By Solomon Herring
Merely 45 minutes outside of Arusha, lying in the nearly endless bush that surrounds the slopes of mt. Meru, there is a village where the Maasai people live a
lifestyle that is simply foreign to any outsider. I had the privilege of visiting this fascinating tribe, and I was simply blown away by their unique culture. The Maasai
people are nomadic, and every few years they abandon their current settlement and re-settle somewhere else. They live a life without electricity or running water and are quite isolated from the outside world. This means that they build their own houses, start fires with dry wood and zebra dung, hunt for their own food, and completely abandon almost all facets of modernity, as they wish to retain their traditional way of life.
My trip to the Massai village started at 8:00 in the morning, when myself and two other volunteers were picked up by a local guide. We were taken on a breathtaking drive from the city of Arusha, to the outskirts of Arusha national park. Throughout this drive we looked out the car windows in awe, witnessing the crowded streets of Arusha transform into long rural roads, surrounded by endless countryside.We had the privilege of seeing two herds of giraffes, leading us to park on the side of the road, and walk through the bush until we were able to see these majestic animals up close. Needless to say, standing in the presence of these tall beasts made me feel shorter than I have ever felt in my entire life.
Eventually, we turned off of the main road and drove through the bush until we reached our destination. Upon our arrival, we were immediately welcomed by a group of Maasai women, who greeted us by singing a traditional song. We then were taken to a typical Maasai house, and dressed in traditional garments. I was wrapped in red cloth, and given a hand carved walking stick and the two women I was with were dressed in blue garments.Despite being a white man from the United States, I immediately felt as if I had found a second home, despite being immersed in such a foreign culture. The color of my skin and my country of origin meant nothing to the Maasai people, and I was welcomed as if I was one of them.
The village was quite small, consisting of less than 20 huts, many of which were no bigger than my room. We were surrounded by endless plains, filled with brush and Acacia trees. The view of Mt Meru was spectacular, as we stood on the base of the second highest mountain in Tanzania and were dwarfed by its sheer enormity. I was quickly made aware of the extreme climate, as the hot, dry air and bright sunlight were quite different from the mild climate in the highlands of Arusha.
Once we were dressed in Maasai clothing, we participated in a traditional dance, which was quite different from what I have previously experienced in the clubs and bars back in the city. Maasai song and dance consists of a great deal of jumping, as Maasai women wear collars around their neck, which contain metal bells that make a ringing sound, as they shake back and forth. Furthermore, Maasai women shave their hair until they’re nearly bald and carve holes in their ears, from which a colorful array of earrings are hung. Almost all of the Maasai in the village had one tooth taken out, as it is one of their many traditions. The warriors of the village all had marks on their arm, which were the product of either scaring or burning.
After our dance, we sat down and enjoyed some traditional Maasai tea, which tasted a lot like Chai. We then were able to ask our guide some questions about Maasai culture. I found many of the traditions to be quite fascinating, especially the coming of age initiation that all Maasai men must undergo when they are 20 years old. Once Maasai men reach this point in their lives, they must embark on a highly dangerous and strenuous mission, which entails tracking and killing a lion. This is required of any man who wants to become a warrior. Once they kill a lion, they are brought back to the village and circumcised while completely conscious and are not given any medicine to help dull the pain. Furthermore, if they cry during the circumcision, they are considered to be failures as men and killed on the spot.
The Maasai tradition of hunting and killing lions puts them at great odds with the Tanzanian government, who seek to protect wildlife through strict anti-poaching laws. It is for this reason that this tradition is becoming less and less common. However, there are many Maasai who go against the wishes of the government, and follow this tradition nonetheless.
Unlike the western world, where traditional gender roles are being challenged by feminist and LGBTQ activist groups, the Maasai remain quite segregated by gender. The men are given the roles of being warriors, and are expected to hunt and protect the tribe. The women, however, are given significantly more responsibilities, as they are not only expected to cook, clean, and raise their young children, but look after the entire tribe as well. Maasai culture is dominated by women, as they are tasked with being the political leaders of the tribe. In this way, their culture is very much a matriarchy, and I quickly fell under the impression that if you are Maasai, being a woman entails much more responsibility than being a man.
After a long conversation with our guide, I was grouped together with the warriors of the village for another dance. Dancing for the second time that day proved to be quite exhausting, especially when taking into account how much I partied the night before.
Despite being extremely exhausted, I rose to the occasion and completed the dance.Afterwords, we had the chance to purchase some handmade Maasai crafts from a group of merchants. We were lucky enough to be given fair prices for everything, and neither myself nor my companions needed to negotiate.
We finished off our day by visiting an animal market in the nearby village, which was quite lively for such a small town. The streets were packed with ambitious merchants, farm animals, and buyers, all of whom were immersed in the hustle and bustle of an African market. After exploring the market for around thirty minutes, we returned back to the car and made our way back to Arusha.
All in all, my experience visiting the Maasai was unforgettable. I got to immerse myself in a fascinating culture and met some amazing people. Being exposed to such a unique culture, with warm, friendly, and hospitable people amounted to an experience unlike any other, and I will cherish these memories for the rest of my life. I would recommend that any inquisitive traveller who finds themselves in Tanzania or Kenya, and is seeking to learn more about indiginous cultures, should commit to visiting with the Maasai people.