The Ngorongoro Crater is a natural caldera with an 1,800 foot perfectly circular mountain rim that sits on the western edge of the Serengeti. Once a massive volcano, it now houses a fresh water lake that attracts every animal in the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Beyond the crater rim, stretching further than the eye can see, lies the Serengeti and the 60,000 Maasai who inhabit Ngorongoro National Park.
Imagine if you can, Yellowstone National Park inhabited by thousands of Native Americans, all living close to the way they did 200 years ago. Mud huts with thatched roofs dot the hillsides. Children milking cows and goats each morning before heading down dusty dirt roads to schools miles away. Ornately accessorized mothers and wives with elongated earlobes and brightly colored jewelry making tea by firelight inside their dimly lit homes. And men, with expertly scared faces, wrapped in traditional red cloth, carrying big knives and long sticks made from Acacia tending to their cattle.
Guided by a gracious Masai named Olomo who I befriended a couple weeks prior, I was invited to live amongst the Maasai for a few days inside the park. Unfortunately, following a lengthy meeting with the suits at park headquarters, this proved to be illegal and we were forced to make alternative arrangements – which included bribing park rangers, hiring an alcoholic driver, sleeping at unauthorized encampments and slinking around the park without an authorized permit for an exciting yet all too brief 48 hours.
Before I get into the details of what I learned in my short time with the Maasai, let me first address the overall impression I got from them as a whole. You see, Masai do not just inhabit the park, they’re everywhere! I met Maasai men (easy to spot in their traditional red, plaid dress) all over Tanzania and Kenya and my experience was amazingly consistent. They were all friendly, well groomed, strong, healthy looking types with big white smiles. They exuded a sense of peaceful friendliness while commanding respect – often emitting some sort of visceral, “don’t mess with me or I’ll happily beat you down” kind of energy. Maasai are recruited for and hold most of the security jobs in the cities for what I can only assume are the reasons listed above. Above all, it seemed to me that the Masai men were honorable people, to be trusted and admired. They appeared to take pride in their reputation of strength and integrity and when I asked if there were any people the Masai didn’t like, the answer was a swift “no” – followed by, “The Maasai are friends to everyone.” (However, it must be said that from what I’ve read they are historically known throughout Africa as ruthless cattle thieves and warriors – but perhaps that’s all in the past?)
Olomo is the son of the village chief. His mother is one of nineteen wives and he plans to take his first wife in June when he is done paying the dowry of twenty cattle to his bride’s father. His village is small and dusty. It looks out over miles of flat land toward tall mountains. Mornings and evenings are busy in a Maasai village, with most of the day spent hiding from the sun, resting in the shade of large trees. The children begin milking goats and cows at 4:30am. By 6:00am they are walking to school… depending on how far they have to travel. It is not uncommon for primary school children to walk 10 kilometers or more to school each way, five days a week. Most students stop attending school after the 6th grade. When I arrived at the school my first day the children were preparing to leave the classrooms for lunch (which was the same as breakfast). 607 students lined up to receive one cup of corn porridge each, ladled from four over-sized steaming cauldrons – a gift for which they were truly thankful because food is not plentiful at home.
The Maasai culture is based on very strict rules. Everyone has a job and contributes. Men do man’s work. They tend to the cattle, defend the village and farm (when it’s allowed). Women cook, raise the children and do the “house” work. Women are charged with the responsibility of building the homes, which is said to take a week and requires collecting an amazing amount of cow dung. The women wear jewelry to be attractive to the men and elongate their ears for the same reason. Neither are mandatory though. It’s simply a matter of style. The women with hair are single. The ones without are married. While most westerners balk at the idea of these women being one of many wives, it is not uncommon for women to take different men as lovers as well. And while you might expect there to be repercussions for such transgressions, the matter is dealt with in a surprising manner. If the woman is impregnated by the lover, her husband is responsible to care for the baby (even when it isn’t his) – with the true father expected to pay child support. $100 per year in child support is asked of suitors from nearby, with greater financial support being expected the further the lover has traveled. Apparently, where Maasai women are concerned, it pays to shop locally!
For Maasai men, wives are a necessity. It is not as much about love as it is a practical matter of spreading their seed to ensure a larger and more prosperous village. As Olomo explained to me, “If you have a wife and she fails to give you children, you just get another one.” When I explained that we only get one wife in America, he said that it, “sounds like a big headache”. Then I told him that we don’t need extra wives to ensure bigger families because doctors can just give men more sperm or women more eggs. To which he incredulously replied, “This is crazy!”
When it comes to the Maasai. I really don’t think it’s appropriate to judge them by our own western values. While everything about their society is completely different from our own, it appears to work pretty well… (from the outside and what I noted in my uber-limited experience, that is). Which brings me to some of the challenges facing the Maasai in the park. Basically their culture is under attack by the park service, who are struggling themselves to balance a big-game ecosystem that remains their most profitable tourist attraction and a population of 60,000 indigenous inhabitants. Today, the Maasai can no longer hunt any game, they are not allowed to cultivate within the park and they are now being pressured to limit the distance they herd their cattle when grazing. Couple all of this with the shorter rainy seasons that have plagued them for the past few years and the Maasai’s traditional ways and current situation both seem highly unsustainable.
If the Maasai are no longer allowed to hunt, (or even farm for that matter) and they are on their way to being forced to keep their cattle in pens – what will remain that makes Maasai, Maasai? They are being forced to adopt new rules that directly oppose the very tenets and traditions their culture is based on. While westerners are encouraged to come and hunt animals on African soil, they aren’t even allowed to protect their stock against attacking predators (with spears, not guns!). Furthermore, most of the villages go without enough food or medicine to care for their families because only a miniscule amount of money from the tourist industry ever makes it to the people who inhabit the park.
It all just seems ridiculously unfair and without an easy answer. Olomo is worried because they’ve lost many cattle in recent years due to drought and they’ve had to sell others to buy grain to feed the village. He hopes to raise enough money soon ($2,000) to buy a plot of land just outside the park where his village can grow enough maize to help feed their families. The traditional Maasai diet is primarily meat, blood and milk, but Olomo admits that maize is needed to sustain the village, especially since their animals are malnourished and have begun to starve in recent years.
In the paradox that is Africa, Olomo hopes to become a park ranger someday and join the people enforcing the rules that govern his tribe. The pay is good and the work is steady he contends. Once again, I see an honorable Maasai hoping to do what’s best for his family and his village….
Other tidbits of Masai info:
* Two donkeys equal one cow. 12 goats equal one cow. * Masai are not allowed to drink alcohol until they become a junior elder at the age of forty. *There are water sources for people and animals placed every 12 kilometers throughout the park. Women travel with donkeys each morning to fill up for the village. *Masai jumping game is a way to impress the ladies. The higher you jump, the more desirable you are. *Men often send their sisters to find women for them when they want to “jiggy-jiggy” (as Masai men call it). You can send a friend or go yourself, but it’s said that sisters are the most persuasive. If they bring a woman back for you, the mother leaves the hut to sleep elsewhere for a night or two. (Uhhh, awkward!) * There is a special branch the Masai use as a tooth brush and there is a “Gum Tree” from which the Masai pull the sap to chew. It tastes a bit like black licorice and never loses its flavor. *The ceremony for adolescent boys to become men includes circumcision. After the procedure the “men” have their faces painted white and travel from village to village for three months being fed and housed by the community. *Many Masai men have no armpit hair. It’s been bred out of them. (Gene therapy here we come!) *Many Masai from Ngorongoro herd their cattle hundreds of miles to Kenya to sell their cows at a better price. *Before drinking fresh goat blood from a slaughtered animal, young boys whisk it with a stick for 5-10 minutes to break up the clots. The meat is reserved for the men with no part of the animal going to waste. *The bed in a small Masai hut typically sleeps three grownups or six children – or a mixture there in. *The best gift to bring the women of a Masai village? Tea and sugar.