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Tribal elder modernizing the Maasai to avoid extinction

From Diane McCarthy, CNN
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Fri July 26, 2013
Martin Saning'o Kariongi (right), a respected Maasai elder in northern Tanzania, has made it his life's mission to save his people's way of life whilst helping them adapt to a changing world. Martin Saning'o Kariongi (right), a respected Maasai elder in northern Tanzania, has made it his life's mission to save his people's way of life whilst helping them adapt to a changing world.
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A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
A modern take on Maasai culture
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maasai activist helping his people adapt to the 21st century
  • Martin Saning'o Kariongi is working to protect his people's land rights in northern Tanzania
  • He is encouraging gender equality within his tribe

(CNN) -- For centuries, the lush national parks of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania have been called home by the Maasai, one of Africa's most culturally district tribes.

Being traditional pastoralists with a nomadic bent, the Maasai have used the sprawling grasslands and forested slopes of the Serengeti National Park, Tsavo National Park and Mkomazi Game Reserve as a grazing ground for their cattle, which provide them with the milk, meat and blood they need to survive.

But lately, these rich lands have also lured many outsiders, including large-scale hunting companies, threatening the traditional Maasai way of living.

Ancient Maasai culture in the modern world
Saving the Maasai lands
Empowering Maasai's women

"The riches and the wealth that come out of it is actually flying away from Maasai land by the rich and powerful people," says Martin Saning'o Kariongi, with a wry smile. "Maasai land is a very rich country, or rich region, but the owners, the inhabitants, are amongst the poorest in the world. It's very sad but that's the reality."

Read this: Maasai tribe's 'last stand'

Aware of the precarious position his tribe finds itself in, Kariongi, a well-respected Maasai community leader, has made it his life's work to save his people and their way of life, whilst helping them adapt to a changing world.

As one of the few of his generation to make it through high school and further education, Kariongi started his work as a social development activist in the early 1990s, after spending time studying in Europe. Upon his return to Tanzania, he organized a legal campaign opposing a government-forced eviction of Maasai people from the country's Simanjiro plains.

The High Court of Tanzania ruled in favor of the Maasai and soon Kariongi was working to improve the economic conditions of his people too.

"Around 2000 we started to think that despite the whole struggle for land rights and human rights of the Maasai people, poverty is growing and so many of our young people are rushing into cities," recalls Kariongi. "That's when we actually said we have to find a way to create opportunities for community economic empowerment."

Generations come and go, and each generation puts its own firewood on the fire and the fire is the culture.
Martin Saning'o Kariongi, Maasai leader

Read this: 'Education is the road out of poverty'

Kariongi's first idea for self-sustainability was to turn the resources available to the Maasai -- their animals and abundant milk -- into an opportunity to create wealth for his people.

Working together with a SHGW, a Dutch NGO dedicated to promoting sustainable development in rural regions of the developing world, they launched a company and established five small milk processing units in five locations around the Maasai plains.

From milking the herds to processing the milk and producing the dairy products, the business is run entirely by women. The units can process up to 2,000 liters a day, making cheese, yoghurt, butter and ghee.

"We started the milk processing plant as one way of finding a ready market for the women," says Kariongi, who's based his social development plan on gender equality. "As an economic project that will create a market where women can sell milk and engage in a cash economy," he adds.

"It has been going on now for the last five years and the life of the people, the life of the families have changed dramatically and women are making so much money."

Today, the company has grown to include many arms, from an energy and water firm, to a media house producing broadcasts tailored for the Maasai, to a community ranch that helps improve access to quality breeds.

They are all growing organically, based on a strict business model.

"The social investor who is investing in us is investing as an investor, not as a donor," explains Kariongi, who is a strong opponent of handouts. "This social business mentality is actually creating opportunities to awaken our entrepreneurial nature; that we use our own locally available resources to create wealth and to create sustainability within ourselves to come out of poverty, rather than depending on aid," he says.

Read this: Good African Coffee wants trade, not aid

It's all part of Kariongi's determination to help his people adapt, intact, to the 21st century and avoid extinction.

"We have created facilities here -- the radio station, the milk processing plant, the energy and water company, the internet, the library -- all these facilities to bring modern life to people, so they don't have to rush to towns," says Kariongi. "When we lost our sons and daughters, rushed into towns, our women going to towns, then our lands will become empty and we might end up in an extinction."

He adds: "Culture is not static; culture is dynamic, it grows; it's like a fire -- In order for the fire to keep on burning and giving light and heat, somebody has to be putting new fire wood. And the culture is like that -- so generations come and go, and each generation puts its own firewood on the fire and the fire is the culture."

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