Cattle, Culture and Sustainability: The View from the Ground

May 20th, 2018 | By | Category: Food and Hunger/Agriculture

By Karen Gaia Pitts, Transition Earth.

Young Masai herder. [Photo: Andreas Lederer, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

Young Masai herder. [Photo: Andreas Lederer, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

Cattle are of critical importance to the Maasai people of East Africa and are the primary source of income.

The Maasai rely on their land and above all their cattle for their livelihoods, and do so while facing many challenges.

The Maasai Harmonial Development and Sustainability (MHDS) project is a community-based organization that works with the Emburbul Community in the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. One of the organization’s goals is self-sufficient sustainability, especially with cattle.

Currently, the local Emburbul cattle business is on the low end of sustainability, given the poverty facing the majority of Emburbul’s residents, who are just trying to survive and meet their basic needs. Of issue is that one person in the area owns most of the cattle, which does not benefit the rest of the residents. This person’s cattle consumes water and grass from the same source as the poor people’s cattle. This is a problem, given that the quantity of water and grassland is often not enough to meet everyone’s needs.

In 2008, a volcano spewed out ash that covered the ground and destroyed the grasses, killing the cows. Many families in Emburbul lost their cattle and still have not recovered from this disaster.

These two situations alone are enough to set a Maasai man’s mind into a fatalist mode. It might explain why the men refuse to sell a few of their cows in order to purchase a bull of a breed that would be more suited for the area, as well as why they don’t invest in worming medicine for the cows.

In the past several months, a difficult dry season hit the Emburbul Depression, drying the grassland, and goats started dying from lack of water. The cattle fared a little better, but definitely showed the effects of low water intake.

Cattle upstream from the water supply poop in the water, leaving it contaminated. Even if water filters were available, having large amounts of material in the water makes filtering several times more difficult. Water-borne disease is a common threat to people, especially children. Water is boiled for infants, who are often weaned at only three months because mothers are malnourished and are spacing their children too close together.

Building watering troughs for all the cattle (including those of the rich cattle owner) will go a long way towards solving this problem.

Scrawny cow [Photo: Karen Gaia Pitts]

Scrawny cow [Photo: Karen Gaia Pitts]

In addition, there are a great many invasive plants in the grasslands, which the cattle will not eat. An intensive invasive plant eradication program is needed in Emburbul.

At some point, a cow tick dip station was built for the cattle, but the concrete was not sufficient and the bottom of the dip trough was destroyed the first day someone walked on it. A new dip station is on the list of things we need funding for.

Livestock, including cattle, bring another problem. One of the girls we sent to boarding school was sick due to eating unboiled meat. Unfortunately it is common for livestock of pastoral people to be infected with bacteria, which can damage organs. Treatment is usually a course of antibiotics. Many villagers are often affected.

A major concern is that, when the water is diverted for the cattle, women have to walk four miles each way to and from the water source. This takes time away from their children and household duties. It may also interfere with their ability to have a livelihood, such as beading or raising livestock. And it may also impede the ability of girls to attend school, as they are often needed by their mothers to haul water. Improvements to the water system and conservation of water at the village end will go a long way towards eliminating this eight mile trek each day.


Pastoral Women's Council meeting [Photo:]

Pastoral Women’s Council meeting [Photo:]

The local Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) has a program where the women have their own cattle-raising boma (small village). We are thinking of sending a group of women to PWC for business and livestock training. Raising goats or chickens are an option for the women, if they can get enough water for these animals.

Cattle are so important to the Maasai that they are used to pay a bride price so that a man can get married. If a man does not have enough cattle, he or his parents may want to marry off his sister to receive the bride price. This is one of the things that puts girls as young as age 12 at risk of early marriage. If a man cannot raise the bride price, he may be tempted to leave the village and move to the city in order to find a job.

These problems having to do with the cattle business must be addressed in order to achieve sustainability, women’s empowerment, and smaller families.

Karen Gaia Pitts has been working with Maasai Harmonial Development and Sustainability for several years.  She is the program director of Maasai Harmonial Development and Sustainability-U.S., now part of Transition Earth.  This article is from December 2016 and was originally posted at


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