The border

The Serengeti plains dominate most pictures of Africa’s wilderness in our culture today, perhaps driven largely by the ease of making movies there. It is possible that Howard Hawkes’ movie, Hatari!, starring John Wayne has something to do with it. It was made almost exactly when Tanzania and Kenya became independent, and may have been seen as a template for earning precious foreign exchange. Having seen the iconic movie at an age when I was not sure whether I preferred to be human or rhino, it was only a matter of time before I came to the gates of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The district around the reserve is one of the last remnants of the Maasai expansion of the 19th century. As we approached the reserve we saw more and more of the Maasai, recognizable by their colourful shukas (the blanket worn around their shoulders). The Maasai are symbolic of the great changes that colonialism brought to Africa. In spite of their reputation as killers of lions, the Maasai beliefs in the sacredness of soil ensured that they lived in equilibrium with their new lands. The territorial expansion of a small population also made sure that their impact on the land remained small.

As at Njoro, my house looks over the Rongai Valley and, as at Njoro, the Mau Forest broods in resigned silence, close on the edges of fields fresh robbed of their ancient trees.
—West with the Night, Beryl Markham

They have not fared well since the beginning of the 20th century. The desperation with which the people around the gate of the reserve tried to sell us hand-crafted wood or beaded jewellery was an indicator of their marginal existence. The Maasai counted their wealth in cattle, and were completely dependent on it for food. Now, with land fenced off, and wealth having a different function, the Maasai are still having trouble reconciling their faith and traditions with the twenty first century.

The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the degradation of the human population.
—North of South, Shiva Naipaul

We paid our entrance fee to the park and passed easily through the gate into the reserve. But for the Maasai tribesmen, this barrier has become as impermeable as any international border since the area was declared a game reserve in 1961. I would rather have a sanctuary for wildlife than not. But as the border opened to us and we passed through into a dream of another century, I had enough knowledge of history to know that this refuge was made necessary by the colonial greed which cleared forests across the world and replaced them by tea and coffee plantations, and enough knowledge of animals to know that many antelopes, lions, elephants, and leopards can live in forests as well as in grassland.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

9 thoughts on “The border”

    1. It is possible, of course, that the traditional lifestyle of people anywhere was also not sustainable. I believe that a long-term harm due to colonialism is the establishment of “cultural monoculture”, a loss of cultural diversity that is making it hard to deal with the new challenges we face today.

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      1. As for colonialism, I think you are probably right. Even here which is a kind of victim to relentless commercial colonialism, all the malls in the big cities are identical. The eateries etc. along the Interstate high way are the same. The small variations of towns along two lane highways I remember as a kid have all but vanished. This is one reason I live where I do. There’s a bit of truth to the Back of Beyond that might be an illusion (not sure) but it feels very real. Shiva Naipaul’s statement is provocative and interesting. I have problems bemoaning the past because we’re not there, it is truly a “foreign country,” and we’re not those people. Casting blame in that direction is futile and unfair — but so easy. Anyway, I’d love to see all those animals. Wow.

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  1. There is no defense for colonialism. But on the other hand, there is also the problem of tribalism. The Masai were a conquering people too, expanding their power before the colonial powers. The colonial powers ignored the tribal boundaries creating many problems that exist today, but those same problems are compounded by people clinging to tribal identity over a broader interests. It is not unique to Africa: religions fight religions, races fight races, ethnic groups fight ethnic groups, nations fight nations – if not in actual conflict, in prejudice and exclusion. It is in our genetic make-up: primitive man succeeded through identity with his family, his clan, his tribe.

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