A Cultural Visit to a Maasai Village in the Masai Mara
If these guys get any closer to my camera they’re going to be smack up against my lens, I think as I desperately try to keep the image in focus. We’re on a cultural visit to a Maasai village close to the Sarova Mara in the Masai Mara and I’m filming the Maasai warriors, resplendent in vibrant red robes and coloured beads, rhythmically bobbing their heads back and forward as they perform a traditional welcome dance for us. Terence is behind me taking still pictures, and I’m wondering if he’s faring any better.
The handsome Maasai tribesmen are singing in a call and response form without any backing instruments and it’s beautiful. But as they breathe out, their upper bodies and heads bob forward; as they breathe in, they tip their bodies back. The synchronised movement, combined with the hypnotic singing, is intensely captivating.
Yet from my position in the centre of their circle, it’s also overwhelming. When they finish, I am overcome with emotion, yet I’m also a little relieved it’s over. I want them to do it again so I can make sure I’ve got some good (read: in focus) footage – but I want them to do it from a more comfortable distance this time!
The village is actually the home of many of the hotel staff such as Tira and Denies, and Tira has handed us over to a village guide called Ben. Ben, it turns out, is going to university to become a teacher with the aim of working at the local school to teach the village children.
His university education, we will learn on our walk around the village, explains why Ben has only one wife (the Maasai practice polygamy and usually have up to four or five) and Ben’s daughters will not be circumcised. In fact, Ben tells us he intends that they go to university. The village has stopped the practice of female circumcision, he says, although unfortunately there are other villages where some Maasai secretly continue the tradition. The boys are still circumcised at the age of 15 in a ceremony involving a great deal of song and dance.
We get to experience more of the Maasai’s marvellous song and dance before we start our tour of the village. The tribesmen demonstrate the jumping dance for which the Maasai are famous in a performance of the ‘adamu’. The men sing as each takes turns leaping as high as he can into the air. When one gets tired, another warrior takes his turn. The highest jumper apparently gets more girls.
Inside what Ben explains is a cattle enclosure (as if the smell from the cow dung that covers the dirt ground hadn’t given it away), we meet a group of Maasai women, including Ben’s wife and children, who stand in line to sing us two pretty welcome songs. The women’s song follows the same form as the men’s – a call-and-response kind of pattern, where one singer leads and the others follow. It’s lovely.
As we wander around the village, Ben introduces us to more Maasai traditions, customs and rituals. We watch a fire-making demonstration that’s similar in technique to the Australian aborigine’s – a stick of soft wood (generally red cedar) is rapidly turned between two hands onto a piece of hard wood (sandpaper tree) until smoke and then a flame is produced. We learn that the kudu horn that a tribesman (wearing a lofty headpiece made from a lion’s mane!) used when we first arrived, is the Maasai mobile phone that’s used to call warriors together. Of course, Maasai like Tyra and Denies who work at our hotel have ‘real’ mobile phones – and email addresses.
Ben explains that the Maasai wear red not only to scare the animals away but also to be able to see each other from a distance. The beaded jewellery they wear doesn’t have any great significance – Ben reckons that the Maasai just like the way it looks. The most important people in the village are the chief, the medicine man, and the midwife, whom we get to meet. Looking pretty agile for her late years, she tells us that she delivers an average of 20 children a year.
Despite the very solid-looking mud houses we see, we learn that the Maasai are still nomadic, and that the village’s 300 plus people move approximately every eight years to let the land they’ve lived on rest and rejuvenate, and to give their cattle fresh pastures. The cattle, along with goats and sheep, are not only a source of the meat that’s important to the Maasai diet, but the milk and the blood that the Maasai drink. There are tribesmen specialised in the art of drawing blood from the cows, one cow gives blood each month, in a method that Ben likens to making a blood donation.
Ben shows us his home, a mud hut that has separate living quarters for his family and their baby animals. It’s cosy (okay, cramped) and very dark inside, with just one tiny window high on the wall for ventilation. But it’s that one small window that enables the home to stay cool in summer and warm in winter.
It’s the women of the village who are the builders, Ben says (the men merely collect the sticks, leaves and cow dung that are their building materials), and “architectural geniuses”. Ben shows us the structure of the latest house they are collectively building for a new bride, pointing out some new innovations they’re trying out.
While the women build the houses, grow the vegetables, cook, and look after the children, the men remain the herders and hunters they’ve always been, taking care of their precious cattle, and occasionally hunting, though far less than they once did, and no longer killing the lions or other protected animals that earned the Maasai their reputation as brave warriors.
Female circumcision isn’t the only tradition the Maasai are phasing out. We notice some tribesmen still have the enormous holes in their ear lobe for the huge earrings that identify them as Maasai. Ben doesn’t and nor do some of the other younger men we see. It seems schools, universities, and many workplaces in Kenya now disallow it. It’s also a little inconvenient to have them flapping around if you want to be a long-distance runner, he tells us.
One custom the Maasai have maintained is the removal of a lower tooth or two to create a gap, traditionally made to enable medicine to be fed to a person who got lock jaw during a tetanus outbreak. Totally unnecessary now that the Maasai receive vaccinations, but the missing teeth could be a sign that the Maasai are keen to hold onto this practice, and as many other customs as they can, in the face of modernisation.
Like any modern-day tour, ours ends at the ‘gift shop’, the village market where the Maasai sell the stunning beads we have seen them making. While we would normally be offended by such a tactic after already paying for a tour, I’m eager to look around and spend some money. Why?
Not just because the beads are beautiful, but because the Maasai tribe we visited is extremely poor. While we respect and applaud the fact they’re eager to hold onto their traditions, almost all of the children we saw were barefoot, wore raggedy clothes, had runny noses, and weeping eyes. The hut designs may be getting increasingly more innovative, but the huts still don’t have running water, toilets, baths, or lighting. I’d love to be able to return to the village one day and see what the women could do with their designs if they had more money. I’d also love to see these gorgeous children looking healthier.
Don’t visit the Maasai Mara without doing a cultural visit to a Maasai village, which you can organize with Carolyn if you’re staying at the Sarova Mara. In addition to paying for the tour, do tip your guide and do buy lots of beaded jewellery. Aside from the fact that it’s so beautiful, you are not only helping the people out, you are helping to keep traditional crafts alive.
We stayed as guests of the Sarova Mara.