Maasai drive starving herds into Nairobi
By Andrew Cawthorne
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Desperate Maasai herdsmen are driving starving cattle into Nairobi to escape drought and feed off the better-watered pastures and leafy neighborhoods of the Kenyan capital.
Illustrating the extreme measures being taken across Kenya — where several dozen people and thousands of livestock have died from hunger and thirst — the red-robed, stick-wielding Maasai are walking huge distances to Nairobi with their cattle.
Once there, they take the emaciated animals wherever they see grass: including roadsides, roundabouts, a racecourse and even the lawns of the presidential mansion.
"At home, we have no pasture, no water. Here we have grass, our cows can live," Maasai herdsman Simon Mateu, 21, said as he tended to his 69 cattle in the upmarket suburb of Karen, home to many in Kenya’s rich white settler community.
Mateu said he spent three days and nights walking into Nairobi from the town of Kiserian, to the south, after he lost 17 cattle to the drought. Now he lives in a makeshift tent next to his animals on the edge of Nairobi Racecourse.
"There are about 600 of us here in a similar situation. What else can we do?" he said in Swahili.
Kenya’s best-known tribe believes its god gave them all the cattle on earth and they can graze anywhere: a recipe for conflict with former British colonialists and subsequent generations of Kenyan landowners.
Dependent on cattle alone for centuries, the roaming Maasai people — the poster boys of Kenya’s tourism authorities — often live on just milk and fresh blood.
NO ACCESS PRESIDENT’S LAWN
Sympathetic Kenyan authorities are taking a lenient attitude to the Maasai coming to Nairobi as the east African nation suffers from its worst drought in years. But they are drawing the line at certain hallowed turfs.
Herders from the bone-dry plains of Kajiado, south of Nairobi toward the border with Tanzania, were turned away from President Mwai Kibaki’s lawns on New Year’s Day.
The livestock chewed instead on the grass, flowers and hedges of the nearby leafy neighborhoods of Kileleshwa and Kilimani, the Maasai said.
Guards at the racecourse were seen moving the Maasai beyond their perimeter fences at the weekend, but in a friendly way.
"We understand their problems. It’s terrible for them and there is a lot of grass here," said guard Patrick Mudanya, supervising the exit of one herd. "But this is a jockey club run by a private company. They have to leave these premises."
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is worried the Maasai may encroach on the vast Nairobi National Park as has been happening during the drought with other wildlife parks.
"They are just looking for anything green. It’s understandable," KWS spokeswoman Connie Maina said.
"But we do patrols, so it would be hard for them to get into the park unless they go into areas where we can’t see them."
Another herdsman, David Masiaini, 40, said he had lost 100 cows at home in Kajiado so had brought the remaining 100 to Nairobi, where he was sleeping by night with them under trees.
Masiaini, who is trying to support three wives and eight children, said cattle that fetched 20,000 Kenya shillings ($280) normally were now being sold for less than a quarter of that.
"They’re in poor health and everybody’s selling, so the price is cheap. Of course it hurts me," he said, rounding up his cattle in a thicket in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi.