Monday, September 1, 2014


Earlier in our trip, we had the opportunity to visit a Samburu village in Kenya. The Samburu people are an offshoot of the Maasai, the proud group of African warriors who were once among the most feared of the African tribes. In the mid-19th century the Maasai occupied most of the vast Rift Valley, but at the end of the century the population was decimated by diseases such as smallpox and cholera that coincided with a severe drought. More than half of the Maasai population died. Not much later, two-thirds of their land was taken away to be used by colonizers and for national parks and reserves.

In his book Hemingway in Africa, Christopher Ondaatje points out: "Until the nineteenth century, the Masai dominated the grassy plains that stretch eastwards from Lake Victoria almost to the Indian Ocean and southwards from the highlands north of Nairobi to the Masai Steppe of Tanganyika. Then, in the second half of that century, cholera and cattle diseases almost obliterated them, and the northern part of their lands were taken over by European settlers. . . . By 1953 Hemingway felt that the tribe was a sad shadow of what it had once been. . . . [He] blamed the tribe's demise largely on drugs and alcohol . . . ."

Typical Hemingway. The pot calls the kettle black.

In the last 50 years there has been a resurgence of the Maasai population, which now numbers over 850,000 (but is still only about 0.7% of Kenya's population and about the same in Tanzania), and a lot of effort is being made to help them preserve their culture and lifestyle while also providing education for their children. However, there continues to be much controversy over who owns the Maasai ancestral lands that have become part of the game reserves and are so important to the tourist industry and also highly desired by the government for other natural resources, such as geothermal energy.

Tourists are generally shielded from the many complex issues related to indigenous people, which is understandable given the fact that one of the ways the Maasai make money is giving tours of their villages to those tourists. The last thing they want is for us to be drawn into their politics. For the most part, we were ignorant of any problems.

It was on our drive to the Maasai camp that we first experienced what became a regular habit: animals running down the road in front of our Land Cruiser in a crazy game of African Chicken:
Note the endless expanse of grass. Classic Serengeti.

Unlike his buddies above, this gazelle was on a lazy morning stroll:
In much the same way the American Indians were driven off their lands and made to settle on government-selected reservations, the Maasai have been shunted from their ancestral lands, now part of the national park system, and made to live elsewhere. To visit them, therefore, we had to leave the park. This gate with its tipsy sign, apparently in the middle of nowhere, had no attached fences, making me wonder how animals are kept from wandering out of the reserve.
Another tour group--perhaps school children?--had also stopped for pictures (or repairs) at the gate:
The view from the far side, looking back into the Serengeti:

A short distance outside of the park we stopped at a gas station. Behind the station was a trail leading to a lookout point that yielded a stunning view of a paint-worthy landscape:
After studying a map, we have come to the conclusion that this must be Lake Ndutu.
 In just the fifteen or twenty minutes we were there, the weather did a 180 and the radiant colors vanished:

However, by the time we got to the village, the fickle skies were blue again.

The Maasai village in Tanzania was very similar to the Samburu village we had visited in Kenya, but for some reason the Maasai village felt less authentic. Maybe we were a bit more jaded than we had been on our first visit, but I think it's more likely that this group sees more tourists than the first group we visited, and they have their script down pat. 

We liked our welcome, complete with a one-man band, marching formations, and a chorus. Maasai men carry their sticks everywhere.
Photo by J. Mirau
We were greeted by a well-spoken young man who could, if dressed in western attire, fit comfortably in an American office. The fellows on the right, however, hung back and looked at us a little more suspiciously. Their outfits--red and blue shukas, or shawls made of a length of cloth, worn over a bright blue kanga, or one-piece garment--were typical of what we saw many of the cattle herders wearing out in the bush, far from any village. Note their thin legs, a definite Maasai trait:
The women wear a similar combo of kanga and shuka, but with a little more variation in color and pattern. Their fez-like white hats are very unique. One source I looked at says these hats signify that a woman is married, as do their closely shaved heads. They wore elaborate beaded earrings and loops of beads around their necks:
  The beaded jewelry was fantastic, and check out this woman's earlobe:
Photo by J. Mirau
Here's a close-up of another woman (with typical bad Maasai teeth) wearing almost identical ear decor:
Photo by M. Edwards

As in the Samburu village, a threatening barrier of thorny branches that encircled the village provided security from marauding animals:
The Maasai used to be nomadic, following their herds to grazing lands. However, government restrictions on where they can live have made these villages semi-permanent, and the dwellings looked more substantial that those of the Samburu:

Twisted acacia branches and trunks made an interesting central point for the village, a bit of natural art in a public place:
Children, comfortably walking around in their bare feet, lent an air of believability to the village:
One of them took a liking to a member of our group and didn't want to let go of her hand.
Another child was wandering outside the village walls, but any predator coming across that dry stubble could be seen long before it got close enough to do any harm. Where in this vast desert is there grass for the village cattle? The herd must be far away.
I was especially drawn to the family groups:

This mother was just a young girl, and one of the children looked like she was wearing her entire wardrobe at once, even though it was a warm day. I wish I could trace each piece of clothing back to its original owner. I wonder if some of it comes from Goodwill or Deseret Industries donations in the United States.

The Maasai are famous for their jumping, part of the coming-of-age ceremonies of young men, but now also an important part of every tourist visit. Jumping is used to demonstrate strength, stamina, and manhood. Music for the dance was provided by a wind instrument that looked like a rubber pipe and produced a sound not too different from the sound we used to make as kids when we blew into pop bottles. In addition, when the women did their jumping dance, they sang a repetitive chant led by one of them and echoed by the rest. During the men's jumping, the other men of the tribe chanted a tuneless song that grew in intensity with better jumps. No drums or other percussion was used. Sometimes one man jumped alone:
. . . and other times two jumped together and exactly the same moment, apparently in competition with each other:
They jumped straight up with very little knee bending to provide spring and without letting their heels touch the ground between jumps.

The women were not very high jumpers in comparison to the men:

As in the Samburu village, the men demonstrated how they start fire without matches. Here, one of them encourages a spark that has lit a bit of dung. Note the huge hole in his earlobe and in the earlobe of the boy on the right, a look I've seen several of my college students try to achieve (and for some reason it just doesn't look the same in my California classroom as it does in the Tanzania savanna).
This man walking away from the village may have been on his way to take his turn tending a herd of cattle, goats, and sheep:
I'm not sure what this small herd can possibly find to eat in the dry, barren ground surrounding the village:
A few of the tribesmen spoke English and were willing to answer questions. 
The admission fee paid by our tour company allowed us to take as many photos as we wanted:
Like the Samburu tribe responses, the answers to our questions here were mostly politically correct: Girls are married at age 18. Parents choose the wives for their sons. Males are circumcised at 18. Females are not circumcised (although another guide said yes, they are circumcised at age 18). Children are well educated. However, I've read many things since coming home that contradict what we were told, especially in regards to continuing issues with women's rights among the Maasai. This article, for example, says only 48% of Maasai girls are enrolled in primary school, and only 10% enroll in secondary school. The site also claims girls are circumcised between 11 and 13 years of age and are married off young to become property of their husbands.

The austere, impoverished, and cloistered life of the Maasai is hard to fathom. And yet, while they could choose to be absorbed into the general East African culture, they are trying to retain their traditional culture and beliefs, a noble goal, while slowing coming into alignment with cultural norms.  As long as the women are victims of opression, however, little true progress can be made.

I really enjoyed reading Facing the Lion: Growing up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton. The author was one of the lucky boys who were allowed to attend school. He did well, and through a series of unbelievable occurrences, was able to study government and politics at St Lawrence University in New York, and later earned his Master's degree in International Education at Harvard. This book about his childhood in a nomadic Maasai tribe was written for children ages 12 and up, but it's the best, most compelling insight into tribal living that I've come across.

Here are a couple of choice tidbits:
"Cows are our way of life. They give us milk and blood and sometimes meat to eat and hides to wear. They're our wealth. We don't have money; we have cows. The more cows somebody has, the wealthier he is. My mother has lived her whole life in a hut made of sticks and cow dung, and you could put everything she owns on the seat of a chair. She lives entirely on the cow. For her, there's something wrong with someone who doesn't have cows. It's just not civilized."

"We also mix cow blood with the milk. This is especially tasty and good for you. Usually it takes three people to get the blood from a cow. Two people tie a rope around the cow's neck and hold it so that the jugular vein pops up. The third person chooses a spot on the vein and hits it with a small, blunt arrow, making a little hole, a horizontal slit in the jugular vein. The blood comes out of that hole. You hold a gourd next to the cow's neck, and the blood pours into the gourd. When you get enough, you loosen the rope and the blood stops flowing. . . . Having blood taken out isn't bad for the cow. We don't take any more blood than it can spare."

The author includes a fairly detailed description of his circumcision ceremony at age 13, including the fact that during the ceremony, the boy being circumcised must remain absolutely still--no twitching, no sound, not even a blink during the seven to eight cuts made over a period of about ten minutes. Yikes.

One of the things I especially liked about the author is that even after he experienced American life, he continued to embrace his native culture. In fact, while he was a student at St. Lawrence University and later when he was teaching at the prestigious Langley School near Washington, D.C., during the summer he would return home to live as a Maasai warrior with his brothers and his tribe. He now serves in Kenya's National Assembly and champions improved education and children's rights issues.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Pulitzer prize winning authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a must-read for anyone interested in women's rights in the developing world. While Kenya and Tanzania are not frequently mentioned by Kristof and WuDunn (there are many places in Africa where women are much more oppressed), the issues of female circumcision, lack of property rights, and lack of education that are endemic in Third World countries are definitely present among the women of East Africa. The authors' argument is that educating women and giving them economic opportunities is the best way to change the world. I couldn't agree more.


  1. I'm still amazed that they live in those huts and tend cattle all day. Hard to believe that they have not embraced a more modern culture yet. Hard to believe they can continue on more than another 40 or 50 years.

  2. I love looking at these pictures, especially the moms and children. Amazing how many layers of clothing they wear. They must think people in other countries are really immodest.

    Those earlobes-ick!

  3. Any practical purpose in jumping competition - Iike shaking off the fleas?

    1. Ha ha, Russ! I thought maybe jumping to get a view of the other side of that thorny fence might be another possibility.

  4. I was interested in the fact that they cautioned the tourists not to wear blue, but many of the Masai wore that deep blue. Interesting visit to a marginalized tribe; the contradictions between what they present to visiting groups and what you've read is startling. And who can ever forget the book Half the Sky, once they've read it?