13 months
Oct 22:
safari 101
Oct 25:
highlights so far
Oct 26:
a view to a kill
Oct 30:
the low down
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next location
(cape town)

baobab trees
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania; Oct 20, 2004


maasai women
  Use these buttons to listen to Maasai singing while you read this entry.

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 livestock.

maasai men

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.

maasai boys (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 or two.

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 gallery.

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