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The Maasai tribe goes mobile

by on July 24, 2010

When I traveled to Tanzania in 2007, I had the privilege to meet and learn more about the Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe that has become one of the more recognizable local tribes because of their close association with tourists’ African safari experiences. Although they are not a large group with an estimated population of around one million in Kenya and northern Tanzania, the tribe’s popularity has been fueled by their distinctive clothing and customs, one of which includes their young men hunting lions as a sign of bravery and rite of passage to become a Maasai warrior. The Maasai tribesmen have cut back on hunting lions and a number of them have gone on to pursue more mainstream careers (it just so happened that my Mt Kilimanjaro and safari guides were both Maasai), however most of them have stayed true to their tribal traditions and make their living from raising cattle.

The Maasai tribal life revolves around their cattle, and this is reflected in aspects of their rich tradition that has been passed down for generations. Tepilit ole Saitoti, a famous Maasai writer once said “Without the land and cattle, there will be no Maasai.” Their cattle-herding tradition permeates through different aspects of the Maasai lifestyle and social status. For example, the tribe measures a man’s wealth not by money or material possession but by the size of his cattle. For this paternalistic group, the size of the cattle also determines how many wives a man can have since he’ll need help taking care of a large herd (it is not uncommon for a fairly prosperous Maasai herder to have two to three wives). Even hunting lions, especially back in the days when they were more prevalent in Africa, was a way to protect the Maasai warrior’s grazing cattle and protect his family’s main source of food.  The cattle’s milk and blood (drawn from the neck and patched up for the animal to recover) are the main source of protein for a traditional Maasai family to this day.

As mobile devices become more commonplace in Kenya—there are almost 20 million cell phone subscribers in the country, which translates to almost  50% market penetration—it was only a matter of time that the technology reaches the tradition Maasai people, even those in the most remote locations. Mobile technology has actually proven to be very beneficial for the traditional tribe. The Kenyan government is leveraging mobile devices to help the Maasai cope with one of Kenya’s worst drought in history that has threatened their ability to graze and water their cattle. With the help of mobile devices and information shared by researchers, herders can find out where to bring their cattle instead of roaming for hundreds of miles in search water and pasture.

For those who live in more remote areas, the Maasai recharge their phones using solar panels provided by the government or diesel generators.  Besides getting information about grazing lands and watering holes, the Maasai also use their phones to trade and find the best deals when selling or trading cattle. They also use the phones to contact doctors or get medical help, which are not readily available in their remote villages.

Because of the ubiquity of mobile phones and the remoteness of some of the Maasai villages, the tribe has also started using mobile phone-based money transfers through a Safaricom service called M-Pesa.  This has helped the Maasai, who often live miles away from banks and are usually on long grazing trips with their cattle. To take it to another level, mobile banking has been introduced through a new service called M-Kesho, which allows Kenyans to use SMS to manage their money, transfer money to their M-Pesa accounts, pay bills and even open micro-credits.

I think this is only the beginning for how the Maasai can use mobile phones.

The government and conservation organization should encourage the Maasai to help track and avoid wildlife by using systems such as the Wild Life Tracker online. These systems can notify subscribers, such as the Maasai herders, via their mobile phones when a predator is seen in their area. This will help conservationists who are trying to work with the Maasai to limit the number of lion killings, which has increased as the tribe retaliates when the big cats prey on their cattle, especially as the drought has shrunk their source of wild food and everyone’s water source.

As more Maasai tribe members get connected via mobile phones, it is not hard to imagine them embracing other applications. For example, the Maasai would benefit from a mobile Twitter service to notify them about safari sightings of predators and weather reports. Perhaps a mobile applications that provides e-Bay-like services would help the Maasai trade, sell and buy cattle more efficiently, finding the best deal across remote villages without leaving their homes. A mobile-based Facebook-like site, something like the newly launched  Africa-based Whive social networking site, would help the Maasai connect with other tribe members in Kenya, Tanzania and around the world and strengthen their sense of community and tradition in an increasingly globalized world.

For the same price as a goat, mobile phones are becoming an affordable way for Maasai tribe members to take advantage of modern day technologies without losing their wonderful, rich traditions.

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From → Kenya

52 Comments
  1. Very informative post, Roela! How awesome that you got to see firsthand the Maasai tribe! I am still in awe of seeing pictures/videos of these rural farmers on their mobile phones, and it’s amazing how much the technology is benefiting their lives. Through my online research, I came across the M-Pesa system of transferring money via cell phones, which has had a tremendous impact on Kenyans. Fascinating stuff!!

    • Thanks, Liz. I thought it was pretty impressive how the Maasai have kept their traditional way of living while leveraging new technology.

  2. Sheri D. permalink

    Roela – loved this post. It’s so interesting to see the juxtaposition of traditional tribes and modern day technology. I liked your suggestion of getting the government involved in some way to help protect wildlife… and strongly agree with your statement of making sure that they don’t lose their sense of tradition in the process of all of this.

    My post is on a similar topic but focused on the opposite spectrum of tribes… corporations and businesses.

    • Thanks, Sheri. I thought the photos of tribesmen using cell phones were pretty striking too. Did you see the YouTube video? I was impressed with how well the gentleman spoke English.

      I like your insights about Safaricom… do you think they just rushed just to say they’re on the social media bandwagon without really embracing the full customer service/relationships nature of the new Web 2.0 channels?

      • Sheri D. permalink

        They definitely rushed it. I strongly believe that the individual/corporation/whoever really needs to understand WHY social media is there and HOW they can use it to their greatest advantage, rather than jumping the bandwagon…blindly.

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