“What upstart race born of recent callow century to arm itself in steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Maasai Morani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden?”
Beryl Markham, “West with the Night,” 1942
“We believe God is in everything. We believe he is in the trees, in the sky, the mountains, the grasses. We sing songs to the mountains and the trees because God is in them.”
“I believe there is wisdom in the primitive lying at greater depths than the intellect has plumbed, a wisdom from which civilized man can learn and without whose application his survival time is limited.”
Charles Lindbergh, “The Autobiography of Values,” 1976
“No primitive society has gone to civilization as to a greater good.”
“It is monstrous, really, the technological impertinence of industrial man that supposes he is in command of nature, capable of ordering the destinies of all things. The naïve faith of the tyrants of megalopolis in the magic of their technology is nothing more than the escalation of witchcraft; it is the anthropocentric myth — that man is the nub of nature, and that all things are his. We are drunk with industrial mead.”
It was in 1998 that we met Maasai elder Paramitoro Ole Kasiaro en route to the Serengeti, who recalled that much had changed since he was a child. The weather patterns had altered. Where there used to be droughts every 11 years, now there were droughts every few years. Some elder at Turkana, in the northern Frontier district of Kenya, even went so far as to claim that things had changed only since the coming of the white man. Now even a son could pick up a gun and kill you. That is why the elders call this time the “noisy time,” “the deaf time” or the time of “confusion.”
Paramitoro said his people were still resisting the “Western way of life” and the Maasai simply didn’t see “the importance of education.” When some Maasai come home after being educated they no longer “fit in the environment of the place and don’t cope with the tradition of the people.” They were learning things that were not relevant to their way of life. Being subject to taxes and the entire system of money hindered the Maasai’s ability to be sovereign on their own land. Where they used to be nomadic with their livestock, they have now become mainly sedentary, and agricultural practices of large farms is competing for land from the Maasai.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
From a once independent and sustainable livelihood, some Maasai are having to depend on emergency rations from the government. Tourism and conservation have always come before indigenous rights. Having lost much of their land and their rights to the British in Kenya, those warriors who leap higher than anyone on Earth, are being challenged as never before. One warrior even went as far as to say while they used to dance with their entire bodies, now only dance from their shoulders up, emphasizing the loss of soul. When they leap, it was to grow tall and proud like a tree. In 2005, Kikwete, the former President of Tanzania said, “We must abandon altogether nomadic pastoralism which makes the whole country pastureland...The cattle are bony… and the pastoralists are sacks of skeletons. We cannot move forward with this type of pastoralism in the 21stcentury.”
What is at issue, as with native peoples everywhere, is a tribe corralled into the modern global system. Fenced off from nomadic routes they have used for centuries, some had become panhandlers in a world that has become strangled and co-opted life by the rules of the economic juggernaut. There were predictions that if the Maasai kept losing land they would be forced to become totally sedentary within a generation. Today the spears of once proud warriors cannot fend off those intent on profits. Shields will not ward off nor deflect the arrows of a world bent on the homogenization of tradition in the name of progress and profits.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight in 1927 from New York to Paris changed the world forever. Globalism took off with his groundbreaking flight. His book “The Autobiography of Values” contains a unique chapter, “The Primitive Passing,” that is worth remembering. Charles met many Maasai tribal members who had been largely ignored by the dominant society. By questioning the basic premise of our way of life through a radically different lens, he asked questions that are directly relevant to our society. One Maasai elder told him that civilization was not “progress.” He explained, “You speak of freedom in your country, but we have known a freedom far greater than yours.”
Lindbergh would ask, “Is civilization progress?” Now that the entire edifice of civilization seems to be wavering, we have to wonder. Charles was happy with the simple acts of pitching a tent, gathering wood, lighting a lantern. He contrasts this with the organization needed to support “apartment houses, electric appliances, oil furnaces: the pipelines, the dynamos and the high tension cables that supply them; the electricians, well drillers, agents, postmen, accountants, executives, and other specialists who make them work; the architects, builders, bankers, masons, carpenters, plumbers, truck drivers, trainmen, miners, lathe operators, insurance salesmen.”
“The primitive teaches that life itself, unforced life, is progress, a fact our civilization tends more and more to overlook,” he wrote. Over the years, as Marie and I became more concerned with the elephant slaughter and fought to have the media listen to one of the great disasters of our time, the native peoples were always at the forefront of our concerns because globalism, and changing weather patterns did not adequately allow local governments to consider the enormous relevance of their tribes. They were not considered valuable in the economic system.
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Paramitoro looked from side to side as if searching for remnants of a world that had passed, a past where black sheep sacrifices were still occasionally offered to Ngai, the Creator. In Kenya the government had opened Maasailand to land adjudication, which would curtail elephant migration paths and open their land to other tribes. The “uneducated” would naturally not know how to litigate or get title deeds to secure land. There would be no process of informed consent if land were taken away from them. Instead “range schemes,” pieces of land owned by foreigners for agriculture have taken over Kenya and were plaguing Tanzania. Some Maasai have tried to get work in cities but often they languished as security guards in a world they no longer recognized. If jobs were not available, shanty towns were the next stage in the acculturation and sedentarization of the Maasai spirit.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Lindbergh saw all this coming. Neighboring Tanzania does not recognize the rights of native tribes. In the Loliondo district, almost as big as the neighboring Serengeti, local Maasai have been in dispute with the government for years. The government, in cahoots with the hunting company Ortello Business Corporation, with strong links to the royal family in the United Arab Emirates, decided to apportion tens of thousands of acres in Maasai land for the “benefits of the nation.” This turned out to be a way for foreigners from the UAE to hunt on Maasai land; one section being taken from the Maasai was a wildlife corridor which would be used by wealthy hunters as a hunting concession, a private hunting ground of sorts, violently dispossessing and marginalizing the Maasai from their ancestral land. Some Maasai refused to leave and had their enclosures burnt to the ground. Progress indeed. Eviction notices were also served and the forced removal of Maasai was implemented. Over 6,000 people lost their homes. Besides being a major human rights violation, the rights of animals were also ignored as cheetahs have been smuggled into the UAE and Arab Gulf States by the hundreds, imperiling the remaining but seriously endangered overall wild population, which may number no more than 7,000 continent wide.
The Maasai have had much land taken from them for tourism, with far too little revenue going back to them, especially in this pandemic time. The encroachment of farmers more and more beholden to corporations and genetically altered crops threatens a way of life older than recorded history. As land buyers pursue the relentless purchase of Maasailand, the people have little choice but to go to places that are semi-arid, which cannot withstand much grazing. Overuse of areas not formerly grazed means the loss of cattle and eventually the loss of wildlife that has made East Africa a garden of Eden for megafauna.
As Parimotoo described the almost inevitable loss of a treasure too enormous to fathom, he recalled an old laibon, medicine man, who foresaw the future. He was called Mbate. “A very long snake will cross Maasiland and will pass everywhere till there is no end and no beginning," he said. Other laibons prophesied the “white bird coming from the air.” Perhaps the very plane Lindbergh flew in not that many decades ago. Paramitoro spoke with a graveness and sadness of someone who saw through time and who understood what was transforming his people. Although there were still places where the Maasai could pray, they were fast vanishing like the melting glaciers of their most sacred mountain, Kilimanjaro.
That snake is the road that winds all over Maasailand and with it the promises of progress. Lindbergh, despite his untoward political leanings in his time, had the prescience to understand what humanity would lose if its first peoples became casualties of the modern world. “Civilized life requires people to specialize and co-ordinate, with a resulting loss in individuality and freedom,” he wrote. “On the one hand, man desires civilization and progress. He suffers its impositions. Man is born with the God-given privilege of living on earth and water, under sun and sky. He has flesh and senses, emotions and spirit, as well as mind, with which to share his life. What does the quality of living consist of if not a fluctuating balance between these elements? Must we sacrifice the full appreciation of living for a narrowing culture of the mind.”
As we have seen with native peoples on five continents, the answer seems to be yes and an unrelenting homogenization that threatens a potential monoculture of the spirit. Alistair Graham wrote the text for the remarkable book “The Eyelids of Morning,” the groundbreaking study of crocodile in northern Kenya. He states as no-one ever has, “It seems to be the Destiny of all Walden Ponds, Lake Rudolf included, to be consumed by technological man. It is not for the Turkana to say yea or nay. He does not even have to submit or flee. He will not be butchered for his balkiness or haughtiness, as the Indian was. Instead, he will be inundated with benevolence. Sociological, religious, political, economic, scientific, medical and technological benevolence will flow over him like lava: a creeping, choking, inexorable mantle of civilization will bury him forever.”
The pastoralists and other native people we visited are among the most resilient people on Earth. The Maasai and Samburu we talked to could read the planets and weather systems as well as we read the newspapers. They prayed to the creator under fig trees and many Maasai have now become lion guardians as opposed to lion killers. The Maasai know that lions bring tourist dollars but deep down they respect these beings who take life and know that these formidable predators, fast disappearing, are also part of their very identity. If they were to lose the lion, the land would suffer something irreplaceable.
Heat spells and floods and armies of locusts have come and gone. What remains is an elemental knowledge and resiliency we could well marvel at. If our generation is the last to respect their ways, our society too will suffer. We have become desecrators before the organic tapestry Earth's first herders and caretakers have always cultivated and respected.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
The Maasai have a concept, ngoki longoyek, the sin one carries from the eyes of those who witness one’s arrogance. A curse may befall those whose identity is derived from conquest, from a reckless taking rather than an ordered existence on the land. The pastoralist ethos is based on an all abiding respect for Earth’s capacities for renewal: real wealth is regenerative. For both hunter gatherers and pastoralists, true power derives from the capacity to grant a knowledge of the Earth’s gifts to the next generation — a capacity that is being lost on a daily basis. It is a lesson our vaunted civilization should heed this decade. Everything is being “similarized, homogenized, pasteurized” as Isak Dinesen once said about Africa. “The blazing lights” of our civilization are dissolving age old relations to myth, oral traditions, the Earth and her animals. Globalism and industrialism are fast cutting the roots of existence and sustainability from the core of Earth’s first peoples. Modern man, so called civilization, will not be able to survive without these roots.
“We are entering the final phase of what we thought would last forever,” as the explorer and photographer Mirella Ricciardi once wrote. “Until Africa finds her 21st century identity, until her new form emerges, her people and her land will first have to pass through the birth pangs of purgatory. The agony will last as long as is needed. In the confusion and disorientation of readjustment, humans and wildlife will lose their direction, many will perish, the Earth will be badly damaged and those who survive will be changed forever. There will be no going back.” We once had a paradise worldwide, a harsh paradise, but still a paradise full of life. We are now going through purgatory. We all know what comes next if we don’t wake up.
“We place such implicit faith in our economic, social, and political paradigms. We reject categorically the possibility that they are as mythical as the savage’s flat Earth. He sees flatness and takes for granted the veracity of his vision. We see prosperity following upon economic growth — and take for granted the veracity of our vision. The fact that the savage has never seen the edge of the world does not shake his belief in its existence. We who have never seen the end of the world ironically overlook the possibility of its imminence.”
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.