To Live and Learn: Opportunities for early learning for children in a rural Maasai environment

February 14, 2022

It is baking hot under the noonday sun as we arrive at the homestead of a potential participant in our study. Our research seeks to understand the care practices of young children in Kajiado. Owing to the pastoralist way of life here, we are keen to understand how this is shaping young children as they grow and develop.

The footpath leading up to the homestead is rather rocky and we are welcomed by the smell of fresh dung as we walk past a livestock pen.  It is fenced off with tightly knit dry branches of the Prosopis tree, its thorns sticking out warding off any unwelcome parties. At the moment the enclosure is empty as the cattle are out to pasture. The rocky path ends in a small clearing opening to a cluster of huts. 

A lady holding a child welcomes us and my colleague strikes up a conversation with her as I seek refuge under the shade of a nearby tree. 

 The homestead is made up of three structures built with slender timber poles and the walls are plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung. l notice some preschoolers sitting on rocks as a flock of lambs graze on what is left of the scrubby grass. Soon, it is my turn to meet and engage with our host. 

These scenes replicate themselves at each household we visit, a stark difference from the crowded iron sheet housing that characterizes the urban informal settlements of Nairobi. Here, there are no waste-water channels to hop, skip and jump over as we move from one doorstep to another and I began to appreciate the environmental advantages of raising a child in this rural setting.

The County of Kajiado borders Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to the North and neighboring Tanzania to the South. We are here to engage with the Maasai community,  semi-nomadic pastoralists who keep cattle, goats, and sheep as their main source of livelihood. We take interest in this minority group whose attachment to its traditions and culture predisposes children to the risk of poorer developmental outcomes and undernutrition.  We speak with caregivers of children under three years to understand a number of issues centered on the children’s well-being such as their health and nutrition. As we move along, I am led to appreciate some seemingly basic things in this community that improve caregiving and provides early learning opportunities for young children. 

To find extended families living in one homestead is common in the Maasai community and this living arrangement supports the care and development of young children. Through focus-group discussions (FGD) and in-depth (IDI) interviews, mothers and fathers have spoken of grandmothers living in the homestead as being key influencers of how children are raised. The community relies on them for guidance on how to care for young children right from when they are born. We learned that grandmothers provide a watchful eye over children in the homestead. When mothers have to be away, attending to domestic needs, young children are often left in the care of their grandmothers, aunties, or co-wives. This kind of kinship support is unlike the urban form of child care that is dependent on domestic paid care, daycare services, or the unfortunate circumstances whereby children are left alone without care.

The benefits of families living together do not end there. Since a homestead is made up of several homes, it is common for children to find playmates among the families living in the homestead. As expressed by one caregiver, young children are stimulated by the presence of other children motivating them to develop their speech, motor skills and achieve other developmental milestones. This communal living provides caregivers with a sense of security as children play within the confines of kinfolk. 

Arid and semi-arid areas such as those occupied by the Maasai community tend to be vast and structurally underdeveloped. With homesteads occupying only a fraction of extensive household lands, children are not constrained where outdoor play-space is concerned. Despite the risk posed by rocks and thorns from the Acacia sp and Prosopis sp trees, there lies a great opportunity for unreserved engagements with the unadulterated natural environment. We have learned from caregivers that children mix soil and water to form mud that they then use to mold and model. This is a common form of play in these parts of rural Kenya. We have also learned that sticks and pebbles, wild fruits and sheep droppings are things that children find and use as play items. Climbing rocks and trees are all common activities that young children do as part of their outdoor play. 

For a pastoralist community such as this, we learned that as larger animals go out to graze, their young, like lambs and kids are left in the homestead. We also learned that it is normal to find young children of pre-school age taking care of such animals.  In a focus-group interview session with mothers, they told us that as soon as a child can crawl, they accompany their caregivers to the cowshed to milk the animals. We also observed that it was common for a homestead to have other small animals like chicken, cats and puppies. These outdoor environments are rich with stimuli to make for physical and mental development in young children.  The opportunities to learn through different forms of interactions with people, animals and nature abound.

The downside to this exciting rural life is that the households here are food insecure. Their livestock doubles up as their main economic activity and source of food. These animals are, however, vulnerable to prolonged hot and dry conditions that lead to the depletion of pastures and water points every year. Further, the low literacy levels that are prevalent in this nomadic community limit the appreciation of these environments that young children in this community could thrive in. Much support is required to leverage on this resource available in the community so that it may benefit the young children in their growth, development and early learning. There is room to provide information in forms and ways that the caregivers in this community would understand and appreciate. The study presents an unconventional approach to parenting for this community, that will include the active participation of mothers and fathers in caregiving during the early years of a child. There are opportunities to change the perception of caregiving from one that limits parenting to just the provision of food, shelter and health services, to one that presents a more holistic approach, including parental and environmental interaction.