Vital lessons from pastoralists

James Shikwati

Elang’ta-wuas boasts of a unique East African community spirit.

Deep in the sinuses of Kajiado, this tiny trading centre seats as if at the bottom of a soup bowl, surrounded by hills on all sides.

It is here that I met a young Masaai gentleman who has covered over 1,000 kilometres on foot in both Kenya and Tanzania, in search for pasture for his cattle.

Elang’ata-wuas popularly referred to as “Mile 46” is a sleepy trading centre that wakes up only on Saturday market day.

It brings together all Maasai communities from East Africa; one can mistake them for students in uniform – because all people turn up clad in the traditional Maasai red and blue shukas.

“Can you imagine I had over 670 heads of cattle, but now I have less than 24…” my good friend points out.

Before I come up with my empathetic words, his colleagues interrupt, “Where is it raining now?” they ask. He looks up the horizon, pauses and then says “It is now raining heavily on the tarmac near Isinya.” He looks up another direction… “It must be drizzling in Ngong.”

Curious, I seek to find out how he is able to triangulate to near accuracy where it is raining. I gather that herding cattle hundreds of miles across Kenya and Tanzania somehow enables one to develop some kind of mental “Google Map.”

The Maasai knowledge is very similar to what ancient sailors did exploiting knowledge of Monsoon winds to sail across East African coasts.

As we continue to sip our warm drinks under a tree, rain drops pushed over by the wind from the hillside hit us.

Whereas I expect everyone to dash for cover Nairobi style; I see happy faces and no movement.

“You have brought rain, you must keep visiting!” they say. And sure enough, as if in celebration, we stay put, and do not feel any wetness, but joy.

The sharp rain detection skills exhibited by my friend and his ability to triangulate through the wilderness to get pasture for his cattle are amazing.

What type of school system can turn such a person into an economically competitive member of society?

Clearly, the Maasai and by extension other Kenyan/African communities do not necessarily require an education to turn them into civil servants and or employees of multi national corporations.

We need an education that can respond to and leverage on our indigenous economies to make them globally competitive.

The challenges facing the Maasai are not only water and pasture, but how to integrate their system into the global one.

For example, the Maasai traditionally save in cattle, the global system saves in banks and other financial institutions.

The Maasai have a “photographic memory,” the global system surrendered this chores to technology – one has to simply retrieve records.

The Maasai has to rely on the rains – nature – to power his economy; the global economy is driven by human ingenuity.

Ancient sailors were freed from reliance on Monsoon winds by technology to engine powered ships that sail all seasons all directions.

We cannot realise the dream of African-mind powered economies if we simply replace rains for donors.

Our African leaders look up the horizon and see “aid clouds” from China, European Union, US and the Arab world among others.

In so doing, they ignore the power of promoting a culture of innovation and human ingenuity.

Suppose we designed a system that can make the Maasai learn in 30 minutes what it takes him/her to grasp after a 1,000km trek; what would be the outcome? Maasai ranches.

Shikwati is director, Inter Region Economic [email protected]