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Growing up Maasai and the art of healing the Earth

The world is crafting a plan to save nature. Will Indigenous people get a say?

David Nina, a Maasai pastoralist, walks with his cattle in Kajiado County, Kenya, in April 2020.
Khalil Senosi/AP
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

For some Indigenous Maasai tribes in Kenya, birdwatching is not so much a leisure activity as it is a survival tactic. The sight of an oxpecker, a gray and white bird with vivid yellow eyes, often indicates that dangerous water buffalos roam nearby. Meanwhile, the brown flash of a honeyguide bird might be the ticket to a calorie-dense meal — these birds can literally guide humans to honey.

The honeyguides and oxpeckers of the world illustrate a key tenet of Indigenous knowledge, according to Kimaren ole Riamit, a member of the Maasai community in Kenya. “Nature takes care of us when we take care of it,” said ole Riamit, who has on several occasions followed honeyguides to beehives.

Lessons like this are essential as the world faces a crisis of wildlife extinction and climate change. Yet Indigenous knowledge and those who wield it are often an afterthought in major efforts to protect nature, from the Paris Agreement to a big UN treaty on biodiversity loss.

Kimaren ole Riamit, an Indigenous leader from Kenya’s Maasai community.
Courtesy of Kimaren ole Riamit

Ole Riamit, the executive director of a nonprofit called Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners, is among the Indigenous leaders pushing to elevate voices like his in these initiatives. He sees himself as a bridge between the Maasai world — an Indigenous world, rooted in nature — and the Western approach to conservation, which has a history of subjugating tribes in Kenya, the US, and elsewhere.

He told Vox about growing up in a Maasai community and how the lessons he learned can make wildlife conservation stronger and more equitable. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A culture of protecting nature

Benji Jones

What was it like growing up in a Maasai community, and what does your Maasai identity mean to you?

Kimaren ole Riamit

I grew up as a cattle boy, as a herds boy. But I was one of the very few who had the privilege of going to boarding school outside of the community, about 100 kilometers away.

Every time I had a break at school, I was herding cattle. I learned which pasture is healthy; which one is poisonous; which one helps cows produce more milk; which one is medicinal. So one of my identities is being connected to the landscape — the savanna pasture land of East Africa.

I learned about the different trees and species. I learned which roots are good for food, which fruit is healthy, and when they flower and when they fruit. One of my very strong identities is the Indigenous identity, as people of the land and people of the cattle.

The Maasai are a pastoralist Indigenous group in East Africa. Here, members herd cows in Amboseli, Kenya.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Benji Jones

When I think of these landscapes, I think, perhaps naively, of the iconic animals like giraffes and elephants and lions that live there. Did you have a relationship with these animals growing up?

Kimaren ole Riamit

Yes, and I continue to have a relationship with them. I grew up with elephants, buffaloes, lions, cheetahs, and leopards.

I have a brother who lost an eye because he had an encounter with a leopard, which came to steal the goats at night. I was chased by an elephant — I walked right into it in the forest. But I’m here to tell the story. I have a brother whose knee is dislocated because a hyena came into the sheep pen and tried to steal a goat. You are trained to be tough, to withstand pain, to protect the community and the livestock at whatever cost.

You need to ask the question: Why is there wildlife here and not in other communities? We have 42 ethnic groups in the country. But the highest density of wildlife is found in these pastoral areas, particularly in Maasailand. For us, it’s difficult to separate culture from nature. Nature is reflected in our culture through rites of passage — through naming ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies, graduation ceremonies when you go from a junior to a senior warrior.

There are also animals that reflect clans. You have a clan of the baboon, a clan of the elephant, and a clan of the rhino. How would you kill your clans-mate, the wildlife? There are also taboos and rules about interacting with nature that make sure we use it sustainably.

Benji Jones

What are some of those taboos?

Kimaren ole Riamit

One of them is that if you have a lactating cow — a cow that gives milk — it’s taboo to eat game meat, to eat wildlife. You cannot pride yourself on eating game meat. The girls will run away from you. You’re not a respected warrior. Why go kill an antelope when you have an animal in the shed?

The same goes for harvesting natural products like herbal trees and medicinal plants. If the active ingredient of an herbal plant is in its roots, you are not allowed to harvest the taproot — the root that goes all the way down. You get the lateral root. And you can’t keep taking roots from one plant until it dies; you move on to the next one.

If the active ingredient is in the bark of the tree, you don’t cut a ring out of the bark, because that would suffocate the tree. You create a vertical slit, and you don’t leave it naked — you cover it with soil.

The abundance of wildlife speaks to the efficiency of these rules.

Benji Jones

How did you learn all of this?

Kimaren ole Riamit

The landscape itself is a library of knowledge. As a young boy or girl, when you’re helping your mother fetch water or taking care of the sick, you are told what each plant is for, which ones are poisonous, and what they’re called. When this plant flowers, the rain is around the corner. Indigenous weather forecasting is associated with the behavior of plants and animals. You are in school every day, every moment.

A leopard in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Benji Jones

You have a brother who was injured by a leopard. Does that kind of encounter create tension with wildlife?

Kimaren ole Riamit

Yes. When a lion, for example, becomes problematic and develops a taste for cattle meat instead of wild buffalo or eland, the community can organize to kill it. But it’s not a reason to kill all of the lions. When you’re attacked, you try to protect yourself with your traditional spear. You don’t surrender yourself as a snack to the lion. But in general, wild animals have learned to respect our space, and we have learned to respect their space.

Benji Jones

Have you had any experiences that demonstrate how dependent we are on wildlife and ecosystems?

Kimaren ole Riamit

You learn that nature communicates. We learned that the honeyguide bird guides us to honey. They actually make a sound to tell you that they’ve seen a hive. If you know how to respond and follow them, they will take you to it.

An illustration of a greater honeyguide, a bird known to guide Indigenous people to beehives.
Brown Bear/Windmill Books/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The bird will look for humans in the landscape close to where the honey is, and then it comes and chirps. Over the years, Indigenous communities have learned the language and how to respond.

When you try to harvest the hive, the bees try to finish the honey. They overfeed and become engorged, so they can’t fly. Then the honeyguide feeds on the overfed bees, which can’t sting.

Bridging two worlds

Benji Jones

You’re working now to bring Indigenous knowledge to the fight against climate change and wildlife extinction. What are some examples of that knowledge?

Kimaren ole Riamit

I am privileged to belong to two worlds. I belong to the Indigenous world but I also received a formal Western education.

One lesson from the Indigenous community is that you take from nature only what you need. You don’t overstock your fridge just to throw food in the dustbin.

Another lesson is that nature takes care of us when we take care of it. We have a forest in our community that gives water to the only river that crosses the Maasai Mara [National Reserve]. Our elders set the forest aside because it’s a lifeline — of the people, of wildlife, of the livestock.

Benji Jones

The modern conservation movement is rooted in Western ways of knowing. When did you decide you wanted to be a part of that?

Kimaren ole Riamit

I grew up in a thriving landscape, rich in biodiversity, and I was always connected to the land. When I was going to school as a young boy, I’d cross this stream every morning and arrive dripping wet. Water was always abundant.

Then I started noticing things change. I saw that some birds were no more, such as the oxpecker. I can’t remember the last time I heard of a honeyguide. This river that used to flood has been reduced to a stream that a toddler can cross, barely wetting his feet. I saw that the landscape is almost crying.

Red-billed oxpeckers on a cape buffalo in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Sergio Pitamitz / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I started questioning what is happening and became aware of climate change. Even the community itself started noticing and saying dry months have stolen water from wet months, and they are not giving the water back. The Indigenous knowledge systems of weather forecasting became disrupted, and our livelihoods are ordered around the weather.

Benji Jones

A lot of us feel so disconnected from nature, and we are — we get our food from a grocery store, our homes are air-conditioned, and so on. It’s clear that your lives are much more directly dependent on the land.

Kimaren ole Riamit

One message we take to the world is that climate change is not a theoretical debate for us. We are on the front lines of the negative impacts of climate change. We see the water disappear.

One of the characteristics of the savannas and the rangelands of pastoral communities is that water is scarce. But if you add climate change to that scarcity, you have a severe situation.

We just recently had a drought in Kenya. We went for three or four months without rain. Many people’s herds collapsed and died, and building a herd is an intergenerational affair.

So for us, climate change is so real.

Benji Jones

You went to grad school in Canada. What was it like to learn about wildlife issues or climate change from textbooks and Western professors?

Kimaren ole Riamit

It was strange. It felt distant and alien. One of the things that I struggled with is that every study must begin with a theoretical framework. You must think from where somebody else started thinking, and continue from there. But I’m used to observing, I’m used to experiencing things firsthand.

I also questioned how conservation was enacted. First came “fortress” conservation, where Indigenous people were pushed out of the land [in the name of protecting wildlife]. The assumption then was that people hate wildlife and are destructive to wildlife.

As we struggled with fortress conservation, a new model emerged called community-based conservation. Community-based conservation is what Indigenous communities have been doing for eons. Wildlife is there because communities are living there with it.

Then when you introduce a so-called investor into these conservation efforts, who might build a tourist lodge and has instruments of power — privileged knowledge of the market and privileged connections to state organizations. The investor ends up being the conservator, not the community. So while community-based conservation is suddenly a big movement toward appreciating what communities have done and continue to do, a lot of work is still needed to create mutually respectful partnerships.

‘Death by recognition’

Benji Jones

How was Indigenous knowledge perceived when you were learning about conservation?

Kimaren ole Riamit

Indigenous knowledge was perceived as inferior knowledge. It was perceived as nonrigorous knowledge because it’s nonscientific — because it’s not documented. Never mind that scientific books are written by interviewing and researching in the field and getting knowledge from these communities, and so on. And when those books are written, this knowledge is privatized.

While Kenya is certainly progressing, the institution in charge of Indigenous knowledge is the national museums. There’s an idea that this knowledge should be preserved in the archives. It’s not active knowledge. It’s something to be gazed at, to be frozen in time.

The 15th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty under the UN, is set to convene later this year in Kunming, China.
Yang Zheng/VCG via Getty Images

Benji Jones

When you look at the major efforts to protect nature today — I’m thinking about the UN Paris Agreement or the new global effort to protect 30 percent of all land and water by 2030 — what role do Indigenous communities play in shaping these initiatives?

Kimaren ole Riamit

When you look at the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement, Indigenous people have managed to put placeholders in these decisions. For example, there’s recognition [in these initiatives] that Indigenous knowledge should inform climate change adaptation and mitigation. We have put in a placeholder that says Indigenous knowledge is grounded in collective land tenure.

But these placeholders are just text that speaks to these issues. They mean nothing if they’re not cascading down and translated into action.

Benji Jones

So, these international climate and biodiversity treaties mention Indigenous people and land tenure — meaning, the right to land — but that’s not the same as action on the ground.

Kimaren ole Riamit

Exactly. Sometimes I call this “death by recognition.” The reality of the matter is that Indigenous people are not saying, “Write about us on paper.” They’re saying, “Address our human rights, give Indigenous knowledge space in planning and development, and allow us to sit at the decision-making table.”

They are saying, “Put resources in our hands because we are aware of the issue; we understand where it hurts. We can direct these resources to strategic actions now.”

Benji Jones

Right now there is a lot of money flowing into climate initiatives and into biodiversity efforts as well. Is that making its way into Indigenous communities?

Kimaren ole Riamit

One of the challenges for Indigenous people is access to resources. Most of the resources come indirectly — it’s a very layered process and each layer takes a chunk of those resources. Very little arrives in the hands of our communities.

And much of the money comes by way of small grants. Why small? There is this notion that Indigenous people have no capacity to manage big grants. How would they grow to manage big grants if they can’t flex their muscles to manage big grants like everybody else?

The Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Funds for climate change also often target specific landscapes like the Amazon or Congo Basin. These are not the only landscapes sequestering carbon. What about savanna woodlands? Savanna woodlands here sequester the most carbon.

Benji Jones

What would you do with endless resources for conservation?

Kimaren ole Riamit

For pastoral communities, a big issue is access to water, which determines whether cattle can use a certain pasture. So I would strengthen the community’s access to water.

When you look at the issue of drought and dying herds, one way to help is by securing land tenure. It’s a technical process that requires cartographers and maps and other kinds of resources. Land tenure affects how Indigenous communities adapt to climate change and use the land.

We have learned that the State only understands the language of paper — it doesn’t communicate by spoken words, orally. Maybe we have talked too much about our Indigenous knowledge without documenting it. So we should document this knowledge and practices that are relevant to conservation, relevant to sustainable use, and relevant to climate resilience.

Benji Jones

What would it mean to you to bridge the gap between the Indigenous and Western worlds? What is your vision for conservation?

Kimaren ole Riamit

I recognize the constraints of a crowded planet that needs to feed its growing population. But I also think we can develop integrated visions for how we relate to nature. The world will be a better place if multiple knowledge systems speak to each other, if they inform each other. We need space for mutual respect, for hearing each other out without prejudice, for not privileging some knowledge systems over others.