Western education provides the Maasai community, with tools to protect itself and its land, to start local businesses, populate schools with Maasai teachers and elected offices with Maasai leaders. But education is a double edged sword where it denigrates traditional education systems and corrosive of Maasai society and culture. If there is a single consensus emerging in Maasailand, it is that the surest way to end social, economic and political marginalization is by creating and implementing culturally competent education in Maasailand.
EDUCATIONAL CHALLENGES IN MAASSAILAND
For the entire 20th century, very few Maasai people received formal education. Primary schools were a rare sighting and secondary schools virtually non-existent. These schools, which were built by churches and non-governmental organizations, often had difficulty retaining teachers and students, who were needed in their family’s economies. Very few Maasai girls were educated and only a handful of Maasai youth were ever admitted to university.
Today following educational reform in Kenya which extends, in theory, primary education to all Kenyans, more Maasai children than ever before are enrolled in school. But problems continue to undermine education in Maaasailand. The Kenyan education system includes eight years of primary school, four of secondary school, and, for a lucky minority, four of university. Passage into secondary school and university education is dependent upon passage of two standardized exams administered nationwide to students during the final years of primary and secondary school—these exams are offered one time only and failure blocks a student from continuing forward. A small percentage of students in Maasailand pass these tests, as they are biased toward urban knowledge and educational opportunities not available in rural areas.
Maasai children face a universe of challenges that inhibit their success. The cost of schooling continues to be a factor, as boarding schools, which are necessary in wildlife rich areas, are not free, and all children must pay for uniforms, books and other expenses. Standardized curriculum is alienating to young children as it promotes the Swahili and English languages to the exclusion of mother tongues, and is typically critical of pastoral lifestyles. A small percentage of schools in Maasailand have lunch programs and so children go hungry. Children typically must walk many kilometers to school, through areas with wildlife, and it is not uncommon to see groups of children waiting for elephants to graze and move on before they themselves can proceed. Children do not have access to books, nor to electricity; homework is impossible.
THE PROBLEM OF PARTIAL EDUCATION
These challenges add up to a crisis in the Maasai community where youth receive a partial education that does not prepare them adequately to succeed in modernized Kenya but which has also removed them from education in Maasai culture and economy. Even those who do graduate from secondary school, even those at the top of their classes, are poorly prepared for the job market. But while in school they may have also missed Maasai cultural training, taught through the ceremonial life of our communities. In some cases they have learned to disdain our own culture, which they are taught to think of as backwards. Alcohol has become a problem for many. Now that girl’s are being educated in greater numbers, they are facing similar problems. Educated girls often marry outside of the Maasai community, since young men of our own community lack a proper education and therefore economic opportunities. Young Maasai women may be in demand for marriage into more privileged communities, where they may have little status.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult road for anyone to successfully travel. Education all over Maasailand has the force of nuclear power–it is potent, and changes things, immediately and dramatically.
It also true however that that power can work for the good of the community, and more Maasai people are returning with their educations to serve the community. As we become more literate, we can read contracts, research our land rights, undertake enterprises, obtain work in the tourism sector to support the economic health of the community. MERC supports this outcome, and works to develop the resource of education for the good of the entire Maasai community.
SUPPORT FOR SCHOOLS
MERC has supported education in many ways.
- For over two decades, MERC has found scholarships for Maasai primary and secondary school students, and university scholarships.
- MERC has found emergency funding for schools in Narok and Kajiado Districts for children in need of gap funding.
- MERC has funded assistance to schools including leveraging funding for classrooms, physical improvements, and the development of lunch programs.
- MERC has provided support for specific schools that are paying attention to Maasai cultural survival and girls’ education
- MERC also supports girls’ education by cofounding the Maasai Girls Education Fund and similar efforts.
Ultimately, the challenge of creating educational opportunities in Maasailand will be met with the establishment of a university in Maasailand. We envision the University becoming a center for research into issues of indigenous rights, cultural survival, environmental conservation, and models of social change. The MaasaIand University will provide a core curriculum relevant to Maasai and other indigenous leadership in areas such as environmental conservation, global development, and culturally supportive education.