“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).