Muzungu meets the Maasai

by Sue Avison

Africa is not a place for the faint hearted traveller. It is one continent where the Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude doesn’t have a place. Traveling here requires planning and preparation, especially when you are driving 200 kilometres on a road which closely resembles a cattle stop.

Volunteer Abroad in Uganda
Muzungu meets the Maasai. Photo by Sue Avison

The Unimog style trucks aren’t going to work for the next leg of the journey through the Serengeti to the Ngorongoro Crater; a world heritage site. So a change to the more suitable desert coloured 4 x 4’s is necessary. These utilitarian vehicles seat six people and have a pop up roof designed for close up game viewing. On top of the roof sits an outsized roof rack that stores the luggage and several large plastic containers full of water and petrol.

A breakdown in the African wilderness can be a life and death situation if you are not well prepared. The vast distances, lack of accessible water, and the poisonous insects and snakes will challenge even the experienced traveller; which is why a trip with a recognised tour company can be a good option. Knowing you are in practised and capable hands (the rifle is a hint), means you can sit back and enjoy the mystery of this bewildering and enigmatic continent.

Through the dirty windows, shut tight to keep out the red and grey dust, giraffe can be made out ambling along gracefully, their brown and fawn hides blending into the landscape. Elephants in their family units lumber close to the road. Animals and people move in slow motion - in Africa time.As bush slides away to brush covered plains desperate for quenching water, the bland landscape is momentarily punctuated by the Maasai’s red, blue and purple robes, like daubes of the impressionist’s oils on a blank canvas. With long, graceful strides and straight backs they use their ever present sticks to herd cows, camels and donkeys (known as Maasai taxis), across the grassless pastures. Like many traditional societies, the Maasai have to find ways to exist in a changing world where they are caught between tradition and survival. To assist in their survival they open up their village to tourists. This gives them an opportunity to share their culture and traditional ways and a chance to sell their crafts to the rich Muzungu. Muzungu is what white people are called in Africa. Literally translated, it means someone who roams around aimlessly, which is probably an accurate definition of a tourist. The unspoken message though, is that if you are white you are probably rich and can afford to buy some of their craft work or donate to their school.

The Maasai women are magnificent. Their aristocratic, chiselled features are unlined, despite the sun, dust and harsh lifestyle.  Beaded collars of all colours adorn their throats like the hood of a frilled lizard. Strands of colourful necklaces, often with one or more keys dangling from them, hang heavily around their necks. More beaded bracelets and anklets decorate their limbs. Their earlobes, which are pierced using thorns and then stretched with twigs and stones, dangle with long metal and hand crafted jewellery.

All Maasai wear sandals. These are all similar in design but are made from a variety of rubber and fabric materials. One of the group admired the sandals worn by the chief’s son. With a half-smile he points out that they are made from motorcycle tyres and he would be happy to sell them for $US100. They may be pastoralists, but the entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive — however, the offer was declined.The men and women dance and sing a welcome. The repetitive, responsive chants and monotone tune  is unsettling. When they are finished they invite the group to join them in the jumping dance.  This is a dance often performed by Warriors so the men, having observed how easy it is, are keen to give it a go. However, the dance requires the performer to jump up and down maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Sadly, the male Muzungu’s dance moves made them look more like frogs performing a mating ritual than a fierce warrior challenge.

The Maasai live in kraals arranged in a circular fashion. The huts, which they call Boomas, are made by the women from mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow urine. Standing only 1.4 metres high, they have no windows. Crouching low to enter, the inky blackness of the hut’s interior makes it hard to see where things are.  The young Maasai tour guide, who shares the tiny space with his wife and two children, taps a surface with his stick, indicating where to sit. It was the edge of a small, raised sleeping space, barely visible in the darkness. He smiles and the whites of his eyes and teeth punctate the darkness that has settled like a heavy cloak on frail shoulders.

In the centre of the hut, a small fire burns, vented by a six inch hole in the roof. This tiny round home is where the family cooks, eats and sleeps. A single earthen pot sits on the fire. The smoke meanders around it, creating a grey haze in the hut on its journey to the tiny hole in the roof.

Tall and slim, the Maasai would be the envy of the western modelling world. It is no surprise though; their diet consists primarily of milk and blood with some meat from the cattle for their caloric and protein needs. An easy way to stay slim, but the menu options are limited.

A tour of the school was next. At about five metres by four metres, the school looks like a small corral. The walls are crudely hewn wooden stakes bound together horizontally. A roughly thatched roof perches on the top like a worn beret. It is furnished with wooden benches where four to five students sit rubbing shoulders – the boys on one side and the girls on the other.

In school, traditional dress is put aside. The girls wear a red checked shift dress and the boys wear a red checked shirt and serge shorts. The lack of books and pens don’t diminish the wide smiles on the little one’s faces. It doesn’t take any prompting to put a few American dollars in the well placed wooden donation box.

With only one more stop to make in this village, the experience is complete - a visit to a Maasai bathroom. The bathroom is built away from the huts, which allows for a little more privacy than the structure itself provides. Like the huts, the structure is round in shape. The walls are made from narrow branches lashed together leaving large gaps which provide natural ventilation. Inside the perimeter is a hole in the ground; beauty in its simplicity.

With the tour completed, the opportunity to thank the hosts for opening up their homes and giving us a glimpse into their lives is to purchase some of their beadwork. The Maasai are expert at bargaining and if anyone paid too much, it doesn’t matter. It is the least a group of Muzungu’s can do to contribute to the Maasai economy.