5 lessons I learned from Maasai in Tanzania

Sunday, August 21, 2016 Life and Culture by Elina Pedersen

It was a hot summer day when we arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport. Our travel itinerary was straightforward: one day to rest from the trip, three days safari, a seven-day hike to the top of Kilimanjaro and three days in Zanzibar for diving and relaxation. We did come to Tanzania primarily to climb the highest point in Africa, and we didn’t expect the rest to be as exciting.

We got out of the aircraft and were immediately consumed by the afternoon heat. Our driver was late. I was quietly sitting on my rucksack waiting for him to arrive and observing what was happening around me. If you’ve ever flown to Kilimanjaro International Airport, you know that it is a big wooden shed, with a few visa booths and one luggage carousel in the middle. Nothing else, not even a vending machine to buy water. Nothing, rien, nada, nicht, niks… with one or two flights arriving a day – Welcome to Tanzania!

So there I was sitting on my rucksack when all of the sudden I’ve noticed a tall man in a red grab draped over his limb sitting under a tree far away. It was in a middle of grassland; he was completely alone. I don’t know if it was the thirty-five degrees heat or exhaustion after a twenty-five-hour flight, but I started to drift away: “What is he doing there, just sitting? Why? Alone in the African Savana, is it even safe?” My thoughts: were interrupted by a smiling young man approaching me: – Elina? -“Yes, at last, let’s go!”. As soon as we got into a car, I fell asleep.

Bank in Arusha

Early, in the morning we started driving towards Manyara Lake National Park. In Arusha (the town we stayed at), I’ve noticed a lot of people with massive holes in their ears. Funny, I thought, ear plugs and tunnels must be very popular here. Overall, everyone dressed and looked very modern.

We left Arusha quickly, and as soon as we started driving through the highway (or rather a two lane road), we began to notice more and more people wearing drape clothes. They were walking next to the road, sitting under trees, standing on one leg and of course walking around with cows and donkeys as if they were pets.

Maasai walking on the side of the road

Straight away we asked the driver:

– Who are those people?
– Maasai.

Of course – the brave warriors we’ve all saw on TV. Fighting lions, wearing red cloth and large necklaces, drinking blood, speaking their native language and being very protective over their culture. They were everywhere, living their traditional life ignoring the hustle and bustle of globalisation around them. Throughout the next three days, we decided to embark on a journey to learn more about Maasai and their traditions. I feel that I should warn you, though; some of the facts about Maasai are very disturbing to the western soul.

Who are Maasai?

Maasai are a semi-nomadic pastoralist group. Maasai build bomas (a small semi-permanent settlement that consists of about four families) and herd cattle. They move together with animals, as seasons change to provide better food for their herds. It might have been easy to move with no boarder’s centuries back, but not anymore.

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Maasai lost most of their land in the 19th century to the government of their home countries (Kenya and Tanzania). The land that they used to live on was converted into wildlife preservation areas and partially sold  to the western farmers as ranches. All the people we saw in Arusha with holes in their ears, were Maasai, drawn out from their usual semi-nomadic life by their government and global changes.

By the age of twenty-four, a Maasai warrior and his family should accumulate at least thirty to fifty heads of cattle to support their ways of life. Imagine doing that when you have no land to move your animals to for fresh grass, combined with many years of drought. It is not a surprise that many traditional Maasai are forced to seek waged employment in modern towns. As soon as I realised, how absurd the whole situation is I learned my first Maasai lesson.

1. You can’t hide from Globalisation

No matter how hard you try. No matter how much you believe in your lifestyle. No matter how much you cherish your traditions. You can’t hide from Globalization. Or maybe we should call it “westernisation”. It frustrates me to know that cultures like Maasai are being destroyed by “my way of living”. I understand that places like Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Manyara and other national parks around East Africa should be preserved and protected, but I don’t understand what Maasai have to do with the whole problem in the first place.

Maasai ceremonial dance

Yes, Maasai warriors kill lions, and they are no longer allowed to hunt female lions (which, is understandable), but they are not the ones who kill lions for trophies. So why are they the ones who are being “punished”? Maasai hunt wild animals to protect their families and cattle. Interestingly, when I say a family, I mean a boma. Maasai have an astonishing clan system and family system, where people who live in one boma come from a different biological background.

Maasai family and clan system

The Maasai prayer always starts with words: “may God give me children and cattle”. Those are two things that Maasai see essential. If we look at a Maasai world animals are the synonym for wealth in the western world. You might think that Maasai live a simple life, but if you think more about it, it’s not necessarily true. Maasai men understand that to get married they need cattle and after they need even more livestock to provide for the family. Maasai know that the decisions they make will affect a number of cattle they accumulated, and the cattle they accumulate will influence the success of their clan and boma.

Maasai boma

Maasai understand the threats that come from the outside world, they often decide to priorities cattle over education. In that sense, Maasai are not very different from us. We need to work to provide for our family and kids. Pressured by the government to settle down and stop moving, they often start working in agriculture and send their children to school. Nonetheless, they are still very well able to protect their culture and identity in many ways. Observing the Maasai family system and priorities, I learned my second lesson:

2. There are two most important things in life: children and cattle.

In Maasai society females have close to no rights

It hasn’t been long since women received their basic civil rights and in some parts of the world, we still don’t have them. To me, it was very depressing to see how females are treated within their bomas. Women are seen as something that belongs to a man together with cattle. As soon as a girl turns fourteen, if she wasn’t promised to a man already, her father will trade her for livestock and send her off to live in a boma with a different clan and family. A Maasai man depending on his wealth and status can have several wives all living in separate bomas. If one of his wives has a young child or is ill, he will leave her to live with a different wife until she gets better or dies.

Maasai are against educating their females no matter the laws of their countries and they very often resist young girls going to school. When a girl reaches puberty, she is circumcised. It’s illegal, but Maasai still practice this old ritual as they see sexuality as something unacceptable. Maasai also believe that this ritual saves girls from early pregnancies. It’s unbelievable, but it’s possible for tourists to attend the circumcision ceremony and this is how little the government is currently doing to protect the girls.

Wives daily responsibilities include:

  • Providing water and firewood (each day a woman may walk for 3 hours to simply get water)
  • Cooking food for family
  • Building housing
  • Looking after animals
  • Milking cows
  • Housekeeping
  • Performing during the ceremonies
  • Serving all man in the boma

Maasai woman working on a neckless

Which seems very excessive when compared to the responsibilities of Maasai man:

  • Herding cattle
  • Providing food for the family
  • Protecting the family

Interestingly, younger boys are the ones who herd cows. Thus essential older men only give orders. A woman cannot divorce a man, and she has no decision-making power in her family. Whenever a wife disobeys her husband, she is beaten. Sometimes man from the same boma may decide to share wives. When resistant a girl will be sent back to her family where she will be shamed, beaten and exiled. Exiled, a woman, will often starve to death, which brings me to the next lesson I learned.

3. We should never take our freedom for granted

I understand that this is the “old way”, and this is how Maasai used to live and that by protecting the civil rights of these girls we interfere. I guess we can’t ignore the fact that we are extremely fortunate to be born in a society that allows us to make decisions for ourselves. There are still a lot of discrimination and cruelty in the world, but we went a long way from where it all began, and we shouldn’t stop moving forward towards equality of all social groups, genders, races and religions.

Many Maasai are illiterate and more than 48% of girls never go to school

Other tribes in Tanzania often believe that Maasai are backwards, as only 48% of all Maasai females go to school. Most boys attend school, and the Maasai village we have visited wasn’t an exemption. When we entered the school, only boys were present in the classroom. Not a single girl. The main reason why parents don’t send girls to school is greed.

Maasai boys in a school

The Maasai men are afraid that after learning basic laws a young wife will take all of the family’s wealth to her husband’s family or will make choices that won’t provide any dowry for her boma. Maasai know that if you educate a woman she will have confidence and independence to stand up for herself and provide for her family at the same level as a man. Which quickly ruins the old system everyone is used to.

Not every case is extreme, and some man and fathers respect their daughters and wives and understand the importance of education. Very often,  the high level of poverty is the primary barrier for girls to go to school. There are a lot of activists who fight for Maasai female rights including Maasai women who’ve managed to get educated. They do plenty of work to protect the girls and save them from being circumcised. They found out that the main reason why Maasai girls and females don’t know about their rights is the lack of educated. From all of that I realised that nothing can happen without information and learned my fourth lesson:

4. Education and knowledge are essential for solving inequality problems

No matter the pressure Maasai get from the outside world they still keep fighting for what they believe in. This amazing culture has a lot of external and internal threats. No matter if we are talking about the traditional Maasai or about females who managed to get educated: they are all real worries at the spirit. In 1800’s Maasai suffered massive losses of their people and livestock to smallpox. In 1900’s most of Maasai land has been taken away. In 2000’s Maasai are pressured to move to towns and let go of their traditional ways. With centuries of repression they still manage to keep their traditions and customs alive. Which taught me my last, fifth and the most important East African lesson:

5. Never give up

Through repression and years of struggle Maasai always find a way to be true to their beliefs and customs and in my opinion that’s something we all can learn from.