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For many Westerners, the Maasai are Hollywood's "noble savage"—fierce, proud, handsome, graceful of bearing, and elegantly tall.Hair smeared red with ochre (a pigment), they either carry spears or stand on one foot tending cattle.These depictions oversimplify Maasai life during the twentieth century.

While the British encouraged them to adopt European ways, they also advised them to retain their traditions.

These contradictions resulted, for the most part, in leaving the Maasai alone and allowed them to develop almost on their own.

However, drought, famine, cattle diseases, and intratribal warfare (warfare among themselves) in the nineteenth century greatly weakened the Maasai and nearly destrtoyed certain tribes.

The Maasai are thought of as the typical cattle herders of Africa, yet they have not always been herders, nor are they all today.

Because of population growth, development strategies, and the resulting shortage of land, cattle raising is in decline.

However, cattle still represent "the breath of life" for many Maasai.When given the chance, they choose herding above all other livelihoods.Prior to British colonization, Africans, Arabs, and European explorers considered the Maasai formidable warriors for their conquests of neighboring peoples and their resistance to slavery.Caravan traders traveling from the coast to Uganda crossed Maasailand with trepidation.However, in 1880–81, when the British unintentionally introduced rinderpest (a cattle disease), the Maasai lost 80 percent of their stock.The British colonizers further disrupted Maasai life by moving them to a reserve in southern Kenya.