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Maasai herders now Dar security guards

Famed rural tribesmen head to East Africa's fast-growing cities to find work.

A group of Maasai herdsmen who have moved from Tanzania's rural areas to the capital city, Dar es Salaam, sing and perform traditional dances as they wait for the arrival of the Olympic flame on April 12, 2008. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — On the congested streets of Dar es Salaam, it's become normal to see men walking around with machetes and “eng’udi,” long sticks used to herd cattle.

Members of Tanzania’s Maasai ethnic group, they left their villages to take jobs as security guards here.

The phenomenon is remarkable because for generations, the Maasai have spurned modernization, maintaining the same appearance, traditions and pastoralist livelihoods they have practiced for hundreds of years. 

The migration of Maasai men — recognizable for their their vibrant red, purple, or blue robes and striking jewelry — began as a trickle in the late 1990s and has steadily increased.

Nearly all of the Maasai who come to Dar find work as security guards; their reputation for both bravery as warriors and honesty, coupled with a lack of formal education that would qualify them for more professional jobs, means that security is one of the few areas in which people will employ them.

Furthermore, a skyrocketing crime rate, reported to have increased 12 percent in 2009, has created a huge demand for security guards. Dar es Salaam, with a population of 4 million, is Africa's third fastest growing city.

“I came because I wanted to find a better life,” said Yohana Zose, 21, who moved to the city two years ago. “People have faith in the Maasai because we work diligently, we don’t have greed for wealth, we don’t steal. So we are trusted.”

Ann May, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the principal reasons for Maasai urban migration are poverty and hunger. “The two conditions are a result of the diminishing livestock herds, due to disease, drought and also — importantly in my view — land alienation; by agriculturalists, and by the state for creation of parks,” said May.

Although the exact number of Maasai migrants to Dar has not been recorded, May estimated that there are currently 5,000 to 6,000 Maasai in the city, the majority of them young men and a much smaller percentage of elders and women.

Numbers are difficult to estimate because, although they have traded the pastoral life for the inner city, Maasai will often travel back and forth to the country when they have amassed enough money to take to their families.

“Once I get the money I bring it back then I come to look for more work,” said Loseriani Khali, 30, who came to Dar in 2006. “Whatever we may find here, we haven’t abandoned the culture we’re from. Whatever money we make here goes back home, it goes back to the cattle.”