Spending time with the Maasai people and their culture underneath the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the best experiences of my life to date. I was first welcomed into their arms during my travels to Tanzania, where I spent time developing a primary school in the rural savannah. As a result of my time with them, I learned a grand amount about myself and the world around me.
The Maasai people inhabit parts of Eastern Africa, namely Tanzania and Kenya. Their roots reach back to South Sudan, where they then moved south and ended up in their current area somewhere around the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They have traditionally survived on cattle, which provided meat, milk, and blood for them. They were also known as fierce warriors, due to their strength and weaponry. Unfortunately many of the Maasai (about 60%) passed away from disease such as smallpox and rinderpest, which depleted cattle sources. However, their traditions and values still hold true to the people today and were experiences I was honored to experience during my time.
Many current day Maasai thrive off of tourism, yet others still live a traditional lifestyle; I was lucky enough to see both. Since we were there to build we were viewed less as tourists and more as aide, giving us a more authentic experience. Never once did we attend a touristy cultural event, which I was thrilled about, since often times their culture is swapped for entertainment. For a more in depth idea of what these performances are like, I co-wrote an article with one of my closest friends on her experience in Tanzania.
So if my experience wasn’t the entourage of performances many guests to Tanzania see, what was it?
One of my first impressions of their friendliness was when we were welcomed from our bus to camp with a song that lyrics are as follows:
Jambo, Jambo bwana. (hello, hello sir)
Habari gani? Mzuri sana. (how are you? very well)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa, (you are welcome to)
Hakuna Matata ([there are] no worries)Translation provided by our guides and camp staff
This song, while simple in lyrics conveys the idea of peace seen all throughout Tanzania. This country prides itself on being uninvolved little conflict since its origin in 1961, which is reflected in Maasai culture. Throughout our entire stay I felt treated with respect and care. At many times I even felt they were more welcoming than cultures in my home country.
Although the Maasai we stayed with were more rural, we met people from both urban and rural backgrounds. However, their dress remained consistent. Even though we occasionally saw them in style similar to the United States, the broad majority of people we met were wearing the “traditional” shuka, a brightly colored piece of cloth that is wrapped around their body. While the shuka is typically described as traditional, it actually only became popular in the 1960s, due to more modern technology; before, leather was used. These pieces of cloth are also used as blankets, which we used in our camp. I actually brought one back with me and it is the most useful purchase I have made. It is perfect for hot and cold temperatures and easy for packing around for camping, traveling, or whatever you please. Some Maasai prefer kangas or kikoi, which are one piece garments, sort of like a sarong. These tend to be more common near the coast and in Kenya, which wasn’t where I was staying.
In addition to the brights fabric, Maasai are also well known for their bead work. Historically, these beads were made of natural items such as seeds and clay; currently, like the shuka, they are made of more industrialized materials, such as plastic and glass. The beadwork has heavy amounts of importance in the social life of Maasai. Different colored beads mean different things and the type of jewelry can signify social statuses. Some mean a woman is married or unmarried, a man is a warrior or not, or higher or lower social classes. Beading with The Maasai warriors was one of my favorite activities while I was in Tanzania, and I still wear my beads today! One of my history teachers was actually gifted a beaded collar that many of the women wear in celebrations and weddings and it is absolutely beautiful. The work is so detailed and stunning.
Along with beads and shukas, many Maasai actually carry weapons. They were famed for their strength and fighting ability, which is seen in their understanding of weaponry. The Maasai I was with typically carried a machete and a conga or rungu (same item, just two different names), which is a wooden club with a nub on the end to heighten the impact. It is carved from trees in the savannah with a machete, and then softened with bits of glass and leaves from a sandpaper bush. Lastly, they are often treated with petroleum to prevent from damages. These clubs, although seemingly simple, are exceptionally lethal in the hands of a warrior; in fact, they have been used to kill lions.
A rungu is also a beaded club that instead of being a weapon, is a symbol of power and respect. They are given to the elders during meetings and only the person holding the rungu may speak. Along with these clubs, some Maasai know how to make and use bows and arrows. On the last day of our trip, we had weapons training, where we got to throw congas and shoot the bows. None of us could throw them nearly as far as the Maasai; some could throw congas half the length of a football field.
A few words of Maa, the language of Maasai, have popped up in this article, such as conga, rungu, and shuka. However, many Maasai don’t know Maa or others speak it and another language, such as Swahili. It is part of the Nilo-Saharan family and for the most part, is only a spoken language. There are some written translations, but I only heard it in conversations. The more rural you are, the more you will hear it, especially in the markets. We had to barter in the market we attended and I loved listening to all the chatter and learning more vocab. I still have all the notes jotted down in my notebook.
As for food, Maasai still consume plenty of cattle, but goat is also super common. In fact, during our trip, we gave a goat as a gift to the camp team and had the opportunity to witness a ceremonial slaughter. To some, this was too gruesome, but I watched for the cultural experience. We ate the goat later that night and I have to admit it was pretty good. Maasai also eat lots of cornmeal, which they cook into numerous types of dishes including Ugali which is boiled cornmeal that is created into a loaf and typically eaten with other foods, including stir fried peppers or others. For families in poverty (which the average family of seven in the area we were in lives on $5 or less a week), a cornmeal porridge is a typical meal. It is bland and flavorless and tends to stick to your throat as you eat it. During one morning, we had to eat an entire bowl as a group and a cup each individually. It was a very unpleasant experience that opened our eyes to reasons that we should be grateful. After plenty of gagging and forced spoonfuls, we finished the bowl with two or three of us, including myself, taking one for the team and eating more than one cup. However, regular loaf Ugali is something I cook for special occasions and enjoy greatly.
Most rural Maasai live in small homes, called an enkaji, that are traditionally built by women. Women of most ages are expected to build these homes, with the exception being those who are pregnant and elderly. The huts are built with nearby materials, starting with wooden poles. From there, smaller sticks are woven together to create an outer frame. Plaster made from mud, cow poop, and sometimes human urine is then used to create a more finished frame. Cow poop also is used for the roof, as well as grasses. This combination makes the hut waterproof and safe from outside weather. Enkaji typically are used for staying in (can hold one or two beds), cooking, and even storing small livestock, such as ill goats. Unfortunately, since there is little ventilation, indoor cooking can cause health issues as the smoke has little place to rise and exit. However, these homes provide adequate shelter from the harsh savannah climate.
The Maasai also have several ceremonies and traditions that are important to their development. The most well known of them all is the circumcision undertaken by young adults as it is the entry into adulthood and crucial for social success. Traditionally, both men and women would be circumcised, but due to many health concerns, female circumcision is illegal in many places. However, it still occurs in rural areas and is prominent among men.
The first step of circumcision is for then boy to state that they are ready for the operation, which is typically just after puberty. They must prove themselves ready, which can be as simple as taking on chores of the adults or enduring other painful tasks, such as branding*. When they are truly ready, they will herd cattle alone for seven days and upon the eighth, prepare for the procedure and be bathed in cold water to cleanse them of past wrongdoings. The other males in the area will cheer for the boy as he approaches the area of operation, but also warn him that if he fails to complete the circumcision without any sign of pain, he will be disbanded from society. During the procedure, which is completed without anesthesia by a respected elder, the boy must not flinch or cry aloud. Any sign of pain shows that he is not confident and brave enough to become a warrior. Afterwards, the boy wears black for several months before assuming his duties as warrior and growing in social status.
Staying with these people was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to an entirely different way of life. Their culture and lifestyle was drastically different from my daily routine at home, but despite this, we found so many ways to relate to one another and swap stories. I loved every aspect of what the shared with us, from food to fabrics, and I hope that one day I will be a guest again.
*This was knowledge passed to me from our guides, but is something that may be unique to certain areas since I have yet to see it again on all of the articles and sources I used to double-check myself.