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