Visiting the Maasai

maasai camels

While staying outside of Arusha, Tanzania, we had a chance to visit a nearby Maasai village, and to learn a little bit about their culture from our guide. We opted to ride a camel to the village instead of walk, simply because we’d never ridden camels before, and they were offered. It struck us after deciding this that we’d never actually seen any camels around the area before. There were plenty of donkeys and cows and other beasts of burden, but no camels. It turns out that the camels were brought in by the owners of our campsite specifically for tourists to ride on this tour. Authentic it was not, but fun it was! Luckily, the rest of our day proved to be much more informative and interesting, as we visited a small Maasai village, a snake-bite clinic, and a small museum on Maasai culture.

akward on a camel

The Maasai are traditionally a nomadic people, and are perhaps most famously known for their traditional costumes and their strikingly tall, thin warriors. They used to move regularly in search of new grazing grounds for their cattle, which were their primary food source. Nowadays, many families have become more sedentary in order to grow crops as well as raise cattle, and their colorful blankets are often seen combined with Nike sneakers or New York Yankees toques. However, many of their traditions have endured, for better or for worse. Many Maasai still live a nomadic lifestyle. They still live in houses built from sticks, grasses and mud, and they still build fences of thorns around their villages to keep predators away from their livestock. But there are more surprising and shocking things still to come.

traditional mud hut

As I mentioned, the Maasai rely on cattle as a primary source of food. The cattle provide meat, milk, and most appetizing of all, blood. About once a year, the Maasai will slit an artery in a cow’s throat and collect several liters of blood, without killing the animal. The cow is allowed to recover for at least a year before the process is repeated, and the blood that is collected is mixed with milk to prevent it from clotting. The Maasai drink this mixture as a staple for breakfast. We were asked if we would like to try some. We politely declined. This tradition, although perhaps a little off-putting to those of us used to drinking coffee with our milk in the morning, is not in-and-of-itself that cruel. The cows raised by the Maasai are likely leading much happier and healthier lives in general then the cows that we buy from our local supermarkets. The blood is simply another form of nutrition that the animals provide for their owners, and care is taken not to cause them too much pain in the process. Still, I think I’ll stick to coffee.

There is a common myth that Maasai warriors will hunt male lions for sport, as a way of proving their strength and bravery, and as a rite of passage into warrior status. Our guide assured us that this was untrue. His argument was simple: the number of Maasai warriors is far greater than the number of lions in Africa. If each warrior killed a lion, there would be none left. Since I’ve actually seen some of these lions personally, I am inclined to believe him. Besides, there is a much more trying initiation into manhood that the Maasai men undergo. Between the ages of 15 and 22, all Maasai boys are circumcised. That’s not a typo either. 15 to 22 years old. No anesthetic. Fully conscious. And most crucially, the boys are not allowed to show any signs of pain during the procedure: no crying, yelling, lip biting, or even excessive blinking. If a boy’s face shows any traces of pain, then he is shunned from the village, and is not allowed to marry or live amongst his peers. This is still common practice today, but there’s more!

Maasai women are also traditionally circumcised, but unlike the procedure with men, which simply removes a bit of excess skin, the female circumcision is an extremely invasive, painful, and dangerous procedure. After it is completed, the woman must have her legs bound for weeks, and the likelihood of complications and deaths during childbirth are significantly increased. The government of Tanzania has taken measures to make female circumcision illegal, but they are running into significant issues in enforcing the ban. First of all, because the Maasai are spread far and wide throughout the country, it is difficult to get the message out to all of the tribes. None of the villages have televisions or internet, and even cell phones are relatively scarce. Secondly, it is difficult for a government to implement a law that directly opposes a long-held tradition. Many Maasai women still choose to undergo the procedure, mostly to earn the respect of their tribe and to increase their likelihood of marrying. The men also are guilty of encouraging this practice, as many of them still refuse to take a wife who is uncircumcised. So it’s an uphill battle, to say the least. Our guide told us that progress is being made, slowly, and that many Maasai are now more aware of how damaging, dangerous, and medically unsound the practice is, but he suspects that it will still be several generations before widespread change happens.

curious girl

We took our leave of the village, and waved to the dozens of children who excitedly grabbed our hands as we passed them. Most of the children we saw were brothers and sisters, and were born of the Chief and his 9 wives. The Chief was 84 years old, and was in the process of seeking a tenth wife. This is one area that the Maasai women have made some progress in: while polygamous marriages are still the norm, they are generally agreed to by the man and woman involved, mutually. Parents no longer give their daughters away to the highest bidder, and although I’m sure that there is often pressure involved, the women are now able to decline or accept as they will.

museum

It was very interesting to learn all of these things about a culture so dramatically different from our own, and it was simultaneously difficult to avoid condemning many of their traditions as barbaric or bizarre. While I am not interested in bringing blood-milk combos to my breakfast table or putting my children through painful surgeries for the sake of pride, I feel somehow conflicted about actually discouraging those from another culture from carrying on with them. In some cases it is easier than others — for example, it is fair to say that the practice of drinking cows’ blood and milk is not weird, necessarily, but simply different — but in others there is a more striking conflict between tolerance of foreign traditions and protecting the human rights of those who may not be able to protect themselves. In the case of female circumcision, it is encouraging to hear that the country’s government is attempting to intervene for the sake of the Maasai women, in my opinion. It is, however, an attempt by one people to influence the long-held beliefs of another, and there’s no clear-cut right and wrong there. It illustrates the difficulty inherent in pitting a medical or scientific argument against an embedded belief or faith. On the one had, one might believe that people should have a right to health and happiness and basic protection from harm, and on the other, there is the principal that people should be free to practice tradition and religion free from outside persecution. I don’t have the answer, but I find it a compelling argument to think about.

Comments

    Very interesting to read your feedback on female genital cutting.

    As a small NGO working to raise awareness about these issues, it is always so good to hear about experiences people undergo when travelling in communities.

    I volunteered in Ethiopia, which is where I first came across the issue. Like you, I find it interesting to see where the cultural argument ends and the human rights arguments begins.

    What helps guide the Orchid Project and our work is that we support the communities on the ground who want to change this practice themselves.

    Interestingly, one of our volunteers is Canadian – Wynne and she will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro later in the year to raise awareness about FGC. She is currently still a volunteer in Ethiopia.

    Check back to the website http://www.orchidproject.org for her progress. At the age of 71, she’s an inspiration to us all!

    Thanks again for your informative and interesting blog.

    Julia

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