Being Maasai

One weekend camping in Tanzania opened my eyes to the life of the Maasai.

It is Sunday evening and I arrive back at our hotel in Arusha, covered in layers of fine powdery dirt. The finest Tanzania soil. The hotel porter reaches out to help me with my small backpack, soon his black trousers are tainted with the powdery dirt. I apologize and take back my filthy possessions. I cannot wait to take a warm shower and scrub off the layers of dirt.

Nic’s shoes… they are blue

It was great spending the weekend camping at the Enduimet Wild Management Area (EWMA) in Tanzania with my colleagues from the SAP Social Sabbatical. However, the real experience was learning about the Maasai life by visiting their home. Since arriving in Tanzania, I have been helping the Pastoral Women’s Council and have been learning about the Maasai culture by reading and talking to locals, including Maasai who live in the city. All this learning did not prepare me for what I experienced in the bush.

It’s dry. I am here in Tanzania for the month of July. Technically, July is at the beginning of their dry season (June-October), so I have been surprised to see completely dried out river beds, and large fields of brown grass and dirt. EMWA seemed particularly dry and desert like, and I was informed that it had not rained since last October, meaning that the rainy season never happened this year. I can’t imagine what it will be in the next three months during the peak of the dry season.

Water. We got to visit a water hole, where the Massai have dug deep into the earth to find a source of fresh water for themselves and for their livestock. Giving water to the livestock is labor intensive, as the Maasai need to bail out the water from the well into the trough for the livestock to drink. Maasai women walk long distances from their boma to the water hole in the early morning to fetch water for their families.

Perspective — taking a shower after camping with clean hot water at the turn of the tap was a luxury.

The Maasai Way

There are about 800,000 Maasai in Tanzania. It is perhaps the largest population of indigenous tribes in the country. In contrast, the Hadzabe count is less than 2,000.

I wager to say that this populations size must do a lot with their culture and believes. The Maasai are a polygamist patriarchal society. On the way to Karatu last week, we saw the boma of a Maasai Chief who has 50 wives and 150 children. In their tradition, each wife has a different hut or house, and the Chief has his own bigger house. His boma was a little village!

Searym and Good Luck Singing a fun Maasai song

Their culture and laws go back for centuries. Some of it seems to follow nature and the rules of the wild. A male lion is the head of his pride of multiple females and their cubs. The lionesses are the ones that do the hard work of hunting to feed the pride while the male lion is the warrior that protects the pride.

Wrrior, Searym with wife and child

Similarly, in the Maasai culture the young men are considered warriors and they can have as many wives as they can afford. The warrior, Searym, who was helping out at the EWMA campgrounds, told us that he paid 16 cows for his wife. Searym and our driver, Good Luck (yes, this is his name), were singing and having a fun conversation as we drove towards the boma he lived in. Good Luck translated and told us that Searym wanted to marry my colleague Chyna and that he’d pay 20 cows for her, and because she was so beautiful he’d want 10 children with her. Somewhere between translation and laughter Good Luck said, and “may you have lots of girls”. This was no laughing matter.

More baby girls mean more cows for the father when he trades them for marriage. For the Maasai cows are their life, their worth is measured by the number of cows. The Maasai woman has little to no rights. Fathers can trade their 12 year old daughters to some 70 year old guy for lots of cows. The more daughters he has, the richer the father becomes.

Maasai Women and children

The women seem to do all the work — they fetch the water, build the houses and fences, cook, do all the chores around the boma, and care for the children, while the young warrior men ‘protect’ their kingdom, marry more women, and have more children. A woman is not allowed to own livestock and if her husband dies, the woman gets nothing and is sent back to her parents while the livestock is distributed among males related to the dead husband.

Education is not important. Children can take care of the livestock instead of going to school. Girls don’t need education, after all, as a local said (when he was intoxicated), “women are not intelligent”.

The organization I am working for in my sabbatical, Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC), rescues young girls who are escaping forced marriages and provides scholarships for their education. PWC’s Executive Director, Maanda Ngoitiko, was herself a young Maasai girl who escaped from her village when her destiny of marriage was no longer avoidable.

PWC also educates women, empowering them with knowledge and business skills. They are working with community leaders on improving women’s rights to own livestock and have created the Women’s Solidarity Boma, which is a community boma run by women.

Komolo telling the team stories about the Maasai

Living in a Boma

We arrive at the Noopong Boma where Searym lives. Soon he brings his wife and baby to show us his family. Our guide Komolo, a Maasai from Kenya, shares from first hand experience the rituals, the culture, and traditions of the Maasai.

Before arriving to the boma, Komolo and Good Luck tried to prepare us for the flies. Upon entering the boma I was shocked and a bit overwhelmed by the amount of dung blanketing the ground. Flies were everywhere.

Perspective. While my colleagues and I were regularly waving our hands, or shaking our heads to shoo away the flies, the Maasai didn’t seem to notice the dozen flies buzzing around or resting on them.

The hardest scene for me to see, was a toddler with flies that seemed fixed around his mouth and eyes, like ants feasting on honey.

I knew that livestock, specially their cows were important to the Maasai. Stepping into the boma, and seeing how it was organized made that even more clear. The boma structure is clever. Noopong had a circular perimeter made of dried branches; they used the thorny acacia for safety from wild animals on the top layer and as the gate used to seal the entrances at night. The houses were located next to the perimeter fence. The next inner circle included fenced areas for the smaller animals (goats and sheep). And at the very center, the largest open area, was for the cows. Cows were in the safest area of the boma protected by three layers of security — perimeter fence, humans, smaller livestock.

Perimeter Fence

Family. The boma is a family dwelling. It could be one chief with 50 wives and their children, or a family of six brothers with their multiple wives and respective children. They are a close community that supports each other. The women bond together in sisterhood and the children always have someone to play with. Some of the Maasai I’ve talked to recollect their time at the boma as a happy time.

Who am I to judge?

My intent is not to be judgmental as I share what I have learned about the Maasai. In fact, for the past few weeks I have been struggling with the dilemma of the colonization and westernization of Africa, and the evangelization of the indigenous. Who is to say that one way of living, believes, or culture is better than others? Has western civilization helped or made it worse? Who is ‘indigenous’ anyway, us or them?

I struggled with this thought each day we drove to the client site and saw poverty and people working hard to survive in the city. Wondering if their lives would be better if they would have continued living of the land and westerners never came to Africa.

In perspective, after seeing the conditions they lived in the boma, the city looked very good. And I started to think, maybe the westernization and evangelization of the indigenous was a good thing. Then I realized that I had made a judgment that the boma was not good.

The reality is that in general Maasai living in a boma are happy, the don’t have many problems with lifestyle diseases despite living surrounded by dung and flies, and they have long lives — some living past 100 years old. They have a strong community that supports each other.

I guess I am back to thinking that the western or evangelical influence may not have been good.

It would be interesting to see a different series of events in the past where there was no colonization or westernization, and see what how the Maasai or any other indigenous people would have evolved on their own.

We all have preconceived thoughts on what is good or bad, and we are quick to judge based on what we believe and have experienced. It is not simple to find an answer, but how can we live and let live with out judgment?

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