One student hopes to help a community that’s about 8,000 miles away with something that speaks to any culture: a board game. 

Jacob Mayiani Loorimirim, an ISAT graduate student, grew up in Kenya as part of the Maasai community, a pastoral group that travels throughout Kenya and Tanzania as herdsmen. He came to JMU in 2007 when he was 24.

Upon arriving in the U.S., Loorimirim knew that he wanted to find a way to help the Maasais. He chose a board game because games are a big part of the Maasai culture. Unlike a computer game, he thought a board game would be easy and simple enough to be played by everyone, even those without connection to a computer. Games are played by all ages in the Maasai community.

The board game is called ERAMAT, a Maasai word meaning “Mind your Cattle.” In the game, each player is the owner of a cattle herd and the head of a household. As in reality, cattle market prices vary by seasons and rainfall, and water, social and cultural dynamics are always changing. 

Each round in the game simulates one year. Players progress around a board that has four sections that represent seasons. Each season, players use the dice to figure out how much it will rain during the two wet months. The higher the dice roll, the more rain the player gets. 

After the game, players can think about how it relates to their lives and how they can improve the techniques they’re using, according to Loorimirim.

One main challenge for the Maasai in their daily life is preserving water through the dry months, which is a variable in the game. During the dry months in Kenya, about half the year, no rain is received, Loorimirim explained.

“Someone once lost their water [in the game], so the cattle they had in the game all died,” Loorimirim said. “One of the players told him to play again so he will learn. We act accordingly to the drought and rain. For example, the game gives you an option to sell cows for money for tuition.”

The Maasai people play ERAMAT in their free time to continually learn about how to work through the changing climate and increase in droughts.

Loorimirim saw that his community was suffering from drought and believed he knew the cause: too much cattle on their land. The cattle eat all of the grass in certain areas and leave the land dry and unable to retain water.

He believes that in recent years, the high price of cattle encouraged the Maasai to carry more than its land could hold in order to make more money. 

This led him to team up with Michael Deaton, an ISAT professor, to create a board game that would simulate sustainable ways to farm and raise cattle on the Maasai’s land in southern Kenya.

In 2009, a large drought hit Kenya, killing many livestock. Due to a recent change from droughts and property rights, the Maasai now must pay for its land, and the role of money is increasingly important in the pastoral system, Loorimirim explained.

In coordination with Deaton and Loorimirim, two other Maasai graduate students, Dennis Sonkoi and Stephen Kirusa, helped create the game by giving feedback about whether the community in Kenya would understand it.

“We have gathered much interesting data,” Deaton said. “We are hoping that this project will give the Maasai a tool to help them do some problem solving to relieve some of the pressure that is imposed on them by the arid climate and environment they live in.” 

Loorimirim added that through the different rounds, the players can see the results of their actions throughout several years. They can also talk with each other and discuss what they would have done differently and how they can work together in the future. 

The game helps the Maasai understand the changing terrain on which they have their cattle, and how to adapt to the changes. 

Because of the drought and a longer dry season, the land is extremely arid and unable to sustain the cattle or crops, causing a lack of food for both the people and the livestock, according to Loorimirim. 

The droughts and famines come every couple of years. In recent years, the droughts have been more severe, and the famines have been worse.

Jennifer Coffman, the associate executive director of the Office of International Programs, and Alexandra Hickling, a senior anthropology major, introduced and played the game with the Maasai community this summer during the 2012 Kenya Field School trip. 

The visit to Kenya was part of a nine-credit study abroad program. During the visit, around 20 students studied the Kenyan culture. They focused on the histories and cultures of Kenya, human-environment interactions and the quest for sustainability and education in Kenya.

Coffman created a school called the Kenya Field School in 2003. The school is designed to serve many different majors while immersed in the culture of Kenya through direct contact with the community.

During the trip, Hickling introduced the game to the elders in the tribe, who then taught it to everyone else.

Coffman became involved with the game because she believes it will help prepare people for the future. 

“It teaches how pastoralism works there, along with other various factors in the game like bride wealth, how people define wealth, and the environmental factors changing of the seasons,” Coffman said. 

Bride wealth is money, property, or wealth given by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman during marriage.

It’s too early to see if the game is successful in helping the Maasai because this summer was the first test run. 

“It helps them speed through one year on a board game, rather than wait a whole year to learn,” Deaton said.

Contact Elizabeth Dsurney at dsurneeg@dukes.jmu.edu.