Living with the Maasai
Our family trip to visit the Maasai of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro
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Published: 22 February 2019
This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod
This article first appeared in our winter ’19 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Love Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 22 February 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
At the check-in area at Kilimanjaro airport, the airline desks are book-ended by two bold images: giraffes stoop on wobbly legs to drink from a lake, and a group of Maasai women smile from beneath a tree.
Someone, somewhere, calculated that the Maasai are one of Tanzania’s best adverts – and one of the most valuable memories for tourists to take home. Just like the wild animals that roam the various national parks, this semi-nomadic tribe is a huge draw for tourists who spend money on food, drink, accommodation and activities in Tanzania. Maasai-style jewellery and art is also sold at the airport and at roadside markets, for sums far higher than the Maasai would ever ask.
The giraffes won’t have received much by way of thanks or money for their modelling stint – and it’s unlikely the Maasai did, either. Their cultural property keeps businesses alive, but under normal circumstances their communities don’t see a penny of the profit. Worse, pressures on the Maasai’s pastoral lifestyle increase every year. While once the greatest threat came from neighbouring tribes ready to go to war over fertile territory, today the growth of business and tourism pose equal threats. The richest land is being fenced off for conservation projects and national parks that can command a gate fee, while suburban areas are being turned over for development.
Tanzania’s average annual industrial growth rate over the last five years has been 8%, contributing to 25% of the country’s GDP. In order to become a semi-industrialised country, manufacturing must contribute a minimum of 40% of GDP by 2025, and Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are expected to provide the capital.
The Maasai way of life
While some of Tanzania’s tribes have adapted their lifestyles to accommodate new challenges, the Maasai have stayed fiercely true to their culture. They live from their cattle, consuming only milk, blood and meat – occasionally with rice. Maasai boys spend the daylight hours herding their precious stock from one grazing patch to the next, ensuring their animals get maximum nutrition from the land available.
As the cattle graze, the soil’s trampled and broken up beneath their hooves and seeds are dispersed, helping to improve the fertility of the land. The Maasai move their cattle expertly across the ground available to them; as the best pastures and water sources become increasingly privatised, fiercer grow criticisms that the Maasai scar a trail of barren dust across the limited and often already arid land.
The women continue to collect water, despite being forced, in some cases, to travel over eight hours – in blazing heat – because their villages can’t be situated closer to a natural water source without spilling onto new belts of private property.
The children who are old enough work with the cattle or help their mothers to collect water and fire wood. Those who aren’t stay at home and wait for their mothers to return. This means that in some cases the children can be left for most of the day without food or anyone to change their clothes if they don’t get to their wild loo in time.
The Maasai keep cows and goats for milk, meat and blood, and use donkeys – ‘Maasai Land Rovers’ – for heavy loads. They don’t eat any fruit or vegetables; their way of life makes farming almost impossible, and while their right to live on the land is recognised, their right to own it isn’t. The possibility of being moved on by authorities means it’s not logical to invest time or already sparse money or resources on a harvest that might very well fail anyway. The Maasai who do grow their own fruit or vegetables sell their produce at the market to raise funds for more cattle.
Living with the Maasai
We experienced the Maasai way of life in January, when we went on a New Year trip with Visit Natives. This travel company was established as a way to ensure the Maasai benefit from the global desire to see and experience their way of life. Maasai communities receive a percentage of the money paid for the trip – Visit Natives makes very little profit – which supports immediate needs such as extra cattle and longer term projects, such as water butts for villages.
In exchange, we were able to live with the Maasai for six days; we slept in a tent inside the boma – a small collection of Maasai homes and animal pens – and deep in the bush to learn how their warriors are trained. We walked in their footsteps and tried to forge some sense of a connection with their ancient wisdom, which is deeply connected to nature. In translated conversations we learnt about their views, challenges, lifestyle, beliefs and needs.
We arrived at Kilimanjaro airport on 30 December, and half-heartedly scanned the names on the boards of safari-clad tour operators. Our Visit Natives contact, a Finnish lady called Anniina, had told us we wouldn’t be able to miss our hosts, who would be in full Maasai warrior getup. Before long a 4×4 pulled in to the car park and out jumped three men – unmistakably Maasai in their blazing red shukas and traditional jewellery. They were accompanied by Anniina, who had fallen in love with the Maasai way of life 14 years earlier.
Anniina’s story is important because it says a lot about Visit Natives and why she founded it. Fascinated by people and cultures, Anniina chose to study Anthropology, then switched her course to African Studies to satisfy a calling she had felt since childhood. As part of her course Anniina travelled to Tanzania to support women’s aid projects in the country, but quickly grew frustrated by the lack of work available and a sense she was unable to effect real change.
Anniina became known to the Maasai, and a local Maasai NGO invited her to live with them. Anniina leapt at the opportunity and, over the next two years, fully embraced Maasai culture. She became fluent in their language – Maa – as well as Swahili, and took part in ceremonies and rituals that had previously remained closed to outsiders. Anniina contracted malaria, typhoid fever and came close to death at least once, but she stayed until her visa expired and she was forced to return to Finland.
Anniina acquired an unrivalled understanding of the challenges the Maasai faced and wanted to find a way to support the community that had become her second family. She set up Visit Natives to provide a true, authentic experience of the Maasai way of life, for tourists who want to reconnect with nature and ancient wisdom.
The money from trips is distributed evenly among Maasai villages in the area so all families and communities benefit from a cash injection, irrespective of whether they are hosting the visitors directly.
Anniina and three Maasai warriors – Olopiro, (meaning ‘Wet Season’), Saitoti (‘Big Family’), Sumulek and Isaac, a Maasai chef – travelled everywhere with us, and soon became great friends. Maasai music, which blared from the Land Rover’s sound system the moment the engine started up, became the theme tune to our road trips, which took us through Arusha to Ngorongoro Conservation Area and back again.
Inside the Maasai boma
We stayed in a boma in Ololelai, Olopiro’s village, inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We had our own tent but everyone else slept in houses – round structures made from cow dung, with one central room for cooking plus two or more separate bedrooms on raised mud floors. There is no toilet – though ‘authorities from the city’ have recently insisted on digging holes in the ground, which we never saw the Maasai use. They were full of flies and posed a far less appealing option than finding a bush a good distance away.
There were no windows inside the houses and, like most other Maasai villages, there was no electricity (not to mention wifi or phone signal). The only light came from a small door and the fire when it was lit for cooking. Unpolluted by artificial light, the Maasai’s eyesight seemed superhuman; each time we entered a house our eyes took several minutes to adjust in the darkness, and even then we needed to suspend a torch from the roof to make out faces and objects deeper inside the home.
Night vision is vital for protecting family and valuable livestock from wild animal attacks; armed with no more than a traditional spear, Maasai warriors keep watch over their village at night. The cows, goats and donkeys are herded into circular pens when the sun goes down, so they spend the night in relative safety. The animals provided the soundscape for our nights – bleating and changing position, melodic bells ringing from collars with every movement. It was a hypnotic and soothing way to fall asleep, in a spot beautifully distant from lights, cars and emails.
We weren’t aware of any visiting wildlife until we camped out in the bush to witness an Olpul, a ritual that sees Maasai warriors head out to the wilderness to build their strength.
A short drive from the village across open scrubland, the spot used for the Olpul could well be the most romantic place on Earth. From our spot high in the Ngorongoro bush we could just make out the Serengeti, the endless plains. They cover 14,800km2 of incredibly beautiful landscape that can be rich and fertile or a dry wilderness, depending on the season. For this reason animals have to migrate to follow the rains and find green pastures to graze. No photograph or words could do justice to the sublime landscape at the door of our tent – and we and the Maasai had the view all to ourselves.
During the Olpul, fire is made from friction before being carried to the village to light a fire in each house, and a goat is slaughtered, skinned, cooked and shared out for dinner. Wild herbs are collected and cooked in a large pot on the ground; the intoxicating (but delicious) bubbling concoction is consumed by the warriors to build their strength. Plants required for healing purposes are also collected from this rich medicinal herb garden.
Like every night with the Maasai, our body clocks in the bush were set by the sun. Each evening we settled down round a camp table for a tea or coffee, while Isaac prepared delicious vegan food from an impossibly small makeshift kitchen on the ground. We ate, chatted, watched the sun dip and waited for the stars to come out. With very little light our ears were quickly attuned to the sounds of the wind and wildlife; crickets fizzed and somewhere, an imperceptible distance away, a donkey laughed. A dog from a neighbouring village would bark now and then, and occasionally a hyena growled in the darkness.
During our first night in the bush we were visited by a pack of six hyenas, and on our second we got a visit from a leopard and her three cubs. We actually expected more; the scent of the goat’s blood and meat hung in the air – even in the wilderness. Each time the warriors chased the animals away and we never felt the slightest concern – even with our two-year-old in tow.
Animals are a huge draw for anyone visiting Tanzania; we were staying inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and had already paid the gate fee, so we couldn’t miss the opportunity to take our 4×4 into Ngorongoro Crater.
The crater rim is a 610 metre wall for the amphitheatre inside, which has a 265km2 circumference. There’s a resident population of around 30,000 big animals, in an area that stretches 16 to 19km in diameter.
The Ngorongoro Crater – ‘Africa’s Garden of Eden’ – is the natural home of all the wildlife you’d expect from Tanzania, including zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, gazelles, lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, hippos and rhinos, plus lots of flamingos that wade in the soda lake in the crater’s centre.
It goes without saying that the Maasai are expert animal trackers – their lives depend on it. With our warrior friends as guides, we quickly spotted countless zebras, flamingos, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, wildebeest, hippos and buffalo, and were lucky enough to catch several lions and elephants, too. By lunchtime we were enjoying a picnic and taking in our last views of the crater, while other guides pulled up for directions to the wildlife still missing from their clients’ check lists.
Despite the joy of being close to wild animals and the ecstasy of sleeping under a sea of stars in the utter wilderness, the highlight of this trip was the people. There were obvious language barriers, but we quickly appreciated the Maasai’s quick wit and fantastic sense of humour, as well as their loving warmth towards our daughter.
When our Land Rover first pulled into Ololelai, the men and women had all gathered to greet us with genuine warmth and acceptance – largely due to the strength of Anniina’s connection to the group. In an impressive show, the men jumped and the women danced, bouncing jangling circular marriage necklaces off their chests as they rhythmically rolled their shoulders backwards and forwards.
Everyone sang hypnotically, and the men occasionally stepped forward to show off their jumping skills. We were pulled in almost immediately; a shuka was thrown round Jarvis’s shoulders and one of the ladies put a necklace over my head. What we lacked in skill we made up for in enthusiasm, and behind the Maasai’s frequent giggles was a genuine sense of encouragement. We soon learned that this was a very flirtatious event that often led to Maasai men and women pairing off as lovers.
The Maasai have polygamous relationships; lovers can be freely selected before marriage, but when a woman marries a Maasai man – in a relationship chosen by the parents (usually the fathers, who negotiate how many cows the bride is worth) – the woman also marries into her husband’s age group. This means that she can from this point only take lovers in the same age group as her husband.
Pregnancy outside marriage is thought to be rare – the Maasai say they have ‘ways’ to prevent unwanted pregnancies – but it’s not unheard of. In the second village we visited a man had three wives, one of whom left and fell pregnant to her lover. She was cast out and forced to return to her husband, who – ‘for a price’ – took her back and raised her child as his own.
Olopiro, Saitoti, Sumulek and Isaac spoke good English, and they were quick to answer our seemingly endless questions about the Maasai way of life. The men insisted they loved their wives equally and that there was no favouritism; I wanted to get the women’s side as well, so Anniina and I went to speak to them when the men were absent.
Unsurprisingly, the women we spoke to found it difficult when their husbands took other wives. There were the expected issues around jealousy – one wife might have a better house or might be considered the favourite – alongside a fear that they couldn’t leave, no matter how unhappy they were, without losing their children to the father.
Not to be put off by the tales of unhappy relationships, Jarvis and I had a Maasai wedding ceremony in Ololelai, with our trusty Land Rover as our chariot. In an amazing demonstration of the team’s ability to offer a truly bespoke trip, Olopiro managed to arrange the whole thing in less than an hour.
The SPIRITUAL HEALER
The relationships and challenges may be complex, but the Maasai deal with any issues within their own community. If the wet season is late, the Maasai make a pilgrimage to their holy mountain, Ol Doinyo Lengai – ‘Mountain of God’ – to ask for rain. It always comes.
Next to God, a key figure is the village Laibon, which loosely translates to a traditional spiritual leader. A valuable source of wisdom, healing and advice, he can answer any questions the Maasai have around health or the future. His meetings and the rituals involved are private events that can only take place with Laiboni’s consent, which can come in various guises.
As we sat round our camp table in Ololelai on New Year’s Eve, Jarvis and Anniina both expressed a desire to speak with Laiboni. As we spoke in the darkness, a very large beetle flew onto Anniina; she flicked it away but it returned so many times it soon became a joke that had Saitoti, Olopiro, Jarvis, Anniina and me close to tears. A few minutes later Laiboni appeared: he stood in the darkness wrapped in a blanket, his face lit by the camping lamp. He said little but shared a New Year’s glass of prosecco with us, and in a short translated conversation agreed to a meeting with Anniina and Jarvis at a time to be arranged.
We’re not allowed to share exactly what took place, but Jarvis and Anniina both came out feeling their questions had been answered and that they had been connected to an ancient source of wisdom.
It is this wisdom that has allowed the Maasai in Ngorongoro to stay true to their culture – brought from Kenya to East Africa’s Great Rift Valley long before Tanganyika gained independence and, along with Zanzibar, was given the name Tanzania.
This is the vibrant nation that’s found a spot on the bucket list of adventure-seekers all over the world. It’s a stunning, rich country that has the most beautiful wildlife and culture; many of the animals are being protected, and now you can visit in a way that supports the Maasai, an equally valuable national asset.