Mobile phones haven’t changed Maasai lives – yet
But they’re having a big influence on the savannah
MOBILE phones are everywhere. In fact, they might be nearly as common on the African savannah as they are on American subways.
With the explosion of mobile technology in developing countries, a common narrative is that phones are transforming poor people’s lives. Phones, the story goes, reduce the effort required to search for information and make commerce more efficient.
As technology has spread, so has research on its effects. With support from the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, I study how Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania respond to various issues, including biodiversity conservation, globalisation and technology.
I and others are learning that mobile phones are changing lives but perhaps not as much as some might think. researchers have found phones help facilitate social connections for Fulani and Borana herders, respectively.
But efforts to leverage phones for broader economic gains are hampered by illiteracy and limited cellular coverage.
Another study from Kenya found Samburu herders don’t rely on phones during drought periods. It’s risky to move herds in search of water and herders fear being misled by informants about where valuable resources are.
Recently, collaborators and I interviewed hundreds of Maasai in northern Tanzania to learn how they use mobile phones. In 2010, half of the households in our study area used phones. Now virtually all households do.
As one of our respondents commented: “The phone is one of the best tools we have ever seen.”
In our new paper, Joel Hartter and I describe how Maasai are integrating phones into most aspects of their lives.
Like earlier studies, we found Maasai use phones to support traditional herding activities. Herders call each other to locate resources or notify others when health emergencies arise.
We also learned they use phones for other activities, such as getting information that helps them farm.
Rain-fed agriculture poses a different challenge in this semiarid region where rainfall is highly variable.
Unable to move fields to water, Maasai try to co-ordinate their planting with the onset of the rainy season.
This is a precarious proposition each year. But with basic phones, Maasai call experienced smartphone users who can download weather forecasts. Demand for these few individuals is so high they’ve become like medicine men.
In addition, phones help communities manage persistent conflicts with wildlife. Elephants, zebra and bush pigs can devastate agricultural fields.
And lions and other predators can threaten livestock and people alike. Maasai now use phones to communicate about wildlife and avoid conflicts or reduce their consequences.
Phones are also drawing Maasai into less traditional activities. Young people use phones to play video games, store music and flirt on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Our respondents also told us some people are using them to lie, cheat and steal.
As the Samburu herders of Kenya found, Maasai people also lie to callers about the locations of forage or water.
Young brides use phones to arrange extramarital rendezvous. And criminals can use phones to lure victims to “meetings” to ambush them en route.
Maasai have strong traditions surrounding lending and gift giving; requests for a loan or a gift are typically made in person.
People seeking assistance can use a phone to call ahead before paying a visit. Someone who doesn’t want to help can lie and say they’re not around.
As traditionally spiritual people, Maasai can be superstitious about phones.
Respondents in our studies have described instances of witchcraft, where people received calls from mysterious numbers and instantly died.
They also expressed grave concern about the fact that they, just like other phone users around the world, feel phantom phone vibrations.
Taken together, these issues seem to have weakened community ties among Maasai.
In addition to describing how Maasai use phones, we also wanted to see if people use phones to communicate with more types of people or more types of information than they do face to face.
In one of the most cited papers in social science, Mark Granovetter found “weak ties” with acquaintances were more useful for finding and securing job opportunities than “strong ties” with close friends and family. The value of weak ties is that they provide new types of information.
We thought phones might be helping people to expand their weak ties and broaden their horizons.
What we found instead was faceto-face communication was more diverse among the Maasai than phone-based communication, even when controlling for factors like age, wealth and education.
These findings are well aligned with those from other studies of phone use in developing communities.
Generally, phones support long-standing, culturally ingrained activities – they don’t transform them. One change, though, is that phone use amplifies issues of trust and distrust. – The Conversation
Brides arrange extramarital rendezvous. Criminals lure their victims to take meeting and ambush them
• Timothy Baird is an assistant professor of geography, Virginia Tech
WHAT’S UP, BROTHERS: Young Maasai men wait for the start of the ordination of their age-group leader in the village of Mbirikani in Kajiado, Kenya. Cellphones are changing the lives of the Maasai but perhaps not as much as some might think.