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Human Rights
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
Westernization, Cultural Heritage, Africa, Maasai, Kenya, Maasailand, Tradition
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This picture story emphasizes the contention between custom and change in two Maasai communities: Oloirowua and Talek. It shows the impact of the new on the foundations of the old and how the local Maasai are making an effort to adjust to transforming realities and illuminates how both realities can exist together in the same space and among the same people.
Ryan Anson

1997 — student award of excellence

A Toyota pick-up speeds past an elder walking on a dirt track on the floor of the Rift Valley, showering him in dust and blanketing the nearby herds of dozing sheep. Packed in the rear of the matatu sit a mosaic of young and old Maasai, some adorned in magnificently-colored beads and kangas while others in the cool, dark colors of Western attire. This local taxi, on its way back to Oloirowua from the nearby industrial center of Nairobi, dodges bicycles as it roars its way to various bomas (family homes), dropping customers off along the side of the road and quickly moving on to beat the sunset.

Throughout Kenya, even in the removed rural areas of Maasailand, the movement of life is hurrying to catch up to the rhythm of modernity. Traditional pastoralist societies, such as the Maasai, have for a long time tenaciously held on to their customs and rituals as the rest of the state continues towards its goal of national development. However, the globalized forces of individual self-interest and free enterprise are strengthening, while ancient bonds of family, kinship, and custom are weakening.

Great changes impinge on even the most resistant of Maasai communities. Change may be subtle, like the adoption of Western names or clothes. Change may be imposed, such as the introduction and proliferation of Christianity. Or change may arise out of necessity whereby a pastoralist society integrates agricultural modes of production to supplement diets and income.

While change seems inevitable and corrosive, the Maasai preserve their sense of identity and cultural orientation. Their world view is expressed through the continued use of the Maa language, annual or seasonal ceremonies commemorating a rite of passage, and the retention of the sophisticated age-set system. More importantly, cattle is still at the very center of their communtiy-centered, pastoral way of life. This can not be compromised by enterprise or modern institutions.

Yet the Maasai have developed coping mechanisms to adapt to a changing world. Promotion of education is perhaps the most critical of these steps to co-exist with and contribute to a developing state. Although more and more children attend primary schools, most who live locally return to their homes in the evening to herd in the family's livestock or listen to a grandmother's story inside the traditional enkang (home).

This picture story emphasizes the contention between custom and change in two Maasai communities: Oloirowua and Talek. It shows the impact of the new on the foundations of the old and how the local Maasai are making an effort to adjust to transforming realities. Most importantly, it seeks to illuminate how both realities can exist together in the same space and among the same people.

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Some girls who are fortunate enough to go to school, like Kijolo Ole Kushumba (right), typically withdraw for a period of six months so they can be circumcised and enter the Ol-aibartak age-group, a time of preparation for marriage. Most female roles in rural Maasailand are still limited to herding livestock, fetching firewood and water and preparing meals for the family. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
Morompei Ole Kisoto, a Standard 8 pupil, leads his schoolmates in a song which praises the warrior morani for bringing back stolen cattle to their village. The Oloirowua Primary School Dance Troupe, besides performing annually at national competitions, serves as an outlet for students to express their Maasai heritage through traditional forms of dancing and singing. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
Under pressure from the government and Kenya's movement towards self-development, Maasai families have changed their attitude towards education. Once considered a place only for lazy herd boys, school is now generally considered to be an advantageous privilege. However, most families can only afford to send just a few children to local schools which are largely understaffed and under-supplied. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
A young herdsboy relaxes on one of his family's cows before moving them out to search for water on the arid Talek Rangelands. Cattle, the symbol of a man's wealth and status in the community, will always remain central to Maasai culture and their pastoral way of life. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
Simon Ole Kirraison, director of the Maasai Cultural Centre (MCC) Dance Troupe, says, "Even if a Maasai puts on western clothing and journeys far away from home, he will always remember who he is and where he came from." Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
A woman earnestly wonders how she will carry her ten bags of government-relief maize meal from the local church to her home several kilometers away. Because of a number of political and ecological impediments, there is a growing dependence on relief food. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
John Ole Kirraison, Oloirowua's first evangelist and preacher at the baptist church, leads the congregation in worshiping the Christian God. Since the advent of colonialism, missionaries imposed their new religion on all Africans and subordinated indigenous religions and traditional structures that had organized people in societies throughout the continent's ancient history. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation
Samuel Koiseia Sere, a Maasai from Kilgoris, works as a ranger in anti-poaching unit in Maasai Mara National Reserve. Western conservationists converted Maasai grazing lands into parks to protect game and attract foreign exchange, but did not compensate them. Consequently, few loacal Maasai communities benefit socially or economically from the parks' large revenues. Ryan Anson/Alexia Foundation