As people across the world struggle to adapt their way of life to the unfolding COVID-19, the Maasai people of east Africa are already having to change ancient customs to minimize the impact of the disease.
Kimaren ole Riamit, an indigenous peoples’ leader from the Pastoralists Maasai Community in southern Kenya and executive director of Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners, (ILEPA), said that even though confirmed cases haven’t arrived in their communities yet, COVID-19 was already making an impact.
“The usually vibrant livestock markets in Maasailand are all closed,” he said.
There are over a million Maasai people in Kenya. According to the World Health Organization report rounding out the end of March, the country has only reported 38 confirmed cases and 1 death – compared to 656 cases in Egypt and 1326 cases in South Africa.
Riamit said there were various impacts from the arrival of COVID-19 to Kenya.
“While pastoral traditional production system of herding livestock is relatively stable, many of pastoralism support system were brought to halt,” he said, “The nutritional status of the local communities is often sustained through supplementary supply of vegetables and starch procured from the market.
Riamit says one of the measures being taken to limit the spread of the disease was the immediate and indefinite dissolution of cultural rites of passage such as the building of ceremonial structures (Manyattas), of warriors graduations and burial rites.
“On-going rites of passage critical in identity formation and sustenance of cultural heritage have been disrupted prematurely and indefinitely,” he said, “It remains to be seen how the community will respond and redefine such rites of passage post-COVID19.”
“While there are no confirmed COVID-19 positive cases within our Maasai community, it’s dreadful to imagine the likely repercussions of such a scenario,” he said, “Ordinarily, within the community, access to health services, clean water, let alone soap, sanitizers, and masks is constrained to say the least.”
Riamit said the collective nature of the daily life in these communities – staying in common spaces, collective decision making arrangement, communal ceremonies, indigenous learning/story telling – is also a potentially high factor for the spread of COVID-19.
Stellah Bosire is a medical doctor, as well as a former CEO of the Kenya Medical Association, preparing to be deployed to a hospital again to help with the crisis.
She said the government has admitted the number of positive cases reported has been under-reported and there is a shortage of test-kits.
“A lot of those with a history of travel did not disclose,” she said “There are many prominent people whose stories who appeared in local media, but a lot of other people decided to be silent.”
This lack of disclosure, Bosire says, in addition to a tracking process that wasn’t optimized to pick up local transmission, added to the spread of the virus in Kenya.
Bosire said that tropical countries didn’t have any particular advantage in the face of COVID-19, but Kenya does have a younger population.
“If you look at the demographic dividend, we have a lot of young people,” she said, “This contrasts with European countries where there are many elderly people.”
Kenya is not the only African country confronting COVID-19.
In west Africa, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been investing in epidemic preparedness for the past three years and has helped to set up Public Health Emergency Operations Centers (PHEOCs) in 23 out of the 36 states inside Nigeria.