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The Maasai And The Travellers

United Kingdom

Peter, Sakie and Anna: 'They do not treat us as equals.'
The Maasai and the Travellers
Nikki van der Gaag meets three people whose nomadic background
gives them more in common then they ever imagined.

‘Welcome, brother, welcome – we thought you’d be taller.’ A woodfire gives out gusts of warmth as we crowd inside the trailer. Everything is spotless, ornate. Patterned china gleams through polished glass cupboards. Crocheted covers neatly conceal two ghetto-blasters. And everywhere there are mirrors that seem to reflect and expand our encounter.

This is an unusual meeting, a conversation arranged between Peter, a Maasai from Kenya and two British Travellers (Gypsies). Sakie and Anna live in a trailer in the middle of an industrial area in the city of Leeds.

They are here because they are interested in each other’s traditions. Although they come from different countries, the Maasai and the Travellers are both nomads. Both face prejudice from the larger society around them and both live in cultures undergoing tremendous change. But the meeting is also a gamble: they may have nothing to say to each other. There may be just too many differences for any shared feelings or experiences to emerge.

The talk begins slowly, tentatively, with the awkwardness of people who have never met before. Peter explains a little about his people in Kenya: ‘We Maasai are slowly being forced into a lifestyle not our own. The Government wants to stop us from moving around and is annexing our land. And there is a lot of prejudice against pastoralists in general and Maasai in particular. People still think of Maasai as not friendly, as lazy and not wanting to change. They do not treat us as equals. When I walk down the street someone will call out “Hey, Maasai”, instead of addressing me politely.’

Sakie nods his head. ‘I can remember when I was five or six. We pulled off the road a few miles outside of town and were pelted with stones,’ ‘Yes,’ adds Anna, ‘even now, it is harder for us to get work than for ‘house-people’. I went for a job packing light-bulbs recently and the manager said: “Phone me on Friday. I’m sure you’ve got the job.” When I phoned he told me they’d given the job to someone else. But I knew a girl there and she told me it wasn’t true. It was simply that he had found out where I lived – he found out I was a Traveller and didn’t want to give me a job.’ She hesitates for a moment and then adds with a smile and a wry laugh: ‘But there’s good and bad in everyone, isn’t there? I got another job in the end – packing popcorn!’

From this point on the discussion really takes off. From discrimination they move to tradition and their beliefs about land. ‘To the Maasai,’ says Peter, ‘land is life. But we don’t believe in individual ownership. Land belongs to everyone.’

Sakie agrees. ‘Nobody says, “This is mine and this is yours.” Travellers’ land is mostly government-owned anyway. We wouldn’t normally buy land but if we do, it belongs to the whole extended family.’ Both cultures emphasize the extended family and the support that this provides. As Anna puts it, ‘If anything happens, there is someone about.’ And they also find similarities in their attitudes to animals as an essential part of life. For the Maasai, says Peter, ‘without animals, life isn’t worth living’. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ says Sakie with a flash of recognition. He looks at me and with a contented sigh confides, ‘Oh, I can listen all day to what this man says.’

There is then an animated discussion about different meats and ways of preparing them. Sakie suddenly becomes very serious. ‘Do you cook the sheep’s bag?’ Peter looks puzzled. ‘Bag?’ ‘You know, the bag that is the stomach of the sheep, with the grass and all in it.’ (At this point Anna and I, both vegetarians, exchange grimaces.) ‘Yes! We do! We cook it with herbs and...’ Peter goes into a long explanation of how the Maasai cook it. Sakie frowns ‘Yes, well it doesn’t sound very different from the way we do it. It’s delicious, isn’t it? You could try it next time with a few potatoes and carrots and onions.’

By now Sakie is thoroughly intrigued. He explains how important tradition is to him, how he sees himself as a guardian of the old ways of his people, the Calderash. ‘In olden times we came over with horses. That’s how we used to make our living. The Calderash came from India thousands of years ago. We’re an old tribe. Before my ancestors came here, after they left India, they travelled every bit of the world. I can still speak Sanskrit, though it is very old Sanskrit. That’s the language I inherited. Can you spell Calderash for them, Anna? You see, Anna has learned to read and write but I never did.’

The talk turns to governments and state-supplied services. Governments in both Britain and Kenya would prefer the Maasai and the Travellers to settle down. They’re unwilling to provide basic services to people who may simply pull up stakes and move on. Travellers for example have a reputation for leaving their garbage lying around. As I watched Anna neatly put tea-bags into a plastic bag I thought of all the plastic bags my own household generates each week. So how do Travellers deal with rubbish when there is no regular garbage collection, I wondered? The answer was simple: ‘We burn it. But you can imagine if one morning without warning we are told by the authorities to move. Fetching children from school and packing up becomes more of a priority than burning rubbish.’

Sakie feels that things have improved for Travellers since he was a child. But he is phlegmatic about the future: ‘We’ve lived for generations like this. But all good things come to an end. I think my grandchildren will be living in houses. I shall try and pass on our traditions to my child, but I don’t think they will last forever. Young people need to make their own choices. The only thing is, I don’t know how we will earn a living in houses because we need a bit of empty land around us to do the kind of work we do – scrap-dealing and the like.’

Peter nods in agreement. ‘Change is inevitable among the Maasai too,’ he admits. ‘Cultural values are changing. The Maasai of the future will be different from the Maasai of the past. But we need help to understand the change rather than having it imposed upon us. If the development process does not support the environment in which we live it will be a disaster. We need to change at our own pace.’

Every now and then during the discussion Sakie injects another excited question along the lines of: ‘What do they call so-and-so in your language, brother?’ Peter, with a smile that lights up his whole face, slowly answers. Usually, inevitably, the language is completely different. But occasionally Sakie can recognize a word, even if it means something different. The final triumph comes when he asks Peter the word for ‘tea’. Peter answers that tea came to the Maasai from India and that his people use the Indian word chai. Sakie slaps his broad legs. ‘But that’s the same as us.’ Sakie leans back, satisfied. He would be on the next plane to Kenya if anyone offered him the chance.

The term ‘Gypsy’ is still widely used, even by Gypsy people themselves. However it is gradually being replaced by other words less tinged by racism and prejudice. In the UK Gypsies are often known as ‘Travellers’. But the preferred term is ‘Rom’, which means ‘the people’ in Romany, the Gypsy language.

The Rom are divided into tribes or nations; each tribe is divided into clans and each clan is made up of a number of related families. The European tribes include the Gitanos of Spain, the Manouche of France, the Romnichals of Britain, the Royash of Romania and the Rom of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Most Rom speak some form of Romany, an Indo-European language with clear links to Sanskrit.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 266 magazine cover This article is from the April 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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