Christopher Koski explores the history and culture of East Africa’s Maasai tribe, travelling to rural outposts in Tanzania with a group of nurses
While East Africa is home to hundreds of tribes, it is the Maasai who have acquired international recognition. With only a bit of textbook knowledge of the group, I was eager to learn more and it was through a chance invitation to visit a remote village in Tanzania that I first encountered its members. There, I was given a glimpse of Maasai life and the modern-day struggles they face on the plains of the African Rift Valley.
Taking the local bus out to the Ngorongoro District of Tanzania is an adventure in itself; the route is dusty and rough, crossing rivers and plains. Considered to be the world’s largest caldera, the Ngorongoro Crater itself is the reason most people come here; but while impressive, this was not why I was here. The heavily laden bus, destined for isolated villages to the west of the crater, skirts the fringes of the protected area. We pass herds of wildebeest and zebra resting peacefully under the sun and competing for shade offered by the occasional acacia tree.
Later that day I arrive at the village by motorbike, the eight-hour journey taking me through sparse, open land, marked only by some rolling hills and embankments rising to steep cliffs, which provide refuge to vultures bedding down for the evening. In the distance, a volcano peaks above the horizon, its imposing and rocky slopes commanding respect, with thin clouds drifting above its summit. The mountain carries an air of prestige as it reaches high into the heavens. On closer inspection, I see a collection of huts made from sticks, mud and cow dung; clusters of brick and concrete buildings surround them, and a newly erected cellphone tower stands like a monolith in the town centre.
Historically, the Maasai are said to have come from Egypt millennia ago; unwilling to be put into slavery, they chose pastoral life in the bush instead. More recently, during the time of the global slave trade, they were spared again. It’s said that the tribe fought the slavers and subsequently hid among and adapted to the vast bush lands of East Africa. The reality was that in the slave trade some tribes were preferred over others; the tall and slender build of the Maasai may be comparable to winning the genetic lottery.
Today many Maasai still freely enjoy tribal life, tending cattle and goat in the bush. It was certain aspects of tribal life that brought missionaries to the village of Malambo. In Maasai culture, males acquire cattle as currency to buy wives to make babies who will in turn tend cattle, and so on. The culture practices circumcision rituals on both sexes, typically around age 15, and while female circumcision has been banned by the state, with jail time and fines imposed, it is still widely practised. In Malambo, and around much of sub-Saharan Africa, organisations are working to educate children, provide health care, and to spread the Christian message.
As the majority of Maasai still retain their migratory habits, one of the great challenges is getting basic healthcare to the most rural family groups. Nurses run a travelling clinic to a handful of remote bomas in the region via Land Cruiser. A boma is a family plot of land with mud huts and animal pens, protected by a circular barrier of sticks, which act as a fence to protect the area from wild animals. The families that live here are often traditional, surviving on milk, cow’s blood and goat meat. It is likely they practise polygamy and circumcision, and AIDS can be prevalent in some groups. Early in the morning we set off across sparse plains, the village cell tower quickly disappearing in a wake of dust.
The Land Cruiser eventually arrives at the solitary shade of a tree where tribeswomen have gathered, all wearing bright traditional dresses, wide holes in their ears and beaded bracelets wrapped around their wrists. Semi-naked children outnumber mothers two to one and all are seemingly bewildered by the presence of a white man among the nurses. I gently smile and offer up the only word in my Maasai vocabulary: “Supai.” The women respond kindly with “Epa,” quickly returning to fuss over the young children, who cry and suckle at their mothers’ breasts. On a low-hanging tree branch a rope is tossed over and a vegetable scale is hung up; one by one mothers come forward, their babies are weighed, vaccinated, and examined. All present are given a lecture on AIDS and the story of Jesus Christ, before vitamins and medication are dispensed. The clinic is quickly packed up and the team drives into the bush to another Maasai outpost. The driver manoeuvres the vehicle with experience, weaving through desert scrub brush, acacia forests, and sandy stream beds. We encounter wild zebra grazing on savannah grasses, giraffe meandering alongside their young, flocks of ostrich eye us up and a lone mongoose sits perched atop a termite mound. There’s nothing quite like seeing animals and tribesmen in their shared environment.
Once again I notice the volcano on the horizon, now identified as Ol Doinyo Lengai, the holy mountain to all Maasai in the Rift Valley. It, like the Maasai, represents an era not so bygone, timeless against the forces of nature and progress.