Meeting the Maasai Tribes of East Africa: A Diamond in the Rough

I don’t live an ordinary life. I have been blessed to be able to travel the world, so I live an extraordinary one. I was reminded of this when I took the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Safari Serengeti. The pre-trip to the Maasai Mara game reserve and meeting and learning about this distinct tribe of the Maasai indigenous people brought to light just how extraordinary travel can be, and how meeting the people can change our perspective on life.  I have learned that unless I meet the local people and experience a truly a unique culture, travel can sometimes break my heart, as much as I love it. Fortunately, my heart was filled with joy as I was enthralled by this unique culture.

The Maasai tribes have a long history in East Africa, most notably in Kenya and Tanzania. They make their livelihood and assess their prosperity based on the number of cattle they raise and herd. They also believe their prosperity is enriched by the number of wives the men have, and the number of children each wife produces. If they have only one of these  – the cattle but not the wives, or vice versa – they don’t consider themselves prosperous. Mind you, this is their life in the 21st century.

Our guide in Kenya’s Maasai Mara came from a family of traditional Maasai warriors. Dressed in the customary red clothing of the Maasai people along with colorful and multi-faceted beaded ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets that typically adorn both men and women, we were treated to a cultural highlight literally upon arrival at a Kenyan airstrip. Aside from educating us about the people we passed as we saw them herding throngs of cattle, one afternoon he provided us additional insight into their mores, taboos and customs Their culture requires boys to undergo several painful rites of passage which include having their lower front tooth removed, being branded in the arm, and adult circumcision. The men are not able to exhibit any emotion when they undergo these painful rituals, or they will shame their families. For this reason, often excruciating rituals such as this start when they are young and build up to the point where they can tolerate it. Female circumcision only ended about 10 years ago by his account, although we heard otherwise later in the trip.

Women are valued for marriage based on the number of cows the father can provide the groom (typically about 10), and the groom still pays a dowry. Our guide also told us that his father had 6 wives and he himself has 38 brothers and sisters…and amid all this extended family, he is on the hunt for a second wife at the first wife’s request!  The purpose of the multiple wives aside from being able to bear children, is to work.

The Maasai people we passed in Kenya shepherding their livestock  appeared to be very proud. We were told not to stare at them as we passed by, and to just look straight ahead. One woman snapped a photo through the side of the safari vehicle, and the Maasai man whose photo she took was very unhappy about it. Apparently when that happens, they can demand your camera or whatever sum of money they see fit. We passed through thousands of cattle and took photos; one Maasai  man wanted money for the photo of his cattle!

Their lives seem simple as we watched children easily crossing a river to walk to school. Yet so much had to be hard for them, as they accepted life that many would consider barbaric. We learned more about this in Tanzania when we visited two  Maasai villages. In one, we spontaneously dropped by to visit a village where the residents make their living basket weaving. We watched a demonstration, fell in love with the children, bought baskets, toured their huts (which were homes to them), and helped apply cow dung to the outside of the huts to help ward off mosquitoes. We also provided them with two water filters so they could drink clean water as part of the Wine to Water project that we contributed to which OAT and Grand Circle supports.

The second Maasai village was colorful and at times breath taking, as they put the huge colorful Maasai beaded necklaces on our necks, made beaded bracelets for us, then sold us more. The men came out and danced and jumped in their traditional dance while the women made sounds of celebration. This dance is called the adumu or “jumping dance.”  When not performed for visitors as we experienced, it is done as part of one of the many rituals of the Eunoto, when a boy reaches manhood.

The head of the family we met had 6 wives, 17 children, and 22 grandchildren. His second wife spoke to us about female circumcision. Her husband sat by approvingly as she explained that only her oldest had it done. She refused to let her other female children experience it because girls having it done were dying of infection (they use cow dung paste to stop the bleeding). She’s quite an activist in her village, and explained she is getting the word out to the other villages to try to stop the practice (which is illegal anyway, and hospitals now examine young girls for it when they are brought in to rule out infection as a cause of their Illness).   She said they hold meetings to discuss it, and they send each other text messages to get the word out. Any Masai girl who’s not circumcised cannot marry a Maasai man, but that didn’t bother this woman or others who want to see the practice stopped.  

The Maasai struck me as a people trying to grapple with changing times. They want to uphold tradition as much as they can but use modern methods such as cell phones to alert each other as times are changing. Their lives struck me as having both the ending of a tradition they were clinging onto, as well as a beginning of new and more modern ones. Our Maasai guide told me that a modern school was being built in his village. With that, he expected his children to have a very different education from his, and he expected in about two generations Maasai children will become college graduates and live completely different lives. As part of the dichotomy I saw, it appeared that they live in a socially conservative society that is devoid of any risk taking. Yet when it comes to more modern, common-sense issues that value life, they are willing to take chances within their communities.  

These indigenous people are truly a diamond in the rough from a traveler’s perspective. Polish this diamond just ever so slightly, and you will see a brilliance and a shimmer that make jet lag and long plane flights worth the effort. We are always enthralled with animal life when we visit Africa. Yet the Maasai people are one with both the land and the animals in East Africa, and that came out in a conversation with our guide. The people we meet while traveling can have a greater impact then the sights we see. According to Amnesty International, over 370 million people in 70 countries identify as being indigenous. That certainly opens travel opportunities to any traveler interested in taking the time to meet the people and understand their culture. But a trip to Kenya and Tanzania is certainly a perfect place to start.

I have been to sub–Saharan Africa twice now, and with a third trip on the books. I’ve been to North Africa even more than that. There is something about the African continent that stays with many travelers long after they have left. It doesn’t leave us for a reason.  From the Sahara in the north and west, to the Serengeti in the East, and the Kalahari in the South, it is here to teach us about the dawn of mankind, the evolution of human beings, life and death on the open plains, and lives and traditions of African indigenous people who are as sparkling to meet as the minerals the continent is famous for producing and mining. Understanding the culture of the Maasai and realizing it was a true ” travel surprise” while on a safari and in search of the elusive rhino the rainy day we had our Maasai discussion, reminds me of a quote by writer Lawrence Block. He wrote,” Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”

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