24 October 2014

Tanzania: Meeting the Maasai

Herding cattle, sheep and goats, sleeping in a boma, eating sacrificed goat, getting blessed by the chief, making bead jewellery and dancing – all in a day’s work when you spend time with the Maasai!
(Photo: Trudey Peterson)

We began our three days with the Maasai at Laiboni Primary, the small school adjacent to their village. The Maasai chief, Meshuku Mappi, was persuaded to allow the school to be built in 2007 after a 10-year-old village child was killed by a car during his 10-kilometre walk to the nearest primary school. The school has a very small number of classrooms and limited facilities but it’s so much safer for the kids and the chief has also been persuaded to allow the girls to attend, a victory in a culture where female circumcision is still widely practised and most girls marry and start breeding at a very young age.

The head teacher gave us some background and answered our questions then we were let loose, moving around the different classrooms to meet and photograph the kids. One class we entered had no teacher present so I couldn’t help myself – I took over! While my fellow photographers took their shots, I organised the kids to come up to the board to write a sentence with their names and say the sentence out loud for me, then we changed to practising numbers. It was fun and they were so enthusiastic and full of smiles.

(Photo: Trudey Peterson)

The kids also sang and danced for us, the boys first and later the girls, the leaping and stomping dance the Maasai are famous for. At first, they were shy about performing and they huddled together in one corner of the room but the pulsating rhythm soon had them and us entranced, and by the end they were running about and leaping like wild things.

Meeting the chief (Photo: Trudey Peterson)
From the school we moved on to the village to meet chief Meshuku Mappi, after first getting a lesson in chief-meeting protocol – the women bowed their heads for the chief to pat, the men shook hands, and there was an exchange of ceremonial greetings. The chief could be anywhere from 90 to 100 years old – reports vary and I doubt there are written records. We were told he is 98 (though last year he was over 100) and I found a website that said he was 95 back in 2012. The numbers of his wives, children, grandchildren, etc also vary with the telling – perhaps 9 wives, perhaps 29, perhaps 36, and more than 99 (or 120) descendants. Regardless of the numbers, he seems well loved and respected by his people, and was very kind to us, granting permission for us to photograph anything we wanted and to spend time in the village.

I was amazed at how high the men can leap

The goat being sliced up and eaten
In this and the surrounding villages controlled by the chief, the locals own (supposedly) 170,000 cattle, sheep and goats. This figure I can believe as, later that afternoon, we watched huge numbers of beasties being driven home to their overnight corrals by the men of the tribe. It was the perfect photo opportunity – cloven hooves churned up dust from the bone dry ground, statuesque baobob trees punctuated the landscape like frozen giants, and the bright reds and blues of the men’s clothing popped against the browns of the landscape and the animals. We stayed long enough for some sunset images but then had to be on our way back to Karatu as it’s illegal for tourists to be on the roads after dark.

Making friends with the locals (Photo: Trudey Peterson)
Next morning we packed our overnight bags and headed back for a full day at the village and to spend the night in a boma, one of their mud huts, sleeping on a sort of shelf, made of sticks covered with cow hide. We were free to wander wherever we chose, spent time with the women and children, watched the slaughter and preparation, then joined in the consumption of a goat that was killed in our honour, enjoyed the wonderful spectacle of the men and women dancing for us, watched the animals coming home again from their daily grazing and helped by prodding a stick at one or two.

Our night in the boma was not the most comfortable I’ve had in my life but I slept a little and would happily repeat the experience in an instant. We were up early to catch the sunrise over the nearby hills and the huge old baobob in the centre of the village, then watched the men driving the animals out for the day’s foraging. Life for the Maasai revolves around their animals – their cows are their primary source of food, and their wealth and status are measured in cattle.

The women dance for us
Later that morning the Maasai women tried to teach the women in our team some of their jewellery-making techniques, and we all bought some of their lovely beadwork as souvenirs of our time with them. It was with heavy hearts that we farewelled the people who had welcomed us so warmly into their village and into their lives. The Maasai are very special people and it was a huge privilege to have spent time with them. My life has been greatly enriched by the experience.

Some of the women and children outside one of the bomas

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