September 12, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Extra – Visit of the Maasai people

Thomas Kieller

Photos – Copyright United Athletes Magazine

Oh yes, Tanzania is a country rich in culture, landscapes and incredible sceneries. No doubt that the exoticism of this land exhilarates the traveler. The baobabs with their huge trunks where some reach more than seven meters in diameter, the numerous acacias with their long spines and thorns, the termite mounds of three meters high and the abundant animal life are all unequivocal signs of the African continent. No one is surprised to see antelopes, giraffes or elephants cross the red-orange fields. And in all of these things, the Maasai people live in it on a daily basis.

To truly understand the cultural differences, I decided to visit the Maasai village Laiboni1, named after the chief. The customs and the traditions which are transmitted there make the visitor believe that this tribe seems to be frozen in time, in spite of some flagrant anachronisms like the omnipresence of mobile phones in their hands and their scandals where the thin-sole is made with a piece of tire!

The Laiboni chief discusses with some villagers before leading the herd of cattle to water.

Indeed, Tanzania offers different lifestyles with their 120 ethnic groups. However, the Maasai people fascinate even more for many reasons. Their striking red clothes and their physiognomy are already good indicators of their particularity. Men are generally tall and slim to which we have to say that they are excellent walkers. One can rapidly observe the presence of their walking ebony stick which serves many purposes such as to lead the cattle, to revive a fire by moving the glowing embers, to defend oneself and of course just simply lean on it during long walks. Indeed, the Maasai people walk, day after day, long distances in order to let the livestock drink at the nearest water hole.

Besides, the animals have a predominant role in their life. There is closeness between the people and the cows which sleep just near the huts. In fact, the number of animals represents, in part and in a way, the wealth of one Maasai. Some say that the gods entrusted them with all the cattle of the world. Nothing less!

The relation with animals starts early in the life of a Maasai. When the men move the herds, the children around eight years old watch, while playing, the young bovine around the village. One can also see a difference in the responsibilities between the two genders. In spite of the fact that the values and the traditions fade away slowly, there are still a lot of differences. In brief, men take charge of the livestock and security while the women take care of the well-being in the village.

A child watches some cattle near the villages.

Moreover, concerning social life, polygamy is allowed for men. Let’s take the example of the chief of the village I visited, he is linked with 27 women! In order for a woman to join the family, the husband must obtain first the approbation of his other spouses. We can imagine the complexity of the situation! On the other hand, a Maasai woman can only marry once, but nothing forbids her to take numerous lovers. The origin of this polygamy is probably due, long ago, to the high mortality rate of newborns and warriors. Yes, everything can be explained.

Besides, when a guest comes to the hut of a Maasai warrior of the same age group, the host can demonstrate his hospitality by offering a meal and his bed. However, only the wife of the host decides, on her free will, if she wants to share the bed with the guest for one night. If a baby is born of this brief union, it’s the husband of the woman who has the responsibilities of the child. Anyway, the guest is probably long ago gone!

No doubt that the lifestyle of the Maasai people differs from Europeans and North Americans on many aspects. For them, the social structure follows in a way the cycle of life with five age classes for men: children, young warrior, senior warrior, junior elder and senior elder. For each transition from one class to another, one must follow an important ritual.

Circumcision is always practiced and represents the passage from a child’s life to the one of man. Concerning girls, excision of the clitoris at puberty proved to be a practice less frequent, but it is still enforced because it’s in the intrinsic values of the Maasai people. Since a few years, this ritual of passage to the life of a woman has been replaced, more and more, by gestures, words, singing or dancing. However, this new way of doing is not practiced in a general manner by the Maasai.

On another subject, fire plays an important role in their life and they learn to master it at an early age. It is not surprising to see a six-year-old child practice making fire with a wooden shaft, a hollow piece of wood and dry manure which is an excellent catalyst to produce a good flame. For the Maasai people, fire is a source of warmth and light which they use in their huts and in their daily life.

Their hospitality is quite known. No doubt that the Maasai woman will concoct you an excellent spicy tea mixed with some milk in order to welcome you. I can tell you that this drink is quite good and appropriate for a talk. Naturally curious, Maasai children, women and men like to exchange with foreigners. They want to understand as well our culture and our lifestyle.

When we see them do their famous dances while jumping with their stick and their distinctive coloured clothes, we comprehend that they are at ease with their traditions and values which are passed on from a generation to another.

Two Maasai warriors with their ebony stick walk slowly on the rocky ground and among the numerous acacias.

With time, they adapted to the red-orange land where vegetation growth and animals live in the austerity of the hot weather. They understand this dryness and they know that after a few months of this, rain comes back to give life to the land. This semi-nomadic people comprehend their environment, but since a few decades, the Maasai must deal with changes that the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments bring concerning borders between countries and also on a cultural level. The Maasai people will have to understand this movement of changes in order to combine it with their traditions, if they want to do so.

In spite of all the uncertainty, the Maasai warriors gather together regularly, at night, around a fire in order to observe the flames sweeping the darkness, to look at the stars and to discuss on many enjoyable matters. They simply live by following the flow of nature and time...

1. Thomas asked the services of the East African VoyageThis link will open in a new window. (main office in Arusha) in order to visit the Maasai village named Laiboni which is a few kilometres to the east of the Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.