Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic among the Maasai in northern Tanzania

Francis Shomet Naingisa is a Maasai elder from northern Tanzania. This is his report on local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, based on research he undertook within his community.

COVID-19 in the global community

Coronavirus’ entry into the human environment was recorded at the end of 2019 in China, where thousands of lives have been lost to the disease. Initially, the pandemic seemed far away from Africa, until it struck Tanzania early March: the first patient came from Europe and planted the first roots of the pandemic in Tanzania. Soon many more people contracted the disease. 

Now, almost all African countries have reported cases of the pandemic. Humanity has been forced to struggle against a global enemy which knows neither political frontiers nor the economic and social power of the most influential politicians or investors. This has thrown the world into total confusion and desperation because of the power of the disease to strike even in the most well organized health systems in America and Europe. The disease has caused an untold number of fatalities and thrown the global economy into the danger of unprecedented recession.

A new lifestyle has been forced on peoples all over the globe, threatening the deep cultural, psycho-social and economic foundations of humanity.

Urbanisation and disease in Tanzania

The Maasai community is equally endangered by the pandemic in their own natural environments due to the increasing social mobility caused by globalised economic and cultural systems, fueled by the religion of capitalism and accompanying consumerism.

Our traditional lifeways have been affected by a monetised economy, which hinges on the massive consumerist demands of metropolitan cities in Nairobi, where all livestock bought from villages in northern Maasailand end up. This economy has introduced massive commercial interaction between the business cartels in the cities and the local Maasai, who have to sell their animals to Nairobi business people.

Before the introduction of capitalism into our traditional cultural system, we relied on products from our livestock. This was as recently as the 1970s. Now things have changed, including our diet, which has shifted from traditional foods like meat, milk and blood to new foods, eaten by so-called ‘modern societies’, like rice, maize flour, bread, processed oils and sugary tea.

This removed food sovereignty from Maasailand: now we depend on modern foods that we have to sell our livestock for. This has trapped us in the capitalist system, so that we depend on external sources to supply our food chain. Massive consumption in the meat industry drives Maasai business people towards epicenters of capitalism in the cities of Tanzania and Kenya. This interaction facilitated the transfer of HIV/AIDS into Maasai communities. So it can also pave the way for coronavirus to infect our communities, driven by a need for food and economic support. 

Currently, all local markets – bar three – in northern Maasailand are open, but are not easily accessible due to big distances involved. This has resulted in the emergence of a blackmarket where business people secretly enter the district by night and buy livestock from the villages. Through these blackmarket interactions, COVID-19 could enter the community. 

Francis Shomet Naingisa in his traditional kraal. ‘The kraal is shared with three families who, under my chairmanship, agreed on new ways of behaving to avoid coronavirus. Guests are completely prohibited from our kraal.”
A view of the livestock market in Loliondo, Tanzania. “Although people are aware of the corona pandemic, they still behave and interact as they always do in the marketplace. People say it is difficult to conduct livestock business without close contact.”
A local foods market. “[Unlike at the market], at home they control movement of people from other places coming into their homes.

Awareness around COVID-19 among Maasai communities

Another issue is the varied level of awareness of the pandemic among the Maasai of northern Tanzania. I interviewed 75 people on this issue.

The first question I asked was: ‘Have you heard of the COVID-19 pandemic?’ Everyone confirmed that they had heard of the disease through radio or other community members, who have button- or smartphones.

Next I asked: ‘Have you heard what you should do to protect yourselves and your families against infection?’ This question received divergent responses. 50% (37 people) said they had heard that they should not greet each other by touching hands and that they should wash their hands, but that they had not heard about social distancing and staying at home to reduce unnecessary travel.

20% (15 people) had heard of the disease but did not know what to do to protect themselves. 15% (11 people) said that they had heard of the disease, but left it to God to sort out, seeing the disease as an apocalyptic punishment for humanity for failing to respect nature.

Another 15% of people had heard of the disease and knew what they need to do to protect themselves, according to WHO guidance, but argued that this is impossible to practice in the Maasai community because of cultural practices like touching hands in greeting or touching children’s heads. These interviewees said there is a need for a serious campaign, impressing on community members the dangers of some cultural practices in terms of the pandemic.

This led me to ask: ‘What challenges are posed by the Maasai culture in implementing measures given by the WHO?’ Of the 75 Maasai interviewed (30 women and 45 men), they all confirmed that it is very difficult to take concrete action at household level to protect themselves, their families and the community at large due to the Maasai cultural system. 

Barriers to COVID-19 risk reduction measures

The Maasai cultural system is based on strong social interaction and reciprocity, whereby members of the community are able to move from one place to another within the community and access free accommodation and food. Accommodation is organised around an age-set system: when a visitor enters the kraal (an enclosed circular structure where several families have their houses and keep their livestock) the first question is which houses belong to members of his age set. This is only a consideration for men: women are accommodated in any house of their choice regardless of their age set.

Additionally, social interaction between immediate neighbours (those living in the same sub-village) and close friends from afar are still accorded the same reception at people’s homes despite the potential danger of infection. The interviewees said that the force of culture makes it difficult to turn away guests who are well known to the family, despite potential dangers. This poses a serious problem in these circumstances. However, all interviewees did confirm that visitors who come from faraway places, and particularly those returning from cities, are denied entry into and accommodation in the kraal.

There is a growing awareness that visitors can be potential carriers, so disagreements on these issues are not widespread, or becoming fewer. We have even seen in some villages at general assembly meetings people have been warned not to allow visitors to sleep in their houses, and there is an increasing trend for the cultural system of reciprocity to be suspended until the pandemic is over.

Unequal burden of COVID-19 on women

Women in particular, strongly opposed allowing guests to sleep in their houses. However, in many cases the final decision is made by the husband, not the wife, so husbands can force their wives to concede. 

Women bear the burden of receiving visitors in their homes: traditionally, when a guest enters a Maasai settlement, husbands can direct their guests to go to one of his wives’ houses and the chosen wife cannot disagree. She also has the responsibility of feeding the guest, introducing greater economic strain and food strains, which are exacerbated in this pandemic. Maasai women are also very family oriented – more so than men. Visitors can pose a threat to the whole family, especially children, perhaps causing the contrast in perspectives and feelings towards family welfare seen in men and women interviewees. 

Information in local languages is essential

These interviews revealed big differences in the information members of the Maasai community have access to. A large number of people in the community are illiterate, but many own button phones and only a few own smartphones. These are their main sources of information on the pandemic, but due to their illiteracy many cannot understand messages about the pandemic unless they have friends, or children who can translate for them. Furthermore, all messages are in the national language, Swahili. Many Maasai do not speak Swahili, only those who have gone to school. There are no broadcasts in the Maa language.

Local radio is a crucial avenue for reaching many people at the same time: everyone with a button or smartphone could access news. The local station urgently needs specific programs on the dangers of coronavirus and protection measures in the Maa language. Without media that targets Maasai communities, access to information and solutions will remain limited and pose increasing danger to communities.

Are you looking for ways to support community-led initiatives, such as local language radio broadcasts to spread essential, reliable information about COVID-19? Your support is essential to support marginalised communities as agents of change. Please donate here or contact us to discuss partnerships.

Find out more about how our network of Indigenous hubs are responding to the crisis here: COVID-19: Indigenous Insights.

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