British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by John Cooke
Serengeti 1954
Masai Cattle
The magnificent land of the Serengeti plains is now a National Park visited annually by thousands of tourists, wildlife buffs, and film makers. It was not always thus.

In 1954, I was District Officer in Musoma, a district of Tanganyika which lies at the mouth of the Mara river on the east coast of Lake Victoria, and stretches inland up onto the high plains of the Serengeti far to the south east. Here it marched with the Masai district of Northern Province to the east and Maswa district of Lake Province to the south.

One day my District Commissioner, Brian Hodgson, said he had a task for me that he thought I would like. How right he was. I was in my first tour and eager for new experiences and challenges. The task I was to undertake arose from concern felt by the PC of Lake Province that Masai cattle were encroaching in unacceptable numbers into the Lake Province part of the plains, and he wanted an assessment made on the spot by one of his officers. I was to carry out that assessment, so off I went to Banagi, the Game Department station in the area. There I was joined by Peter Bramwell, the Game Ranger of the area, and Pete Venter, a Police Stock Theft Prevention officer from Arusha in Northern Province. Also two Game Scouts, one of whom was of Masai origin. This latter man was interesting in that the Masai are not normally given to hunting and conserving wild life. This man was invaluable to us in our task. We were not engaged in a precise census, but only in getting a realistic idea of the extent of Masai incursions with their cattle. Our method was to criss-cross the plains in a rough grid pattern, counting any Masai herds which we encountered. The Masai game scout would sometimes point out rather bluntly that we had already counted a herd we came across and had started to count. On being asked how he knew this he would say with laboured patience the equivalent of "for heaven's sake can't you recognise them". All we ignoramuses could see was a herd of miscellaneously coloured and homed bovines. With this man's invaluable insights we avoided double counting and came up with a reasonable figure.

A number of incidents during this task have remained in my memory. The first was when one day I spoke to a young Masai herdsman in a sort of pidgin Swahili. Imagine my surprise when he smiled and replied in perfectly good Swahili, telling me he had once been at school in Arusha. On my asking why he had come back to this life, standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, and looking at cattle all day and every day, he looked at me, then let his gaze roam over the great sweep of grassland, and come to rest on his cattle, and said "this is my life, I want nothing else". I felt very moved but was lost for words.

Serengeti 1954
H.E. with Masai Warriors
The second incident involved Venter. He became very agitated one day, telling us that he had lost his pistol, a Beretta .22 which he carried in his pocket, no doubt a sensible precaution in his sometimes hazardous job. Later that day a tall Masai came striding into our camp. He walked straight up to Venter and handed him his pistol which he had obviously found lying in the grass somewhere on the plains. He then turned on his heel and disappeared as soundlessly as he had come. No word was spoken. Venter wore uniform and was thus easily recognised. We thought this a remarkable example of simple uncluttered honesty.

The third incident I recall was rather alarming. In the Mom Kopjes area we suddenly came on a gang of young Masai moran, all armed with their long spears and short two edged simis or pangas. They were clearly up to no good, and almost certainly on a raid for Sukuma cattle in Maswa district to the south. Venter's reaction was immediate. He went straight up to the biggest of the moran and slapped him across the face, telling him that he knew what they were about, and they must drop their weapons immediately, and clear off sharpish. What seemed a long silence followed until Venter made another peremptory bark. Slowly the men dropped their weapons and slunk off, looking extremely angry. Tension relaxed we congratulated Venter, collected the weaponry and left. After all these years I still have two of those beautiful spears.

We completed our task, and came up with a reasonable estimate of the nature of Masai incursions, and I made my report. Nothing more was heard of the matter, so presumably the PC was satisfied. For me it had been a great experience, in magnificent country with splendid people. All in the day's work for a District Officer in those now far-off days. Looking back I realise how fortunate we were in our life and work.

Colonial Map
Map of Lake Victoria Region, 1956
Colony Profile
Tanganyika Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 101: April 2011


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