Biting famine kills livestock, claims important cultural practices

Some of the livestock belonging to pastoralists communities being hosted at Mugie Conservancy located Sossian area in Laikipia County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

While the government may easily feed hungry and famine-stricken citizens, it may not compensate communities that have had cultural practices adversely affected by long spells of drought.

Circumcision is the most vital initiation of all rites of passage in the Maasai community where every male adolescent faces the cut at puberty.

The ceremony is performed on a yearly basis, especially in the month of December during the rainy season.

However, due to the continued drought ravaging parts of the country, the Maasai community in Laikipia North have been forced to postpone the rite for three years. 

This is one of the biggest blows to the community. Other than the physical cut, the postponement of the exercise delays the circle of young boys becoming warriors and counselled on how to behave and interact with other natives.

Joseph Nkos, an elder, says as a result of the drought, there has been delays in formation of age sets, the avenues in which boys are given a wise piece of advice while elderly women also advise girls on dangers that await them as they grow.

“Young boys and girls may indulge in anti-community practices such as drug abuse, unwanted practices due to lack of guidance, which is usually done on a yearly basis on the onset of rains,” said Nkos.

The boys who ought to have faced the knife three years ago now continue pegging their hopes on the short rains so that they can transform into warriors who can be entrusted by the community to guard them against intrusion.

“When it rains, a new puzzle will be: what shall we award the young warriors since all our cows have died due lack of pasture. For the first time, we have men going to look for pasture and water coming home empty handed,” said the elder, who is also the chairperson of Kimanjo shopping centre.

The Maasai community is known to share among themselves and neighbours but the hard economic times have called for everybody to mind his own business since there is little to share.

John Putunoi, a resident, says the famine has caused the cohesion in the Maa community to disintegrate since sharing kept them together.

"Our community traditions that we have religiously followed have been derailed by the drought and we don’t know how to recover," says Putunoi.

Cases of shop break-ins have been reported in Dol Dol, Musul and Kimanjo shopping centres, with the bugglers stealing food items from the shops. Putunoi says this had never been witnessed before.

Hudson Meshami, the chairperson of peace committee in Laikipia and Isiolo counties, says most of them are beneficiaries of herds from their parents, but after nearly all died as a result of famine, they have nothing to pass on to the new generation.

He says the impatient youth have already started demanding explanations from their parents as to what they shall inherit from them.

“These are questions for which we don’t have answers. We inherited herd of cattle from our fathers who also got them from our grandparents but we have nothing to pass on to our children,” Meshami says.

A case in point is that of Robert Kaparo whose livestock worth Sh3 million died as a result of the ongoing drought. Other than having nothing to award his sons after undergoing initiation and for dowry, all the respect he had from the community has eroded.

If you are a Maasai, cows are your true meaning of life. The larger your herd is, the higher social status you have. Your family’s and village's welfare hinge on how many cows you have. Herding and guarding the cows is man’s business. Boys learn this from early childhood.

All Kaparo is left with is the open cow shed consisting of a large circular thorn bush fence known as olosinko, which reminds him of his wealth that earned him respect from the community.

“I had 50 cows, so I took them to Rimuruti, about 70km away, to look for pasture. Thirty died and I remained with 20 and later another 14 died, leaving me with only six. My farmhand is moving around with them in search of water and pasture.

“I had 200 goats but only 60 are remaining. They have not returned here for two years and I only pray I will get them alive. My son who is in Form Four has been sent home due to lack of school fees," said Kaparo.

Livestock is so dear to the Maasai community that everytime we asked about the matter, they sobbed.

By this time, Kaparo had planned to build a commercial plot and buy a public service vehicle but his dreams now remain just that.

According to Laikipia Governor Joshua Irungu, by the second week of October, 2,500 livestock, including goats and cows, had died in the county. He said cases are being recorded daily.

“It is a sad situation because the continued loss of livestock means family disintegration, moral decay among the youth from communities whose rite of passage is influenced by the livestock,” he said.

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