Stephanie (A tribe of conservationists)

Written by Stephanie Fuchs

Hi my name is Stephanie and I am thrilled to be able to share my story with you.

I live with the Maasai tribe in the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania. My husband is a Maasai warrior and it was out of love for him that I decided to follow him to his traditional family home in the middle of the Tanzanian bush.

Here I work for the preservation of the beautiful Maasai culture which I have come to love in the 8 years I have now lived with them. I love them for many reasons, one of them being that they are innate conservationists. It is probably their way of life, close to nature and in tune with it, that has made it easier for me to adapt to a culture so very different from my own. 

But the thing is, I never wanted an ordinary life. I never wanted that 9-5 office job. I wanted to be free, to be outside, to be able to chose what I do and when I do it. I felt trapped in our neat little village in urban Germany. I felt constricted by our mother who struggled to raise me and my two siblings by herself. I never understood why she was always so unhappy, but I promised myself that I would never ever end up like her.

And I was always passionate about our natural world. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by dolphins, I used to read books that told of legends of men being saved by dolphins at sea, I used to watch documentaries about dolphins protecting ship wrecked people from sharks. My love for dolphins grew a desire in me to go travel the world just to see them, but the more I learned, the more I realised that they were threatened. 

I learned about what humanity was doing to our planet and I got concerned with it. I could not have been older than  8 or 9. And I made it my mission to grow up and live a life that would make a positive difference in our world. 

I studied Biology and Conservation and based my dissertation on two months I spent in Zimbabwe learning about human-elephant conflict. Africa had always been a dream for me, something that I had only known from television. And when I first set foot on this magical continent and saw elephants and lions and giraffes with my own eyes, I knew I would return.

And I did so, only six months after graduation. I had applied to work for a British NGO supervising research carried out with volunteers in a remote part of Tanzania, but did not get the job. So I signed on as a volunteer instead. I was meant to only stay for 5 months, but I knew that I would stay longer, maybe 2 years, maybe forever.

It was during my time with this NGO that I met Sokoine, my husband-to-be. I had moved from our research camp close to the Selous Game Reserve to another camp located on Mafia Island, south of the famous Zanzibar island. I met Sokoine the first day on the island as I was exploring our local village. By that point I had already lived in Tanzania a whole year, learned Swahili and had developed a great affection for the country, its beautiful wildlife but just as much its people.

Myself and some other volunteers bumped into Sokoine and two other Maasai and I was transfixed. I saw only him and thought he had the most beautiful eyes. I did not want this moment to end. I tried to keep them there on the dusty street in the midst of this tiny island village, but they only made a little conversation and were keen to move on.

I cannot say that it was love at first sight. But it was definitely attraction and also fascination.

After a couple of months, I found out that Sokoine was also attracted to me – something that I had never dared to dreamed of. 

We got together one beautiful starry night on that island and married only a year later.

It was out of love for him that I came to live in his traditional Maasai home together with his extended family in the middle of nowhere. It was hard at first to adapt to this way of life. Not because of the harsh environment or the lack of modern commodities like running water or electricity, no, it was cultural differences. It was that he was different here than he had been on the island. We never had privacy, did not spend that much time together and many other things. 

There were many tears and many moments were I felt alone and misunderstood and often I thought about leaving. It was the hardest thing I have ever done – but also the best.

I came to love his family and his tribe so much. They are the kindest, most generous, welcoming and tolerant people I have ever met. They took me in with open arms. The environment they live in is that of deepest Miombo and Acacia bush land. They herd their cattle in the shadow of massive Acacias or drive them through scrub on the way to find water. The ecosystem they live in is intact. They do not fell trees to make way for pasture-lands for their cattle – they leave them be. They work around them. They have the traditional knowledge that trees bring rain and rain brings grass and grass is that which keeps their cattle alive. And I love them for that. 

When I first came and learned so much about their beautiful culture, I thought I had found paradise. I thought that if they just continued to live like that, there will always be a beautiful part of mother nature left on this planet. But the longer I stayed, the more I realised that they face many challenges to keep their culture alive. A culture dependant on nature, a culture dependant on rain and grass and above all this: LAND.

Where we live here in the Maasai Steppe we are not the only tribe. There are many different tribes, some of them also pastoralists but most of them subsistence crop agriculturists. 

If you need to be convinced of the destruction caused by crop agriculture, then please do come and visit our Maasai village. The one neighbouring tribe we share village borders with on all sides, are the Wazigua, and they like to plant maize, the staple diet over much of Tanzania and sub-saharan Africa. 

They also like to fell trees to make room to plant their maize. They also like to have a lot of children. And often they don’t let their daughters go to school and can’t afford to pay for secondary school for their sons. High illiteracy rate, no traditional understanding (like the Maasai) of the value of trees and nature, makes them the number one destroyer of our native woodlands – all for the sake of crops.

When I read articles about how we should stop eating meat for the sake of our planet – I do put my head in my hands. Yes the beef farms responsible for the burning of the Amazon are evil and they are definitely a reason to stop eating meat – if you source your meat from these farms. If you source your meat from grass-fed British beef, then maybe not. And definitely not if you eat meat from Maasai cattle. 

Here in Tanzania it is the indigenous livestock farmers who save and protect the environment. It is the ones who grow the plants for your vegan diet, who destroy trees and water sources.

It is one of the reasons why I sometimes feel lonely in my efforts to preserve the Maasai or their culture: Because so many people believe what they hear say, that the Maasai contribute to global warming with their cattle through methane gas and by overgrazing. Overgrazing can only occur if any one blade of grass is repeatedly chomped on and cut down by grazers in too short a time to regrow. It occurs not  because of the numbers of cattle in one area – it occurs because these cattle spend too much time in this one area. And the reason why cattle spend too much time in any one area, is because these days, they have nowhere else to go. 

I see it where we live every day and I get it confirmed with tales from the Maasai elders who walk me to the borders of our village and tell me that all these houses and villages I now see there had not been there even 15 years ago. Where there is now a neighbouring village of the Zigua tribe (crop agriculturists), there used to be pastureland. Where there was once woodland, there are now maize farms.

Maasai have less land now and therefore less pasture for their cattle to feed on. And much of it has to do with other tribes encroaching onto former pristine land that the Maasai used to use as pastures for their cattle while keeping it ecologically intact. It is an increasing amount of cattle on an ever decreasing area of land available to the Maasai, which causes overgrazing. But this is not the Maasai’s doing.

Like most of our conservation issues, also this one is caused by an every increasing human population. The Wazigua, the ones who are encroaching into Maasai rangelands here in the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania, originate from Tanga, which is on the coast of Tanzania. They have started migrating inland because they have become so many. And this is where they met the beautiful pastures and woodlands that the Maasai had protected for centuries and in which wildlife used to thrive, and turned them into farmlands at the cost of millions of trees and the lives of protected species like elephants and lions.

The Maasai also have too many children. Traditionally they don’t use birth control and have as many children as they can. It is part of their culture as boys help their fathers to herd the cattle and goats and girls help their mothers with household chores. They also contribute to the population pressure from the inside, while other tribes encroach from the outside.

In my efforts to save a culture and a way of life I have come to love, I also educate the Maasai on the benefits of family planning. And not only the benefits of it but of the necessity. In order for them to be able to continue to live like they used to for centuries, they have to reduce their birth rates. 

Many development organisations in Africa promote gender equality and women empowerment incentives. However, very few of them focus on the one, most pressing issue in Africa and most of the developing world: human overpopulation. In many cultures, using contraceptives is an absolute taboo. Many Maasai men would beat their wives if they found out that they use them. But there are ways to go about it.

I for one, hold secret women-only meetings in the bush where I encourage Maasai women to use contraception which is readily available even in many very remote villages in Tanzania. I tell them to try and speak to their husbands if they think they would agree but I also tell them to not speak to those husbands who are known to be violent or unresponsive to a new way of life. And just to do their own thing.

I have also founded an enterprise where I teach Maasai women how to make reusable sanitary kits. I raise funds for materials, we make the kits and then sell them to Maasai communities for a profit, teaching Maasai girls and women about their menses and their bodies, about sexuality and contraception and about the need for girls to go to and stay in school.  

Educating rural communities about why and how they need to have less children, is the one most effective, most sustainable and therefore most pressing issue we need to address as conservationists worldwide. 

Another thing we need to do is give more respect and more rights to indigenous communities. They are innate protectors of the natural world and that is true for most of the indigenous tribes of planet earth. We need to stand up with them when their rights are violated like they have recently been in the Amazon. 

I love Africa, I love Tanzania and our planet’s amazing nature, but above all that, I have come to love humanity in all its beautiful variety. It is us humans who need to come together, who need to make more of an effort to understand and respect each other’s differences, if we are serious about saving our natural world.

For more of Stephanie, follow @masai_story on Instagram

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and have been lonely in conservation projects spanning seven equatorial countries. My brain is 99% random animal facts 🦕

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