NAJILE, Kenya – A goat project among Kenya’s Maasai people is giving birth to more than baby goats. It’s powering to life a cooperative group ethic that is helping 2,000 Maasai families cope with cultural change and ecological challenges.
The Maasai, traditionally pastoralists, have struggled for years to redefine themselves in light of reduced grazing land, pressure to abandon their nomadic way of life and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. The Maasai warrior, able to fend off lions menacing his herd, long the centerpiece of Kenyan cultural pride, is a fading icon.
The Kenya government has been encouraging the tribe to take up crop agriculture. In 2008, it granted farmland in the Osupuko highlands outside of Nairobi to 200 Maasai families. Most knew little about farming. Worse, they moved onto the land during a three-year drought, which made farming impossible and killed almost 80 percent of the community’s livestock, its major asset.
The Kajiado Goat Restocking Project, funded by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), is helping them to replenish their livestock, to learn to farm and especially, to live in a community.
Living communally raises problems the Maasai didn’t have to face when their lifestyle was nomadic. The goats, provided to project participants, are incentive to encourage working together for the benefit of their communities.
MCC partner organizations, Maasai Food Security and Development Program and Maasai Integrated Development Initiatives, began the goat project by training more than 60 groups in agriculture, livestock rearing, water harvesting, hay baling and income generation.
Before group members could receive the goats, the partners required them to plan and implement their own activities, such as repairing community roads or caring for group farms. After the projects were complete, each member was eligible to receive up to five goats.
The group helps to pay for the goats, using a graduated fee system. By the end of the restocking project, group leaders will assume procurement responsibilities, independent of outside help.
One of the first groups to become eligible for goats was Osupuko Matonyok Organization (OMO), which began as a CFGB food-for-work group in 2009 in the midst of the drought. (Matonyok is a Maasai word meaning “let’s work hard.”) The 120 families, who live in the Osupuko highlands, continued to work together after the food-for-work effort ended.
Having already tilled one another’s land and built community pit latrines, each member now has received two female goats, many of which have since produced kids. The Maasai value goats because they reproduce quickly, are easily sold, handle drought much better than do cattle and provide milk for the family.
OMO members have agreed they will not sell their goats right away. “We hope that by next year each goat will have given birth twice, providing milk to consume and sell. We also want to paddock our fields so that the goats have grass to eat throughout the year. We want to see the goats we’ve received multiply,” said OMO chairman John Mutua.
Beyond celebrating their new goats, OMO members are seeing other benefits of the group effort. Through the training provided by MCC’s partners, members learned skills to grow crops and then helped each other on their farms, which increased the production of maize.
The group also helped individual members, including Simion Olooldapash. After Olooldapash fell from a motorcycle and seriously injured his leg, his working group within OMO covered his hospital bill, collected money to help his wife start a small, vegetable-selling business and even pitched in on his farm.
“I was hurt during the planting season, but the group came and planted for me an acre of maize and beans. My group has become like a family to me; it helped me in every step of farming, planting, weeding, and now harvesting,” Olooldapash said.
The goat restocking program, with its incentive to collective action, galvanized another group to take on a project of long-term import in the Saikeri area. Named Dupoto – “lifting ourselves up from our problems” – the group got a primary school up and running.
The community school had fallen into disrepair after the government built it but failed to staff it. Dupoto members decided that, instead of waiting for the government, they would ready the school: fencing the compound, repairing the leaky roof, adding another classroom. The group paid for construction materials, and members donated their own labor for basic repairs and hired a skilled carpenter to supervise the construction. Once the larger community saw the group’s efforts, others chipped in time and money.
When the school was ready and the government remained unable to provide or fund a teacher, a qualified member of Dupoto volunteered his time. Later, the group called parents together and asked them to contribute enough to provide a small salary for the teacher.
Throughout the region, other groups are also acting. Reuben Pareyio, restocking project manager for Maasai Food Security and Development Program, is seeing many groups implement similar projects.
“In the community now, some people who are not in the groups have seen these self-help groups and they have been motivated,” Pareyio said. “Group members also have seen that there is power in the group, a lot of strength, so when many people come together many things can be done.”
Matthew Kistler of New Tripoli, Pa. serves as food security coordinator for MCC work in Kenya.