I had the privilege of peeking around in a Maasai village out in the middle of the Serengeti. I had met a few Maasai men and women in Arusha and spoken with many who had Maasai heritage however I had not spoken to anyone living completely isolated within the camps.
The Maasai intrigued me from the moment I arrived in Arusha. Drive anywhere and you will spot the brightly coloured cloaks of the tribes people. One of the most striking images I shall take home with me is the site of vast empty spaces of yellow, brown and orange, and somewhere in the blur of this golden colour pallet the solitary Maasai walking in the distance stands out. We were invited to look on as the tribe performed a traditional song and dance outside of their viliage. After this we were lead inside where us women were, hand in hand with the Maasai women, taken to one area of the camp whilst the men were at another. The men then stood in a circle and performed the jumping dance whilse we attempted a slightly tamer version (the women don’t jump so much as hop slightly, or shrug). I had not expected to take part in the traditional dances and as such this was a tremendous experience for me! After this we were lead on a short tour of the village by one of the tribesmen.
The Maasai are a prominent tribe in Tanzania as well as other neighboring countries in Africa such as Kenya. Within Arusha, although the predominant clan are the Chaga tribe, there is still a significant Maasai influence on the population. A nomadic tribe, the Maasai live in small makeshift huts within a circular enclosure which are easily dismounted when it’s time for them to move on. Although this seems practical, their living conditions leave much to be desired. The huts are minuscule and there is literally nothing within the camps other than these huts and a market in the centre for trade and tourism. Young children run rampant within the enclosure, barely clothed but seemingly happy. Older children were no where to be seen. I assumed they where out herding the cattle or badgering the passing cars for donations. The Maasai traditionally make their living off of cattle herding. These people eat only meat and ugali. No vegetables. A big part of their diet includes cows blood which they drink raw or mix it in with other foods. They extract the blood by piercing a cow through throat and allowing two liters of blood to drain before removing the knife, this way the cow survives.
The Maasai are a patriarchal society, with men traditionally taking more than one wife. One Maasai explained to me that the more cows a man owns, the more wives he is entitled to. Another tribes man seemed appalled and very uncomfortable when asked if women were aloud more than one husband… Women are of course not aloud to have more than one spouse. Even more confronting than this seemingly ancient cultural tradition is the tradition of circumcision. Young men are circumcised at around 15 years of age. Ouch! This is just one of the many steps a boy has to take in order to become a man and a warrior. After this he wears all black with his face and body painted black and white. This is to help the healing process as they believe that the healing will be disrupted if someone where to look upon them. This way the paint acts as a barrier. These boys/men will wear the paint for as long as three months before he can wash and don the colourful Maasai garb once again. Another step to become a man is the ritual killing of a lion. If they are successful they will be a true warrior and gain the respect of their tribe and also have their pick of the women! However, these days this ritual isn’t always carried out. Tourism has become very lucrative for the Maasai in Tanzania, and as such the killing of lions has stopped somewhat. Instead they perform the traditional jumping dance. During this performance, the man who can jump the highest is deemed the strongest warrior.
Whilst these traditions don’t seem too damaging, the traditions in regards to the women are highly confronting. In Maasai tribes, female circumcision is still widely practiced. Otherwise known as female genital mutilation (FGM), this custom has been outlawed by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). However, this seems to have little effect on the practice in these tribes. Many schools and nurseries in bigger towns struggle with the dilemma of what to do with the young Maasai girls in their care. Some have attempted to bargain with the parents to let them keep the girls in their charge, thus ensuring they do not go through this ordeal. Along with this, life as a woman in the tribes seems like a hard one. However, from what I experienced, the women have light spirits and there is truly a sense of community within the camps. As our safari guide explained to us, you should listen to the women when they sing, you can hear in their voices that they are kind.