Life with the Maasai: Day 6 in Tanzania
Getting up at 2:45 AM is never fun, but sometimes it’s worth it. Day number six of my Discover Corps experience in Tanzania was absolutely one of those.
My hiking clothes were laid out, my camera bag packed. Breakfast coffee or tea were ready at 3 AM, and I grabbed a banana to go.
By 3:15 AM, my group boarded the bus because no one wanted to miss an up close and personal meeting with a Maasai tribe. The journey takes about three hours as the roads past Arusha are not the best. The last ten or so miles include hairpin turns that carve a path down a steep dirt road.
We arrive in time for sunrise; the awakening of the nomads. Traditional Maasai lifestyle centers around their cattle, a primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor.
Our bus stops at the top of a plateau, near a tiny village containing 12 huts surrounded by prickly twigs woven into a fence. The huts are made from a mixture of dried cow dung, mud, and urine applied to a frame of intertwined branches.
Some Maasai approach us: tall , thin men in red and purple toga like outfits. In the distance, we see shepherds herding goats (no cattle as it’s the dry season and the cattle are far away). We hear birds chirping in the graceful acacia trees. We are invited into the village through an opening in the fence. Goats are bleating and milling around the interior.
I busy myself with my camera and then this extraordinary moment dawns on me. I am standing in a place that looks like a 3-D scene in the Natural History Museum. This is not a fabricated reproduction of a Maasai Village, this is the real thing and real people live here. I feel like I’ve emerged from a time machine, but the year is still 2015. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a juxtaposition before.
For the Maasai, life exists as it has for centuries. Many of these nomads have fought to retain their culture against the encroaching wishes of government and the outside world. These hills and plains are their ancestral lands and they sustain themselves by herding cattle, goats and sheep.
I watch as the women catch and milk goats. I find a young mother standing in a doorway with a young baby in her arms. Infant mortality is high and babies aren’t named until they are three months old. I see an elderly woman crouch outside her home. A few young men are distracted by my cameras, but the overall feel is one of warm welcome. I am even handed a baby goat for a photo op and the little fella feels so cuddly.
The women wear robe-like dresses wrapped around their bodies and are adorned with numerous necklaces and earrings. Some of the older women’s ear lobes hang down, extended from the weight of the jewelry over the years. Surprisingly, a few of the women have cell phones.
We leave the women and goats and prepare for a walkabout with some of the Maasai men. Hopefully, we’ll see some giraffe.
The group heads out over the dry, dusty surrounding hills. Everyone must proceed carefully as nasty sticker bushes were everywhere, about the only thing thriving in the harsh terrain. The ground is uneven and some sections contain layers of rock, leftover remnants of a volcanic explosion.
The Maasai frequently walk long distances, but I find it difficult to keep up to the pace. I want to take in the landscape, shoot photos, but have to watch where I am going. We ask the leader to slow down, and perhaps he thinks he does. But, the trek is too speedy for me. I lag a bit behind.
We pause at an overlook, and the Maasai spot fresh giraffe droppings. We head in a new direction as quickly as possible. We climb up embankments and down dry riverbeds. We trudge through fine dust so thick it feels like stepping down on fresh snow, but my foot disappears under a soft mound of dirt. At one point, I slip on a ledge but am able to keep from falling by quickly grabbing a tree limb. Thankfully, it was not one of those pricker bushes. Someone comes to my rescue.
Now, we ,too, spy giraffe and they are majestic, graceful creatures. They graze on tree limbs in the distance. We approach slowly and also see some zebra. Everyone in the group stays quite, totally mesmerized. We can hardly believe that African animals are roaming free about 200 yards away. I feel as if a National Geographic magazine has just come to life. It’s a pinch me moment!
Sadly, something scares the giraffe and they lope off, elegantly prancing. The zebras follow. Satisfied and smug, we turn around and head back as well.
The sun has risen higher in the sky and the temperatures are now much warmer. Hiking uphill proves to be an effort. My back has been bothering me and I stop and take a rest. The Maasai say to proceed, ” poli-poli, ” meaning slowly, slowly and that’s the way I carry on. I was so relieved to return to the village.
A cool drink of water and a short rest, then I’m ready to join the group for the slaughter of a goat, a special occasion arranged for this day. Maasai women do not observe this ritual, but my group is permitted the privilege as a cross cultural exchange.
Two goats are brought forward, then suffocated by clasping hands held over their nose and mouth. This method does not cause any loss of blood which is one of the main foods in the Maasai diet. After the goats are dead, they are carefully sliced open and the organs removed. I am both curious and horrified. I’ve never witnessed a butchering before.
Some of the organs are removed and saved for grilling, others placed in a bowl. When the cavity is nearly empty of organs, a few of the Maasai men advance, bend down, cup their hands and drink blood right from the cavity. I had not expected this and it is rather shocking. I knew the tribe mixed blood with cow’s milk to drink, but the raw blood was unforeseen. I aim my camera and click the shutter, but try to look away.
I scramble up the hill and join some of the women who were tending little ones or just sitting under the big tree. I start to photograph a small boy and he begins to cry. I stop, put the camera down, but he runs to the chief, his Daddy. This endearing moment becomes one of my favorite photo memories of the trip. You can feel the love and devotion between these two. This man, I later learn, is father to some 70 children.
I admit I notice, and try to overlook the children’s dirty clothing and feet. Water is nowhere in sight. Women must haul it back to the village (from miles away), so water is used sparingly. I understand.
My group is invited into the chief’s hut where he explains sleeping arrangements. Mama Simba, the Discover Corps Director, acts as interpreter. He has 11 wives, each wife has a hut. There is a schedule for the wives to stay with the chief. Apparently the wives are not jealous of one another, but I have to wonder. The chief is much older than some of the women, but he is extremely charismatic. I can comprehend their attraction.
The village life consists of the chief and unmarried family members, those 70 some children. Only after the males have become of age and passed rituals, are they considered marriageable (between 30-40 years old). When they take a wife , they move to a new village. Marriage and having children seem to be a very important part of the culture. If a husband dies, there is no remarriage.
We take a lunch break, ours prepared and eaten on blankets, picnic style. The only Maasai food on our menu is the grilled goat. Some chosen tribe members come to eat some of our food afterward. They appear to like it.
The women bring out their bead-work and we purchase many of their items. They use the money to buy corn meal, rice and other supplies from a Maasai Market.
Then, we learn to throw a Maasai spear. The Maasai use the spear to protect themselves, not to kill in a hunt. The men demonstrate the technique: the spear is to land in a vertical position. We try but none of us can replicate the results, Maasai women never throw a spear, so they laugh at our attempts.
Finally, it is time for the dancing. The unmarried men lead a parade into the center of the village (the goats were moved out). The men stand to one side. The married women file in and stand opposite. The men chant a song and the women answer.
The unmarried woman enter and stand in the middle. When they answer the chant, their heads seem to rock forward and backward. The men answer back and then jump very high in the air, showing off their strength. The women chant in sing-song again. This continues until the unmarried women move closer to the men. It looks a bit like a starring match. And…then it is over.
Our time with the Maasai is also over. We have a long drive back to home base in Moshi. I think back over the day, a day of surprises I will never forget.
To read about my earlier adventures in Tanzania, please click here: https://bylandersea.com/2015/09/discover-corps-volunteer-vacation-in-tanzania-continues/
Disclosure: My trip to Tanzania was self-funded.