“In the Book of Life, the answers aren’t in the back.” – Charles M. Schultz
Setting off on foot through the heart and soul of Maasai culture has always been a dream of mine. I had first heard of the Maasai people when I was volunteering for a week in Morocco. I was speaking with a fellow volunteer – a young American woman- who confessed her favorite travel stories in her life occurred when she visited the Maasai. Her embellished images of warrior men in black and women dressed in brightly colored clothing while drinking cow’s blood under the moonlight sky in the bush were what first intrigued me. Was it true that a people like this still lived on earth and still practiced their long-held traditions and cultures?
Years later, when I began my work as a social good blogger, I began to learn more about the Maasai people and the threat against their way of life. Some of the things I had believed to be true long ago were more or less myths yet other traditions both good and bad continued until this day. It wasn’t until I set out on foot with my english-speaking Maasai guide, Jacobo, in the Mkuru Training Camp near Arusha, Tanzania that I would discover for myself what the Maasai people were truly like and what challenges remained.
“Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t”. -Pete Seeger
I was thankful that I had Jacobo, the Camp Manager, who was born and raised in the community, to lead the way. He was exactly as I envisioned a Maasai warrior to be: Tall, elegantly thin, muscular and generously kind. He has faced some criticism from the community by integrating too much with Western culture yet overall his work and passion for his tribe outshines a few negative viewpoints. Although he is also the camp driver, speaks English, and is the face of the camp with all foreigners, he has retained his culture even down to what he eats.
We set off shortly after lunch in windy, dry weather. I had hoped the weather would be better but at least it wasn’t raining or boiling hot. I followed behind Jacobo, pen and paper in hand and asked him as many questions as I could about his way of life.
The Maasai are among the best known ethnic groups in Africa due to their distinctive customs and dress. As nomadic pastoralists, they traditionally herded their cattle on seasonal rotations across the open savanna of Kenya and Tanzania yet new laws instituted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments ended their traditions and forced many into camps where they have suffered poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and economic opportunities to survive. It is an all too common story with native cultures across the world and today many governments and NGOs are doing their best to preserve and protect these tribes from disappearing off the face of the earth.
As we walked, Jacobo pointed out the dried up river beds and the sparse vegetation. Most of the crops (maize and potatoes are the of the primary crops grown in the area) had already been harvested and the long barren months of the dry season had begun. One of the main problems for the Maasai community is malnutrition especially in children. The diet is basically meat, goat’s milk and grains with little or no fruit or vegetables. Although the camp has tried to alleviate malnutrition by providing meals at school, many Maasai hesitate to send their children because they are needed to herd the livestock (boys began herding as young as five years old), tend the house, fetch water and cook (the main responsibility of the girls). Despite the building of new schools in the community, attendance is very low and frequently dropping especially for girls.
The Maasai have a very unique social structure that is central to their culture. The head of society is the warrior class made up of boys and men, and status relates to age. A young boy starts out as a herder at the age of five and once he reaches puberty, he is set aside with the boys who will be soon circumcised and become junior warriors called “morani”. The morani range from 13-18 years of age and after circumcision remain in isolation and are dressed in black until they are healed. Once they reach maturity and have sufficient strength they become a full fledge warrior, dress in colorful clothing, and are in charge of protecting the community. They no longer kill a lion with a spear since that tradition has become illegal (by the government) but they are trained to fight.
Maasai women and girls are traditionally in charge of the home and all work associated with family life such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning, making clothing and watching the very young children. Maasai women are known for their amazing beadwork and brilliant clothing. (I had written a great post about Maasai beading here).
Jacobo gave me a tour of his family boma, traditional mud huts made out of mud, dried cow dung and branches. Since the Maasai can have more than one wife, the entire family of husband, wives and children typically live together in a compound of 3-5 bomas depending on wealth. Each compound is surrounded by an open circle and fence made of thorny branches, where the livestock sleep safely at night, away from predators. The bomas are extremely basic with no electricity, no running water and oftentimes unsafe charcoal cookstoves are used inside the hut. The smoke from cooking turns the ceiling black with soot and you can imagine how bad it is for the family to inhale the fumes.
Non-profit organizations such as Solar Sister (who I climbed Kilimanjaro with) are working hard to provide clean, safe cookstoves throughout the world. The benefits are immense and life-saving but sadly they have not reached the millions of people like in this community who need them. Not only are clean cookstoves healthier and safer, they also save ridiculous amounts of money which can be used on other essential things like education, farming, and crops.
To my relief, I was well received by my Maasai friends who gladly gave me a tour of their bomas for a very small fee. I also purchased some beautiful handmade jewelry from Jacobo’s mother, a couple of bracelets and a necklace that I love to this day.
As we headed out to see more of the vast area, we ran into Jacobo’s dad, a retired warrior. I found that many of the men have a pretty luxurious life compared to the women. No longer truly in need of a warrior class to protect them against invaders, the men usually have plenty of leisure time to sit around and talk while the women did all the work.
Jacobo brought me to a special place that once a year the morani and warriors go for a few months to eat meat. Tradition holds that morani and warriors must remain strong and be the best fed of all. Therefore, every year they head up to the forest where they eat goat meat for two-three months. The women stay at home.
As we neared the camp, I could see women walking their donkeys with yellow plastic jugs. I asked Jacobo where they were going and he told me about the well. A few years ago,the camp dug a well which is open from 5-7 pm every day. Before the well, women and girls would spend hours each day fetching water so the new well has made a significant impact on their lives.
I thought about how such simple things as water are so easily taken for granted in the developed world. All I have to do is turn on the facet and out it comes, in plentiful supply. Seeing the well in person was a reminder how millions and millions of people around the world live. With little or no access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”. – Kahlil Gibran
Once we returned to camp, I was exhausted. It was quite an eye-opening day. I had a quiet dinner with Camila and the other European camp volunteer and they told me some of the more difficult stories about the camp. That female genital mutilation (FGM) is rampant in Tanzania despite it being banned and illegal by the government. That the process is horrifying and the young girl is cut with unsanitary knives and left to lay and bleed alone for months inside the boma. That Jacobo lost his first wife in childbirth because she was unable to deliver her baby safely after her the trauma caused by FGM. And the list goes on.
It was hard for me to reconcile my beliefs on how as a world we should intervene. Despite the belief that we should respect certain cultures and traditions that have been held since the beginning of mankind, it does not make them right or justifiable. Sadly change is difficult but not impossible.
Want to learn more? Here are some excellent articles:
“In Tanzania, Maasai women who reject FGM are refused as Brides” via Reuters
“Maasai in Tanzania: World Fame but Empty Stomachs” via the Guardian
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
WaterAid – Tanzania (Fact: 14 million people in Tanzania have no choice but to drink dirty water from unsafe sources).
Nicole, a fascinating article. Clean, available water and a good cook stove. Such simple needs for so many, yet too often lacking. Have you read Tish Farrell’s post on the Masai cricketers against FGM? It’s certainly a positive step: http://tishfarrell.com/2015/11/13/maasai-cricket-warriors-against-fgm-warning-this-post-comes-with-a-sensitive-subject-sticker/.
Thanks Janet! I actually had seen this article going around my Facebook stream. It is wonderful that men are trying to help out. It really is true that education on the risks is so important. Once people are more educated, I’m sure over time the practice will change (I hope!).
very kewl read, my best friend here in colorado is a 26 year old multilingual syrian refugee, has been here for 6 years an told me lots bout that place also…very interesting 🙂 kewl post-it .take care an keep on keepin’ on 🙂 Q
Thanks for commenting! I have heard that Syria was lovely before the war. I have friends who have been there and so much has been destroyed. So sad.
What an eye-opening encounter. Some good, some not so much. It seems since they can no longer be nomadic their whole way of life is jeopardised, and many traditions now pointless, especially the role of the man. So sad. As for FGM, I recently read a detailed article on what it is, and the various forms of it. It’s horrifying. I had thought I would maybe want to visit this camp from your last blog post. Now I’m not so sure.
Yes Alison you are right on with your comment. Their way of life is jeopardized largely due to not being able to live as nomads anymore. They still have retained lots of their culture yet it is threatened due to poverty, lack of education and malnutrition. As for FGM, yes it is horrifying and hard to understand. However it does not just happen to the Maasai but is a widespread practice impacting millions of girls mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. I’ve read some statistics that say in Egypt it is over 90% of the female population and when I was in Ethiopia it is well over 80%. So I wouldn’t say not to go to this specific place as the problem is way more widespread. It is all about education and explaining the huge risks of FGM versus the cultural beliefs that a woman will be not Marriageable. Excellent comments!
Oh yes, I knew the practice is very wide spread, and FGM was not really my reason for for my hesitation. I’m not sure what it was. I think it’s that I met massai when I was in Africa in 1980 and it was very different then. Really I just need to adjust my expectations. Obviously things have changed a lot.
Wow what was it like then? I bet all of Africa was so incredibly different in 1980 versus now. There has been a lot of progress in developmental regards that have been for the better but change doesn’t come of course with all positive results. I’d love to hear what it was like then.
I think I really hardly know what it was like, except that it was this extraordinary adventure travelling from Cape Town overland by truck all the way to London. It was incredibly hard travel, and our only agenda was to get there. There was 12 of us, and we camped every night in the bush. It was an extraordinary experience and we saw a lot of Africa, and the people, but didn’t get much chance to interact with them. Also I was very young, and not very conscious, and was simply blown away by all I was seeing, but not really understanding it. I remember going to village markets to do our grocery shopping (we cooked all our own meals) and buying the entire supply of 5 tomatoes that were available at the market. I remember being out in the bush and hearing the drums, and then people coming to us who had probably never seen white people before and big smiles from everyone. I remember trading an entire stem of bananas for a couple of large empty cans. I could write reams about it. But our connection with the people and the reality of their daily life was really minimal.
Wow what an absolutely incredible experience Alison! I can’t imagine how much it must have impacted you. In a way it is kind of sad that I don’t think you could even have such an experience today. You are so fortunate! Thank you for sharing it here.
Nicole, you might be interested in these recent posts from Tish. It seems I’m getting all kinds of info about FGM lately.
Fantastic Alison! Thanks so much for sharing! I just subscribed to Tish’s blog.
Beautiful accounts of your visit to the Masai training camp Nicole. I can relate to your anguish over the realities of life in these societies. I do believe intervention is not the answer. And legislation alone will not change a thing. The key is education. But government across the third world, including India, do not seem to prioritise education. Thanks for sharing and the links.
Yes Madhu! Education is critical to change the practice. Once more and more people understand the significant risks of FGM, hopefully the tradition will change. It is very complicated. Thanks for reading.
Oh my! This post is fascinating and detailed, yet heartbreaking in many ways. How far is it to the closest town? Do they make a trip into town to sell their jewelry and get more supplies? Thank you for sharing the lives of the Maasai people, Nicole.
Great questions Debbie! It is hours by car to reach the nearest town with services like doctors and a hospital. The roads are very rough and none of the Maasai have cars. So integration with markets and services is rarely possible. The NGO actually gets their beads from China, can you believe it? They help the women and bring the products to town to sell in the market. More coming soon…
Wow! Before the NGO the women had no access to beads or markets for their beads? Did they used to make handmade beads long ago?
No they did get beads but didn’t have access to all the markets for selling them to foreigners like they do. I’m not sure how they got them before but I know that beading is a long held tradition so perhaps through trading?
Probably through trading. I hadn’t thought of that. It is so fascinating. Thanks again, Nicole.
Hard issues. Getting clean stoves there is important. What about primary health care?
Excellent point. It is very very difficult. Most women deliver at home and have no access to health care at all. I know they are working on it but it is difficult in such remote parts of the world.
What an interesting experience Nicole and thank you for sharing it with us. Have you read a book called The White Maasai? If not, I would really recommend it, it’s a very eye-opening account of a woman who married a Maasai warrior.
Thanks Emily! I have heard of the book and believe there may even be a movie? Thanks for sharing. I will definitely check it out and glad you enjoyed the posts.
Sometimes change is good, sometimes change is not so good. I visited the Maasai in Kenya, and I believe they were still able to move and herd cattle (well, this was a while ago, now I think about it, soo…maybe things have changed there, too?). I had heard of FGM, but a few months ago listened to a BBC documentary…and was knocked off my chair (ok, it was a car seat) by the enormity of the issue. This is one change that would be good. But changing people’s customs, and minds about some things is a very long road, some times. Loved this post!
Wow sounds like you’ve done a lot of great travel over the years. Yes, it is hard to change people’s customs especially when we are outsiders. I only help that someday it does change though as FGM is really awful and dangerous for the girls.
Aweful and dangerous…jeesh, I guess. I bet I know who first thought up this idea…and it was no lady.