Meeting the Maasai
12.03.2013 - 12.03.2013 68 °F
When I told people back home that The Wife and I were going to Africa, many questioned our reasons for going there.
"Why go on a safari when you can see the same animals at the zoo?", they would asked.
"All the animals at the zoo just lay around and do nothing." I would reply.
"Why would you want to see a bunch of guys living in huts and carrying spears?" they would respond.
I would angrily call them stereotypical, uneducated, and racist Americans.
But that's before I met the Maasai...Maybe I'm the ignorant one.
After a week of hiking it was finally time for us to sit back and relax on safari. We met Godfrey, our driver and safari guide, who loaded our bags into his Toyota Land Cruiser. Like many other visitors to Tanzania, we were going to hit the "Northern Circuit." However, with less than six days left on our vacation, we would have to skip some of the national parks like Arusha, Minyara, and Tarangire and instead focus on the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti.
Godfrey was our very friendly and courteous driver. He was also a 16 year veteran of safari guiding and an unabashed nasal excavator (a not uncommon trait amongst many Tanzanian men).
After running a few errands in Arusha, we set off westward. There was road construction a few miles outside of the city, so we ended up having to drive on the gravel access roads. This made travel extremely bumpy and uncomfortable. I was worried that I was going to get seasick from all of the motion. There wasn't much in the way of traffic. Most vehicles were other safari Land Cruisers and the occasional underpowered buses or trucks that can barely drive uphill.
The back of the bus may say "Yes we can!" But the steep hills say "No you can't!"
It's good to see that MLK's vision transcends national borders.
We did make pretty good time except for having to slow down for what Godfrey called "suicide donkeys." Apparently these mules will stand safely along the side of the road, but then try to dash across at the last second when a car passes by. I couldn't believe an animal could be so stupid. But then we passed by the bodies of two of them which proved me wrong.
Soon after leaving the city, the modern settlements became more sparse. We saw fewer and fewer farms and plantations. Godfrey explained that the limited access to good sources of freshwater from lakes or rivers have made farming historically difficult. More recently, the government has encouraged settlement through irrigation and water pipelines. But we still passed some rural villagers who were having to walk for several miles while hauling large pails of water from wells .
"But the terrain looked lush and green," I protested. Godfrey explained that much of it had to do with the recent rains. Northern Tanzania has a predictable precipitation pattern. We were visiting at the start of the long rain season which lasts until the end of May. Then there would be a long dry season that lasts until October. This would be followed by a two-month short rain season followed by a short dry season of a similar length of time. Then the cycle would repeat itself.
This rain pattern is the driving force behind the Wildebeest Migration that occurs in the Serengeti and Kenya's Maasai Mara. As the rains come, it would cause the grasses to grow and refill some of the drinking holes that had dried up during the drought. Right now, the migration was expected to be in the southern/central area of the Serengeti. Later this year, when the dry season hits, the vast majority of these animals would make the long journey northwards into Kenya. So instead of having large permanent farms and plantations, the land was more conducive for migrating animals.
But there was one other group that thrived in this environment--the Maasai. Godfrey pointed out that Tanzania has 120 different tribes all of which get along very well leading to decades of stability. Through colonial and Christian missionary influences, most of these tribes have become "westernized" and lost their old traditions and languages. The Maasai tribesmen have been one of the big exceptions. These people are believed to have originated from the Sudan region and moved south establishing themselves in Kenya and later in Tanzania only 300 years ago.
As we passed some of their settlements, Godfrey told us about the Maasai's anachronistic lifestyle. They lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle as cattle-herders, moving from one site to another depending on green pasture lands for the cows to graze. They are like the cowboys of the old American West, sans the horses. The Maasai do a ton of walking which probably explains why they are all tall and skinny.
A typical Maasai settlement contains several huts surrounded by a protective fence. There is plenty of area outside for the cows to pasture, but an open area within the enclosure is used to hold the cattle at night.
Unlike the other tribes, the Maasai are polygamists. The more cows a man has, the more wives he can support. In return, the women do the vast majority of the daily chores such as the child-rearing, cooking, etc. The sons, when they reach a certain age, tend to the cows and the goats. Unlike most other cultures, the man's family pays for the wedding. I guess that would dissuade men from marrying too much.
On the smaller roads, our progress was occasionally impeded by herds of cattle being brought to market by young Maasai warriors.
Other Maasai warriors would hitch a cheap ride to the market in overcrowded trucks.
The Maasai tribesmen are easy to identify because they wear colorful blankets. Godfrey, who has learned the Maasai language after years of dealing with them, explained that traditionally these people wore skins of cow or goat, often dyed red. Over the years, they had adopted the much less expensive blankets. Initially they wore the distinctive red patterned ones, but other colors such as purple are now very common. The Maasai in Tanzania tend to wear longer robes than those in Kenya, mainly because the climate is slightly cooler.
What I didn't expect to see the men carry is spears. In this age of gunpowder that has made even the most elaborate of steel swords obsolete, what good would a spear be? Apparently they are very useful for Maasai men. With the abundance of predators such as lions and leopards, the simple spear is surprisingly a useful deterrent. So practically every Maasai tribesman carried three items--a long spear, a dagger, and a walking stick.
The Tanzanian government has tried to change their pastoral lifestyle. Many of the tribesmen wear sneakers (instead of the traditional sandals) and some even have purchased cars. And a great number now carry cellphones. How do they charge them? They use their solar-powered generators of course. But these were mainly bought to power their televisions and satellite dishes.
But the old ways are hard to kill off. Most Maasai continue with the traditional lifestyle which clashes with the modern world. For instance, it is not unheard of for Maasai children to come home after a few weeks at boarding school to find their village abandoned, the family having moved on to greener pastures for the cattle. It usually works out fine as these children are taken in by other Maasai, as per tradition, until they locate their own family. Additionally, most of these tribesmen use the old-fashion system of bartering. Currency has very little value out in the bush, but it is essential near the modern settlements and villages. Godfrey told us that Maasai men often ask him for money although they are herding thousands of dollars worth of cows.
But this type of basic lifestyle makes the Maasai perfect settlers for the regions west of Arusha. Although the origins of mankind point to Oldupai Gorge, civilization mainly existed near the coastal regions of Tanzania. The Maasai moved into this area of Northern Tanzania/Southern Kenya and thrived there despite the lack of consistent year-round rainfall. Hence this area was historically known as Maasailand.
The Serengeti National Park was established in 1951 to create a refuge for the wild animals. The Maasai living there were displaced eight years later to the southeastern section renamed the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Within this region, the idea was that people and animals would live in a harmonious balance. Approximately, 20,000 Maasai now live within this national park.
However, the land has not been without controversy. Only cattle grazing is permitted within the park. Farming, even for sustenance, is not allowed. This makes the Maasai more dependent on external markets and particularly exposed in times of drought. Additionally, the Wildebeest Migration is not welcomed by the Maasai as these animals carry a disease called bovine malignant catarrhal fever. Although immune to it, newborn wildebeest shed the disease in their nasal secretions. This in turn can spread to the Maasai's cattle which in turn is fatal. Since there is no vaccination for the disease, the only solution is to keep the cattle away from the wildebeest herds during the calving season. Unfortunately, this usually coincides with the best rainfall and the greenest pastures in the Ngorongoro region.
On the flip side, domestic diseases have caused a toll on the wildlife. The endangered African wild dog is all but extinct in the Serengeti thanks to diseases such as distemper, thought to have been transferred by domestic animals. The fact that 40 of them were burned alive last year by angry villagers near the national park doesn't help their ability to repopulate either. Even the lion population was decimated by the same disease in the 1990's. Poaching had historically been a problem as well. The black rhinoceros had been hunted to near extinction in these parks because their horns could yield prices of $1,000 in Asian countries such as China. In the end, when humans and animals inhabit the same area, the animals usually lose.
We stopped at one of the many tourist shops along the highway to eat our boxed lunches. These places offer a clean environment for people to sit down, eat, and use the restroom. In return, they hope that people would do a little shopping. And that we did. The stuff was similar to what we had seen at the Mt. Meru market in Arusha. However, the selection was much more extensive and the salespeople were less intrusive as we browsed around. But most importantly, their initial asking price was equivalent to the final haggled price of what we paid in Arusha. That really made us regret all of the knick-knacks that we had bought previously.
The prices and selection are better at the souvenir shopping outside of Arusha.
Godfrey stopped off at Karatu, the last major town before entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to tank up the car.
A bicycle ride is one of the first steps in getting bananas to a supermarket near you.
There's still plenty of unrefrigerated meat available in the afternoon.
Various Maasai blankets for sale. The packaging states that they are made in China.
(Left) As seen on "The Amazing Race" Season 20, the Hillary Clinton Shop...(Right)...and it's newest competition.
We checked in at the Ngorongoro welcome area. While Godfrey filed our paperwork and paid the park fees, we were entertained by a pack of olive baboons. They have become accustomed to humans and were quite approachable. Godfrey had warned us to keep food in the vehicle as they can become quite aggressive trying to get it. We sat there watching them for ten minutes when all of a sudden, they all jumped up and ran towards one vehicle. Apparently one of the other tourists did not get the message about food. The baboons were rewarded with somebody's boxed lunch.
"Suicide donkeys" are not the only animals that drivers need to avoid.
(Left) This baby baboon found a straw to play with. (Middle) The behavior of these baboons reminded us that they are not that much different from us. (Right) A female baboon nurses her baby.
New members of the baboon troop.
This guy tried to hitch a ride with us.
We asked to visit a Maasai village because The Wife enjoys the whole cultural aspect of foreign countries. Godfrey explained that in the past, tourists spontaneously stopped off at any village and took photographs with the locals. Of course, there is an expectation of some monetary donations for the time and pictures. Some Maasai profited immensely from this practice whereas others located away from the main road did not. There were concerns that some villagers were becoming too dependent on making money from tourists. The rules were then changed. Godfrey told us that there are now about six villages or so that are set up for tourists to visit. The price is $50 per car, with a good bulk of the proceeds being shared among the greater Maasai communities. These included paying for expenses at their rural hospitals and schools.
We arrived at one of these villages and handed over a Ulysses S. Grant to the young man who met us. He explained this is his father's village and he grew up there with his extended family of eleven mothers and twenty brothers (we didn't ask about sisters). His English was pretty good mainly because he had attended formal schooling in Arusha, sponsored by the government. This was so that he could interact with tourists.
These villagers then performed their well-rehearsed act. They sang a welcome song to us. We had no idea what they were saying. In fact, they could have been insulting us or plotting our deaths the whole time, but who cares, it sounded good. They invited us inside the village whereupon they sang another song while they performed their characteristic jumping ritual.
These guys could get more hang time if they wore a pair of Air Jordans.
The women invited The Wife to participate. They tried placing a necklace around her head, but her noggin was too big. They had to get a larger one that fit her. She did the whole jumping thing but only got about an inch off the ground.
The villagers also thought that The Wife looked silly in one of their necklaces.
(Left, Middle, and Right) Maasai women and children are more photogenic than the men.
The married women often wear white caps.
After the ceremony, the young Maasai man invited us into his house. He explained that the huts are crafted using mud, grass, and cow dung around a frame of Acacia branches. I also noticed that there were pieces of cardboard box stuffed in there too. I guess that they use pretty much whatever building material they have available.
The village is composed of several huts built around a large acacia tree that provides only a nominal amount of shade. The protective fence was made up of thorny acacia branches--a natural form of barbed wire.
The inside of the hut was not very enjoyable. It was a claustrophobic experience inside the dark, cramped area. A smoldering fire burned inside filling the air with a smoky smell. The sleeping quarters were essentially any free space that a person could lay down some blankets. Needless to say, these folks live a hard existence.
(Left) Although many Maasai men are tall and thin, the doors of their houses were surprisingly low. (Right) Don't use the roofer who built this guy's hut.
This hut was filled with small hide shields. Since we never saw a single tribesman carrying one, I presume they are destined for a tourist shop.
The Maasai guide told us about the traditional practices of his people. Food was mainly blood drawn from the livestock, milk, and occasionally meat. In modern times, access to markets has brought accessibility of cultivated products. Like the rest of the country, the Maasai have started to consume more and more grains like cornmeal in the form of a porridge like ugali.
He informed us of the practice of manhood that Maasai boys must undergo. They are circumcised without anesthesia in their teenage years. They must then paint their faces white for the next six months. Additionally, they are then forced to live outside the village without any protective barriers. Former tradition mandated that they must kill a lion. However, this practice had long been illegalized and abandoned. Only afterwards, are these boys considered junior warriors.
The white face paint tells everybody that these boys are missing a chunk of their junk.
We were then taken to an adjacent school where we knew what would come next. As soon as we entered the one-room building, we were met by a chorus of singing from a bunch of little children no older than five years of age. Then one of the children came up to the front of the room to count to ten in English. We were then asked if we wanted to donate any money to the school. We knew that all of this was rehearsed and contrived, but I gave a couple more dollars to the half-bored school teacher sitting there. Hopefully, that money would go to good use.
These cute little kids sang their "Please donate some money" song.
Lastly, they took us to see some of the handicrafts that they were selling. Out of curiosity, the wife asked about a Maasai necklace made of plastic beads that they were selling. The villagers asked for $50 dollars for it. Of course the price was negotiable, but we weren't really interested anyway. In comparison, we had bought a similar necklace earlier for about $9 at the tourist shop. When we told Godfrey about this, he just laughed and stated that the Maasai have no clue about the value of money.
Our next stop was the Ngorongoro Crater to do a late afternoon safari drive. The landscape is part of Africa's Great Rift Valley. The moving tectonic plates has not only caused high mountain ranges, but also created a large crater teeming with animals. Godfrey drove rapidly to the entrance gate to make it inside before it closed at 4 PM.
The vast breadth of Ngorongoro Crater can be seen at a lookout point.
A candelabra tree stands guard over the crater.
Wildebeest and cape buffalo horns welcome visitors to the crater.
We spent the next three hours driving around looking for animals. Aside from the abundant number of zebras, wildebeest, and cape buffaloes grazing in the fields, we saw no shortage of lions. The only problem is that these big cats did nothing but sleep, similar to how they behave at the zoo. Apparently, the males were trying to mate, but that wasn't going to happen as long as the females were more interested in sleeping. Indeed, it seems like they must be a married couple! The lions didn't care about the voyeurism as they laid there just feet away from the road instead of doing their business in a more secluded area away from prying eyes. Ironically, there was a group of men from the park service who were constructing an irrigation ditch for the road. They were a mere 200-300 yards away from the lions. These guys seemed oblivious and uncaring to the presence of these predators, as were these lions to them. We stayed as long as we could to watch the lions, but left eventually when we were too bored. Since it was nearing the 6:30 PM closing time for the park, we headed towards the exit. On the way out we spotted a solitary black rhinoceros. Godfrey told us that these animals are under 24 hour surveillance by the park rangers using both off-road vehicles and strategically placed watchtowers. They had been poached almost to extinction and now only about 30 of these animals remain in the park.
(Above and Below) Mating lions in postcoital bliss.
Digging ditches can be a dirty AND dangerous job.
Our accommodations that night would be at the Lemala Ngorongoro Camp. Unlike our trek on Kilimanjaro, this would be a LUXURY tented camp with running water, flushing toilet, shower facilities, and nice comfortable beds. We were greeted by a staff member at the entrance with a warm wet hand towel and a refreshing glass of juice. Part of the check-in process involved signing a waiver absolving the camp if we were to be attacked by a wild animal.
(Left) Enjoying the view from the "porch." (Right) The bathroom contains all of the modern amenities...except for a bidet.
(Left and right) The spacious room can accommodate two beds, a couch, and a desk.
Our first task was to take nice, long showers. We quickly discovered that there is no such thing in the bush. Our attendant prepared the shower by filling a 20 liter bucket with warm water and hoisted it up high for the water to flow through the piping. We found out the hard way that it is easy to run through this amount of water pretty quickly. Once the water ran out, we had to wait for a few minutes freezing in the cold air for the attendant to lower the bucket, refill it, and then hoist it back up again. We eventually learned that the proper method is to get your hair and body wet first, turn off the water while you shampoo and soap, and then use the remaining water to rinse yourself off. The entire process should last less than 5-10 minutes. The Wife was a bit unnerved because the attendant waited just outside our tent only a few feet away in case the water temperature or bucket needed to be changed.
There are other drawbacks with these tented camps. Although the toilets are normal seated versions, they just don't flush very well. Plus they take forever to refill. Therefore, we had to be quite strategic in our waste disposal planning. Additionally, the electricity is provided by solar power. We made every effort not to leave any of the lamps on unnecessarily. Finally, we had to stay in our tent after dark. Apparently there is an unwritten rule in the wild. Animals will not attack you as long as you maintain a thin barrier of canvas or mesh between you and them.
But these minor nuisances could not detract from the experience of these camps. They are about as close as you can get to nature without sacrificing modern conveniences. As we were to find out a few days later, we could get REALLY close. Additionally, unlike a hotel where you keep to yourself in the comforts of your own room, these tented camps promote social interaction.
After our showers, we sat down by the campfire to enjoy "bush TV." The view from the lodge wasn't great but we got to meet some of the other guests. There was a honeymooning couple from New York and a pair of Canadian physicians who were traveling with their extended family. The husband, an outdoor enthusiast, was about to embark on a week-long cycling/camping trip at the completion of their safari. While we talked, the staff served us some delicious plantain chips and salsa.
Lemala camp was surrounded by thick vegetation...a great place for a lion to hide.
Dinner was served at a long communal table. While the service and most of the food was very good, the grilled chicken was awful. It was overcooked and desiccated.
(Left) Butternut squash soup. (Right) Grilled chicken with coconut sauce.
Grilled bananas with chocolate sauce.
After dinner, we all returned back to our respective tents to turn in for the night. Since darkness had set in and there is always a concern about wild animals, we had to be escorted to our tents. The camp hires local Maasai warriors to provide this security. Before I came to Africa, I would have never thought that my safety would depend on a guy with a spear.