Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Maasai People

The Africa of Conrad and Hemingway would have us believe that the continent is a wide expanse of wind-swept savannas, grazing beasts, and indigenous tribes living in grass huts. This is a European glorification—a preservationist way of thinking that holds little future or hope for the African people, who have seen their standards of living actually decrease in recent decades, even as more tourism and foreign investment pour into their countries. Reality paints a different picture of bustling cities, beeping cell phones, spiraling unemployment and poverty, and some of the sharpest inequalities in the world.

But life for the Maasai people appears to have resisted all Western encroachment, and they are truly a fascinating tribe of cattle and goat herders. They live in the greater Arusha area in the bush in family units of huts called bomas surrounded by spiky wooden fences. They wear brilliant red cloth wraps, which I’ve been told is a color that repels lions (but I have to wonder about bull buffalo), and the men stretch their earlobes to great sizes and tattoo their cheeks. The women wear many strings of white beads through their ears. All Maasai people carry sharp wooden spears to defend themselves from wild animals and each other. Historically, they are a fierce, warring people, but I doubt that is still the case.

The Maasai are permitted to live in Ngorongoro Conservation Area precisely because they pose no threat what-so-ever to the wild animals besides self defense. They subsist entirely off their cattle and goats, eating only meat and drinking only blood and milk. When they bleed a cow, they do not kill it, but chink its neck in an apparently painless process (though I can’t imagine how) and catch the blood in a leather drinking pouch. They then seal the hole up with some mud. Cows are sacred to them and they never eat meat and blood on the same day because it would be disrespectful. Recently, times have changed a little and some Maasai women buy fruits and vegetables for their families at town markets.

The Maasai measure wealth in children and cows, and actually, are a very wealthy people. We drove past one particularly large boma and Francis told us that a well-respected traditional healer lived there with his ten wives and herd of 200 cattle. Maasai come from all over to see him and pay for his services with cattle. Francis estimated that his herd of cattle was worth approximately 5 new Land Rovers!

The Maasai are also famous for their circumcision ceremonies. Female circumcision was outlawed by the Tanzanian government only 4 years ago, and is now punished by a minimum jail sentence of 15 years for the parents of the girl. Male circumcision continues. A boy is taken into the bush around the age of 14 and is circumcised by machete. If he so much as cries out, his family is spit upon and shamed for a period of two years until the incident is considered forgotten.

I couldn’t get many pictures because it is considered disrespectful, but driving through the bush and seeing wild animals and a small boy with a spear in the same sight-frame was truly incredible! Apparently, there is a white woman who renounced her European life-style, married a Maasai, and lives as one of them. I’m told she has written a book and a movie on her is coming out in the states this summer. That is something I definitely want to see when I get back!

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