The Moment That Changed My Life

Everyone tends to have some sort of turning point; a moment that changes their perspective on life or even morphs them and their interest. My life has been a roller coaster even though its been comparatively short, I have already had one moment burned in my mind that changed me forever.

During the summery days of June, I sat in Orbomba, Tanzania, awaiting the news of what we were doing today. When we were told that we were participating in a walk to retrieve water, I was excited to get some fresh air, see some sights, and take a break from playing spoons and mafia inside the mess tent. I loved spending time in the savannah, with the wind looping through the sycamores and gently pushing the sand piles around.

The mothers of a local Maasai family joined us to take us to the water hole. They were stunning in their blue and red garb, the traditional Maasai colors. They had the stretched earlobes, a common sign of beauty in the area. One of them looked strikingly similar to my own mother, with the same facial features and different skin color. We even brought out a photo for comparison and the group agreed on how similar they looked. This was translated to the woman and she called me her daughter for the rest of her stay. The mamas gave us jelly jars, which were used to collect the water and before we knew it, we were off.

Me and one of the mamas

On the way, we smiled and laughed, enjoying the fact that we were almost as far away from home as possible. We joked around and pointed out the tracks in the sand from numerous critters. Eventually, we ran into boys, likely no older than ten or eleven, herding massive groups of goats and cattle. We had simple conversations, such as “how old are you?” and “what’s your name?” We smiled and waved goodbye soon after and continued on our merry way.

After a cheerful conversation and mountains of inside jokes, we arrived to our destination. The laughter was silenced, the conversations were muted, the comedy halted as we gazed upon a single sight: the water source. After our long walk, we arrived to little but a puddle. The water was so contaminated that you couldn’t see the bottom, except for the half inch of water before the shoreline. It was a surreal feeling, to see that this mud was their source of life. To further illustrate the uncleanliness of the water before us, the group leaders wouldn’t let any of the volunteers or non-locals touch the water or help fill the cans with water.

To add to the contamination, the shepherd boys had to bring their livestock for a drink. The water we gazed upon was crawling with bacteria from the cows that just waddled in and defecated, filled with sludge from being stirred up from all the life using it. There was no way this water would be considered potable, let alone safe to swim in, if you were going by US or European standards, yet the locals had no problem filling the jars up.

The water source

At this time, our guide took the time to tell us that little is done to purify the water in any way, except for occasionally boiling and mostly just scooping the settled water off the top of a large tank. We were also told that many times in the summer, this pool dries up and the women must walk further for water. Lastly, he gave us an anecdote of a Kenyan group who refused to drink the water from a newly installed well. When they water flowed, they were afraid that the volunteers were trying to poison them, since the only liquid they had seen with the same appearance was kerosene. They were so used to poor water conditions that they didn’t recognize the water that we find in bigger cities.

These facts and the mere situation was a blow to my fragile, “first world” country perspective. And that wasn’t even the end of the walk.

After collecting the water, we had to carry it to the house, which was a few miles away. This task was grueling as the water we toted was in cans weighing about 50-60 pounds when filled. We took turns with a partner to carry them, but the women leading us to their home carried it the whole way themselves. As it turns out, these women not only do it once, but maybe at least six or seven times a day. It is the largest part of their daily routine and is crucial for plants, livestock, cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Of course, this is all in addition to regular chores.

When we arrived to the homes, they were a traditional Maasai house of cow dung and sticks, which provides coolness from the sun and warmth from the chilly nights. The man of the household had six wives and thirteen children, which makes him fairly wealthy compared to the rest of his area, since men do not take a wife unless they can successfully support them.

The children of the family were ecstatic to see us and they loved my blonde hair, camera, and hat. Of this experience, I wrote in my journal: “The kids took particular interest in my camera and swarmed me, wanting to press the buttons and see themselves. They loved my hair and hat and loved to play with it. Even though they knew no English and we knew no Maasai, we were able to understand each other.”

The family

This phenomenal interaction with the families distracted me from the water situation for a little bit, but then reality kicked in. It jolted my life into a harsh reality of how many people in this world must live. The United Nations stated that by 2025, two thirds of the world will face water scarcity and 1.8 billion will have no clean water access. Some believe that the next world war will be fought over water, due to how essential it is to our daily life but also so scarce. This is real life with real people, and this experience drew the veil back from my materialistic, first world view.

The United Nations stated that by 2025, two thirds of the world will face water scarcity and 1.8 billion will have no clean water access.

“Water for Life 2005-2015.” United Nations, United Nations, http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml.

Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small.

Before delving into that topic, I must digress. Some people, when I discuss this experience, begin to view Tanzania as only a developing country, which in reality, developing and developed are two weak words often used to describe people that merely live a different life. An example I always go back to are the Romans and Incas, since both civilizations were incredibly advanced and yet Rome always seems to get the credit for architectural wonders. Just because a civilization lives differently, it does not mean that they are simple, developing, or lesser. In fact, many “developing” countries have age old traditions or building styles or art that make them rich and unique. The moral of the story is “to each their own” and only that.

The shepherd boys

However, when it comes to water, some people are unable to have cleaner water that would promote health, reduce waterborne illness, and allow people to meet their goals and careers. It is not the fault of the people; water is a necessity often influenced by politics, economy, geography, and more. People often don’t have clean water because they can’t get to it, not because they are primitive or less civilized.

Now over two years later, I still hold this experience dear and remember it daily. It drastically changed my perspective on nearly every aspect of my life. Tanzania ultimately turned my life upside down and fueled my voracious appetite for travel and humanitarian aid. I have since felt compelled to make a difference in the world of water usage, whether large or small. I feel obliged to help the people that I know and the people that don’t, because this issue resonated with me so much. Its what fueled my blog and my future travels. It’s what fuels me.

And to think, this all started with a puddle of water!

My Experience with the Maasai

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 family I was with

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)

Tanzania

Hakuna Matata ([there are] no worries)

Translation provided by our guides and camp staff
Us with our 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.

Shuka

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.

Beading with the mamas

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.

The men and their weapons

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.

Preparing vegetables

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 house

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.

Our warrior guides

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.