By Pius Sawa
SOUTH RIFT VALLEY, Kenya (AlertNet) Â As they recover from the worst drought in many years, Maasai pastoralists in Kenya's south Rift Valley are adopting new habits to help them overcome future disasters.
As the recent drought tested the coping ability of Maasai communities, the leaders of "group ranches" Â large communal grazing areas, each with their own government-appointed chief - invited researchers to study the situation and help them develop strategies to prepare for future droughts.
A survey was conducted in November 2009 on the Olkiramatian group ranch, which stretches over 26,000 hectares (64,200 acres) and has a population of about 10,000 people. The ranch is one of 14 in the southern Rift Valley.
During the drought, traditional rain makers were of no help and seemed to be caught unaware, said John Kamanga, leader of the Olkiramatian group ranch.
"Traditionally the elders would study how the mornings started and look at the skies to determine the situation. But now that kind of knowledge cannot apply. The young generation doesn't believe in traditional myths and want real evident information," Kamanga said.
Now the ranch has called in weather experts to provide satellite information as a drought early warning system.
MOBILE PHONES TO FIND GRASS
Widespread use of mobile phones is also expected to prove a useful tool. Some pastoralists move their cattle hundreds of miles in search of pasture and water, and can be monitored as they carry phones, Kamanga said.
Now they can receive up-to-date information on weather conditions and likely availability of grass from researchers, he said.
"With mobile phones, researchers will pass on information on the weather patterns and advise the pastoralists on what to do," Kamanga said.
Under the developing drought resistance plan, every pastoralist household will have at least one mobile phone handset for better communication. A handset Â which costs about the price of a goat Â is affordable, Kamanga said.
The bigger problem is lack of electricity to recharge the batteries. Group ranches like Olkiramatian have some solar panels and disesel generators and hope to use those to keep the phones charged.
To cope with drought, grass "banks" of ungrazed land have been established, and the communities are being taught how to make hay. Fertile strips of land have been reserved for agriculture, while others have been set aside for wildlife and tourism, a money earner for the ranches.
In the past, "we knew that pasture was free and we could move our animals anywhere. But things were different this time round," said Marit Kilembo, an old man on the ranch.
This time, when Olkiramatian residents tried to move their cattle onto other communal Maasai ranches less affected by the drought, "we were asked to pay," Kilembo said. He described it as "the worst drought in about 50 years."
Oddly, the recent creation of many more small water dams appears to have contributed to the drought crisis rather than providing relief from it. Many Maasai in recent years have dug dams to provide water to their growing herds of cattle and to limit the travel that used to be needed to take herds to natural water sources, Kilembo said.
"As people become wealthier, they want to have water nearer to their livestock by digging small dams. (But) this encourages the livestock to eat too much grass," particularly in the main areas of the ranch, Kilembo said. He said the community should stop digging new dams.
MAASAI WOMEN NOW CULTIVATING
Traditionally, Maasai communities exchanged meat or milk with neighbouring communities for other needed food supplies. But with many cattle killed during the drought, pastoralist Maasai women are now experimenting with planting crops to provide food for their families.
"We donÂt have milk. We lost almost all our cows and there are no young ones. So we have to start digging to plant crops and get food," said Natana Kamau, a mother of six. Millet, maize, beans, bananas and vegetables are some of the crops now being cultivated.
At Olkiramatian group ranch, more than 200 women also have started bee keeping as an income generating project, and are producing handicrafts.
A resource centre has been established to enable the emerging women's groups to meet and share ideas, including a new one of saving money in banks.
The women say the drought was particularly harsh for them, forcing them to spend increasing amount of time away from home, searching for water.
"We moved miles away with donkeys to look for water and grass for the goats, as goats cannot move far distances like cattle. Â But the drought was too much and we wasted a lot of time away from our children," Kamau said.
One way of coping with the drought that proved particularly successful was selling animals early, before the drought could claim them.
Josephat Meiponye, one educated ranch member, sensed the coming danger and sold all his cattle near the start of the drought, putting the money in a bank. Now he has been able to pay to replace his animals, unlike other community members.
"I am happy to be a pastoralist but I must have as few animals as possible, because land is becoming scarce due to increased population, and the grass species have vanished," he said.
His eldest brother, Peter Meiponye, did not emerge as well from the drought.
"I lost 20 cows and 40 goats, and now I have to start from zero. If I had known, I would have sold them and kept the money. I now want to buy many bulls so that when another drought comes, I can sell all of them," he said.
Bulls Â when castrated as steers Â grow quickly and can bring much higher income when sold in Nairobi's meat market.
Researchers Â including David Wesern of the Africa Conservation Centre, and Samantha Russel of the South Rift Resource Centre Â say their work at the ranch has focused in part on determining what made the last drought so harsh.
They have focused on climate change, population increases and boosts in livestock numbers, among other issues.
A follow up survey is being carried out to assess the level of compliance with the new coping strategies and to determine which households need assistance to recover from their losses, they said.
Having learned hard lessons during the last drought, most Maasai communities are willing to change their outlook and adjust to these new changes, ranch members said.
Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.