Welcome to Kenya
Special: Lions vs. Villages vs. Government
2021-01-01 16:00:00 -0600

It’s been over a year since I publisheed my last blog post about Kenya. But recently, somebody on Facebook who traveled with me to Kenya sent us an article about how the Kenyan Maasai who once hunted lions now work to save them. Not only was this article immensely educational and entertaining, but it also reminded me of some things that were told to me when I visited the Maasai village. Although I don’t want to recap the entire article, I will mention a couple key things I took away from the article and how it relates to what I experienced in Kenya.

The article, written by Andrew Dubbins, talks about how in the Maasai villages, young men used to hunt and kill lions for sport. They’d hunt them as a coming-of-age ritual. I remember one of the men in the village explaining this to me. Apparently, they’d go out alone or in a small group, and their goal was to kill an adult lion. I guess the goal was to kill a male lion, but if they could only find a female, then that was fine, too. When I was told this, I remember briefly thinking about how frightening that’d be. Our drivers on the safari drives wouldn’t even let us out of the van if we could see wild animals; it was hard to comprehend getting close enough to stab them with a spear. Furthermore, an injured and dying creature is dangerous—animals’ fight insticts will be exacerbated if they’re in pain.

In that moment, I put the thoughts out of my head. I’m a vegetarian who hates harming animals. Seeing carcasses and feeding in Kenya took a bit to get used to, and I didn’t want to put extra thought effort on humans killing animals. I’m already standing in a community that eats meat year-round and drinks cow blood ritualistically. I’m so happy to read about people that are working hard at conservancies to help save endangered animals and stop poaching. My only hope for the Maasai Mara is that their animal populations continue to grow and thrive. As much as predation, chasing, and killing disturbs me, I understand it’s the natural order of the world. But poaching and killing animals that don’t typically threaten humans isn’t natural.

I believe with all my heart that trying to save the lions from unnecessary killing, even by native tribes, is a good thing. The more that we can do to keep the wild animals and savannah’s safe, the better. But looking back, I also understand how the act of lion hunting was an important ceremony. To hunt the “king of the jungle” is to show courage. It shows a drive to do whatever it takes to take care of your village. I didn’t realize how many livestock the Maasai locals lost each year to big cats’ hunting. The villages we saw have habits of bringing livestock into pens at night, but a hungry lion, leopard, or cheetah will even roam into the center of quiet villages if they’re hungry. And in these villages, livestock is a form of currency. Livestock indicates the wealth of a family or individual. I even remember the locals telling me that a man’s worth is directly tied to his livestock, and to lose livestock to predation is a threat to the man’s honor. Furthermore, losing livestock threatens the village financially—less livesetock means less money, and less money means less food and resources. I understand why people would want to kill the creature that kills 10 cows.

Several of the native communities that agree with this point I stated above have recently been at a conflict with local government. The Kenyan government has struggled to try to rebuild the endangered animal populations. This is as a result of poaching, natural disasters (such as flood, draught, etc.), and local villages who ritualistically kill wild animals. Having flourishing animal communities is not just necessary to help keep the balance of the savannah, but is also vital to tourism (tourism brings profits, jobs, and prosperity to countries like Kenya). I didn’t realize that the Kenyan government is required to pay out villages when they have livestock or humans that are killed by wild animals. I didn’t recognize the tension between the local villages and their “colonialized” governments. Looking back, I can see how it would be difficult to try to balance living in a country that considers land a sanctuary for animals (where animals cannot be hunted and where they are safe to roam) and a place where local villages and communities can thrive (which includes land to grow crops, plant, and not allow animals for safety).

When I visited those villages a year and a half ago, it was so fascinating. Seeing “old-fashioned” communities trying to thrive in a world that is quickly developing and changing around them. But I was a tourist seeing them through the lens of someone who lives in a first-world country. I saw people that hadn’t showered or brushed their teeth in a year. I saw children who didn’t have clean rags and water to wipe the boogers from their noses. I saw dirt, feces, and mud. I saw people living a way of life that I, personally, would not desire to experience. To me, an outsider, what I heard was great: they’re educating and teaching their children. They’re attending university outside of their small village, perhaps even in another country. Their young adults are allowed to leave the village to pursue careers and experience a different form of life.

But the truth is that those people might want to live this way. Their communities have lived for centuries on the savannah, taking from the land what they need, and leaving the rest (except for hunting innocent lions). More and more, their children and teenagers are deciding to become educated. Young adults and children can read English and Somali, while their elders cannot read at all. I love to read, and I consider literacy a must to live in this world (aka in my world). But many of these elders lived fascinating lives without being literate. They have stories to tell, wisdom to impart on their children, and are happy with their life. Quickly, the world is changing around them, and that’s affecting their communities, too.

I don’t approve of killing innocent animals. To me, it hurts my heart to know that young men are killing lions just to show courage. But I understand more about why they did it. I understand that their foods, rituals, ceremonies, and practices aren’t anything like I’ve experienced, and my personal beliefs and thoughts are directly impacted by my experiences and the world I live in. These communities have different beliefs because their living experience is so vastly different from mine. I am so glad to hear that there’s communities of locals that are dedicating their time and lives to stop the illegal hunting of animals for no reason. But I also think we need to be careful let these cultures be independent, speak their own languages, and live however they’d like to live—which includes allowing them to practice their own ceremonies. We need to let them celebrate their culture and way of life. I hope that someday in the future, the Kenyan government and the local Maasai villages can work together to help the savannah grow and prosper.

I still have lots to learn on this topic. I’ve only experienced a little bit, and I remember very little when it comes to the villages and what they said. Perhaps the state of things has changed in the past 8 years, or maybe there’s less tension between the locals and the government than I seem to describe. I could be very wrong in this entire article (if I am, please kindly let me know and send me some other resources to read!). But at the very least, I reflected a bit more on the locals’ culture and society, and for me (and my tiny little blog), that’s enough.

Additional reading on the lions and the Maasai