Scholar and author of ‘When Maasaiphobia Became Policy’, Leiyo Singo, believes Maasaiphobia (prejudice held against the Maasai) in Tanzania has some roots in the country’s educational system: ‘The education system in Tanzania, and Africa in that matter, offers the African child the opportunity to embrace Western form of education but teaches him or her to abandon, despise or even hate that which is called traditional knowledge, customs, and traditions.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up in a pastoral village in northern Tanzania was challenging. Like many of their generation, neither of my parents ever went to school. Our lives were preoccupied with animal husbandry, and everything was learnt by doing, not reading! The primary school I went to hardly had any books. Apart from our exercise books we only read official letters from the government office to our parents and/or Christian brochures from Father Moot—a white man who then served as catholic priest in the village.
So, my reading only picked up in 2005 when I joined secondary school. There they had a small but rich library. I enjoyed reading history books and classics by African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Henry Ole Kulet, and Peter Abrahams among others. Some of their works were compulsory readings for English literature classes.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
This is somehow difficult to imagine but what quickly comes to mind is Africans: A Triple Heritage by the late Prof. Ali Mazrui and Is It Possible? by Henry Ole Kulet. Mazrui’s is a book and documentary that portrays the competing influences of indigenous heritage, Eurocentric capitalism, and Islam to the current condition of Africa(ns). Ole Kulet’s book addresses the same issues (modernization and globalization) but to a specific Maasai context. ‘Is it possible to hold a spear and stick on the one hand, and a book and pen on the other?’ he asks. He articulately tackles this question in the novel by maintaining that it is possible for a Maasai to simultaneously seek modern education and get integrated into the socio-economic and political life of a modern nation-state while keeping the Maasai ideals of duty and manhood.
The education system in Tanzania, and Africa in that matter, offers the African child the opportunity to embrace Western form of education but teaches him or her to abandon, despise or even hate that which is called traditional knowledge, customs, and traditions. I was beaten up in school several times for speaking my mother tongue! Anything Maasai, be it language, name, dress, food, livelihood, and way of life was and still is presented as something backward and primitive. I found so much solace reading Ole Kulet’s novel; I found one book that spoke to my world. I later discovered other authors that I have just mentioned, who celebrate the African indigenous identities and worldviews. I learnt to decolonize my mind and self-decolonization must be ongoing or else you get lost.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I read an article recently published in the Journal of Environmental Education Research. The study was carried out in Ngorongoro Districts within the Loliondo game-controlled area, in northern Tanzania. The title of the article is quite telling: ‘Can Knowledge and Understanding Alter Locals’ Views and Attitudes Towards Ecosystem Services?’ The first question that came to my mind before reading the article is ‘whose knowledge?’
The paper draws the otherwise obvious conclusions: ‘the education programme (referring to the educational programme facilitated by AfricanBioServices) to an increase in knowledge about the ecosystem services and improved students’ views and attitudes towards nature and natural resources.’
Now, these observations are typical of the colonial racist conservation model that is being imposed on indigenous peoples and their lands. Unmerited arrogance of these so-called researchers portrays the local people in Loliondo as unknowledgeable environmental villains. Mind you this article was published immediately following the state-sponsored land grabbing in Loliondo which has left people injured, community leaders jailed, and many others being forced to seek refuge in Kenya! Then you have a research article claiming that peoples’ attitudes toward nature or conservation in that matter, have improved: ‘Such positive effects of educational programmes in schools around protected areas would imply substantial importance for the appreciation and conservation of natural resources in and around these vulnerable areas.’ Who are these authors? And who were the reviewers of this paper? I am asking precisely because these kinds of so-called academic papers are used as scientific evidence to justify violence against indigenous peoples. And it is immoral for one to make an academic career out of such kind of research.
My reading only picked up in 2005 when I joined secondary school. There they had a small but rich library. I enjoyed reading history books and classics by African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Henry Ole Kulet, and Peter Abrahams among others.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I have been reading the works of a militant decolonial thinker, Frantz Fanon. His theorization of violence has radicalized my view on the issue of violence. Often violence is regarded as immoral. However, violence is constantly on the doorsteps of the ‘Other’ i.e., indigenous, Black, poor, or migrant people. In fact, violence is only immoral if it is visited upon the privileged. Fanon extols revolutionary violence as a method of reinventing society. He constantly speaks of creating a new man and new humanity founded on principles of justice and equality. Violence plays a crucial role in creation of such a society but only if it is politically mobilized and organized.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Both, I would say. I liken writing to cooking and dinning. What makes a great dish? Of course, the content or how it is cooked matters but how it is presented and served also matters a great deal. Food presentation is meant to enhance food’s aesthetic appeal: it should appeal to your senses—mouth, nose, and eyes. I think that is how it is with any text: yes, the content matters but how it is written is what captivates my senses and makes me keep reading that text. Just like a serious chef a serious writer must be creative in the presentation of their product.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I normally edit as I write: I think I’m a perfectionist sort of. I try to get everything perfect at once. I don’t like reworking a draft!
It was tough and frustrating because of the context within which that text was produced. We were mobilizing against the state-sponsored land grabbing in the name of conservation. The situation was tense at that moment; people were being hurt physically and psychologically, and others were being arrested. So, I wanted to communicate to external audiences what was happening in Ngorongoro from a grounded perspective. The initial plan was to have a 1,500 to 2,000 words piece of analysis, but I ended up with a more-than-2000-words piece because there was a lot to write about. There were a lot to deconstruct but writing was also a way to breathe out my frustration and anger.
In the essay, you referred to two specific plans by the Tanzanian government to grab land from the Maasai under the pretext of wildlife conservation. Has there been any developments since then?
First, the government went on to grabbing the 1,500 km2 in Loliondo by declaring the establishment of Pololeti Game Reserve. In another incidence, the East African Court of Justice, after several postponements, ruled that Tanzania’s government decision to cordon off land for wildlife protection was legal. The court’s judgement is disappointing but not unexpected. In the text I wrote about a colonial mentality that shapes state’s policy and practice and the courts of law are parts and parcels of the state system. The spirit of the law is inherently against the interests and ways of indigenous people assumed to be unmodern and, therefore, unfit or unworthy of retention. That is why a number of so-called development partners are backing the decisions and actions of the government of Tanzania and, of course, because they have vested interest in the safari industry
Secondly, some people have moved out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) to start a new life elsewhere. The sustainability of their lives in that different locale is something to watch. Many other people have stayed back within the NCA, and they keep on reproducing, so their population increase is guaranteed. However, the government is mute on what will happen next: another relocation, and to where?
But as the spirit of our ancestors conquered enkata e muta (the era of imminent extinction), so too shall we conquer the new agents of extermination. Long live the indigenous peoples of the world.
The education system in Tanzania, and Africa in that matter, offers the African child the opportunity to embrace Western form of education but teaches him or her to abandon, despise or even hate that which is called traditional knowledge, customs, and traditions.
Beyond the area of conservation, in what other ways and areas does Maasaiphobia manifest?
Maasaiphobia are prejudices held against the Maasai as a culturally distinct group. It is rampant in the media, schools, and other service delivery points like health centre. Such prejudices are also noticeable in daladalas (mini-buses), and marketplaces. A significant number of Maasai lack a good command of Swahili, the national language, and that linguistic divide often gets in the way of service delivery. Their lack of mastery of the national language renders them ‘the lesser/outsiders/strangers’ or somehow non-legitimate and the problem. In fact, in big cities like Dar es Salaam, the Maasai are denied entrance to some restaurants and night clubs. One of such clubs had a notice on its entrance that reads ‘Wamasai hawaruhusiwi’ (‘No entrance for the Maasai’). It is very hard to imagine such a thing in a country like Tanzania that is well praised for its national cohesion.
And to what extent, if at all, are the experiences of the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya similar? (Does this same issue of Maasaiphobia occur across the border?)
The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania share the same history of land loss and ongoing othering and social destitution. As pastoralists, they have been misunderstood and their way of life stereotyped by mainstream communities in both countries. I remember a famous TV series in Kenya called Vioja Mahakamani in which a main character, one Oleksanda represents a Maasai man. Oleksanda is presented, or rather represents himself as someone who is uninformed, uncivilized, primitive and an embarrassment. In practice, such stereotypical representations of the Maasai have made marginalization, exclusion discrimination and dispossession legitimate in government policy making circles in the two countries.
Ironically, both countries also capitalize on the commodification of the Maasai identity and personhood in promoting tourism. Whether at the airport in Dar es Salaam, a hotel in Nairobi or a beach restaurant in Mombasa, tourists are lured by photos of a Maasai tribesman in his traditional attire, armed with his spear, looking towards the rising sun from the solitude of the endless plains.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
There have been many of them, but I will refer to one I received from someone who read my article, ‘Stop Blaming Pastoralists for Climate Change’. First, he advised me to have a Swahili version of that piece of writing in a way that is easily understood by the common man or woman. The misconceptions about pastoralists and pastoralism are rampant in our society, even among those sections of the civil society working to empower these people. He said this stressing his point on why a simple version of the article is needed in Swahili. Second, he ended his advice with a wish which remains a challenge to me: ‘Natumai utabaki na msimamo huo huo’ (‘I hope you will maintain this political/ideological position’). There is a tendency whereby engaged scholars and radical activists tend to abandon their commitment to radical politics due to either intimidation or co-optation.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Imagine writing a letter to someone,’ my mentor told me. A letter has a very specific and clear theme, and it is personal. The message here is that it is important to have a clear message for any academic or non-academic piece of writing, clarity matters. Secondly, the author should own a text—you should be seen in your own text. This makes a text lively, and a part of ourselves.
I liken writing to cooking and dinning. What makes a great dish? Of course, the content or how it is cooked matters but how it is presented and served also matters a great deal.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
One is Frantz Fanon. His diagnosis of racial capitalism, under-development and leadership in the postcolonial Third World is timeless and indeed prophetic. In his classic The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon calls for the invention of the new humanity, different from what Europe has created:
leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe… When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders…
It is interesting that Fanon uttered these words in the 1960s and today, amidst the mounting socio-ecological crisis, the European Degrowth Movement is calling for creation of a new society driven by ‘prosperity without growth’.
Fanon saw a folly of pursuing infinite growth in a finite planet. He admonished the post-independence leaders of the Third World not to imitate Europe, and instead invent a new man and new society which Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth. Equally, Fanon was unforgiving in his critique of the elites in under-developed countries. He saw their intellectual laziness, spiritual penury, and lack of practical links with the masses as an obstacle to inventing a new humanity he longed for.
Alongside decolonial authors like Fanon, I am also developing interest on feminist thinkers like Bell Hooks whom I recently discovered. She offers an easy exposition of the feminist theory from the perspective of otherness. Her emphasis on the intersection between gender, class, race, and capitalism provide a holistic view on systems that produce and perpetuate oppression.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
Nowadays I read a lot on decolonial theory and racial capitalism because of my interest in indigenous peoples’ rights in the age of the multifaceted crisis. I have finished reading Decolonizing Politics by Robbie Shilliam and I am now reading Colonialism and Modern Social Theory by Gurminder Bhambra and John Holmwood, and Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century: Living Theories and True Ideas by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Morgan Ndlovu. These theoretical works provide compelling conceptual understanding of what is wrong with all that is happening around us, be it colonial conservation, climate change or any other policy domain. Gatsheni and Morgan Ndlovu. These theoretical works provide compelling conceptual understanding of what is wrong with all that is happening around us, be it colonial conservation, climate change or any other policy domain.
What are you currently working on?
I am part of an interdisciplinary research project on Visions of Socio-ecological Transformation and their Ethical Deliberation in Tanzania. We explore conceptions of land-use endorsed by Tanzanian smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Given that debates on the envisioning of a flourishing life are contentious, we aim to make visible marginalized visions of a good life imagined by groups such as pastoralists.
I am learning a lot about fatherhood and feminism. Yes, fathering a daughter makes one a feminist!
Question from Leena Koni Hoffmann: What keeps you up at night?
My little one and half year-old daughter. Aside the PhD thesis and all other works, she now commands a bigger part of my attention. I am learning a lot about fatherhood and feminism. Yes, fathering a daughter makes one a feminist! Staying at home makes you appreciates the seriousness of care labour: babysitting, preparing meals and putting the house in order is just draining especially with no relatives around. Our daughter was born in a foreign land (Germany) in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, you can imagine how demanding it was. However, I am glad that the circumstances made it possible for me to be even closer to my spouse and daughter than I could otherwise have been.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What motivates you to write (and how much are you satisfied with your writing)?⎈
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