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Pastoralism and agriculture

The Maasai’s traditional dependence on – and attachment to – cattle is mentioned by many narrators in Oloitokitok, who describe how difficult it is for them to see livestock as a resource to be used in different ways, rather than as ‘static wealth’. They say that this blocks their development. Elias, for example, says that their affection for livestock blinds them to the fact that their cattle are assets that could be sold and turned into “investments such as buildings or matatus (public minibuses)”.

While the traditions of nomadic pastoralism still lie behind initiation rites – especially of boys, who have to learn to become ‘warriors’ – and other customs, things are beginning to change. Pressure on the land, recurrent drought, and a greater need for cash income for education and health has reduced the viability of living by pastoralism alone.

Peter is one of several narrators who recognise that the Maasai must diversify and reduce their dependence on livestock. But he emphasises how important their animals remain to many families: “We depend on those animals because they are the ones that sustain us.” Yet support services to pastoralists have declined, according to Elias, who says state veterinary services are much less well organised and effective than they were.

Although more Maasai are now taking up agriculture, for most narrators in rural Oloitokitok farming amounts to little more than a means of subsistence: “you find food just for your stomach,” says Mary, a single mother of three.

Recurrent drought and lack of nearby water sources are given as reasons for frequent poor harvests, while the lack of markets is seen by many as a major problem. Transport to those markets that do exist is poor, and so produce often goes off before it can be sold. Elias believes, however, there is “great potential in agriculture” and that with better roads they could sell produce much more widely.

Others, such as Mary, don’t see agriculture as such a promising option: “we are [stuck] in the same place because…farming is what we depend on [and] it cannot support us”. She points out that “there are many things that we could do apart from agriculture” but they lack the education and technology they need “to expand our horizons…”.


Pastoralism and agriculture is a key theme of the Living with poverty: Kenya oral testimony project.


Alice: sleeping hungry

Deborah: widows have rights

Elias: cultural change

George: no jobs

Helen: poverty of war

Joseph: keeping optimistic

Lemaron: challenging discrimination

Martha: battling corruption

Mary: life of struggle

Mercy: completely forgotten

Nyiva: cardboard homes

Peter: search for work

Key themes






Self-help initiatives

Sanitation and health

Political representation


Crime and unrest



Homelessness and insecurity

Pastoralism and agriculture