Introducing The Maasai: Tribespeople Of East Africa

One more image in my mother’s mind that troubled her when I left for Africa was that of the technologically primitive tribe. She found their lifestyle interesting but didn’t want her son around their idols and whatnot. For the most part, she’d get her wish.

That being said, it is easier now more than ever to check out these tribes. One can go to Tanzania or Kenya and pay for what is called “cultural tourism.” Sounds nice, and it is a way for these groups of make money. Like any commercialism, though, authenticity becomes worn. You pay to visit a Maasai village of their traditional mud/wood/grass huts; you eat their food; you watch them perform a ceremonial dance, which may be more theater than authentic; and if you’re up for it, you can even stay the night and experience sleeping on their hard, earthen beds.

I wasn’t too interested in this, though. If I’d experience the life of these societies, I’d do it more conventionally.

Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are perhaps the quintessential tribe you think of when you think of “a tribe in Africa.” They are a semi-nomadic people of the plains of northern Tanzania/southern Kenya. They are livestock herders. They mainly wear red or blue cloths as a shawl or wraparound and sandals. They make their own jewelry, which some of them wear generously. They have their own language, which, like their lifestyle, is quite distinguishable from the others in the region. Finally, the Maasai are also often distinguished in physical attributes. They are taller and thinner than most others in the region.

Maasai man (Wikipedia.org)

The Maasai are a tribe, but it’s important to note that so were the people in the region in which I lived for most of my time in Tanzania. There, the people were the Hehe (pronounced “heyhey”). And when I visited southwest Tanzania, around Tukuyu and Lake Nyasa, we had the Nyakyusa tribe. And then around Mt. Kilimanjaro and the city of Moshi in northeastern Tanzania is perhaps the most famous tribe in Tanzania, the Chagga. Like the peoples of Europe, each tribe has its own stereotyped behavior. The Germans are known as industrious. The Hehe are known as warriors. The French are romantic. The Chagga are entrepreneurial.

Each tribe has their own language used locally in addition to the national language, Swahili. Each tribe has their own spin on food and farming and clothing. I thought coming to Tanzania that the tribes would be less defined, replaced by a national identity. But these tribes have staying power, and the gravity of your people (which is strong for people worldwide) seems particularly strong here and keeps members orbiting their land their whole lives.

It was big deal what tribe you were. There wasn’t any controversy or rivalry that I could sense, but it meant a lot to ones’ identity and was asked of fellow Tanzanians when the occasion was appropriate. A few of my students emailing their penpals in the U.S. asked their adolescent penpal if people in the U.S. had tribes. The question fascinated me. I was also asked this more than once and would say that when people came to the U.S., they largely forfeited their tribal identification for that of a national one.

All this being said, the Maasai yet are distinguished as a tribe from almost all the others. The vast majority of tribes in the region live along a continuum of technological complexity, but all seem to be on the same continuum. The Maasai, though, choose a lifestyle of technological simplicity. Its in their cultural script to do so. Cell phones are the rare exception, and it seems a clash to see a Maasai herdsman walking along with his 70 goats on the Serengeti plain in his sandals, red cloths, and a cell phone at his ear.

Today, I share this story of the Maasai not just because this is the best chance on my travels in Africa to write about such a people, but because in addition to fleshing out some details you may already have assumed, this is also a chance to share some of the traits that you might not have thought of.

***

My man Innocent now wanted to show me an outside-Arusha attraction. As seen in the last two Sunday posts, he had already helped reveal Arusha commercial custom and city highlights.

Innocent, my new friend in Arusha

This day was to feature some regional wildlife, and unexpectedly and more impressive to me, it also demonstrated the lifestyle of the Maasai by way of a small museum and nearby Maasai goat sale gathering.

After meeting at the food market, Innocent and I hopped in one of Arusha’s (and all of Tanzania’s) most popular mode of transport, the van “buses” known as a dalla dalla. We crammed in with the other riders as was customary and took it south of town on the well-built two-lane highway out to the airport. In only a few minutes, peppered with frequent stops for pickups and dropoffs, city life was behind us as the one-story stores and homes lessened in frequency. Soon there was as much field as there were buildings. And then at one stop, Innocent directed me to disembark.

We hopped out of the van and had to cross the open road in the middle of the open, Arusha/Serengeti plains. On the other side and up the road a hundred yards, was a complex of properties within a cluster of trees. At its front stood a safari SUV and a sign that read “Snake Park.”

Walking toward Snake Park, I also saw across the road a large, open area surrounded by a six-foot concrete wall. Through an opening in the wall, I could see a gathering of men in red or blue cloths.

A Maasai gathering

“A goat sale,” said Innocent. While the anthropology-interested part of me wanted to gravitate toward this scene, Innocent and I continued to that which we came to see. And interestingly, on top of the cool reptiles inside, there was also a small museum Maasai life (Innocent never mentioned this.)

We entered the walled-in driveway beyond that yellow sign. After 50 yards, it opened up to a cluster of brown-red painted buildings, the smallest of which was our starting point:

Inside and to left opened up to a reception counter with a tablet computer affixed. It played a looped video of snake bite victims being treated. Venomous snake bites are no joke. After paying admission to the lady there, Innocent and I wandered into the Park, a half-a-football field-sized area surrounded on one side by glass-walled, snake-filled cages. There were also a few birds in large cages, and then spotted throughout the ground were low-walled pens for turtles, crocs, and other lizards.

Here are a few shots:

***

With the Park behind us, we walked across the drive toward a long, red-brown building with big white letters painted on the side: MAASAI CULTURAL MUSEUM.

We entered the unlit space to greet a young Maasai man who had an abnormally large amount of hair compared to most other Maasai I had seen–men or women. He was great guide, explaining in detail the scenes to come.

Our guide

The museum was a zigzagging hallway winding back and forth with a new scene of Maasai life presented around each corner. One scene depicted the stages of life  with statues (like the ones seen in the picture above) of toddlers, adolescents, parents, and elders male and female. Another scene depicted a cow bleeding–the act of puncturing a cow in the neck to drain some blood, cover the wound so that it heals and cow is fine, and then take the warm, deep-red fluid and drink.

They puncture the cow with an arrow.

One more scene (of which there were 5-6) demonstrated a rite of passage into adulthood: circumcision. There was a depiction of a young teenage boy with legs spread and adults attending to the procedure.

And there was a like scene of women over a girl.

These scenes revealed much, but I also had many questions to fill in the blanks between these static depictions.

“Can a Maasai man marry a white woman?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But not many do.”

I asked about religion.

“We pray to God, but not Christian or Muslim. Though a few are now.”

They have no preachers, he said. There is one Maasai tribe, but many clans, each with a leader who acts as judge.

All clans use the same Maasai language.

Their homes are basic and don’t have electricity, so they charge their phones with solar chargers or by going into town.

“Are there rich Maasai?” I asked

“There are. They have many cows.”

And many wives. Innocent would later tell me, “You can find a Maasai man with 15 wives, and each wife has five children.”

Some Maasai do live in cities with modern amenities. The Maasai members of Parliament for instance, said our guide.

One more depiction in the museum was of a young man proving his manhood by way of the traditional rite of passage: killing a lion.

“We can’t do that anymore,” said our guide. “Tanzania doesn’t allow.”

“Are you upset by that?”

“Yes, I don’t like.”

“Well, what about killing a zebra?”

“Zebras are not dangerous.”

“Oh, well what about killing a snake?”

“Snakes are small.”

The tour ended with a souvenir shop of t-shirts and jewelry behind a glass case. Next, we were led out to see the camels.

***

I thought I had seen the most awkward, large animal in Africa when I went on a safari and spotted several giraffes. And maybe they do take the crown. But I never got to ride one. We walked further back in the Snake Park campus to a field with two camels eating hay and a few Maasai guys hanging out and around a couple of straw-roofed huts.

We were led to the camels and up we went:

It feels like you’re going to fall off.
Thanks for the ride!

Finally, we went to the goat sale still going on–visible and easy to get to from the camel pen.

After a handful of shots of the commerce and socializing, it was time to get back out to the road and back to town by way of the next dalla dalla that came by.

But first, I met an old Maasai woman willing to pose:

You may think she’s unhappy, but I’m telling you, this is the normal elderly Tanzanian pose. Smiling for a photograph isn’t customary. Maybe if I joined in I could get a smirk out of her.

Yeah, we’ll take that as a smirk.

***

I think there is a romantic idea that comes to mind when people in the Western world think about the Maasai or similar tribes–wholesome, earthen, genuine, humble, meditative, and connected to life in a way that we with our technology and fast-paced lifestyle miss. I think these attributes are accurate. I also think that distance and inaccessibility from this society gives them an almost legendary quality, and coverage that I’ve seen of the Maasai from National Geographic and elsewhere seems to perpetuate this notion.

But the truth is that more than the ways they are different, are they the same, just with their own versions of religion, marriage, law, and celebrations. And I think a more even-handed view of the Maasai–not to be feared for their ways, nor absolved of their controversial practices–would be best. They hold down boys and cut them. They hold down girls and cut them. Women are offered as possessions in exchange for cattle. If these activities took place openly from a society in the U.S., this society wouldn’t be looked at favorably anymore.

It’s a fine line between respecting the traditions of a people, respecting their freedom to do as they please, but then asking or demanding them to change some of their harmful practices. But while humans wiggle through these issues, the bottom line is that we can celebrate that our species exhibits and offers such an array of experiences to behold. The Maasai people have largely kept their ways alive into modern times, and we’re all the winners as they help to stretch the boundaries and potential of the human experience for all.

I’m grateful to have learned about and seen the Maasai people in action this day.

***

Next time we’ll leave Arusha and make our way to the stunning lakeside and boulder-strewn coast of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania.

1 Response

What say you?