Living in Kenya, on my numerous hiking trips, I have had the chance to spend time with the radiant Maasai and Samburu tribes living near Mt Ololokwe, in Samburu, and also Loita Hills, north of the Maasai Mara. On one trip, I was befriended by a local tribesman and soon found myself immersed in a world both vibrant and deeply spiritual — sharing their food and learning about their traditions and rituals, particularly those around food.
The Maasai represent one of the few surviving indigenous cultures. For us, today, they act as a window into our past. To us food is a source of energy and sometimes a pleasure. To the Maasai, food is a part of their religion and identity. Maasai life has focussed on producing cattle, primarily for their milk and their blood and occasionally for their flesh and organs (such as intestine and colon slow cooked to make a broth or liver and kidney eaten raw). Traditionally, Maasai men spent nearly a decade learning to tend their animals — from identifying the best grazing grounds, to selective breeding, to regularly drawing blood for their consumption. Historically, as the Maasai ate neither fruit nor grain, this milk, either fresh or curdled (and bacteria-enriched), was their dietary staple.
Speaking to the local tribe I learnt that they had existed in a state of almost utopian health where they don’t get modern world health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, lived to an old age and died peacefully in their sleep. They didn’t know what being sore was despite walking all day and didn’t suffer from conditions such as poor sleep quality. They had no dietary issues such as intolerance to dairy or didn’t suffer from mental illness. Nobody got diseases such as diabetes and other cardio metabolic diseases.
I saw elderly men, over the ages of seventy, with impressive physiques, standing over six-foot tall. When I looked at their faces, I noticed how particularly well-formed their features were and how smooth their skin was. That is because their diets (the majority of) still connects them to a healthy living environment whose beauty, in a very real sense, expresses itself through their bodies.
Ongoing nutrition transitions
I learnt that for thousands of years, their culinary rituals had remained largely unchanged. However, as the Maasai have grown in number they can no longer produce enough food for their own consumption in their traditional ways. Also, as more and more Maasai children are being enrolled into education systems, traditional cultures are changing.
Over the past 70–80 years, the Maasai have been forced to include more and more foods from other sources into their diet, such as corn, beans and millet — making their diet now far richer in carbohydrates than before. Additionally, from a mostly raw diet, the Maasai have now started cooking their milk to feed children porridge in the morning, are sweeting their tea with sugar and have also started using vegetable oils in their cooking — causing confusion around nutrition and a generational decline in health.
While the Maasai are not eating packaged food like most Western diets include, even the small changes to their diets are changing their physiologies. It was apparent to the elderly that the younger generations are now beginning to feel the impact of changing nutrition — their immune systems are not as powerful.