A red carpet welcome, Maasai style, awaited us when we visited a small village about halfway between the Olduvi Gorge, the location of our earliest anthropological evidence of our human species, and the Serengeti. I was afraid that the village would be like a showcase, since we were told that the village is regularly visited by tourists on their way to the open plains. Our guide, George, stayed in the truck as the Maasai guide, Daniel, led us to the entrance of the village or manyatta where a welcoming committee of dancers awaited us.
The dance groups were separated along gender lines and encouraged participation. I politely declined (to focus on my role as family photographer) and was able to film my sister Andrea and my wife Amanda become part of the female collective and began to dance with the other women using a mix of shoulder shrugging and vertical jumps. The girls were also “given” brightly colored necklaces to wear during the dance. They were encouraged to buy them after the ceremony, but declined politely.
The men’s dance was similar as they assembled in a line and with a jaunty march paraded in a serpentine pattern. Then, just like in Footloose, they gathered in a dance circle, but instead of the breaking out into the cabbage patch and running man each man would come forward and jump as high as they could, as stiff as a pike. Amanda noticed some competition between them with the higher jumps getting greater applause. The whole event was accompanied by a droning almost vibrating and hypnotic vocalization by the other men in a one, two rhythm.
Once we were officially welcomed, we entered the manyatta through a wide fence made of twisted thorny acacia branches (a deterrent to keep wild animals, predators, out of the village/stock yard). The five of us split up and so we could get a closer looks at the huts or inkajijik- circular huts made of sticks, mud, ash and cow dung (bringing a whole new meaning to sh!t a brick). Daniel literally kicked a lady out of her house for a few moments so we could climb inside the two-bedroom model.
The 8′ x 6′ residence had a low ceiling and narrow entrance was, as dictated by Maasai culture, constructed by women. A small dirt space was the kitchen, meeting room and pantry and two narrow platforms separated by a wall of twigs defined the sleeping areas. The whole space was dark and tiny, I don’t think I could have laid flat on my back on the beds or in the open space, I definitely couldn’t stand up. I asked Daniel how they keep the rain out, considering a mud roof, he replied that they bought blue tarps and covered the huts when it rains.
The highlight of the trip was our visit to the small school just outside the village. The crudely-built structure was packed with children sitting on long benches. A teacher, a woman, sat at the front of the class with a small blackboard. A curious note was that children seemed to come and go as they pleased. I figured in a way that made sense; I didn’t see one watch or clock during our entire visit. The teacher (who seemed a little distressed by our visit) only tolerated our presence, but the children loved it.
We brought presents for them, so like any small children between the ages of 4 and 8 they were really excited. We had lugged more than 40 pounds of school supplies from home; workbooks featuring Sesame Street characters seemed to be universal, pens were a big hit and the kids really lit up when we passed out balloons. Oh, how they loved balloons. The older Maasai children go away to boarding school or live in villages closer to higher education.
I have mixed feelings about the Maasai. I was never treated rudely or made to feel unwelcome and it was a great look into our collective past as hunter/gatherers living in a semi-nomatic world. I just couldn’t help but see the crushing proverty and what looked to be a dying way of life.
The Maasai herding practices leave the land around the villages on the verge of desertification from overgrazing. A plethora of diseses also affect the children such as worms, eye infections, pneumonia and malaria – and that’s if the child survives past three months. Until they make it to the three-month mark, infants aren’t even counted as members of the tribe. According to a Save the Children report the infant mortality is a staggeringly high rate of 175 deaths per 1000 births. The report doesn’t single out the Maasai for the rate, but my intuition says their death rates are likely higher than those in Tanzania’s cities like Arusha and Dar es Salaam.
I don’t want to see the Maasai culture disappear, but I’m hopeful it will adapt. The modern world is here and can offer so many ways to raise the standard of living for both Maasai parents and their children.
My heart goes out to the people of the village we visited. Our guide, George, told us very few Maasai girls attend school, but there are organizations working to increase support for them. You can help them by donating to the Maasai Girls Education Fund.