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«Abstract _ Colonial regimes not only influenced perceptions of the demography of particular ethnic groups, they also shaped or attempted to ...»

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IUSSP Conference

S50 “The demography of indigenous populations”

Colonial preconceptions and contemporary demographic reality:

Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania

Dr Ernestina Coast

London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE


Tel: +44 (0)207 955 6335

Fax: +44 (0)207 955 6833



Colonial regimes not only influenced perceptions of the demography of particular ethnic groups, they also shaped or attempted to influence, the actual demographic regime. The Maasai had complex relationships with its colonial powers, who in turn had strong preconceptions about the demographic regime of the Maasai. The perceptions and attitudes of the colonial rulers to the Maasai are described using a wide range of ethnographic, colonial and archival sources.

The roots of many contemporary demographic preconceptions about Maasai can be traced back to the colonial era. Most of these preconceptions were unsubstantiated, or based on inaccurate information. Indeed, many were based on a colonial repugnance for some of the cultural norms of the population. Some demographic preconceptions were deliberately manipulated for colonial purposes. The persistence of some of these preconceived notions is demonstrated, using both author’s observations and recent demographic literature. Analysis of recent survey data suggests that although some aspects of the demographic preconceptions may be true, in fact the demographic reality is very different from the myths. It is suggested that the “otherness” of this ethnic minority has served to reinforce and perpetuate demographic myths throughout the Twentieth Century.



Colonial preconceptions and contemporary demographic reality:

Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania Dr Ernestina Coast1 It is 40 years after Independence for most African nations, but the colonial demographic legacy for some minority populations is substantial and continuing. Colonial regimes not only influenced perceptions of the demography of particular ethnic groups, they also shaped or attempted to influence, the actual demographic regime. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are an example of an ethnic group for which colonial authorities (British and German) constructed powerful demographic realities that remain today.

This study has three main aims. Firstly, a description of colonial perceptions and attitudes to issues of Maasai demography, using ethnographic, colonial and archival sources. Secondly, to assess whether these preconceptions have persisted to the present-day. Thirdly, to test the validity of these assumptions using data from a recent demographic survey of Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania. Common themes about Maasai demography are identified, and reasons for their persistence are explored.

Maasai It is accepted by many of those who have studied the Maasai - anthropologically, linguistically, historically - that the widely accepted notion of the Maasai as a self-contained ethnic unit is misleading. The historical background and linkages of the Maasai with other groups originally viewed as "non-Maasai" have been well documented and supported. Ties (economic, structural, social, marital, linguistic) with other non-pastoral but Maa-speaking groups have been identified by a number of authors (Spencer, 1973; Berntsen, 1979; Galaty, 1981; Spear and Waller, 1993)2. The traditional notion of the Maasai as an independently functioning ethnic unit, which practices no agriculture, has now largely been discarded3.

1 Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE 2 East Africa contains many Maa-speaking peoples, including the Samburu, Chamus and Arusha (to name some of the larger groups). That individuals and groups can move into and out of "Maasainess" over time and space is acknowledged by Maasai and non-Maasai. That the fluidity of being Maasai will have implications for any assessment of information relating to Maasai is inevitable but unavoidable. In the introduction to his ethnography The Maasai of Matapato, Spencer observed “Writers had tended to note that the Maasai do this or that, rather than noting, for instance, that the Purko Maasai do this or the Kisonko Maasai do that” (1988:2).

Whilst acknowledgement is made here of subtle differences between clans and sub-clans, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this study.

3 Much of the impetus for the traditional description of the Maasai comes from Jacob’s classic study of Maasai political organisation (1965).

2 Maasai continue to be dependent upon livestock and a variety of cultivation (both subsistence and commercial). Increasing uptake of education combined with exposure to non-Maasai has led to rising levels of outmigration and participation in formal employment, particularly among young men (Coast, 2000).

Maasailand cannot be defined by exact cartographic points. Rather, it is a widely accepted expression of the area traditionally inhabited by the Maasai, and today still dominated by the Maasai ethnic group (Map 1). Spear and Waller (1993) suggest those areas in which Maasai language (Maa) was dominant define the extent of Maasailand. In this respect, Maasailand was at its greatest extent towards the end of the nineteenth century (Homewood, 1995:331).

The diminution of the area of Maasailand is the result of many factors including: demarcation of the Tanzania-Kenya international border; colonial settlement; post-independence landtenure changes; and, what will be termed broadly "conservation". Contemporary Maasailand in Kenya may be roughly equated with Narok and Kajiado district borders, which together cover an area of 39,618km2. In Tanzania, Maasailand is much less easily identifiable, but includes much of Arusha Region (Ngorongoro and Monduli Districts), and that area known as Maasai Steppe to the south of the Pangani River.

Colonial perceptions and attitudes towards Maasai demography The first task is to describe the nature of colonial perceptions and attitudes towards Maasai demography, together with an assessment of the supporting data. The materials and methods of historical demography for both Africa and elsewhere have been described fully (for example, Willigan and Lynch, 1982; Fyfe and McMaster, 1977). The historical demographer must rely on a wide array of data, much of it “meagre and uncertain (Wrigley, 1977:19), from ad hoc travelogues written by explorers, missionaries (and their spouses), to the documents of colonial administrations, to the first attempts to conduct population censuses. Evidence is often based on circumstantial or contextual information, rather than on information from the population being studied and has been described as “an elegant piece of detective work” (Pool: 1977:55).

Accounts of early travellers and colonial administrators provide little information on the total number of Maasai. Any historical accounts of the numbers of Maasai must be situated within 3 an understanding of the perceptions of the colonial administration(s) about the Maasai4. Prethe Maasai were at their greatest extent, both numerically and in terms of influence (Tignor, 1976). German East Africa (now Tanzania) was gazetted in 1885, swiftly followed by British East Africa (now Kenya). Between 1884 and 1894 the Maasai (and other ethnic groups) experienced a series of major ecological catastrophes. The colonisation of East Africa began at the end of a series of natural disasters, during which the Maasai experienced raised mortality combined with outmigration to other ethnic groups. These major ecological upsets were instrumental in forming opinions about the Maasai, specifically their ability to survive as an ethnic group. An outbreak of bovine pleuro-pneumonia in 1883 was followed by devastating rinderpest in 1891, both of which had the effect of decimating Maasai livestock. The effect on the Maasai population was to force widespread migration in search of agricultural produce from other ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu in Kenya.

In 1892 an outbreak of smallpox devastated the human population of the region. The most obvious impact was increased mortality, although most of the statements are impressionistic rather than substantive. Jacobs (quoting Leys, 1924) estimated that over half of the human population died (1979:47). Dawson suggests mortality estimates for central Kenya ranging from 10 to 70 per cent of the population. Whilst all ethnic groups were affected by the smallpox outbreak, the Maasai suffered particularly during this decade due to the livestockbased epizootics that occurred at the same time. The smallpox outbreak occurred when Maasai were forced to move from low population density pastoralist areas (where conditions were less conducive to human disease transmission) to the more densely populated cultivated areas in search of food, where human disease transmission was facilitated. Because Maasai population densities did not normally support endemic smallpox, Maasai had little immunity to the disease when they were eventually exposed to it (Dawson, 1979).

Further outbreaks of bovine pleuro-pneumonia occurred in 1897 and 1899, leading to widespread food shortages, and the exchange of Maasai women and children with nonMaasai households in return for food was widely reported. The devastation wreaked by this series of disasters was described in contemporary accounts (for example, Hinde and Hinde, 1901). It is only possible to conjecture the net effect of these disasters on the total Maasai 4 This account is inevitably skewed towards Kenya. Fewer reports relating to the Maasai are available from the then German administrators in Tanzania, issues of translation notwithstanding. Historical references use the 4 population and its rate of natural increase, but the combined effect of the smallpox outbreak and prolonged food shortages will undoubtedly have increased mortality levels. Whether the raised mortality affected the population differentially cannot be determined. It is possible that the Maasai warriors (murran) were disproportionately affected by the smallpox epidemic in 1892, due to the increased raiding that characterised the late Nineteenth Century. This led to increased “gathering together of warriors in compounds for either defensive or offensive purposes” (Dawson, 1979:246) and promoted disease transmission.

The potential impact on fertility is more complex. It is likely, however, that the net effect of the disasters was to reduce overall fertility for a considerable period of time. Potential contributory factors include decreased fecundability due to spousal separation and decreased libido. The combined effect of infection and malnutrition may also have reduced female fecundity. Several authors (White, 1990; Tignor, 1976) note that a group of destitute Maasai originally numbering 1,000 individuals sought refuge at the Imperial British East African Company settlement at Fort Smith. By 1895 this group had grown in size to approximately 6-7,000 individuals who were relocated by the British to Ngong. This one event not only highlights the level of migration by Maasai during the disasters, but also the selectivity of this migration. White, for example, notes that “Ngong became a refuge for pawned, captured, and runaway Maasai women” (1990:xx) until the end of the Nineteenth Century. A possible outcome of this concentration of destitute women was the development of prostitution as a source of income, a theme that will be returned to later. That prostitution has implications for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and their demographic sequelae is noted.

The social disruption that accompanies forced population migration and excess mortality also has implications for one other major proximate determinant of fertility, marriage. For example, the exchange of Maasai women for food with agriculturalists would have led to a decline in the rate of marriage among Maasai. Similarly, the lack of livestock with which to pay bridewealth commitments could have led to a delay in marriages until after livestock numbers were re-established. The demographic implications of a delay in marriage would, in the medium term, not be particularly large in terms of overall rates of natural increase for Maasai as a whole.

word “Masai”, and this spelling is used in verbatim quotes throughout this study. Otherwise, “Maasai” is the 5 The actual losses incurred by the Maasai as a result of this decade of disruption cannot be quantified, and of necessity much of the information relating to this period is impressionistic and vague. Of particular interest are the perceptions held by the nascent colonial administration about the Maasai, summarised by Tignor: “There were certainly many British officials who felt that the Maasai reluctance to embrace change was the result of a declining civilisation, one that had lost its vitality at the end of the nineteenth century” (1976:16).

Indeed, the British administration believed that without their intervention, following the Berlin Treaty in 1884, the Maasai would have become extinct as a tribe. This is in distinct contrast to the powerful, warring images previously purveyed by contemporary writers (Thomson, 1885; Hinde and Hinde; 1901). The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw a new image of the Maasai emerging, of a once-strong ethnic group, now reduced in numbers and strength by successive famines and disease episodes. This general opinion can be found in several early twentieth century writings. The Kenya Land Commission observed that “but for British protection the Maasai would have become a factor of comparatively minor importance and their country might gradually have been occupied by other tribes"5. The 1921 Maasai Reserve Annual report observed, “The Maasai are a decadent race and have survived through being brought under the protection of British rule. But one that could certainly have been exterminated by the more virile and numerous African tribes"6.

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