A Maasai Encounter with the Bible

Nomadic Lifestyle as a Hermeneutic Question

by Zephania Shila Nkesela (Author)
©2020 Monographs VIII, 228 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 30


This book is a critical analysis of how Maasai informants read some selected Old Testament texts that are thought to have an appeal to people with semi/nomadic ways of life. The Maasai is a Nilotic ethnic group of semi/nomadic pastoralists living in the northern Tanzania, and southern Kenya, East Africa. The book focuses on the parallels between the Maasai and biblical concepts of nomadic lifestyle. On the one hand, the semi/nomadic heritage of the Maasai faces severe cultural and political difficulties when encountering East African modern ways of life. On the other, the ancient Israel actually experienced the opposite, seeing a strengthening of semi/nomadic ways of life. Therefore, the book demonstrates the potentials of the supposed parallels between the two by allowing the experiences of the ancient Israel to contribute to strengthen the semi/nomadic ways of life, a key aspect of traditional Maasai values into the contemporary East African context.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One Introduction
  • A Case from Maasai
  • Background and Context
  • Research Context
  • Research Question and Approach
  • Aim of the Study
  • Methodology
  • Ethical Considerations
  • Scope and Limitations
  • The Maasai
  • Partial Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Two Theoretical Perspectives
  • Introduction
  • The Maasai Oral “Text”
  • Interpretive Context
  • Actors
  • Partial Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Three Reading Old Testament Texts in Maasai Context
  • Introduction
  • Data Collection and Analysis
  • A Maasai Reading of Gen. 13:1–12
  • A Maasai Reading of Exod. 13:17–22
  • A Maasai Reading of Jer 35:5–10
  • Partial Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Four Maasai Indigenous Readings in Dialogue with Critical Old Testament Studies: Reflections and Implications
  • Introduction
  • Methodological Consideration
  • Maasai Readings of Gen. 13:1–12 in Dialogue with Critical Old Testament Studies
  • Maasai Readings of Exod. 13:17–22 in Dialogue with Critical Old Testament Studies
  • Maasai Readings of Jer 35:5–10 in Dialogue with Critical Old Testament Studies
  • Partial Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Five Maasai Experiences and Old Testament Studies in Africa
  • Introduction
  • Old Testament Studies in Africa
  • Contemporary Challenges of Old Testament Studies in Africa
  • My Maasai Project as a Contribution
  • Partial Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Six Concluding Remarks
  • A Summary of Findings
  • A Response to My Research Question
  • A Case from Maasai: What Can Be Said to Meitamei
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices
  • Indexes
  • Series Index

←vi | vii→



One Haya (ethnic group in Tanzania) proverb goes “Many hands make light work.” I wish to extend my profound gratitude to all those who in different ways joined their hands with mine for the accomplishment of this work. A special thanks goes to VID Specialized University for designing the Maasai project and accepting me to be one of the researchers. Likewise, I am very grateful to the director of the project, my supervisor Professor Knut Holter. His criticisms, understanding, and encouragement throughout the three years of this project pushed me this far. My fellow Ph.D students, my fellow researchers in the project Dr. Hoyce Mbowe and Dr. Beth E. Elness-Hanson, and the whole staff provided not only support, but also an encouraging environment for me to accomplish this work.

I also thank Professor Joseph Parsalaw, the Vice Chancellor of Tumaini Makumira University in Tanzania and all the staff for their collaboration with the Maasai project. The library at Makumira has provided resources that enrich this work. Thanks are due to my Maasai informants for not only being ready in in-depth interviews, but also devoting their time to read biblical texts with me in groups. Thanks also to pastors who allowed me to conduct research in their parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT), North Central Diocese. I would have mentioned your names, but the research protocols do not allow.

Equally, I acknowledge my Church, the ELCT Central Diocese with the leadership of Bishop Dr. Alex Seif Mkumbo, for permitting me to study abroad at ←vii | viii→the time when I was needed in my capacity as General Secretary of the Diocese. Mentioned last, but remembered most is my family. My wife Tumwitikege and our two children Paul and Rebeca were always praying and encouraging me to complete my studies. Though they stayed alone in Tanzania all three years, their psychological support kept me moving forward always. I am indebted to God Almighty and all of you extending your hands to help me. Thank you very much, Ashe Naleng, Tusen Takk, Asanteni Sana.

←0 | 1→



A Case from Maasai

One among many challenges that are facing the Maasai in Tanzania today is a land crisis. The Maasai pastoralists and farmers (from other ethnic groups) seem to have been competing for land for some decades now. During my field research in a typical Maasai area, I met one Maasai traditional leader, Meitamei, and asked him what might be the cause of the ongoing land crisis in the Maasai area. He responded:

Farmers and other investors who come to our land are looking down on us, the Maasai, and they are grabbing our grazing land. They claim that we Maasai are only thinking of cattle and ignore all modern ways of life. They do not read the Bible to know how much cattle are worth. That is why they grab our land for other uses like agriculture.1

His response shows that some people downgrade the Maasai, undermine their economic activities, and take away their right to natural resources, in particular land. The Maasai interpret this as harassment from farmers and other investors. Likewise, the supposed claim by farmers and other investors that the Maasai are only thinking of cattle puts the Maasai semi-nomadic way of life under a kind of social-cultural marginalization. Moreover, farmers and other investors seem to be against the Maasai way of life and see it as old-fashioned.

←1 | 2→

This response heightened my curiosity. I then asked this man to explain how the Bible supports the semi-nomadic ways of life of the Maasai people, as he claims. His reaction was even more interesting. He responded:

It is my assumption that his intentions in asking about my Christian background or whether I happened to read the Bible were to try to show two perspectives. First, the Bible is an important book for the Maasai because it has stories that display resonance with the Maasai semi-nomadic way of life. Besides referring to the Bible, I suppose this man is speaking about the Old Testament, where we find such stories of nomadic ways of life. This does not mean there are no stories connected to nomadic ways of life in the New Testament, but mostly and in a direct way, we find them in the Old Testament. Second, the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai constitutes a different life from that of the other mostly Bantu people in Tanzania.

Moreover, Meitamei went on to discuss the problems that the Maasai people are facing today of land crisis, marginalization, and harassment, and he shared with me strategies to deal with the situation:

We have a strong army of il murran [warriors] and no one can mess with us Maasai. We will fight them because we are people of war, we do not fear anyone who threatens us. We will make sure we continue with our activity of keeping animals without allowing anyone to intimidate us.3

Since in any war, not only women and children, but also the entire community is deeply affected, someone would have expected this man to suggest peaceful ways of solving the conflict. On the contrary, Meitamei has focused on fighting with anyone who blocks the Maasai way of semi-nomadic life. However, according to the Old Testament, the Israelites also were fighting their adversaries. In that sense, Meitamei wants to apply the Israelites’ way of dealing with their adversaries.

The above case reflects a situation in contemporary Tanzania where Maasai experience oppression and marginalization. Before moving to the main question of this work, I reflect on this case in its context in the following section.

←2 | 3→

Background and Context

This section describes the background of the above-presented case. I divide this section into three parts. The first subsection explores the marginalization of the Maasai in Tanzania. The argument of this subsection is that the marginalization of the Maasai is not an assumption, but a reality in the Tanzanian context. The second subsection shows the initiatives that have been achieved so far in order to mitigate the issue of marginalization of the Maasai. The third subsection discusses how the Bible can contribute to mitigate the situation in Maasai context. Despite some efforts going on, my research identifies some gaps and suggests a contribution from the biblical perspective.

Marginalization of the Maasai

The marginalization of the Maasai in Tanzania appears on two levels. The first level comes from people with different ethnicities than the Maasai, mainly Bantu-speaking people, who regard the Maasai as a minority who misuse land.4 The second level comes from state bodies that do not seem pleased with the Maasai semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Concerning the first level, the Maasai is a Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic pastoralists located in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. This puts them at variance with the neighbouring ethnic groups who are mostly Bantu. The Bantu is the largest categorization of people in Africa. Noel King states that the Bantu-speaking people dwell in lands that stretch from Nigeria and Mount Cameroon down to the Cape of Good Hope (Africa’s Land’s End).5 The foundations of the Maasai and Bantu ethnic groups do not only portray a difference in origin, but might also contribute to harassment and other forms of looking down on the Maasai as a minority in Tanzania. Despite this marginalization, the Maasai still seem confident in being able to maintain their semi-nomadic way of life among their Bantu neighbours.

Concerning the second level, the Maasai are accused of misusing land. It is claimed that the Maasai semi-nomadic activities interfere other activities such as farming and tourism. The most remarkable statement comes from the then President of the United Republic of Tanzania. When addressing the Parliament on December 30, 2005, right after his election to the presidency, he explained what he called “a strategy of the Tanzanian Government to improve animals rearing.” In his strategy, he said that the Government is gearing up to ban semi-nomadic life because it does not seem to be profitable, as it turns the whole country into a ←3 | 4→grazing area.6 He continued to say that with semi-nomadic life, both the animals and the owners are starving.7

This speech from the head of state declaring such plans made the Maasai pastoralists feel scared and discriminated against. It is true that the United Republic of Tanzania Village Land Act of 1999 vests authority on land into the presidency. It states in part II on fundamental principles (b) that all land in Tanzania is public land vested in the President as a trustee on behalf of all citizens.8 In other terms, all land belongs to the Government. On the one hand, the statement from the President shows a sense of an awareness of improving animal rearing industry in the country. It aims at improving animal rearing as a business for the benefit of both the pastoralists and the Government. On the other hand, however, the approach ignores the cultural aspect of the pastoralists such as the Maasai. Keeping animals is part of their culture and any kind of efforts to fight semi-nomadic life might mean fighting against Maasai culture.

In claiming to improve animal rearing in Tanzania, the Government at different levels now allows some activities to take place in areas specified for grazing purposes since before the colonial time. Such activities include agriculture, an extension of game reserves, and hunting. There have been reports on the animosity between Maasai pastoralists (Nilotic) and farmers (Bantu) in Tanzania with regard to the land issue for some decades now. Some cases show how the Government ignores the Maasai.

One example is the report by the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum (PINGO’s Forum), which claims that in one incidence, some governmental officials allowed farmers to invade a pastoralists’ village in the Morogoro region of Tanzania. The farmers practiced agricultural activities there even though Maasai pastoralists legally owned this village for pastoralism (from 16/06/1999, lease Number MG/ KIJ. 522).9 However, the Maasai pastoralists took the matter to court and the judgment was passed in their favour, yet one governmental official allowed the farmers to continue with agricultural activities in the village under the protection of the police.10 From incidents like this, where a governmental official is linked to such a scandal, the government can hardly escape accusations of marginalizing the Maasai.

The report by PINGO’s Forum continues to state that, in the same incidence, Government officials seized more than 4,000 cattle from the Maasai families and destroyed their property. The result was (according to the report) not a war between pastoralists and farmers, but a war against the Maasai.11 When such things happen, the government does not seem to be ready to protect the Maasai pastoralists from farmers who want their land for agricultural purposes.

←4 | 5→

However, the problem that the Maasai are encountering seems to be part of a larger problem that is being reflected throughout Africa. In his research on the source of civil wars in Africa, Ali Mazrui mentions “identity” to be one of the reasons that cause Africans fight.12 According to him, though there are other causes, Africans fight simply about who is who.13 When one people’s identity is claimed to be inferior to that of another, the ones who feel superior want to intimidate the inferior, and when the inferior resist, the war begins.

Abiodun Alao is even more specific. Commenting on the conflict between farmers and pastoralists in Africa, he argues that pastoralists are perhaps some of the most misunderstood participants in the natural resource sector.14 To be more explicit, pastoralists appear to some people to have no contribution to the national economy and thus are misusing the land. Keeping livestock seems private to some and is seen as not benefiting the community at large.

Leif Manger and Ahmed Ghaffar, discussing how various governments in Africa treat pastoralists unfairly, express their sympathy with the pastoralists by arguing:

They are victims of conscious policies of marginalization based on the simplistic assumption (accusing them) desertification, of managing their stock according to irrational economic principles and of being technically stagnant and backward, of wandering about destroying nature, and of adhering to conservative social structures and cultural notions.15

The short survey above may serve as an illustration on how the Maasai in Tanzania experience marginalization not only by people from other ethnic groups, but also by some state representatives. The survey also notices that the problem faces other pastoralists in Africa too. This marginalization of the Maasai in Tanzania has aroused some initiatives to curb the situation, which I will discuss in the next subtopic.

Initiatives to Curb Maasai Marginalization

There are some efforts dealing with the problem of marginalization of the Maasai from different individuals, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the Parliament, and the government itself. In this section, I will briefly discuss how one particular NGO and the government have addressed the issue.

In what the American anthropologist Dorothy Hodgson refers to as “cultural politics of representation, recognition, resources, and rights,” she asserts that long-marginalized peoples in Africa and elsewhere have witnessed a popping up of different organizations trying to help to improve their situations.16 The Maasai ←5 | 6→of Tanzania have also witnessed this coming of NGOs claiming to help them improve their situation. Hodgson examines the emergence and embrace of transnational advocacy in the form of the indigenous rights movements of Maasai activists in the 1990s.17 On the one hand, these NGOs sometimes are accused of prioritizing their economic benefits and sidelining advocating for Maasai, something that brings their credibility into doubt. Being funded from abroad, some of them have shown a character of biases by inclining towards the Maasai too much and showing hostility to both the government and investors. Despite all this, on the other hand, signs of making the Maasai voices louder are evident in the area.

For example, the PINGO’s Forum18 is trying to improve the situation of the Maasai. In terms of its purpose, PINGO’s Forum is a human rights and development network that seeks to advocate and support the development of competencies on sustainable livelihoods of pastoralist and hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania.19 PINGO’s Forum has been working in Maasai areas in collaboration with other NGOs to try and amplify the voices of Maasai semi-nomads whenever they are mistreated. PINGO’s Forum works by lobbying and advocating for change in governance and human rights (social, economic, political and cultural rights), capacity building of member civil society organizations and other key stakeholders, and networking with likeminded organizations with similar objectives with PINGO’s Forum or interested in the livelihoods of pastoralists and hunter-gathers.20

As far as I can see, PINGO’s Forum, on the one hand, has shown strengths in standing with the Maasai by trying to task the government to do something regarding pastoralists’ rights. With these efforts, PINGO’s Forum tasks the government to abstain from negligence with regard to the land problems and socio-cultural marginalization of the Maasai. PINGO’s Forum has created an awareness by exposing the rights the Maasai deserve. On the other hand, PINGO’s Forum lacks strategies in dealing with conflicting parties, especially on the land issue in the Maasai area. It overlooks other patrons of the land by standing with the Maasai only, something that may support the accusation of PINGO’s Forum working on a biased basis. Empowering the Maasai as PINGO’s Forum is doing is only one thing; solving the land and socio-cultural marginalization problem for the Maasai needs collaboration with other patrons like farmers and the government itself. A gap in addressing the issue exists, and there might be a need for another perspective that will try to enable the Maasai to sit together with their competitors and negotiate a way forward.


VIII, 228
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 228 pp.

Biographical notes

Zephania Shila Nkesela (Author)

Zephania Shila Nkesela is General Secretary of Central Diocese, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. The present work is a revised version of his PhD thesis at VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway, where he was part of VID’s Maasai/Bible Project.


Title: A Maasai Encounter with the Bible
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
238 pages