Anthropology in East Africa: Culture Change Among the Maasai

A Luther student interacts with the Maasai people in Tanzania

The Maasai pastoralists of Tanzania and Kenya are experiencing rapid culture change in response to global, national, and local forces. In this course we will study “traditional” Maasai culture and examine the ways in which the Maasai of northern Tanzania are adapting to changing social, political, economic, and environmental conditions. Topics to be explored include the shift from herding to agropastoralism; the tension between traditional and formal modes of education; the adoption of Christianity in place of or alongside traditional religion; changes in coming-of-age rituals; cultural dimensions of health, healing, and the spread of HIV/AIDS; challenges to traditional gender ideology; the Maasai relationship to their environment; and the impacts of ecotourism, cultural tourism, and wildlife conservation programs on the pastoral way of life.

From bases near the city of Arusha and the small town of Monduli students will interact with Maasai people in urban and rural marketplaces; in schools, medical facilities, and places of worship; and at Maasai bomas (multi-family compounds) in the bush. We will also visit the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area,  the Manyara Ranch Conservancy, and the Oldoinyo Lengai volcano and pilgrimage routes in order to explore the tension between pastoralism, wildlife conservation programs, and tourism. The course examines the many pressures on Maasai to change their way of life.  Throughout the course we consider factors affecting the sustainability of human communities and their cultural traditions, animal and plant populations, and practices (e.g. herding, farming, "safari" tourism, mining) affecting natural resources such as soil and water.

"This travel experience for me, was life changing. Being exposed to another culture so different from my own broadened my horizons, solidified life long friendships, and encouraged me to return the subsequent summer to conduct a research project. This course taught me not only the importance of sustainability, but also love for the beautiful, unique manifestations of the human spirit." —Rachel Hodapp '13

"We studied how Westernization has affected the Maasai way of life, particularly with respect to their relationship with their environment. Traditionally, the Maasai have been very sustainable, both because they have traditions that promote sustainable practices and because their location in a semi-arid region with seasonal rains requires responsible resource management. With an influx of Western practices, however, the Maasai are increasingly forced to maintain unsustainable practices as their lands are being restricted for use by tourists. During the course of our program, we saw how Western influence and exploitation has led to overharvesting of plants, land encroachment, overgrazing, and other examples of unsustainable practices." —Donald Lee-Brown '13