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) is a Dubai-based game hunting company operating in Loliondo for more than 20 years. It flies in wealthy royals from the Emirates to hunt and kill game for sport in the game controlled area.
Ujamaa Community Resource Team works alongside Maasai women. Executive director Edward Loure said this was the first time women called for defiance, citing their frustration with the government’s preferential treatment of wealthy foreigners.
“OBC is a hunting company. The only difference from other hunting companies is the way its given specialities, like an airstrip where a Boeing 767 can land. There’s no other hunting company owning a landing strip,” he said. “They also have communications towers and other companies don’t have this.”
Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Khamis Kagasheki backtracked on earlier comments he made promoting the Maasai eviction for conservation purposes. He now states the government is allowing the pastoralists to remain on the disputed land in Loliondo.
Kagasheki stated the government wants to protect the delicate Serengeti ecosystem from overgrazing by the Maasai’s cattle. Nguyu feels strongly that Maasai are the ultimate conservationists, having lived alongside wildlife for generations.
An international campaign started on Avaaz.org called Stand with the Maasai has garned almost two million signatures. It calls on the Tanzanian government to stop handing over Maasai land to game hunting companies and tourism operators.
Back in Maasailand, Nguyu is ready to fight for the rights of all Maasai to continue living the pastoralist lifestyle she and her family have always lived. However, their future is still uncertain.