They knew we were coming. On our arrival, they rushed to make us feel welcomed by placing a Shuka cloth over our shoulders and a flat large beaded necklace on our necks. They live waiting, existing underneath a tree or in the shadow of their mud house. If we didn’t come, probably someone else would, if not today, tomorrow or after. This is what the Maasai tribe in this village does; they open themselves to the tourism, allowing visitors to enter their houses and share their way of living in exchange, of course, for money. It is their business after all.
The men were the first stepping out of the thorns-fenced village, organized in two lines, hoping from one foot to the other, moving in our direction.
Low grunting echoed from the chests and throats of all the men, which almost immediately became disjointed and yet rhythmical. As they came closer, the steps were heavier and the music was louder, like a soundtrack of a scary African movie.
For the second song they re-organized in a row, men on one side, women on the other. Everybody chants or sings, while swaying their bodies back and forth. I was hypnotized by the way the women moved their shoulders and heads, creating an illusion dance with the big flat beaded necklaces, as if the necklaces had life of their own.
Eventually, the men, the tallest ones, stepped forward taking on solo performances of high swift jumps. After 3 or 4 impressive leaps, another one would take over and try to beat the previous one. This is a traditional competition between the young male Maasai warriors, for what they practice their whole life.
One of the women held my hand and jumped forward to the middle of the circle, dragging me with her. She was harmonious and she could hold in the air for a longer period of time than I could, so our jumps were uncoordinated. I was going up and she was going down. I was trying to catch her jumps, like a game. We both started laughing at my clumsiness and there and then I felt so happy, for that brief moment we bounded, as our laughs were at last synchronized.
After the dancing, we were shown around the little village. It had only about 15 small rounded houses, made of mud, wood sticks, straw, cow dung and cow urine. And one school built of wood sticks, with very basic furniture. The village has a fence made of acacia thorns and branches to protect it from wild animals and the houses are built around another central fence where the cattle are kept at night. And since this village expects visitors, they have a stall set up around the central fence with an impressive display of beaded work handmade by the women who live here.
The Maasai Market – an unnecessary pressure
I was enjoying my visit until I felt this pressure to buy their handcrafted work and the prices they asked were actually pretentious even for my wallet. I don’t blame them for associating tourists with money. Travelling to Africa is expensive after all and some can barely afford 5 dollars to travel to the big city of Arusha.
I also applaud the fact they sell goods and put their skills to a profitable use, but sadly, I somehow felt the Maasai have been corrupted by the money tourists bring to them. To the point where one day, it was a Maasai women that approached me asking me for money in exchange of a photo of her newborn baby. And children are out and about selling bracelets when they are as young as 6, claiming the money will allow them to go to school. My point of view is that if we give money to the children, the parents won’t ever send them to school, because their children can get more money from tourists than themselves.
On another occasion, after visiting the Lake Natron, far north in Tanzania, we came across a little “Maasai market” in the middle of the deserted fields by the lake. We weren’t interested to stop under a 40ºC heat to buy anything, when we still had over one-hour walk back to the village from there. So the girls and women walked next to us, held our hands and persistently made us promise we would buy them something. “Buy this bracelet for Elizabeth go to school”, a little girl would repeatedly ask me. I said I have no money, I showed my empty wallet and after a while of this conversation on repeat, I said that I would like to enjoy my walk in silence please. So she started whispering “Buy this bracelet for Elizabeth, get money from your friend”. Aw that made me laugh. So, my friend ended up buying a bracelet for me, as I genuinely had forgotten my whole money back in Moshi.
I feel that what they actually lack is the communication skills to make the sale an enjoyable experience for the tourist. I would have probably felt more relaxed to look around longer and buy more if the Maasai man wasn’t assuming I was going to buy every piece I laid my eyes on. There was so much pressure, like putting bracelets on my arms and not letting me remove it, too persistent for my own comfort.
But I still would like to have the opportunity to spend more time with this tribe in the future, to see them beyond their businesses and witness their rituals and celebrations of life. The little I learnt about them only increased my curiosity.
Quick Curious Facts about the Maasai
1 . “All the cows in the world belong to the Maasai.”
The Maasai used to believe that God entrusted them the cows for safe-keeping. So they looked at all the cows of other tribes and thought they had the right to rob them, generating deadly conflicts with other tribes. This problem has been greatly reduced since the Government interfered.
2. They drink goat’s and cow’s blood, often mixed with milk.
It is part of their diet to strengthen their bodies, often drunk while on long walks grazing the livestock. I was offered goat’s blood, but I declined as the thought it was already clotting did not go well with my stomach.
3. They used to hunt lions as a rite of passage.
They don’t kill lions to eat them but to show their strength in rites of passage of the young warrior. Nowadays this has been forbidden by the Government. So now they only kill wild animals if they are threatened by them, as they still live by the National Parks in North Tanzania and South of Kenya.
4. They are semi-nomadic and traditionally polygamous.
Despite external pressure from the modernised world, they are resilient to maintain their culture. Nowadays a lot of boys are sent to school away from the villages and work in the cities with the idea of bringing the money back to the family. I had the pleasure to meet a couple working at the hostel where I stayed in Moshi and they were super kind-hearted and hard-working men.