By Rebecca Benest
While living in Tanzania over the summer and working at a grassroots organization to prevent HIV/AIDS, I was given the opportunity to go to a Maasai village and learn about their culture and lifestyle. The Maasai are semi-nomadic peoples in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. They are inhabitants of some of the national parks that are common stops on Safari tours, and are well-known for their distinctive culture, dress and language. Although there are some aspects of their culture that have been Westernized, partially with the encouragement of the Tanzanian government, they still retain a large part of their culture and their population continues to grow as an indigenous group.
As part of the opening ceremony and dance, the Maasai men slowly walked into a cordoned area that was once a corral for their cows. They typically wear very traditional clothing during the ceremony, which is still significant in Maasai tribes. However, many of the younger Maasai dress in Western clothing when they go into town.
This is their dancing ceremony. While the women sing, the men take turns stomping rhythmically and jumping in the middle of the circle (at seemingly shocking heights). Afterwards, all the children are given a chance to get involved and try jumping while the women continue to sing and stomp to the rhythm.
They also showed us a traditional fire-making ceremony. Although this is not used as often anymore, especially as items such as matches become more prevalent, it is a ritual still used in ceremonies. By grinding a stick into a plate of wood, a spark is lighted, which they turn into a full flame with dry grasses. Because the ceremony took quite a while, the men in this photo would take turns grinding the stick.
The woman in this photo, although she might’ve been the mother of the baby she’s holding, probably wasn’t. The Maasai women tend to take a more collaborative approach to childcare, meaning that the women all helped with the children, and the children didn’t seem to prefer their “real mother” over the other women. The older children also were very active in helping to take care of younger children and babies.
This woman exhibits two of the cultural practices common among the Maasai. First is the piercing and stretching of the earlobes, which I saw among all of the women. They stretch the ears with wood, among other materials, and hang jewelry through the holes. The second is the circular mark on her cheek. This is made with wooden branding when the Maasai are still children; women receive a circle, whereas men receive two lines on their lower forehead. Although it objectively seems painful, she said the pain passes quickly and she doesn’t remember it; however, the practice is quickly falling out of use.
The medicine man of the tribe took us around their land to show us the various trees and plants used for a wide variety of medicines. They were used for everything from remedies for malaria to paste made from a specific plant to give men more “energy”.
This is one of several mud huts in which all of the families live. Inside the house are three rooms, with an additional room that can be completely sealed off where they keep and take care of baby goats. The beds are also made of the same mud as the walls, with blankets lying on top.
The Maasai children were very involved in the rituals showed to us by their elders. They wore more Western clothing, as opposed to the more traditional robes, although this may be a transition that comes with age. They were very interactive and enjoyed holding our hands, singing and dancing with us. Between our limited Swahili and their limited Swahili (their first language is Kimaasai), they were very excited to hear our names and tell us all they knew about “Obamaland”.
All images by Rebecca Benest, Prospect Staff Writer.