The day we were to enter the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, we first made a stop outside of the park at a Masai village. My image of the Masai before this visit was of tall, lean men wearing blue or red clothes holding a cane-like piece of wood. I knew they were a nomadic people and that they lived generally in both sides of the border between Kenya and Tanzania. However, that was the extent of my knowledge about them.
Visiting a Masai village is not the only time you can see the Masai as you see them in small towns as you traverse this part of Tanzania and as they may work in some of the places you may stay. You will also see them herding their cattle to take them to get water (like the ones we saw heading into the Ngorongoro Crater).
When we were taken to their village, I was not sure what was in it for them. I understood they lived off their cows and didn’t have many possessions since they are nomadic so I didn’t quite get it. I was not aware that some do make the best of the tourism in the area by making crafts to sell to visitors. Basically we were taken to their village so we could get a glimpse into their lives in return for the potential purchases we would make from their inventory of crafts. I am used to tours (big or small) always taking visitors to places for shopping and sometimes I can find that tedious (even if I do need to buy some gifts to bring back home). This time, I somehow did not mind.
First, they welcomed us with some chanting and by placing ornaments around the necks of the female visitors. They also proceeded to show how high they can jump and got one of our guys to try jumping higher than them – nope, could not do it!
I found the short glimpse we got into their lifestyle very interesting. We were divided into smaller groups so we could each visit the small home of the Masai and there talk a little bit about how they live. The warrior into whose house we went offered good information and was generous in answering our questions.
Among the things our warrior shared with us:
- things are communal; they make crafts and the sales go to the entire group
- they are polygamous
- since their huts are so small, the house in which the warrior sleeps at night, any kids older than 4-5 get sent to another wife’s hut
- the warriors’ job is the safety of the group; women have a long list of things they are responsible for like building the huts, cooking, fetching water, minding the children, etc.
- some warriors get an education in a village or town so they can, for example, speak English and welcome tourists to their villages
- life centers around the cattle on whose milk and blood they depend
- they move every 2-3 months to a new place (where there is more grass for their cattle)
- when someone dies, they leave the body out in the open to be nourishment for animals; they leave some marker so people know not to build their camp there; supposedly, a few months need to pass before the area can be used again
- they live typically into their 100s (he also told us they don’t have illnesses).
After chatting with the warrior and checking out the crafts (and making purchases), we stopped at the tiny schoolhouse for their group. The kids were into showing they could read the words on the blackboard!
I left with admiration for a people who seem to strike a workable balance between living according to their traditions while dealing with some of modern life with common sense (like taking advantage of the opportunity that visitors can provide in terms of extra income for the group). We gladly perused their crafts and, while certainly not offered very cheaply, we were happy with negotiating some but not as much as we had done in other settings.
Curious what else others know about the Masai. Leave a comment and share!