Beyond what tourists see, a rich Maasai culture with many challenges

Guardians of the greater Serengeti’s landscape embrace traditions, but also have modern concerns such as poaching, education, and clean water.

As a teen, Jeremiah Cheruiyot Maritim killed animals to eat and to sell as bushmeat. Now a park ranger, he patrols the Serengeti along the Kenya-Tanzania border to catch poachers who target wildebeests and other animals migrating through the area. Poachers set traps or sometimes drive animals into gullies and kill them with spears.

This is one of five stories that explore the greater Serengeti region and its ecosystem. Read the rest of those stories here.

Several ethnic groups inhabit the Serengeti ecosystem, but none is more associated with this landscape than the Maasai, the fierce, cattle-herding people who’ve lived in parts of Kenya and Tanzania since migrating from the lower Nile Valley during the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the years, safari operators have brought foreign tourists to showcase Maasai villages, where the people turn out in their colorful cloaks, the olkarasha, and pose for pictures holding traditional spears and performing the adumu, their famous jumping dance.

The Maasai are proud of these traditions and have shrewdly capitalized on the interest in them, but they also point out that what the tourists see represents a narrow aspect of their culture, one that bears little resemblance to their everyday concerns—schooling for their children, clean water for their communities and animals, political issues affecting their use of the land, among others.

As part of his coverage of the Serengeti ecosystem, photographer Charlie Hamilton James traveled throughout the region seeking to understand different facets of Maasai life, and portray the mix of traditional and modern that represents their day-to-day experiences. 

Along the way he encountered Maasai serving in a wide range of roles—wildlife rangers patrolling for poachers, teachers training new safari guides, community leaders managing health-care issues, and herders continuing the age-old practice of protecting their cattle and moving them to fresh pasture.

“To be Maasai is to live in this land,” said Aloyce Mollel, a senior member of Irkeepusi, a Maasai community situated near the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. “The people, the animals, and the land are together. We will always be here.”

This story appears in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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