Altruism in the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania
When I first came to live with my husband’s indigenous Maasai family in Tanzania, I was struck by how perfect their way of life seemed. They live in complete harmony with nature, keeping livestock such as cattle and goats. They are innate conservationists who pass on traditional knowledge, read the stars, live in huts made out of cow dung, and are proud of their rich tribal culture which, until now, they have successfully defended against modern influences.
From the very first day, I was in awe and wished for nothing more than for their beautiful way of life to be protected. The longer I lived with them, however, the more I realized that they struggled. They struggle to defend their land; they struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing world; they struggle to understand their place in this world as one of our planet’s last remaining indigenous tribes.
In 2017, after nearly six years of living with the Maasai, the dry season came but did not go. Our cattle grew thinner and thinner, but the rains never came. Cows gave birth but did not produce any milk, because they were starving. We milked our goats and bottle-fed new-born calves in desperate attempts to keep them alive. But it was all in vain. None of our new-born calves survived.
We moved our herd of 100 cattle to the mountains where a little rain had fallen. In their desperation to get to every last blade of grass, many of the cattle fell over cliff edges to their death. In that season alone we lost more than 15 cows. And we were the fortunate ones in our community – the path to our neighbours’ boma was paved with bodies of dead cows.
It was then that I was forced to open my eyes to the existential threat facing the Maasai culture. Cattle are the centre of Maasai culture. No cattle, no Maasai. Livestock needs grass and pastures to survive. They need land, rain, and a healthy ecosystem. It dawned on me that, while they did little to provoke it, climate change was already taking its toll on this indigenous tribe.
I asked myself what I could do. As a conservationist who had lived with the Maasai for long enough to not only understand their culture but to love and respect them for all that they stand for in this world, I knew that I had to help. I knew that I could. I set up a crowdfunding campaign to try and raise enough money to take our village’s traditional leaders to a conservation and land management seminar in Kenya.
I managed to raise enough money to take four of our village leaders to the seminar. It was fantastic. They learned about new ways to rear cattle, about how to manage land, and about rotational grazing. The seminar also forced the leaders to dig deep and understand that some of the practices of their culture (such as the oppression of women and unsustainable farming techniques) are a bigger threat to their survival than any outside influence could ever be.
After putting into action just a few of these lessons, we have managed to regain parts of our village land that have been used for crop agriculture and we are working with our leaders to implement rotational grazing. Because of the great support I received for this campaign, I decided to run a second - this time for the women of the tribe.
As in many other low-income nations, menstruation is a strictly taboo subject in Tanzania, and it certainly is amongst the Maasai tribe. Maasai women traditionally don’t use anything to deal with their menses and the subject is rarely discussed even between mother and daughter. Even today, Maasai girls go to school but often miss out on lessons because they have no means to stem their flow. It keeps them from succeeding in school and it leaves them vulnerable to depression and exploitation.
I have started an all-female enterprise with Maasai women where we sew reusable sanitary kits. These menstrual kits are sponsored by my friends who buy them for 10 USD and we distribute them to the women of our village and beyond. The money we make flows back into our community via wages for the women who sew with us and via the purchasing of food and livestock for our families.
Ever since we began this initiative, women from all over come to me asking for the kits. They say: ‘These kits are great. We can now do as we please during our time of the month. We feel clean and empowered; we forget the shame.’ Others come to me and ask for kits for their sisters, daughters, or neighbours. My husband’s aunt, who is in her 70s, recently told me, “Sidai pai kuna tokiting amo eretoki iyook, enkituak. O apa, mekieta, ne torronok naleng amo itum enyamali. Ten iton teloleka o ten inniototo ne yena olsarget te nanga inno, ne jikiduaketa Ildung’anak. Torronok naleng. O tatanji eta sidai kieta kona.”
“These things are great because they help us a lot. In the past, it was very bad because we get in trouble. If you sit on a chair and get up, there is a stain on your cloth and people see it. It was very shameful. But now, it is good because we have these things.”
Often times, I ask myself why I did not start earlier? I ask myself why it took me nearly 6 years of living in their midst before I did something to assist this tribe in their way of life. Finally, I came to understand that those 6 years were necessary for me to truly understand the needs of this community I have come to call home.
I did right, coming to live with this wonderful, unique tribe with hearts full of love and respect. I did right, not wanting to change anything. I did right, taking my time to learn and observe their way of life.
I know there are many people who come to Africa and feel the need to ‘help’ – to do something. They come here on a quick holiday and compare the way the African people live to their own lives back home and begin to feel guilty about how much they have. And then they feel the need to act quickly to drown this guilt. Often, they do what they do, not so much for Africa, but for themselves. What I did with the Maasai, was born out of love, out of a great wish and desire to see their beautiful way of life persevere. It had nothing to do with me, and everything with them.
Altruism is about serving others, altruism is about love. Altruism is the one and only true way to show that you truly care. Without love in your heart, nothing you do will ever be truly altruistic.
My altruistic journey has brought me closer to myself. It showed me who I truly am. And it also showed me the true nature of the people close to me. My wonderful husband has been my greatest supporter, always by my side, and always ready to use his voice to support my activism.
- Visit maasai-association.org to learn more about Maasai culture, and to support community projects. (Be advised: link not secure).
- Check out @masai_story on Instagram to follow Stephanie's life amongst the Maasai people, and to support her tribe's all-female enterprise.
About the Author
Stephanie Fuchs is a conservationist who is passionate about our natural world and the fate of our planet.
In 2010, Stephanie visited Tanzania, fell in love with a Maasai warrior, and never left. She now lives with her Maasai family in the Tanzanian bush, enjoys herding her cattle, and is working on several projects aimed at the preservation of Maasai culture.'
For more or Stephanie's work, check out her writer's page or follow her on Instagram @masai_story.