The Maasai people of Kenya have long considered public education as a trick designed to rob them of their culture. Now many see the schools as a key to survival – and as a way to change some aspects of their culture that need changing.
From Afghanistan to Arizona, schools are at the center of nearly every struggle over cultural identity. Governments use schools to instill common values, to prepare young people to contribute economically, to create citizens. Minority groups often see them as machines designed to strip their people of their language, their traditions, their beliefs.
Until recently, that was the prevailing view among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai (numbering about 400,000) are traditionally cattle herders who follow their animals on seasonal migrations. They are proud of their warriors, or ilmuran, and fiercely defensive of their independence. When the British ruled East Africa, the Maasai used passive resistance to ensure that their culture remained intact – refusing to take up agriculture, to settle in towns, or to send their children to school.
Now the Maasai are finding that passive resistance isn’t enough. Agriculture and urbanization have eaten up much of their grazing land. Communications and roads have exposed young Maasai to the temptations and opportunities of the outside world. Many are now questioning traditional practices such as polygamy, early marriage, and female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM).
Some Maasai worry that change is coming too fast. “The foundation of our culture is respect and unity,” says Oloiboni Ole Pareiyo, a 65-year-old herder. “What is happening with modernity is that it is undermining the very principle on which the culture is founded.”
Others disagree. They say the only way to survive as a people is to adapt to changing realities. Education, they argue, need not be seen as a surrender to mainstream culture, but rather as a way to fix those aspects of their own culture that need fixing – particularly in the treatment of women and girls. In the end, they say, their culture will be stronger.
Minority groups in many parts of the world have tried to reconcile these sorts of differences by establishing “bicultural” models of education, where modern skills are taught alongside traditional concepts and practices. The idea is not to force young people to choose between two systems, but rather to help them see that western-style modernity and tradition can coexist – and even reinforce one another.
Koitamet Olekina, executive director of the nonprofit Maasai Education Discovery, says his organization hopes to bring elders into the schools and incorporate cultural teachings into the public school curriculum (an idea that the government, concerned about divisions between the country’s 40 ethnic groups, has resisted). He is also pushing for flexibility in the school calendar, to respect the rhythms of the herding life. But staying away from school, he says, is not an option. The only way the Maasai can defend their interests is if they can find ways to succeed economically and politically. That means mastering modern skills.
For Kenya, emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, modern education is a top priority. In 2003, incoming President Mwai Kibaki made primary education compulsory and free. Despite a range of problems (including teacher shortages and a lack of classroom space), that year saw a significant jump in the number of Maasai students attending rural schools.
But primary education is only part of the picture, particularly when it comes to preparing students for a modernizing economy. Secondary schools (many of them residential) are still too costly and too distant for most Maasai families. When children are away at school, they cannot help with herding or other daily responsibilities. And for many parents, sending a daughter to secondary school is considered a poor investment, given that she will live with her husband’s kin once she is married. As a result, the number of Maasais with secondary school or college diplomas is still very small.
Maasai journalist Michael Ole Tiampati is a great believer in education. He left his village for one of Kenya’s most competitive high schools, and has traveled and worked in America and Europe. Yet he also takes part in traditional age-group ceremonies and says becoming a respected elder is a major life goal. Rather than see education as a threat, he says, the Maasai have to see it as way to move the culture forward. But he acknowledges the danger.
“Enlightenment, not bombardment is what we need,” he says. “The Maasai need knowledge to manage the situation that is facing us. We know in the back of our minds that there is no escape. The noose is tightening.”
– Jonathan Miller