Students of Noonkodin mix with children from the local primary school on their shared sports field (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

Students of Noonkodin mix with children from the local primary school on their shared sports field (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

Conserving Maasai Knowledge

Intercultural Education in Tanzania


Noonkodin school began as a gathering of Maasai youths beneath the shade of an Orng’oswa tree (Balanites aegyptiaca), keen to gain access to an education that would improve their future prospects. At the time there was no secondary school in Eluwai or any of the other three villages in the ward of Monduli Juu (meaning Monduli ‘in the sky’ due to its altitude). Now over 200 boarding students attend Noonkodin, the majority of which are Maasai, although other local tribes including Chagga, Meru, Arusha and Iraqw are also represented in the student body. The buildings are made of concrete and bricks and solar panels fuel the classrooms, computer lab, teachers’ offices, and accommodation. The quad in the centre is planted with small trees and medicinal herbs, which are occasionally grazed by stray donkeys or goats. A new library was opened in 2013, with well-lit study areas so that students can do homework in the evening. When the sun retreats Noonkodin is left in pitch darkness due to the glorious lack of light pollution in this remote village in the bush.

The students of Noonkodin are lucky not just to have access to a secondary school education, but to be able to access education without having to move to the town. Eluwai is situated in Monduli District in the Arusha region of northern Tanzania, 50km north-west of the city of Arusha. About 86% of households in Monduli district are rural while the rest are peri-urban. According to the Economic Development Initiative, over 50% of the rural population lives below the Basic Needs Poverty Line, and literacy is as low as 38% (and worse among females). As few as 6% of secondary school age children in rural areas live within 30 minutes of a secondary school, although around two thirds of children do attend primary school.

A student from Noonkodin sports his traditional robes over his school uniform. (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

A student from Noonkodin sports his traditional robes over his school uniform. (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

The village of Eluwai itself is relatively isolated, even by Monduli standards, with access only possible by foot, motorcycle or four by four vehicle. In the rainy season even walking the paths to the village can be difficult (at least to unpracticed feet) due to the black cotton soil which retains water so poorly that the paths turn into streams of mud so sticky it’s difficult to lift your feet clad in their mud-caked boots. You might even be tempted to just squelch on barefoot and risk the thorns of the acacia trees which dominate the landscape and give Eluwai its name.

The Whistling Thorn or Gall Acacia (Acacia drepanolobium), named Eluwai in Maa (the Maasai language), forms a shrubby land cover all over the landscape and is an important medicine for both humans and livestock. The village when viewed from the hill is like a dot-to-dot puzzle of traditional round Maasai homesteads called bomas, made from mud and branches, some with fields marked out by rows of katani plants (Agave sisilana). The population subsists predominantly off of the produce from their animals and in recent years their crops of maize and beans, as well as a few groceries from the market in the next village, Emairete, such as sugar and rice. Fuel, building materials and medicines are found in the forest, although modern medicines are also accessible in Monduli town, an hour’s journey away, or at the Christian clinic in Emairete. During the wet season young boys can be seen with their herds of cows, goats and sheep grazing across the hot plains (orpukel). In the dry season the warriors must move the livestock up into the highlands (osupuko), or even travel away from the village for weeks or perhaps months at a time to find fresh pastures.

Women are met on the paths, carrying firewood or water from the muddy reservoir which is the only water source, babies slung across their backs, sometimes with forlorn donkeys to share the load. The men are usually found snoozing under trees or at one of the boma-come-bars drinking the local brew of gongo, made from fermented wheat and bananas. Everyone you meet on the mud tracks greets each other: men and young warriors with their hand carved staffs, women in their colourful beaded jewellery, and children in worn-out jumpers. The sense of community is strong here, and warm genuine smiles and laughter are abundant (although I think I was often the cause of laughter, a strange white girl with even stranger five-fingered running shoes attempting to talk in Kimaasai). The hardships are obvious, but one can’t shake the idealist belief that in many ways, this is better than what the ‘modern’ world offers.

Traditionally a nomadic people, the Maasai occupy the southern part of Kenya and northern districts of Tanzania, an area of about 150,000 km2 of mostly arid land. As livestock keepers, the Maasai traditionally subsisted on milk, blood and meat products from
their cows, sheep and goats, as well as wild foods such as berries. Meat hunted from the wild is heavily tabooed in Maasai culture, and hunter-gather tribes are viewed as ‘primitive’ for the way they obtain their meat.

The Maasai's huge knowledge base about the plants and animals in their rangelands stems from their intimate connection to the environment, which they rely on to sustain themselves and their animals. Many contemporary scientists view pastoralism as an ecologically sustainable way to use arid grasslands, and to cope with their variability. This suggests that the Maasai could have a lot to contribute to sustainable rural development on the vast plains of Kenya and Tanzania that are Maasailand, and could play an important role in conservation. At Ngorongoro
Conservation Area, also in the Arusha region and bordering Serengeti national park, the Maasai villages have been allowed to remain for now and boys and men can be seen grazing their animals next to herds of wild animals.

Women sharing work in the home (Photo Serian UK)

Women sharing work in the home (Photo Serian UK)

Since the colonial era, traditional cultural knowledge has been subordinated, often deemed rudimentary and naïve, unimportant to a modern society, and in the west most of us have forgotten a lot. But conservationists, agronomists, resource managers, development officials, pharmaceutical developers, and governments have begun to recognize its value in recent years. Traditional knowledge is tried and tested, often over hundreds or even thousands of years. It is extremely detailed on a local level, and as such can be a fundamental resource in prescribing solutions to local challenges. It is undeniable that traditional knowledge can play a role in local sustainable development, as well as contributing to our understanding of global challenges, such as climate change, drug development (take malaria for example), sustainable agriculture, and a whole plethora of other issues. But its value is rarely reflected in formal education systems, a shortfall which desperately needs to be addressed, especially in developing nations where so much traditional knowledge can still be saved.

Access to education is a fundamental human right laid down by the UN and UNESCO as an international legal obligation. It is a necessary tool to level the playing field for indigenous citizens so that they may participate fully in the affairs of a Nation State, and to take control of their own future. Maasai youths empowered through education could come up with equitable solutions to the challenges facing their communities. But while formal education is undoubtedly a vital tool, where does this leave cultural knowledge? What can an old tribesman who has never left the area teach you that will come up on a university entry test? And when will you have time to ask him if you’ve moved to town to attend school? This is a conflict that desperately needs to be addressed. More and more traditional knowledge is forgotten each year as elders pass away, leaving no written record of centuries of cultural knowledge passed through generations by word of mouth. In Maasai culture much of this knowledge is passed on through stories and songs, and through the day-to-day work in which children participate. Who will be the future guardians of this knowledge if their children have been too busy learning Math and English?

It is well recognized that formal education, dominated by ‘western’ knowledge, is a factor in the erosion of traditional cultural knowledge. It competes with time spent at home, and home is where cultural knowledge is usually learned. Barbara Rogoff, an educator and professor of psychology at UCSC, coined the term ‘guided participation in cultural activities’ to describe the process of learning that indigenous youths undergo. From helping your mother to gather medicinal herbs, participating in work on the land, running errands, or watching your father treat a sick cow, everyday activities are training for life in indigenous settings. Most experts believe that by age twelve, indigenous youths will have an adult level of theoretical knowledge about their environment and cultural activities, although some skills may be honed later. Put simply, childhood is an apprenticeship for life.

An elder chews a twig from the ‘toothbrush tree’ (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

An elder chews a twig from the ‘toothbrush tree’ (Photo Jennie Leigh Harvey)

In Maasai society, males pass through three distinct stages: boyhood, warriorhood (junior and senior), and elderhood, each marked by rituals and ceremonies. Approximately every 15 years boys around the age of 15 are circumcised, marking their passage to junior warriorhood, and all those circumcised travel through warriorhood together as a generation of morans (warriors). Elders are responsible for training morans in how to be tough, how to handle and treat animals, how to prepare herbal concoctions for stimulating libido, and traditional ethics. Young boys, called laiyons, are given chores such as herding near the homestead. Junior warriors are old enough to take care of themselves, and are often sent away on ronjo, herding their families’ cattle away from home to find fresh pastures during the dry season. Ronjo can keep the morans away from home for weeks or even months at a time; one senior moran I spoke to told me he had been away for two years when there was a drought (notably, he exceeded his peers in medicinal plant knowledge by miles, even his brother who was a seller of traditional medicines in the town). On ronjo, morans must rely on their knowledge of wild plant resources for food and for medicine to treat themselves and their animals. They must put into practice the skills they have learnt from their fathers,continue to learn from elders and peers that they meet while away, and of course pick up from experience.

Females must also learn how to use wild resources, but their apprenticeship is in the home where they learn female chores from their mothers such as milking, fetching water, building houses, cooking, sewing, and taking care of children. By observing their mothers they learn herbalism as well as animal care. Traditionally, Maasai girls are circumcised at puberty and are then eligible for marriage, but in Monduli the council voted to outlaw this practice years ago, and it is now uncommon. It is still common for girls to marry young though, and in their marital home they continue to build on the skills they learnt in childhood, often learning from their husbands who may be significantly older, as well as the older women (sometimes older wives of their husband) with whom they carry out communal chores.

My Master’s research in Eluwai focused on Maasai veterinary medicines and how formal schooling interacts with the transmission of knowledge about these. In Eluwai, almost everyone I spoke to, both students and their uneducated peers and elders, said that traditional medicines were important to maintaining the health of their herds. They told me that ‘artificial’ medicine (western allopathic treatments), were sometimes effective but were too expensive, and that they had side-effects or worst of all could kill if administered incorrectly. Since the literacy rate is so low in Monduli, giving the wrong dosage is an easy mistake to make. Scientific research has proven the efficacy of many of the Maasai’s traditional remedies for both humans and animals, and traditional medicine is free and local, as well as trusted. When I walked into the forest with my interpreter, Samwel, I was amazed at his knowledge of his local environment. Almost any plant I pointed to Samwel could at least name, and he told me the uses of most: from construction, to medicine, to packing with your clothes to keep them smelling fresh. If you know it well, the forest is a pharmacy, hardware store, and grocer.

Since the colonial era much of the Maasai’s original land has been lost: some has been ceded to rival tribes practicing agriculture, yet more passed into state or private hands, and set aside for conservation efforts and wildlife tourism. Traditional pastoralism has been driven to the drier plains, and many Maasai have diversified into agriculture, tending crops of maize and beans in shambas (family farms) in permanent villages. In Tanzania, these villages were created under the socialist regime’s sedentarization program during the 1960s and 70s, which aimed to create permanent settlements where it could provide services to all of its citizens. It was under one such scheme, Operation Imparnati, that the villages of Monduli Juu were born. Many Maasai have also drifted to cities where they have joined in the monetary economy of the Nation State, although most maintain their indigenous identity through the traditional dress of bold red, purple, and blue robes. In recent years, many Monduli youths have been participating in this rural to urban migration, fuelled by dispossession and dreams of education, work, and financial prosperity. Most work in poorly paid wage labour jobs and live in poverty.

In Eluwai, a small group of people are trying to find a balance between preserving Maasai culture and knowledge, and giving young people the opportunities afforded by a formal education. They are also helping to reduce outmigration from the district. Intercultural education is an approach that takes the best of the traditional, and brings it alongside ‘modern’ school curricula. It has arisen across the world out of indigenous peoples’ dissatisfaction with formal education systems that assimilate their children into a dominant national society and repress cultural diversity. It works on principles of equality, democracy, respect for diversity, and on the basis of an understanding that indigenous peoples have the right to a culturally appropriate education. Indeed, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning”. Intercultural education can be a tool in the fight to maintain cultural identity, values, knowledge and practices.

Noonkodin school, established in 2005, attempts to provide a less biased education for indigenous youths through its own unique intercultural curriculum. Founded by the organizers of a local youth festival in Arusha city, with the help of a visiting graduate student from the UK, Tanzanian NGO Aang Serian (meaning “House of Peace” in Kimaasai) conceived of an idea to create a school for rural youths which would provide them with a ‘modern’ education while also promoting cultural identity, self-esteem, and local knowledge.

Students enjoy modern classrooms now, but Noonkodin started with just a few students and teachers under the shade of a tree (Photo Serian UK)

Students enjoy modern classrooms now, but Noonkodin started with just a few students and teachers under the shade of a tree (Photo Serian UK)

In Tanzania, mainstream education teaches core subjects of math, English, Kiswahili, chemistry, physics and biology, history, geography, civics and religion. Teaching in English is mandatory (except in Kiswahili class), although throughout primary school all students are taught in Kiswahili. Over 120 languages are spoken in total in Tanzania. That means that to complete what we in the west would consider a basic education, students must first master Kiswahili, which is often a second language, then grapple with a third language, English, in order to pass secondary school. Local knowledge is encoded in language and told through traditional songs and stories, so the practice of teaching in dominant languages itself likely contributes to the erosion of cultural knowledge.

Noonkodin’s Indigenous Knowledge Program involves local experts such as community elders in the teaching of local cultural knowledge. Students learn traditional medicine, cooking, construction, songs, stories and crafts, which make up an extracurricular course. There are plans to teach traditional veterinary medicine when funds are available to develop the course. Students also learn ethnobotanical research methods based on the course completed by graduate students on the University of Kent’s Master of Science in Ethnobotany program, and they are encouraged to carry out self-led projects documenting local environmental knowledge during the summer holidays. These methods include carrying out botanical surveys, interview techniques, and anthropological methods such as freelisting, an activity, which helps to work out which plants are the most important or well-known locally. One student knocked on the door to my little bedroom hut one day to proudly present to me his own ethnobotanical project, which documented medicinal plants used in his home village of Engaruka, just over the mountain from Eluwai. He had completed this research during his summer holiday a couple years previous, while also looking after his uncle’s herds. He was a final year student, 18 years old (although his class ranged in age from 16 to 30-something), and he told me about his plans to develop a cultural and environmental tourism project in his village when he finishes school.

The Tanzanian government presently refuses to accept the Indigenous Knowledge Program for academic accreditation, but the courses are popular with students, and help to offset the impact that time spent in school has on the cultural knowledge they would learn at home. Perhaps the most successful outcome of the program is the students’ pride in their heritage, and their attitude toward traditional cultural knowledge. My own research at Noonkodin sadly highlighted that many students are unfamiliar with traditional veterinary medicines, while their unschooled peers were quite knowledgeable, but it also uncovered an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards it. Almost all of the form three and four students who took part in my project said that they needed to know how to treat their animals in the traditional way, that they wanted to know, and that they thought they would need this knowledge in the future. Reasons were that they know traditional medicines are effective, and they are cheaper than ‘artificial’ medicines, which you must buy from the vet or the shop in town. One student, a 20-year-old male in form three told me “I need to learn (traditional veterinary medicines), because animals are our tradition”. The students’ attitude toward their culture is promising and on the whole the responses I got indicated that students want to learn traditional knowledge as well as studying for vocational qualifications or university. Many told me they wanted to train so that they could come back and help the people of their village. Another boy told me “I want to be a vet for our animals, for the whole community”.

The term ‘traditional’ invokes thoughts of something that is stuck in time and when you think of it like this what use will it be in a ‘modern’ world? But this is misleading, because cultural knowledge constantly evolves, just like ‘western’ scientific knowledge. This fluidity struck me during my time researching medicines in Tanzania. For example, the oldest elders I interviewed knew nothing about how to treat chickens; these are a recent addition to the Maasai homestead, probably as a result of different tribes mixing more, and of increased sedentism. However, many of the young people I interviewed, students and non-students alike, mentioned using Aloe vera to treat Newcastle disease (an eye infection in chickens caused by mites). The knowledge of this remedy may have come, like the chickens, from another local tribe, or it may have come from trial and error. Experimentation is common, and several elders told me that if there is a ‘new’ disease, they try all the medicines they know in the hope that one will work.

Laiyons herd cattle on the dusty tracks (Photo Serian UK)

Laiyons herd cattle on the dusty tracks (Photo Serian UK)

At Noonkodin the Indigenous Knowledge Program is taught by local elders, with practical activities and self-led projects. Although teaching is in English as dictated by the government of Tanzania, the teachers are mostly Maasai, as are the non-teaching staff such as the cook and the guards. Local elders are involved in the Indigenous Knowledge Program, as well as teachers. Importantly, students don’t have to move to town to study, where they would be more influenced by foreign attitudes and influences. Although most of the students aren’t from Eluwai itself, they have the opportunity to stay in their local region, and to live in a traditional, rural village, and be taught by members of their own ethic groups. Most of the students named the plant they knew in Kimaasai or sometimes Kiswahili, and the majority chose to be interviewed in Kimaasai, indicating their confidence and preference in speaking their own language. Modernization cannot be avoided; traditional cultures can’t be locked in a bubble, and education is vital in a modernizing nation. But modernization can be done in a culturally sensitive manner. At Noonkodin students receive the benefit of a formal education, but they are encouraged to remember their roots and respect their heritage, and they learn skills from their own culture as well as from dominant society. In a modernizing world, intercultural education has an important role to play in both preserving cultural knowledge and allowing communities to develop sustainably.

Noonkodin school is exceptional, but it shouldn’t be. Tanzania and other African nations have attempted to include traditional knowledge in their curricula, but with little success. Perhaps the best effort so far was Tanzania’s Education for Self-Reliance program, which taught Tanzanian students traditional knowledge using textbooks, and was assessed with a written test. It is hard to imagine how one learns to prepare a medicine from a special blend of locally sourced herbs, or to build a stable structure entirely from natural materials, from a textbook, without demonstration and practice. As the old African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child.

Early in the morning on my first day at Noonkodin I was woken, slightly dazed and confused, by the students taking their morning exercise in the quad, singing Maasai songs together and dancing in their brightly coloured robes (although they had to change into school uniform after). Most of the teachers are Maasai too, and though they wear smart suits to work, most wear traditional clothes in the evening and at weekends. Some of them took me into the forest that covers the surrounding hills, to see the sacred tree where animal sacrifices are made when the rains fail to come or there is sickness in the herds. In the evenings, the women showed me how cook local foods, and which greens could be found close by to eat with the daily dinner of ugale, a maize porridge that is common in East African diets.

Noonkodin school is a wonderful place and meeting the students who are working so hard to achieve their dreams made me feel a little guilty for how much I took for granted my own education. But while I was humbled by their enthusiasm for learning, I also felt sad to find that they were missing out on much of the knowledge of their elders, despite the successes of the Indigenous Knowledge Program. There is only so much time a student can spend on extra curricula activities when they are studying so hard, in a foreign language, to pass their national exams. Cultural learning needs to happen through every day experience and practice. When you get to grit of it, it’s all about time. Without the government allowing credit to be gained for the study of cultural knowledge in schools, there will inevitably continue to be a competition in which ‘western’ knowledge is going to win. Serian UK are definitely making an impact on students’ cultural pride and attitudes toward their traditions, and it’s a wonderful thing that the students can study out in the bush and live in a traditional village community, but they need more time to spend on the indigenous knowledge course. The world needs greater recognition of the value of traditional cultural knowledge and the challenge of preserving it in a modernizing world where education should not be a luxury.