The Masai, or Maasai, or Masaai: Africa’s Symbolic Tribe?

The Masai Mara, Kenya, February, 2014

Spell it as you will, the Masai, Maasai or Masaai (and I’ve found it spelled two ways in a single document), have the best public relations team ever.

From soft drinks to cell phones, we’ve all seen these tall, lanky herdsmen of the Masai Mara and Serengeti standing erect, red robes wrapped round their shoulders, sturdy stave to the side. If the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team” then the Masai are Africa’s symbolic tribe.

If the Cowboys are “America’s Team” the Masai must be Africa’s symbolic tribe.

With a population of about 900,000, the Masai are a small ethnic or tribal group compared to others which most of us don’t recognize. The Luba and Mongo of Central Africa each have populations near 15 million as do the Shona of Southern Africa. West Africa’s Hausa (50 million) and Fula and Yoruba (40 million each) are even larger.

The Hutu (15 million) and Tutsi (3 million) may still be in our minds following the wholesale slaughter of over a million people in the Tutsi – Hutu genocide of the early 1990’s. See Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. And, of course the Zulu (over 10 million) had a movie with their tribal name as the title.

With Africa’s population of 1.1 billion in 2013 and ethnic groups numbering in the thousands, for most Americans and Europeans, the Masai are still the symbol of a proud, traditional Africa. We tend to ignore the various racial groups of Africa and the fact that the continent has huge cities, modern skyscrapers, monumental traffic jams, manufacturing and great mineral riches. The Masai seem to mean something else completely.

We ignore the fact that Africa has huge cities, modern skyscrapers, manufacturing and great mineral riches. The Masai seem to mean something else completely.

And so it was that 5 out of the 7 of us traveling in a van towards the Masai Mara plains jumped at the chance to visit a real Masai village when the choice was offered by David, our driver and guide. The two of us who weren’t so thrilled recognized the vote count and went along.

We’d bounced down a dirt road in bad need of repair (us and the road) for several hours when the village, somewhat misty in the drizzling rain, appeared. We clambered out, generally stepped over and around the cow droppings, and sat on a curved bench woven from saplings.

In his greeting, a village leader described the Masai way of life of accumulating cattle, eating only milk, cow’s blood and beef, marrying multiple wives, having many children, and believing that God had given the Masai all the cattle in the world so taking them back from others was only natural and good. He finished by emphasizing how the Masai measure wealth in the number of cattle one has, and money, as we know it, is unimportant. With that, we each coughed up $25 US to pass through the stick and thornbush barricade into the village.

To the Masai, we were told, money is unimportant. With that, we each coughed up $25 to pass into the village.

It rained harder, so most of us popped into one small house and the remainder found shelter in a second one, not really set up for tourist visits. In a few minutes, the weather cleared and we trouped outside to watch two elders (really not that old) start a fire by using a stick, a piece of wood, and the friction from twirling the stick. This, apparently, is men’s work. Women are only to tend the fire, not start it. There were no Bics in sight.
Next, the women of the village formed a line and sang a Masai “Welcome Song” to us. Or, that’s what they told us. Could have been a series of taunts and insults, but they seemed shy and the sound was charming, so we considered ourselves properly welcomed.
With fire and song out of the way, we marched back through the barricade for the Masai jump. The men, to attract women and to show their prowess, jump straight up into the air. Some were pretty good leapers. Others seemed content with a little hop, perhaps because they had already accumulated many cattle, wives and children and saw no need to spring up for mere tourists. I was pretty much a bust at it, but I chalked it up to old age, already having a wife, and holding hands with a portly Masai as we jumped. We were both built for comfort, not for springing.
Then, gathered at our long bench again, the elder said the Masai recognize the world changes and their children need an education. He pointed to a distant rooftop and told us that before the village built a school there, the children had to walk 20 miles to school, the little ones struggled with the distance, and sometimes hyenas or cheetahs or a lion blocked the way and all the children walked back home without getting to school. (Personally, I only walked four miles to school, but it was through snow and uphill both ways). Now, the village paid for the school by selling homemade jewelry and decorative items. If we cared to make some purchases, it would benefit the children.

We were herded through a narrow opening into a corral (literally). The corral was a large circle of crude tabletops with the women standing outside before their wares. Milling like nervous cattle, eyeing the only exit, each of us was accompanied by a man who offered to carry our selections and told us we each could get a better price if we put our selections from various women into a pile and negotiated for the total sum. A collective village, collective bargaining.

True to our roots, most of us were lousy bargainers, calculating the price as what we might pay in America for the same thing if only we could find it in America. I held back, hemmed and hawed, inspected a bracelet for minor flaws, and generally wasted time until everyone started back to the van. I began low and stayed low with my offers as I walked back to the full van, idling and ready to go. My price was agreed to 20 feet from the van. Money and goods were exchanged, and into the van I went waving goodbye.

“What did you get?” was the immediate question. I held up a nice beaded bowl and two large beaded bracelets. “How much?” was the question from dedicated bargain seekers. “Fifteen dollars.” “What? I paid three times that!” Then it started. Everyone had paid more, so the emphasis changed. “Those kids need a school, how could you pay so little?” “Thought my $25 admission covered that.”

I enjoy the give and take of bargaining, and I’ve practiced it for years, from Mexico to Morocco, from Tunisia to Thailand, and many places in between. I’ve never been enthused about giving strangers lots of my money because of their story. I do a pretty good job of contributing to established charities, not vendors. Those who sell their wares every single day know their margins far better than I do. They are as disinclined to give me something of great value for a pittance as I am to do the same for them.

By evening’s dinner, attitudes changed. Folks’ trips through the souvenir shop at our lodge proved my savings were marginal and others paid the Masai three to four times the shop’s sticker price for the same “homemade” goods. “I feel cheated,” one said.

Were we cheated at this Masai version of an abbreviated Williamsburg? Not really. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia provides a glimpse, an idea, of what things looked like in colonial times although relieved from the need to haul water, chop firewood, read and sew by the light of a single candle, go to bed cold, and wake to walk through mud and manure. And, although there’s really no comparison, Williamsburg charges $51.95 per adult in the summer, making our $25.00 less painful.

In the space of forty-five minutes we saw a way of life which is quickly disappearing. If we looked closely, we would see the shy, ill clad children, the women worn with work, the reality of life in a mud hut with a dirt floor, no windows, no chimney, no running water, no electricity, no toilets. If we were persuaded to buy, it came from being treated nicely, not from the tears of a child at Disneyland who absolutely must have the same Princess Tiara that every other little girl had.

I didn’t want to stop. I always feel like an intruder, even with the exchange of money. But to see things just a bit closer, for just a little longer, it was worth it. I’ll jump higher next time.

2 Comments on “The Masai, or Maasai, or Masaai: Africa’s Symbolic Tribe?

  1. I’m proud of you for trying to jump, I remember how hard it was to get you to do the “wave” at the Springsteen concert in LA!

  2. Wow! You actually performed with the Masai! What an experience! Bob.

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