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Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
When Aborigines met the Maasai
An Aborigine shares a joke with a Maasai
There are striking similarities in the traditions of the two tribes
By Mandy Rose

Four Australian Aboriginals went to East Africa earlier this year to forge links with the Maasai people and discuss their common experience - the struggle for land rights.

The Aboriginal delegation visited communities in Kenya and Tanzania learning about Maasai culture and their struggle to maintain access to land that is essential for their pastoral way of life.

And the Australians in turn explained to their guests how colonisation had been disastrous for them.

They told a bemused gathering of Tanzanian journalists, that when the European colonisers declared Australia to be "terra nullius" - empty land - it effectively denied an Aboriginal presence there.

Many points of connection emerged between the Aboriginals and the Maasai

For the "first Australians", this has been disastrous as their culture and way of life were wrapped up with the land.

Since the late 1960s when at last Aboriginals were recognised as citizens, they have been fighting in court and have had some success regaining rights over their traditional land.

Maasai tribulations

An Australian Aborigine poses with Maasais
Maasais and Aborigines share a common struggle: Land rights
But for the Maasai the current situation is acute. Both government and private interests have appropriated land that the Maasai need for pasture - often in the name of conservation.

Most of East Africa's most famous protected areas - the Serengeti, Maasai Mara and Tarangire national parks - have been created out of what were traditional pastoral lands.

At Ngorongoro we heard how the Maasai who now live around a vast crater have been dispossessed of their lands twice.

In the 1950s they were evicted from the Serengeti, then in 1975 the same people were forced to leave the rich grazing land of the Ngorongoro crater so that it too could become a conservation area.

The conservationists see the Maasai presence as harmful to the wildlife. The Maasai deny this.

Maasai, herd of cattle and zebra
The Maasai have for years co-existed with wildlife
They say they have always co-existed with wildlife and showed us how their cattle graze alongside zebra.

In fact they argue that they have played a role in conservation - by keeping waterholes dug and effectively preventing poaching.

The Maasai say there were something like 200 black rhinos when they were living in there, whereas now there are only 15 or so.

'Win-win situation'

The Ngorongoro situation was of particular interest to Australian delegate Jo Wilmott.

She lives in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park - home of Ayers Rock, one of Australia's most famous tourist attractions, now known again by its Aboriginal name, Uluru.

As she explained that park is now jointly managed by Aboriginals and white Australians. She described it as a "win-win situation".

The Aboriginal people continue to live in the park, to hunt and gather and perform their rituals and ceremonies.

They benefit from tourist revenue. The tourists meanwhile feel they have a more authentic experience because the park is still used traditionally.

It is a model of great potential relevance to East Africa.

Aboriginal children
Like the Maasais, Aborigines go hunting for food
While the delegation were aware of the deep differences between the economic and political realities of life in Australia and East Africa many points of connection emerged between the Aboriginals and the Maasai.

While cattle are at the heart of Maasai culture they have become a part of the lives of many Aboriginals.

Surprising similarities

In conversations about traditions it turned out that there were surprising similarities in the lives of the Aborigines and the Maasai - for instance in circumcision ceremonies.

While the delegation compared notes on individual land cases the trip also provided an opportunity to forge links which might advance both their causes.

As our host in Lorkisale, Tanzania put it; "It's the first time in this zone that we've had guests like this... sitting together, talking together, changing the ideas together... We're both traditional people and it's similar... There are Maasai in Australia!"

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See also:

15 Aug 00 | Africa
Cattle invade Kenya's capital
27 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aborigines in 'poor' housing
06 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Aborigines protest 'day of shame'
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