Bonus Tracks

Listen hereHerder Oloiboni Ole Pareiyo worries that the Maasais' world is changing too fast. (:39)

Listen hereAgnes Pareyio, who campaigns against female circumcision (also known as
female genital mutilation, or FGM), says there is much to celebrate in Maasai
culture, but also much that needs to change. (1:35)

Listen hereMaasai activist Koitamet Olekina on the meaning of education (:19)

Listen hereMaasai children from Enoomparbali Primary School sing a traditional song. (:59)


Maasai Schools
Producer: Jon Miller

listen here    Listen to the Morning Edition story (7:10)

listen here    Listen to a longer version (8:52)

Eighth graders listen to a lecture on African history at Nturumeeti Primary School, Narok District, Kenya.

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, to send their children to school.

Now the Maasai are finding that 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).

An elder places grass in the garments of a 15-year-old bride as the groom, 18, looks on. Young brides rarely stay in school. In Kenya, girls who marry before age 20 are three times more likely to be victims of abuse than girls who marry later.

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.

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 NGO 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.

Sarah Parakuo, 17, ran away from home when her father tried to marry her off. She now attends St. Mary's secondary school in the town of Narok. She wants to be a nurse and return to help her community.

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."


Maasai Education Discovery

Cultural Survival Quarterly (look for special issue on indigenous education)

Aang Serian (NGO supporting Maasai in Tanzania)




Center for Public Broadcasting   Rockefeller Foundation  National Public Radio   Polson Institute   University of Arizona Department of Journalism