We primarily went to Tanzania to see the wildlife but many of the National Parks in Tanzania are located along Masai territory, a stretch of land rights that extend through Tanzania and Kenya and allow the tribe to move along traditional cattle grazing lands without limitations. The Masai are one of the older tribes in Africa who historically moved south from Egypt and stopped when they reached the region of Africa known as the Tsetse Fly Belt, because tsetse flies carry the dreaded sleeping sickness and the area also has many other diseases.
Masai are Knowledgeable About Wildlife, Some Become Guides in Tanzania
Our first encounter with the Masai came about because one of the guides available to show people around Arusha, Tanzania was Masai. He was a shy man wearing a red robe and carrying a staff who was knowledgeable about wildlife but we decided to wander the grounds and ended up with another guide when we went into town. The Masai People chose red robes as a way of identifying others in their tribe. At several camps, where we were essentially guests on traditional Masai lands, the Masai were hired as guards.
Masai People are Cattle and Goat Herders
Our next encounter came as we drove to Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Along the way, we passed many villages with round dwellings made from sticks and mud all surrounded by a ring of dead bracken. We also passed what looked like huge waste water retention ponds, but were told by our Natural Wildlife Adventure guides that the Masai often suffered from lack of water during periods of drought especially when grazing the cattle and that the Tanzanian government had hired a Chinese company to dig out the artificial reservoirs for the Masai. To get water to the village, the Masai people go to the lake or river or reservoir with animal skin bags loaded on a donkey. Now days, the Masai people use modern plastic containers to hold water, but they used to just keep it in the animal skins.
Masai People Hold Barbecues in Tanzania
Further down the road, we came upon a huge barbecue. Because many Masai have contacts with the other tribes along their route, their diet is much enhanced from their traditional diet of meat and blood; they trade cattle for money, rice, vegetables, etc. And the young learn English and other languages from the locals, some families eventually become semi-permanent residents, even beginning to farm and have schools. One amusing (to me) story told by our Natural Wildlife Adventure guides was that if you bought a cow, the Masai would come to your door and ask to have it since they have the traditional ownership of all cattle. The barbecue looked like it was half market day, half picnic and had a huge gathering of Masai people and others.
Masai People Welcome Visitors with a Welcome Dance in Tanzania
When we reached Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania our tour allowed us a visit to a Masai village. The Masai performed a greeting dance, starting with two rows, one of males, one of females behind. The males were more active, holding both spears or walking sticks and ceremonial staffs. They hopped from foot to foot, sort of diving down and rising up and splitting into two lines and going back and forth. The women had a main call singer with the rest following along. After the songs and dance, they had a greeting line, with each of us, passing by everyone and shaking their hand and saying Jambo. A few of the children were brave enough stand with the women.
Masai Villages are Built by the Women but the Men Guard in Tanzania
The village we visited in Tanzania had twenty-four homes, all built in a ring around a central area with and interior fence. The Masai homes are built by the women who put up the homes central structure, then when the wet season comes, they use mud to fill it in. The Masai home has four areas–one bed for the father, one for the mother and children. An area for cooking is at the center, just inside the doorway. The doorway is quite low to enter. Visibility is limited due to the low light, but it is much cooler inside. The beds are made from cattle hides. Another enclosure is used to house baby animals during the night. The young Masai men are not allowed to sleep inside, they must be outside at the ready in case a lion comes. They will kill lions if need be, but mostly the just show up and the lions leave. A fence is built around the outside of all of the homes and brush pulled against it as I assume a sort of camouflage. The Masai people will live in a town up to three years before gathering up their supplies and moving to a new town.
Masai People are Craftsman and Some Beginning to Settle in Tanzania
Most of the Masai village wore yellow and white bead square anklets showing the family they belonged to.
Many of the men and women have their ears pierced in many ways. The inner skin is removed from their ear in places and the ear stretched in order to show off their jewelry better. They sell the jewelry they make.
The chief’s son showed us his spear. It was made of steel and quite sharp on the end. It was attached to a wooden shaft. He said they threw the spear and had spear throwing contests.
A modern school was established outside the enclosure. The school was built to be airy and with plenty of light. The children sat, four to a bench, leaning on desks. The Masai children all wore a uniform shirt of green. It wasn’t clear that there was any school learning going on. The math exercise on the chalk board looked too advanced for the children. At the center was a large donation box.
Standards of hygiene were very low, many had eyes diseases. Many of the children have learned to beg.
Masai Men Coming of Age
After visiting Olduvai Gorge, we went to the Shifting Sands where we encountered two young Masai boys. The young men are circumcised at thirteen and sent out of the village in black robes with their faces painted half white. The pair we ran into made money by having their picture taken. The young Masai boys are sent out to tend the flocks all of the time. After a year, they return to a party where they change into the red robes. The Masai women are more colorful in their dress, allowed to wear any colors.
Our Natural Wildlife Adventure guides were very helpful in explaining local traditions. We enjoyed our visit to the Masai village. The people in the town we met were all very friendly and loved to tell us about their lives.
If you’d like to see more about the Masai People, visit my slide show “Interesting Lives of the Tanzanian Masai People”.