We made the long haul back from the Central
Serengeti to Arusha today. Sadly, it was our last day on safari.
We had been planning to visit a Maasai (sometimes spelled "Masai")
boma, or family village, on the way back, but after arriving at
the first designated village, we changed our minds because it
was so crowded with tourists. The government has mandated that
only certain Maasai bomas (three that we know of) may be visited
by tourists. While it’s probably possible to visit other
villages, most tour guides will only stop at these few. It seems
a good idea to limit tourist impact on the Maasai, but it does
cause a dilemma for folks like us who would normally seek out
a less touristy experience when possible.
After much debate, we ended up stopping at
the third village (it was further away and the least popular of
the three). Fortunately, we were the only outsiders there. Nonetheless,
it was a somewhat strange experience. The village makes good money
by being a tourist stop ($50 USD per car); this obviously differs
completely from the traditional Maasai way of life (which doesn’t
utilize paper money at all).
Traditionally, the Maasai are a nomadic people,
traveling in extended family units, living off the land, or more
specifically, living off their livestock. They go where they need
to go to keep their cattle and goats healthy. The Maasai’s
diet consists almost entirely of milk, blood, and meat from their
The Maasai culture, however, is changing rapidly.
Some groups (termed “semi-nomadic Maasai”) now stay
in one location for much longer (seasons or years), or are even
completely stationary. This allows their children to attend schools,
though sometimes only for short periods. Schooling is a new concept
for the Maasai and many don’t yet embrace it as children
traditionally help tend cattle and the temporary homestead, but
it is gaining momentum.
Severe droughts in Tanzania over the recent
years have made it very difficult for the Maasai. Many cattle
have died, and it has been hard for them to keep their remaining
livestock healthy. In their traditional culture, the number of
cattle that a Maasai man owns (as well as the number of wives
that he has) is an indication of status. But recently, because
of the lack of water and plants, having a lot of cattle has often
been a hardship rather than a boon.
The government has designated many square miles
of traditional Maasai territory as National Park land. This makes
it even more difficult for the Maasai since their activities are
more limited than they used to be; they can’t roam completely
freely anymore, and some are being relocated.
(in traditional dress and paint showing
they were recently circumsized)
And lastly, world progress (technological,
medical, social, etc.) has also had a large impact on the Maasai.
They are no longer ignorant about the outside world, nor do they
isolate themselves from it the way they once did. Once in a while
you’ll see a Maasai on a cell phone, or listening to a portable
radio. The number of Maasai leaders that use the same (non-sterilized)
knife to circumcise a whole group of boys is dwindling. Some Maasai
women no longer settle for being second class citizens. Many of
these changes can certainly be seen as good things, but they are
indeed big changes.
From one perspective, it’s sad to see
the Maasai losing some of their traditional way of life, but on
the other hand, it’s very easy to see why. Their living
conditions are historically poor, and all the recent hardships
have only made life tougher. Many Maasai now attend a weekly market
where they can buy, sell and trade goods instead of trying to
remain self-sufficient. There’s also a growing number that
work for the safari lodges and camps (as porters, nature walk
guides, performers, etc.). Even the children (especially the recently-circumsized
boys that must dress in all black) are getting in on the tourist
industry; they stand by the side of the road, hoping that a safari
group will stop and take their picture in exchange for a dollar
All this notwithstanding, we are glad that
we made the decision to visit the village. It was interesting
to see how they live, see their clothes, and watch some traditional
dancing. By any measure, they are a beautiful, noble, and somewhat
intimidating people (with the additional distinction of probably
being the most popular cultural subject for coffee table picture
books). And dang, they can jump really high.
To see more pictures of our visit to the Maasai
boma, check out the tanzania: villages