The trouble with Maasai boys

<Uwiro, Tanzania – A drought in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northwest Tanzania claimed the lives of more than 200 children in 2011. The dry season and unsure rains mean that the Maasai children that live in the region are still at risk.

It may be the boys who are at the greatest risk.

Girls fall behind at an early age compared to their male peers around the world. The semi-nomadic Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania are known for their male warriors, the morani. The masculine culture would lead one to conclude that the problems start with the girls, but it is the Maasai boys who are in trouble.

Boys traditionally take care of the cattle during the day, leaving them with little to eat for a day that requires a lot of walking and work. An analysis of the body mass index (BMI) of school-age boys and girls (between seven and nineteen years old) in the region shows a stark divide. Malnutrition is striking at a point of vital development for all children.

DSC_0095“We held a community meeting and people had no idea,” said Silvia Ceppi, scientific adviser for the Italian NGO Oikos.

The hidden problem is in part due to the cultural structure of the Maasai. The girls are the ones who bring in money for a family when they are married. That means that they hold higher immediate value than their brothers for a family. Ceppi hypothesizes that this may contribute to a greater early investment in girls than in the boys.

It could also be a function of gender roles in the community. While the boys are out all day tending to the cattle in the fields, the girls are doing the work at home which includes cooking.

“The girls learn at a very young age how to cook for the family,” said Ceppi.

She suspects the girls can take some small bits of food while they are cooking, in addition to the food that they are already eating. Many girls still are malnourished.

Oikos tried to work with the local schools to launch a feeding and farm program. The aim was to provide children with a meal each day so that they could at least remain attentive at school. Ceppi described students falling asleep during class because they did not have the energy to stay awake. Providing some food could solve that problem and help lessen the problem of malnutrition.

Unfortunately it has not been so easy. Getting the community members to lead the work is rather difficult. Some schools flat out refuse to have any part with the program. It includes the re-appropriation of the school grounds to farming, something that was once government directed. Oikos directed the growing of vegetables and fruit on the plots to little success.

“Growing greens and fruit was not the most culturally appropriate decision,” admitted Ceppi.

The Maasai ceased migrating four decades ago, but livestock remains largely their way of life. Some grow crops and purchase vegetables from the market more than 10 km away, but the pastoral drive that brought them to the Arusha region persists. It is in part what contributes to the food insecurity of the tribe.

“Once the men are out of the household they have better food access than woman,” said Ceppi.

The gender value flips as the men marry and the women are given away. As they have children and take on more wives, the role of the man in the household decreases.

img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-61285″ title=”” src=”http://www.humanosphere.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/DSC_00931-300×199.jpg” alt=”DSC_0093″ width=”300″ height=”199″ />Julias Ngulupa, 47, wakes up each morning to count the cattle in the center of his boma (household). He eats his breakfast, a varied combination of maize meal, milk, and poridge, and then watches over the boma.

Each male has a little perch where he can site in the boma. He gets another meal at the end of the day, but it is left for the girls to fetch water and firewood, make food and milk the cows.

Getting to that point is not so easy for boys when faced with malnutrition.

Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP). 

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.