Tanzanian Safari: Mingling with the Maasai

One of my favorite parts of traveling is to learn. It sounds nerdy, but I like to know things about things. A perfect example of this was our experiences with the Maasai in Tanzania. It’s a group that has captured the western imagination for years, with their warrior reputation. Though I had seen many pictures of a tall, lanky people draped in rich red checkered cloths and covered in patterned mats of beads, I didn’t actually know anything non-aesthetic about them. And though we only got to spend about 40 minutes with a tribe during our trip, their presence was around for the entire time we were in Tanzania. We passed by them as we wandered the plains or drove through the limited roads, we heard stories about their interactions with the land. Like how they produced music by hitting small stones against larger rocks, producing circular markings (see the image above, called "Gong Rock").

The Maasai have one of those too-common stories of an old tribe battling between their heritage and a modern world that can’t figure out how to fit them in. In their semi-nomadic pastoral society, they haven’t been making enough money to get by. As a result a large number of the younger boys have headed toward bigger cities to try and make money in other ways. This leaves an imbalance at home, where young women have to marry older and older men. It’s a polygamous society, so they’re not usually the first wife. More and more rapidly the demographics are changing, and not in a positive way — particularly as the land they are able to occupy is growing smaller and smaller.

We interacted with the tribes along the main roads. Sometimes you can see the young men and women herding their tiny goats, locations given away by the huge clouds of dust they throw up in their wake. Tourism has created a problematic relationship between visitors and the nomads, with reckless tourists proving to be easy commercial targets. For instance, there are rumors that if you try and take a picture of a Maasai without asking permission (and donating a couple of shillings), they’ll throw their spears at you. A dramatic example, but they do come up to the passing cars to ask for food or bottled water. It's a growing and problematic begging culture, and one that leaves a lot of litter behind it, like that I encountered in pretty much every other part of the world I visited.

A bit of background

Here’s a bit of the scattered information we gleaned on the tribe during our trip, obviously very far from a complete account, but it must be what interested me the most, because it’s what is stuck in my head more than a year later.

If you could view a Maasai village from above, you would see a common pattern. There’s a pen in the middle of each village, fenced in by thorny acacia branches. This structure allows the cattle to stay safe in their pens at night, far from predators.

The houses surround this structure, and are created by and are the property of women. The men move from house to house depending on their marital situation. They build their houses from timber, sticks, mud, ash and waterproof them with cattle dung, or sometimes bright blue tarps distributed by nonprofits. We took our through a tour of one of these constructions, dark and smoky with a fire in the central room, with small partitioned rooms encircling it. There’s also a special enclosure for the young calves in the herds, to protect them until they’re old enough to join the main pasture.

The Maasai are herders, with the religious belief that God gave them all the cattle on the Earth. A belief which can lead to serious skirmishes when unfamiliar herds and their heads encroach on Maasai territory. They use their animals for everything, avoiding eating game meat but using

the goat/sheep/cow meat, milk, fat, and blood. They rub the fat on their skin, but have left traditional hides behind to wear cheaper and more easily attainable commercially printed materials.

One of the most fascinating part of their story is the origin. A story has long circulated that they’re descended from the Israelites, one of the lost tribes of the Hebrews — and they made their way down to Ngorongoro and the Great Rift Valley area. But the majority of research points that they descended from the Nile Valley, having moved south through Sudan. This makes them a designated “Nilotic” tribe.

My experience

Traveling in general can be a negotiation between real experiences and a kind of Disney-fied cultural field trip. It is hard to find an experience that is “authentic,” if that word even means anything in a changing and complicated global society.

This phenomenon of packaging cultural experiences for tourists is now part of the Maasai economy. In Tanzania there are groups of tribesmen who have tapped into the lucrative market of tourist village visits. They ply safari-goers with dancing, jumping, singing clans who dress them up in traditional clothing and let them take a million pictures, mimicking tribal ceremonies. Those experiences never used to have

anything to do with the daily lives of the people, but are now performed so frequently that they have taken on a different and commercial meaning.

Our guide's goal was to avoid this kind of experience. He brought us to the tribe of a chief who he had known since he was younger. Like the others, the tribe was compensated for our visit, and the chief brought us around to look through different parts of their life — into his house to see and hold his newborn, to watch him create a fire, and to shop through a market held by the tribe's women, their trade selling hand-crafted beaded works. These saleswomen swarmed around us, competing to put jewelry around our wrists and necks, an important source of their income. There was one I particularly remember, tremendously friendly in the beginning, but soured very quickly when she wasn’t able to sell us anything.

I brought with me a polaroid camera — mirrors aren’t often found in the Maasai villages, and someone had suggested to me that the tribesmen might like to have instant pictures. And they loved it. They crowded around me, pulling their friends in for different images. Some wanted me in their pictures, other didn’t. Because of this, I got few to no good pictures of my own for my personal collection, but gave out maybe a dozen. I wonder if anyone all still has an image, how it has weathered the year and if any are on display.

Read more on my Tanzanian Journey: THE SERENGETI, NgoroNgoro and TarangireThe Journey