We think of travel as the act of taking a trip but in the most meaningful travel experiences, it is the trip that moves through me and stays…
On my recent trip to Tanzania, I happened upon three encounters with three very different groups of Maasai women. While women’s rights are still debated in our society, the women of east Africa have essentially no power. Yet these women literally carry their burdens as wives, mothers and daughters with grace, strength and courage.
Along the side of the road and in the fields, tough fibrous sisal grows and is made into beautiful rugs. Thorns grow as large as nails. We see trees sprout impossibly out of crevices and rivers emerge from the desert.
Always, there is the act of survival here that I will forever remember as “Africa”.
Driving along the roads near the Serengeti, it is common to see herds of knobby cattle and goats being tended by tall, thin young men wearing traditional tribal red or blue plaid wraps. These are the famous Maasai warriors, a semi-nomadic tribe found along the Tanzania – Kenya border. With an air of dignity, they stand guard at the watering holes, the end of their spear planted firmly into the ground. They shepherd their livestock alongside the roadside in search of fresh grazing land. Their wrap (called a kanga) is knotted over one shoulder and their black rubber sandals have been made from tires.
There are no houses here as we know them. In the fields, groups of small crude round huts are clustered together to create a small village or boma. The boma is surrounded by piles of thorny brush and tree branches. These are the homes of the Maasai. We are told how the men of this tribe are polygamous and the number of huts grouped together is indicative of the home of one husband, his wives and unmarried children. It is common to see six or seven huts in a boma, plus a few smaller ones along the peripheral for storage.
The Maasai are not the most populous of the hundreds of different tribes that comprise Tanzania, but they are one of the most popular among tourists. They are legendary warriors who are immigrated to the area hundreds of years ago from Egypt and North Africa, conquering the native tribes in their search of grazing land for their livestock. Many of their customs have led scholars to believe they could be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Cattle are both religion and currency to the Maasai; the more cattle, the more affluent the chief will be and the more wives he will have. The Maasai believe they have been given all the cattle in the world and they are well-known for being cattle rustlers. One of the most interesting facts about the Maasai is their diet. Cattle provide all their nutritional needs; they eat only beef and drink cow’s milk and blood. Once a month or so, they will puncture the cow’s jugular to get a gourd full of blood. It sounds very cruel but we are told that the Maasai take great care of their cattle.
In truth, the cattle may be better cared for than the women and children.
One of our excursions was to visit the Maasai to see how they live and work. On the day of our visit, Zeblon takes great joy in explaining our itinerary. The ladies in our group will spend the morning with the women of the village. In Maasai society, the women do everything. They cook, clean, carry water, do all home maintenance such as roofing and plastering and make baskets and jewelry for their own use and to sell. While the women of our group are working, Zeblon, the two male guides and men of our group will hang out with the chief to “think” and drink moonshine. Zeblon loves to tease and goes to great lengths to exaggerate how hard the women will be working while the men sit around doing nothing. You can imagine how Maasai customs do not go over well with westerners!
Until this point, we had not really seen the Maasai women, but upon arrival to the village, the women come out chattering and welcoming us. They wear colorful traditional clothing, beaded necklaces and earrings, and even brighter smiles. They take our hands and greet us warmly “Jambo! Jambo!” It took a few minutes to adjust to the unusual smells emitting from their bodies and even more time to grow comfortable holding their hands back when they grasped ours; the ebola fears have run rampant in the news and although the disease is thousands of miles from east Africa, the lack of good hygiene is unsettling.
A lady whom I will learn is named “Mary” takes me by the hand and leads me over to some younger girls who begin wrapping me like a Christmas present with fabric wrap, belt and beaded necklace. Mary’s teeth, along with most of the other ladies, are eroded and yellowed in front as if she has been chewing sugarcane. Mary has huge holes in her ears from which hang earrings shaped like an upside down beaded “V”, approximately the size of half a clothes pin. Mary is quite inventive; she assesses my look and must find me too plain, because she removes these clothespins from her earholes and hangs them from my own hoop earrings. Then, she seems to think I look fabulous.
Now, it is time to work; Mary thrusts a small basket into my lap. She does not speak English and “jambo” seems to be the only word we have in common. I am not wearing my reading glasses and I cannot really see into the basket so she picks up my hand and hands me a wire. Oh, I finally understand what she is trying to tell me! I am to make a bracelet. I thread tiny beads onto wire with the dexterity of a two-year old. As I struggle, I glance over to see my friend Jackie trying to make a basket. Jackie is an Ob GYN, but although she is dexterous enough to sew an episiotomy and deliver babies, it seems she can not produce a suitable basket. Jackie makes a stitch or two with the grass and each time her instructor tears it apart.
The ladies finally give up on teaching us domestic tasks; it is time to celebrate. They pull us into a circle and Mary begins chanting words and the other ladies join in. We have no idea what they are saying because our interpreter is in the corner drinking moonshine. We join in and sing and dance as much as we are able.
The Maasai men decide to join in and begin a great show of doing their own dance; the point seems to be a contest of who can jump the highest. We ladies don’t know what the heck is going on but we ooh and ahh accordingly; admittedly the men do jump quite high and then strike the ground with their spear. I am not sure if this has something to do with their sexual prowess or is the equivalent of a pissing contest, but in any case, they seem to very much enjoy showing off for us.
Then, the ladies start chattering again and line us up in a processional; we are supposed to help the ladies carry firewood, straw and water, attempting to balance it on our heads like they do and laughing together when it fell. We mostly pretend to plaster the boma’s walls with our hands using a loamy mixture. I thought it would surely be mud but I think I was wrong…
Afterwards, the ladies descended upon us like birds at the watering hole with soap and water, cleaning the dirt from beneath our nails with broom straw. Mary barks something to the younger girls and they produce something that resembles ajax; we receive a sort of primitive Maasai manicure.
I have barely seen our “men” during this whole experience, although we ladies put some of them to work taking photographs. I had been so busy “working” I had not noticed that the chief’s father has come to visit. If I recall correctly, he says he has over 100 “children”. Before leaving, we enter a hut to talk with the chief. It is small, round and dark. There is no electricity or running water, of course; no doors or windows, just holes in the wall. The hut is divided into three areas, two small alcoves for sleeping and a center area for cooking and living area. There is no furniture to speak of, some primitive benches for us to sit on but no beds or other furniture. The “chief” rotates to a different hut every night. It can be so hot inside, that he does not sleep with the wife but rather each sleep in their own compartment. Small children stay and sleep with their mother but older ones are sent out to stay with relatives on the night their father visits. I did not see any blankets, pillows or mosquito nets in the areas I peered into, just bare dirt floors.
We emerge from the darkness of the boma to find the village women assembled in a long line with all their crafts displayed. The women are allowed to keep the money from what they sell and it is obvious they reinvest it to purchase more beads and materials, because there is a vast array of jewelry, baskets and decorative items available for our purchase. All of us buy numerous items, none are expensive. We are all compelled to help these women who have been so kind to us.
The previous day we were driving home from another national park called Tarangire, where we saw hundreds of elephants. We were in a very rural area, off the main road, dotted with the occasional boma but mostly, there was little of interest. We happened to meet two young Maasai girls walking towards us; they were huddled together, their black faces lined in ghostly white. Our driver slowed to a stop as if to talk to them; I instinctively reached for my camera but our guide whispered no, they would not want to have their pictures taken. Later we learned we had witnessed a rare and controversial site. While circumcision is the norm in this tribe for adolescent boys, it is also often practiced on girls in what is known as female circumcision or genital mutilation. Although illegal, it is still widely practiced underground as a social custom. In most tribes, girls are not considered suitable for marriage unless this procedure has been performed. When the girls are 13 or 14, the procedure is performed without anesthesia or surgical instruments. The painting of the faces, as we witnessed, is done just prior to their circumcision. It was no wonder the girls looked so distraught…
Dr. Jackie in our group works in New York and is well acquainted with this procedure and its devastating effects on these young girls. She explains that there are various degrees of mutilation performed. In all cases, the labia is removed and the opening of the vagina is nearly sewn shut to keep the girls from being promiscuous and from enjoying sex. When they are pregnant, they are encouraged to have babies with low birth weights in order to minimize damage. The tearing and damage to their bodies during sex and birth can lead to many more problems over time, including incontinence and infections.
The fact that this procedure is still being done on young girls has received much outrage throughout the world. During our later meeting with the chief, he told us this is something he and others are trying to educate the Maasai people about. We thanked him on behalf of women, but we can see that in remote societies like northeast Africa, change comes slowly.
I will always remember the site of those two poor young girls with their ghost faces, huddled together and moving so slowly down that dusty dirt road, and pray that change will come soon.
While staying at Lake Barunge near Tarangire, my sister and I met another Jackie. This Jackie was a native Tanzanian who worked at the lodge in what appeared to be a management position. In addition to overseeing the dining staff during our meals, she had a little hut set up apart from our tented lodges where she also did massages. My sister and I went to see her one afternoon when we had some free time.
Jackie was one of the more modern African women we met. She presented herself well, wore western style clothing and spoke English. She was very attractive, in her mid-30’s. I asked her what it was like growing up there, being a woman. I am not sure if she didn’t quite understand my question or didn’t chose to answer it. Instead, she told me that in addition to their homes and families, many of the men had what is referred to as a “small house”, or another family kept “on the side” . She said she wanted a man who would be faithful to her. She also told my sister how she would ride her bike down the long dirt road from the lodge to a main road where she would eventually catch a bus to go see her mother. She did not mention any other family.
It didn’t seem so much that Jackie was deliberately misleading us, but rather that some of the pieces of her story were missing. For one thing, you would not expect to find an attractive thirty year old woman who was not married. For another, Jackie seemed to be a little more worldly and more affluent than most of the other women we encountered. Later, I asked one of the guides about her and he said he thought she had been married to a Maasai man.
I am not sure to which tribe Jackie belonged, but she did not look Maasai. I do not believe the Maasai men always marry Maasai women, as marrying outside one’s tribe is prevalent throughout Tanzania. By most standards, most Maasai are considered to be wealthy. While most live in the traditional lifestyle we witnessed, others are very successful businessmen, instrumental to the changing face of Tanzania.
Unlike in our country, divorce in Tanzania is rare. There is much beaurocracy and before a couple can get divorced, the extended family and relatives get very involved with both the husband and wife, trying to help them work out their problems. From what I have read, divorced women have few rights and can easily find themselves and their children unsupported and in desperate circumstances.
There is also the problem of multiple wives. I read somewhere that 70% of Tanzanian marriages are polygamous and I can only imagine how complicated that could be. I also read that during the years from 1995 to 2005, there were only around 400 divorces registered in the whole nation. Isn’t it unbelievable that a country would only have 30 or 40 divorces in a year?
One thing I do know is that women’s rights are almost non-existent in Tanzania. While things are improving, especially through education, women have very few choices. Most marriages, particularly in rural areas are pre-arranged and many of the girls are married off when they are very young. It is the bride’s family that receives the dowry, usually some form of livestock, a tradition that continues even in modern unions where it is that the bride and groom are fortunate to choose each other.
I am not sure if any of this pertains to Jackie’s situation. Perhaps she was never married, perhaps she was divorced or perhaps she decided she was simply not going to live in a polygamous situation. I doubt I will ever know.
My sister Janie and I are travelling with Overseas Adventure Travel throughout northeast Tanzania, Africa. OAT specializes in providing safe, affordable small group excursions to all four corners of the world with emphasis on adventure, cultural encounters and philanthropy. There’s never more than sixteen travelers and single travelers are welcome. Mention Susan Boswell and Code #1910363 to receive $100. discount towards your own adventure.