The Maasai of KenyaWhen the COVID-19 pandemic decimated Kenya’s tourism industry and forced the closures of livestock markets, food insecurity became a reality for many of the Maasai people. In particular, the Maasai of Kenya tribe faces hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Heart of Kenya’s Tourist Industry

Traditionally, the Maasai people’s pastoral life meant there was no need for the modernities of money. Cattle stood as a source of both food and currency, with Maasai livelihoods depending exclusively on the tribe’s “cattle economy.” However, as prolonged droughts ravage grazing lands and privatization and wildlife conservation lead to the displacement of the Maasai, the tribe has had to supplement its semi-nomadic lifestyle with income from tourists: selling souvenirs, conducting safaris and guiding tours of Maasai villages.

Visitors travel to Kenya from all over the world to witness Africa’s wild animals, and when it comes to spectacles, the Maasai of Kenya have an advantage. The majority of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara National Park to witness a yearly phenomenon known as the Great Migration — the largest animal migration on earth. Although much of the migration takes place from the Serengeti in Tanzania, the most sought-after scene for nature enthusiasts occurs when the animals cross the crocodile-populated Mara River into Kenya.

Severe Weather and COVID-19 Create a Food Crisis

Prior to 2020, tourism accounted for 10% of Kenya’s economy, employing more than 2 million citizens, many of whom “lost their jobs due to the pandemic.” In March 2020, after Kenya’s first report of COVID-19, President Kenyatta canceled “all international flights scheduled to enter the country,” allowing access only to Kenyans or foreigners with permanent residency. Although the government’s efforts proved crucial in preventing the spread of the virus at the time, the result was an 80% plunge in Kenya’s tourism during 2020, causing an economic loss of more than $1 billion.

Exacerbating circumstances further, flash flooding in April 2020 and severe hailstorms in September 2020 followed the collapse of tourism. The deadly storm patterns led to severe crop destruction, damaging homes throughout southern and eastern Kenya, including Narok county, home to the Maasai Mara National Park.

Despite standing as a hub for Kenya’s tourism, Narok county has an absolute poverty rate of 33.7%, with 12% of the population enduring food insecurity and 32.9% of children experiencing stunting. During the pandemic, when government mandates included the closures of livestock markets and the Maasai lost all income from tourists, hunger became a reality for many of the Maasai who also could not afford to purchase hygiene products such as soaps and hand sanitizers.

Nashulai Maasai Conservancy Supports the Maasai

The Nashulai Maasai Conservancy protects 5,000 acres of critical habitat and is the only conservancy that the Massai people entirely govern and run. During the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Nashulai organized a crowdfunding plan and sought the help of Avaaz, an international advocacy campaign that promotes community-organized humanitarian movements.

The campaign mobilized 100,000 people who helped to pay ranger salaries and secure sanitation, medical supplies and food for communities living within the conservancy. Recognizing a need to reduce the Maasai’s reliance on tourism, Nashulai also began training people in farming, beekeeping and making hygiene products such as soaps and sanitary pads to sell at local markets.

The Maa Trust

The Maa Trust is a nonprofit organization that partners with nature conservancies in the Maasai Mara region to “increase the benefits of wildlife conservation to Maasai families.” The organization promotes sustainable businesses for Maasai women, such as jewelry-making and honey production. The organization also supports conservation education, builds schools and invests in clean drinking water, solar energy and alternatives to using firewood as fuel.

In April 2020, The Maa Trust partnered with the Mara Elephant Project to distribute food donations from the Sidekick Foundation to 637 Maasai families “in the Talek and Pardamat regions of the Maasai Mara.” The Sidekick Foundation is an international force that works both on the ground and politically to combat poaching, collaborating with organizations such as The Maa Trust and the Mara Elephant Project to protect elephants and aid local humanitarian efforts.

The Rotary Club of Nome Assists

In November 2021, the Rotary Club of Nome, Alaska, worked with local contacts in Narok, Kenya, to provide a month of food security to 450 residents in the Maasai village of Nkorkorri. The project to assist Nkorkorri village stands as part of the Rotary Club of Nome’s 75-year commitment to humanitarianism. The Rotary Club of Nome is part of a worldwide network of more than 1.4 million Rotarians who work together to reduce poverty, fight diseases, support local economies and protect the environment.  In an interview with The Borgen Project, club member Marcy O’Neil says that Nome Rotarians hope to turn this emergency donation into a long-term program.

Although tourism has helped the Maasai survive in a challenging economic landscape, the industry’s fall during the COVID-19-pandemic put a spotlight on the tribe’s increasing vulnerability. As a result, organizations are answering the call for help. Whether the support comes from near or far, ongoing efforts to assist the Maasai are crucial to ensure the tribe’s ability to survive while maintaining traditional values.

– Jenny Rice
Photo: Flickr

the Maasai Mara
In the first week of November 2021, the Rotary Club of Nome, Alaska, provided a month’s worth of food resources to the Maasai Mara village of Nkorkorri, Kenya. One of Africa’s most recognizable tribes, the Maasai Mara faced devastation due to COVID-19 restrictions on tourism. The project to assist Nkorkorri village stands as part of the Rotary Club of Nome’s 75-year-long commitment to humanitarianism.

Background Story

It all began in 2018 when Nome Rotary member Marcy O’Neil traveled to Kenya in collaboration with the ME to WE Foundation to provide eye care to patients of the Kishon Health Centre in Narok. The ME to WE Foundation is an enterprise of WE Charity, an organization that partners with communities around the world to create sustainable solutions to poverty, such as supporting small farms, funding education and building hospitals.

During her time in Kenya, O’Neil worked alongside several Maasai warriors whom she kept in touch with after returning to Alaska. In an interview with The Borgen Project, O’Neil explained that “once [COVID-19] shut the world down and tourism came to a halt, most Maasai men who supported their families through tour guiding lost their jobs and income.” Compounding the Maasai’s troubles, Kenya is enduring a severe drought, leading to higher food insecurity rates in villages and starving livestock. “Over the past couple months, two of my Maasai friends reached out to our group that worked with them back in 2018 to see if we could find ways to help their villages,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil worked with Benson Leparan Sankuya of Nkorkorri village to calculate the funds needed to feed 450 people for one month. After finalizing the details, O’Neil made a formal proposal to the Rotary Club of Nome at the club’s November 6, 2021 meeting. The club of 25 Rotarians voted unanimously to approve the project, combining a club donation with two individual member donations.

The Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara people are semi-nomadic cattle herders native to the Maasai Mara region of Narok, Kenya. Historically, cattle husbandry met all of the Maasai Mara’s needs, but in recent years, wildlife conservation, privatization and commercial development have led to the displacement of the Maasai, among other impacts. A drastic reduction in herd sizes means the Masaai can no longer solely rely on “the cattle economy,” but instead, must look to farming practices or economic endeavors in the tourism industry.

The Maasai Mara National Park is a world-famous destination for wildlife enthusiasts. International visits to Kenya totaled 2 million in 2019, however, the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the country’s billion-dollar tourism industry, which endured an estimated loss of at least 80 billion Kenyan shillings (about $752 million). In addition, the livestock industry plummeted when pandemic restrictions called for the closure of cattle markets and slaughterhouses, putting intense strain on traditional livelihoods. The combination of factors left tens of thousands of the Maasai Mara without income or food security.

Assisting the Maasai

A collective of 15 nature conservancies located in and around the Maasai Mara National Park helps nearby communities sustainably manage and protect Kenya’s wildlife. During the pandemic, when income from foreign visitors came to a halt, officials at the Nashulai Masaai Conservancy looked to counteract food insecurity through crowdfunding to provide weekly food rations to at-risk Maasai families.

Aiming to decrease the area’s economic dependency on the tourist industry, the conservancy began training Maasai people in beekeeping and farming to increase both food security and income. The conservancy also trained women to make soaps, sanitizers and sanitary pads to sell as local markets.

Whether an organization is small or large, working on-site or helping from afar, humanitarian service projects provide life-saving support to the most vulnerable people. The Rotary Club of Nome President Adam Lust tells The Borgen Project that his hope is for the club’s service to the Nkorkorri village of Maasai Mara to develop into a long-term endeavor. Nevertheless, as it stands, the club of just 25 people has helped reduce the detriments of poverty by providing sustenance to an entire community.

– Jenny Rice
Photo: Flickr