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Elias: cultural change

Elias (centre): 'Traditions still contribute very much to the state of poverty.'

Born into a traditional Maasai family, 65 year-old Elias lives in Oloitokitok and is a pastor in the Charismatic Episcopal Church of Africa.

He explains that the Maasai still “have a strong attachment to the cattle” and are reluctant to sell their animals to invest in other forms of income generation. Although the land is fertile and “there is great potential in agriculture”, there are serious problems such as population growth and ensuing pressure on the land, lack of markets, drought, poor water management and bad roads. Development efforts are hampered by lack of funding.

He sees some traditional practices such as female circumcision as harmful and calls for cultural change, but advises a cautious and sensitive approach. In his view, only education can change people’s attitudes and enable society to develop.

I was born in 1942, into a Maasai family, and in that family it is only me that is educated and we are eight… [I am now] a preacher in the Charismatic Episcopal Church of Africa…I became a pastor in 1995, after working in local government and for NGOs.

The effect of past isolation
Because of colonial rule, we were called the ‘closed district’ – they closed this section, or Maasailand in general, so that other tribes would not enter: the Maasai alone will live here. Therefore the Maasai didn’t get to interact with other communities who have a different approach to life, such as engaging in agriculture. So we remained behind with our ways of only keeping livestock…

The point is that people did not enter at any time into the money economy. They were living totally at subsistence level; it is only in recent years that people have begun to engage in agriculture. But together with this there are many other contributing factors that cause the people here to live in a hopeless situation.

Lack of markets cripples development

The first thing is, whatever they grow on their farms, there are no markets close by. If it is time for livestock-selling that becomes a problem; and [the lack of markets especially affects] those Maasai who entered into agriculture recently…. You will be shocked to hear that we were even selling a 90 kg sack of produce for 300 shillings! And that cannot support a person in life, because people have begun to understand that taking their children to school [costs money]…that one must pay to be in hospital…

There is great potential in agriculture, however. Food can be grown and we can even supply Europe with some kinds of food. But the middlemen come here and they do not buy it at a fair price. Sometimes things go off because of the [poor] road; the food goes bad before it gets to any market. Therefore until these things can be corrected, it will take a long time for poverty to come to an end.

“What is needed is a road”

[The roads] are amazingly bad. It is a big problem. Even now, when you head for the west Ntonet area – you won’t ever get there. Since the recent rain the road has not been fixed… The main form of transport has become bodaboda (heavy-duty bicycle taxis) and motorbikes. Ordinary bicycles cannot make it… On this side of Ntonet they have grown many tomatoes… I wonder how they will get them to the market because there is no road.

The lack of roads also affects communication…[although] now if you go to the market or to Maasailand you will find they all have cell phones [laughs]. All of them, even the women have them; I am surprised because you will find someone has not been to school but she is making a call…

All this land in Oloitokitok is fertile, very good soil. So what is needed is a road, and water management… Through the CDF (Constituency Development Fund) we are bringing drinking water into our houses, and we did not have this before and we could not do it without the CDF.

The water programme that we have here – tractors, boreholes that had been out of operation for a long time – has been revived. Big dams [were built] that mean people can get water for long periods; the CDF is the one that gave the grant… There is a lot of water, but it is not all being used well; there’s water mismanagement…

Group ranches and declining services
Here in Oloitokitok there are six group ranches. Those group ranches where water passes through, they have divided them into small plots of 2 hectares each. Those members that have been allocated those 2 irrigated hectares still have the opportunity to keep cattle. That is a good arrangement.

But those that are into the keeping of cattle [need assistance]. A long time ago there was compulsory vaccination… They engaged in a campaign without specifying which area was affected. If it was inoculation of the cattle [that was needed], they would inoculate or vaccinate all of the animals to prevent infection. Now that system has been lost in the government’s agricultural support services – except at the time of the Rift Valley Fever.

Also in the middle of this area there would have been a KMC (Kenya Meat Commission). There would have been an abbatoir so that someone with two or three cows could put them in the abbatoir and they would be slaughtered… Instead of having to take them to Mombasa or the central KMC – travelling all that distance – they would just have slaughtered them here. This benefited people with few cattle.

“Traditions are a problem”
Traditions still contribute very much to the state of poverty… The Maasai family does not involve everyone in their economy. For example, women cannot go outside and support themselves and look for work in business…

Another factor is that the Maasai regard their farming as a matter of prestige, they do not know that it is the way of the economy that you can sell some animals at a particular time…, that you keep changing and rotating [your stock]. They hold on to the fact that they have a strong attachment to the cattle. If they see that a cow is very attractive, it becomes a problem to sell that one. They say, “Let it just stay”; they like looking at them because things that are alive are very attractive.

So until now they have not changed…[they haven’t realised] that these cattle are assets of very high quality they can exchange. These traditions are a problem because you cannot just focus on one line of business like this… You’ll find that someone has 4,000, 1,000, 2,000 head of cattle – and they do not know that they can invest [the money from selling some] cows in other investments such as buildings or matatus (public minibuses).

“Poverty was less evident”
In the past there wasn’t a lot of poverty. The first reason is that there were fewer people… I remember when Oloitokitok had less than 2,000 people. So even if there was a drought it would not finish off the cattle; maybe three, four, five consecutive years of drought could have finished them. But because when it rained the grass would grow outside [Oloitokitok] and the people were few, the cows were not many, and there were fewer families, the poverty was less evident.

In the ’60s we were not producing [agricultural crops]…at that time people became rich because they were few in number. There was no sickness, the population was low, and life in the ’60s and ’70s was just about eating and sleeping. Drinking milk, eating ugali or bananas, and sleeping [laughs]…

[Today] the whole district has around 150,000 people, around that. Poverty [is widespread]. The Maasai culture hides its poverty, they hide it. Even right now, if you tried to bring someone to speak about it they would hide… But here around 60% of the people are poor.

The search for funds
I work with PADEP as the chairman – the Pastoralists Development Education Programme. At this time we are not active, not for a long time… The funding agency Novib withdrew from Kenya… We have collaborators like ABANTU, but Novib was funding us 100%…

Unfortunately the director who was driving that project died and we did not have the [funds] to employ someone else… In the year 2000 and before, PADEP was an organisation that was known by every family in Oloitokitok for trying to uplift the lives of the people here – also for lobbying on human rights and rent issues.

We taught people how to use other agencies; we were helping with issues to do with schools; also women’s groups, writing proposals for them to look for help – but from that time [we lost our donor] we became inactive…it’s been about five years. We are trying to look for funds so that we can go on.

Women’s empowerment
In the church we encourage women’s groups to try and empower the women with regard to the economy of the country. We form groups; they start small, they form ‘merry-go-rounds’ (rotating credit schemes). They have other groups that are registered with social services… Their men have [also] begun to respect the church so when they hear about women’s groups in the church they respect them. They even help with opinions and contributions.

The business of circumcising girls is a problem. Even for us of the church, it is a problem to try and talk about it; we must be very smart about opposing circumcision of girls. That practice is still very much there and that is a barrier that is very dangerous and it is a hard thing… I am sure that if a politician says girls should not be circumcised, he should be ready to pack his bags and go home…he could lose his seat. There are some things that are still dangerous for a politician to address…

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that even the girls themselves demand it – you see that is the problem that we have. They think that it is a rite of passage, because they still see themselves as children before ‘the cut’…

We need education. Slowly, slowly it will change them, and [especially] if the church intervenes a lot – because now people have begun [to change]. The Maasai are…ultra-conservative, but the present generation is very accommodating. The older generation, if…they leave [these things behind], I believe there will be change. But right now circumcision is widespread and it is not a good thing…

“The girls must be educated”

Something important is that girls must go to school, if we want to develop as the Maasai… Girls get to primary Standard 4, 5, and then they begin to give birth. You know their marriages are arranged…

The girls must be educated, that is what we want. We tell them openly and we use the example that in the family the girl thinks about her parents more than the boy does. My girls, when they come over, you find that they have brought sugar, they have brought their mother something. But when the boy comes he starts by giving the mother 1,500 shillings but on the day that he is leaving he says, “Dad, I do not have [money for my] fare, I am broke.” [Laughs] I am forced to find it for him…

[The government] should work hard to educate girls and also it should start thinking about after secondary school, about what post-secondary education facilities can be brought here to Maasailand. For example, we lack nurses here. Why? Because there is no medical training nearby.

You know about the rules in these rural schools, a child must ask for permission for time off for circumcision. Then she has not healed properly, she delays, she is late – and her friends move forward. There are a lot of barriers to education in the rural areas… Maasai children are very bright, naturally bright, but they lack continuity of education and at exam time they do not do well.

So the government should look for special vocational training centres for girls and boys [who have discontinued their education] where they will be given all the facilities – so that when they have finished Form 4 (secondary school) they can get direct entry to university, medical college or any post-secondary diploma or degree programme, because otherwise when they break off [from school] a bit they get married and lose everything. The churches as well as NGOs need to see that when a girl starts school she goes on to university or a diploma programme; it will help them.

HIV tests and disease prevention

[What should the government do about health?] In Maasailand in general: first we should find a way to prevent diseases instead of treating them. Preventing means that there should be hospitals nearby… When people fall sick there are no roads so the chances of people surviving are minimal. So first they should provide health facilities with free medicine…

Recently I was in the hospital. I was told that approximately 77% of people in Oloitokitok have AIDS… [But people] are not afraid these days, they go [for HIV tests]…antiretroviral drugs (combination drug treatment) have changed the life of Oloitokitok. People who looked like they were going to die tomorrow, today are running their businesses.

There is [no stigmatisation] that I have seen; we know that they are our brothers and sisters, our children… We live together, eat together, we are happy together. The thing is that when people know that this is an infected person they avoid sexual interaction…

[Hospital outreach workers] try very hard, we give them credit for that… Sometimes we call them to the churches, they come to teach the Christians and give them seminars, so really they try. Also they are prompt, when you call them, they come. They come with videos…

Looking after orphans

It is very dangerous because there is a culture among the Maasai that can spread this disease (HIV and AIDS): a culture and certain dynamics… For example, free sex… From 12 years old Maasai girls are free to have sex with the Moran (Maasai warriors)…

Apart from free sex, there is commercial sex here. The young Maasai men come to town to indulge in that practice and then go home and take disease back there… It is the young people [who die], it is many of them that we are burying…

Eighty percent of the Maasai are polygamous… You know now, when one member of the family brings [the infection], just one wife in the family, then that will wipe out that entire family. And there are families here to whom that has happened, and the clan or the immediate relatives take care of the orphans. It is not often that you see orphans roaming around here. They are taken care of. They are hidden and taken care of…

I lost my daughter [to AIDS] and that touched me a lot… She went and got married somewhere else, she became friends with a man from Western province…they had a child… My daughter died in Nairobi, we went and fetched her and buried her. So I have been personally affected. I know… I have her child now, she is doing Standard 8 (final year of primary school) this year…

Taking the best from culture
Polygamy is another hard matter to address. We are teaching about the dangers [of HIV infection] – you know no one likes dying. So we tell them that this is one danger, and also that the church does not approve of polygamy. Even when they come to church we accommodate them, because it is not we who will save them, it is God… We leave that to God. So when they come to the church we discourage them from marrying another wife…

Little by little [the Maasai] do not like marrying many wives. Especially those who are educated… You know life now is also about money; jobs are also a problem. But another problem is those who are illiterate – the parents – the ones who believe in the culture of polygamy, which they pass on through…arranged marriages… So the boy marries two women, not because he wants to, but because his parents want this… But the ones who are used to speaking their minds do not marry [in this way], they do not like it…

I was not a Moran…but I am not an outcast in my society… [The value of being a Moran] is short-lived and it has prevented people from learning… I am one of the ones that went to school, by a miracle…

I am thankful for my life; I have been able to choose, to take what is good from the Maasai culture and continue with it; what is bad I have left behind… Cultural practices that have no meaning, you do away with.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.


Elias: cultural change is produced as part 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