NAROK, KENYA — The sky is pink turning to red and purple as 77-year-old Takaita Kariankei brings 50 head of cattle home for the night in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley.
Kariankei is a Maasai, a member of what’s perhaps the African cultural group most recognizable to Westerners. The Maasai are best known to outsiders for their brightly colored clothes and elaborate beaded jewellery, set against the backdrop of the African Savannah.
But ask a Maasai himself, and he’ll say his culture is all about cattle.
“A cow offers us meat, milk and blood,” Takaita said. “We treasure cows so much. We don’t take care of anything as well as we take care of our cattle.”
For Maasai men, cows also equal wealth and prestige. And despite the tranquility of this evening on the savannah, Kariankei is upset because half of his cattle are stranded on the other side of a flooded river more than 40 miles away from his watchful eye.
“The cows were just stuck there,” said Takaita’s nephew, Johana Kariankei, a 21-year-old marathon runner. “We didn’t expect the rain at this month. (But) we had a lot of rain.”
The weather has Takaita confused. This is supposed to be the dry season. “February normally has no rain,” he said. “In April, we start hoping for rain. Now you see everything has changed.” Not that Takaita is complaining. This region is increasingly drought-prone, so rain anytime is welcome. But to go from drought to drowning doesn’t really help.
The stress on the Maasai is apparent at the weekly cattle markets, which are the cornerstone of the Maasai economy. Sales at the markets depend on the kind of steady rains that once were the norm in Kenya. But there haven’t been steady rains for at least a decade, so Takaita sells a lot less cattle these days.
“There is a big change,” Takaita said. “Bad droughts are coming and reducing the numbers dramatically.”
Takaita has lost more than 50 percent of his cattle to drought since the early 2000s.
Losses like this have had a big impact on Maasai families and their culture. For members of the younger generation, like Takaita’s nephew Johana, it’s more and more challenging to be a pastoralist.
“You know, droughts are coming, and climate change, and a lot of cows are dying during the droughts,” Johana said. “So it’s making them to look for the other options.”
Johana himself is just visiting home for the weekend from his marathon training.