Maasai, Civilization

Somewhere around 1.6 million Maasai, a semi-nomadic people, a good portion of them clinging to their premodern way of life with staggering tenacity, inhabit the fertile and arid lands of the Great Rift Valley from southern Kenya to Northern Tanzania. Our initial introduction to them comes as we skim and occasionally bump along the French- and Chinese-built highways between Arusha, Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorogoro, repeatedly noticing children – small children! six, seven, nine years old – dressed in brilliantly colored robes, carrying long sticks, kicking up red dust as they skip and prance and stagger alongside bedraggled parades of emaciated, slow-moving cows.


Didn’t you say that attending primary school is compulsory in Tanzania? I ask Zadock. Yes. So why aren’t they in school?

Then, later: Where are they going? To find enough grass to graze, Zadock answers. It’s dry season. They have to cover a lot of territory – sometimes many kilometers a day — for the animals to find enough to eat

Later, again: Where are their parents? Isn’t anyone watching them?

Slowly, over many days, the story of the Maasai emerges.

Maasai are the only people in the world, we are told repeatedly during our time in Tanzania, who continue to live alongside their animals, as nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples have for centuries. They constitute only one of the hundreds of peoples residing in Tanzania, which gained independence from the British in 1961. At the insistence of the country’s first president, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Swahili became the country’s official language. Most of these peoples embraced the project of nationhood, willingly adopting the idiom and the project it simultaneously symbolized and advanced, that of forging a shared identity among vastly disparate cultures and traditions.

Not many Maasai, though. They do learn Swahili, but stubbornly continue to live as their ancestors have for thousands of years. A rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal society, they reject private ownership of land or property, practice polygamy, adhere strictly to ancient eating rituals (more on this later), and use only traditional healers. Those children we kept sighting roadside bore the responsibility of caring for Maasai’s cattle, sacred animals; it’s a service to which they are entrusted at age five and which they perform until they reach the age of twelve.

In the west, I say to Zadock, that’s called child labor. He assures me emphatically that the kids do get schooled.

Near Lake Manyara, I ask Zadock once again, “what’s that?” as we pass a group of teenaged boys clad head to toe in black robes, with fearsomely blackened faces, scarified with white linear patterns that make them appear adolescent pranksters and gruesome skeletons all at once.


Such costumes appear, in my world, only on Halloween night or during the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City.

Circumcision, Zadock replied casually.

Later that evening, I look it up: at age 16, boys are separated from their mothers. (Only mothers raise the children, as the fathers issue too many spawn to “father” in our performative sense of the word.) A village elder executes the circumcision without anesthesia. Coruscating shame befalls any boy who cries out, winces, or in any way expresses discomfort or pain.


It takes four months for the wound to heal, and during that period, the boys all live together in a band while they undergo training for the demanding job of Maasai manhood. Once the ritual is completed, boys become “warriors”, each one ceremoniously receiving a spear, which he proudly carries everywhere from then on. Like Christian saints with their attributes, the Maasai spear exhibits the essence of its carrier’s character.

Warrior, Danny scoffs, turning to Gideon. Do these guys look like warriors to you? They’re tiny.

Danny and I both had mixed feelings about the whole “visit a Maasai village” option. The travel industry calls this cultural tourism. You can’t escape the voyeurism involved in such an expedition, the feeling of standing the still-visible footprints of our colonizing ancestors, and with them, gaping at the primitives.


I was mollified, slightly, when Zadock told us that tourists typically paid a not-insignificant fee for such a visit – at least, I thought, the Maasai are getting something out of it too. This donation, we subsequently learned, would be put to facilitating the transport of water to the village, paying for school uniforms and fees, and some bare other essentials from the non-Maasai economy. Without the money, the only way these settlements obtain sufficient water during the dry season is this: one of the men takes off every two weeks, a donkey caravan and several children in tow. Through these arid lands they walk, walk as much as two full days just in order to reach the nearest clean water source. There, the man and children fill enough buckets of water to meet the village’s needs and load them onto the donkeys. Then, for two more days, they walk home.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


When greeted by L., our local Maasai guide, and his fellow villagers, our (or at least my) discomfort grew rather than diminished. Two distinct groups, men on the left and women on the right, stood outside the village, separate from one another, forming a semicircle. Their tiny, thin bodies were wrapped in full traditional regalia, colorful cloths, beaded jewelry dripping from withered, distended earlobes, necks, wrists. Even the children looked as though their faces had been washed for the occasion. Once we’d paid up, our guide signaled a cue, and the men and women began to sing one of the traditional call-and-response chants you hear when watching those BBC documentaries on Africa. At some point, a grim-faced woman who looked to be about my age (but could have been twenty years younger) walked up to me, fastened a beaded necklace around my neck, and wordlessly grabbed my hand. She brought me into the women’s semi-circle, and with a nod informed me that it was time for us to jump.


“The men can jump much higher than the women,” L. explained later, “so they’re more fun to watch.” My silent companion began to jump softly in the dirt, catapulting her body up with such relaxation that her gentle lands emitted no sound.

For a while, we jumped, then we stopped. My guide signaled that our brief African dance had come to its end. Not a single woman smiled at me during the entire episode. (The men, who coopted Gideon for a dancing portion of the performance, exhibited something between bemusement and glee at Gideon’s heartfelt and evidently enjoyable attempts to follow their lead.)

Do they dress up like this and dance every day? I asked, believing, correctly, that I already knew the answer.

Only when tourists come, L. replied.

And how often is that?

About once a week.

So, I pressed, on what occasions would you normally dance and sing, if not for the appearance of the tourists?

Oh, not very often, was L’s answer. Only at weddings and other really special celebrations.

Now came the time to see the village proper.


Called a Kraal, Maasai live in a huddle of mud and thatch huts – perhaps fifteen, perhaps twenty — arranged in a small circle and protected by two concentric circular fences which are cobbled together from thorny acacia branches.


The perimeter fence deters predators, while the interior enclosure prevents the cows and other animals from escaping at night.


It is the women’s responsibility to build the homes, called inkajijik. (Some years ago, when I first read about this, I imagined some impressively matriarchal society – the women are the architects!, I thought with great excitement.) The globular huts are cobbled together from mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow’s urine (the latter two create a much harder binder than do mud and water alone). A newly constructed inkajijik lasts around three years; inside each lives one woman, with all the children that Mr. Polygamist has bequeathed upon her. It is not unusual for one man to enjoy multiple wives and produce a dozen, sometimes dozens, of children.

What happens to all the other men? I wondered darkly. Are they like baby male elephants, kicked out of the family group when they mature enough to become competition with their fathers? I did not venture to inquire, though, and even despite all this information, was a little stunned when I learned that every person in this particular Kraal – perhaps sixty in all — belonged to the same family. Whoa. And that’s typical.


By previous agreement, one of the women made her inkajijik available to us, and our guide shepherded us into its stifling, smoke-filled interior. The smoke repels the mosquitos, L. explains; since Maasai don’t use matches and it takes effort to start a new fire, once one is ignited, you never extinguish it, even on days as sweltering as this one. I sit down on an inverted plastic bucket. Danny and Gideon settle themselves on one of the abode’s three beds, wooden platforms built directly into the hut’s walls. Here, L. spending twenty or thirty more minutes, telling us a little more about his culture.


Maasai believe that some long-ago deity determined by fiat that every cow in the world belongs only to them; they used to think nothing of stealing other people’s cattle, and occasionally still do. If the traditional Maasai diet is strictly adhered to, cows supply every ounce of food consumed: they drink milk, slaughter the animals (sheep and goats too) for the meat, and drink cow’s blood. L. methodically detailed the blood-letting procedure by which the Maasai collect a cow’s blood for drinking, reassuring us that they suture up the neck vein after draining out a few cups. “So the animals don’t suffer,” he smiled.

Children are educated, our guide reassured us in his more than passable English. (Later, we saw the one-hut school.)


Maasai “don’t go to the hospital”, he continued. At first I thought: well, of course not! They don’t have cars, and if someone falls really ill, it would take too long to get to a hospital on a donkey. But that’s not why. Maasai reject science and modern medicine. They rely on faith healers and traditional medicine, meaning, an admixture of the verifiably helpful (quinine, a tree sap, does indeed deter malarial mosquitos) to the verifiably ridiculous, or even harmful.

In my internet perusings, I subsequently read that the value Maasai place on human life also differs from that we accord life in western society. Because infant mortality rates are so high, Maasai refrain from naming their children at birth, choosing instead to wait until some months have passed. Similarly, they practice no death rituals at all. When a mother or father or aunt or sister or child passes from loved one to corpse, the fleshy, bodily pile is simply plunked out on the plain for scavengers. It is considered bad luck for the family if scavengers fail to consume a deceased body with dispatch, so Maasai often spread cow’s blood and other delectables around the body before tossing it into the dirt.

What was my reaction to all this? The abodes were fetid, sweltering hovels. Many of the children at the “school” we visited exhibited visible disabilities. The teeth of most of the adults were blackened, gums bloody – if the teeth were in their mouths at all.

What was my reaction to all this? I wondered: what do these people do all day? What do the women do after sweeping their huts, mending their walls, nursing their babies, and making beaded jewelry to sell to visitors like us? The children, when not learning how to shout out the English alphabet for gaping visitors with white faces, journey with the village animals to find shrubbery enough to sustain them for another day.



The village elders stand, crouch, and sit around in the shade. Day after day.


What was my reaction to all this? All my white-guilt-liberal cultural relativism trickled away from the interstices of my ideologized mind. This is no way to live. Demanding that women follow polygamist, patriarchal practices amounts . . . not to enslavement, but I want to use the word anyway. Demanding that young people be raised according to these retrograde traditions is tantamount to child abuse: malnourished, unvaccinated, inadequately educated, these children can expect to live lives that Hobbes would surely describe as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Should the Tanzanian government force the Maasai to abandon their ancient traditions? To be sure, it is not for me to say, and the Maasai people, or at least enough of them, tenaciously perpetuate these practices in both Kenya and in Tanzania. But when Danny, Gideon, and I, sitting in that small, dark, smoky hut, pressed L. about his desire to continue living according to Maasai practices, he confessed a deep ambivalence.

Attrition through assimilation, Zadock later intimated, is what the Tanzanian government hopes for. Because some of the children are sent away to board for secondary school, they are exposed to other people, to television, to the internet; hopefully, they will decide for themselves to leave the Maasai traditions and practices behind and join the modern world.

But toward the end of our tour, I noticed that L’s earlobes were intact; they’d not been stretched out, as per Maasai custom. This guy, I thought, could just as easily slip into a business suit; with his English, intelligence, and winning demeanor, no one would know from where he came. “But it’s hard,” L. admitted to us privately. Once, he said, he’d visited Kenya. Even among the Maasai people there, who were more educated and acculturated, he found that he’d struggled, feeling desperately, hopelessly out of place.

— Sarah

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