Meeting Africa's Mysterious Maasai Across Culture and Time

A big thank you to Discover Corps for providing this moving cross-cultural opportunity so we can share their good work. As always, all opinions are our own.

Massai country, the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa

The Mysterious Maasai of Tanzania, Africa
Massai country, the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa

In the Great Rift Valley of Tanzania, Africa we took a journey of hundreds of miles, and a thousand years.

This is a region that has been referred to as the Cradle of Mankind because it was home to homo habilis, likely the first early human species.

A Massai woman in Tanzania, Africa

No, we couldn’t go back that far -- that was about two million years ago -- but the Maasai family who had graciously invited us to spend a day with them live a lifestyle unchanged for centuries.

A Man with Eleven Wives

Maasai Women in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa

Our team leader, Mama Simba, a brilliant woman who specializes in bringing cultures together in harmonious ways, has worked tirelessly to find a family of the nomadic Maasai willing to share their unique lives with the outside world.

The Great Rift Valley, land of the Maasai in Tanzania, Africa

That world is encroaching on the Maasai, but a few families have strived to retain the customs of their forefathers; continuing to tend cattle, goats, and donkeys on their ancestral lands.

We felt it an honor and a privilege to be chosen to visit with them.

Maasai herding livestock outside their huts in Tanzania, Africa

Though the Maasai people are relative newcomers to this particular region, having migrated south from Kenya through the Nile Valley over the past few hundred years, they have brought their ancient ways with them.

Maasai women are highly decorated and beads hang from elongated earlobes. With Discover Corps in Tanzania, Africa
Maasai women are highly decorated and their earlobes are elongated with the weight of their beads

A inkajijik hut of Massai people in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps. The construction is mostly wooden, large support poles hold up a thatched roof, with walls made of branches plastered over with adobe-like cement made from dirt, urine, cow dung, and ashes.

Our Discover Corps group traveled way off the beaten path, even by African standards.

After driving many hours from our homebase in the tiny village of Rau, we began to see many of the distinctive huts that these nomadic herders use for shelter.

A group of the shelters belonging to one family, known as inkajijik, are enclosed inside a protective barrier made from the thorny branches of the acacia tree to form a small village called an enkang.

A Maasai village in The Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, Africa

After some precision wheeling along rutted roads through tough terrain, our driver extraordinaire, Zanus, drove the bus completely off the road to take advantage of a small patch of shade near the enkang that was hosting us.

Leaving the Maasai men to their eating of raw internal organs, we head to our own camp and enjoy an incredible outdoor bar-b-que prepared for us under the spreading acacia tree. In Africa with Discover Corps
Our camp under a spreading acacia tree

This Massai man has 11 wives and over seventy children in Tanzania, Africa

This enkang is headed by a man with eleven wives and over seventy children.

After having asked the exact number of progeny the chief had, we were told that it is not customary for the Maasai to count their children.

But we quickly saw that each and every child was loved and taken care of by the entire family.

Meeting the Massai people in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps
Veronica made fast friends with this special little guy who quickly became her cross-cultural ambassador for the day

WATCH THIS VIDEO!: It's impossible to fully capture the Maasai through words and photos!


Into the Wilds

A Massai warrior in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

After introductions were made, we were invited by two Maasai men to join them for a walk away from the encampment and into the bush.

We were only expecting to see the stark scenery of the valley and learn more about their way of life, but there was also a measure of hopeful excitement at the prospect of seeing giraffe in the backs of our minds.

Our Maasai guides in Tanzania, Africe. With Discover Corps

Our Maasai guide in Tanzania, Africa. With Discover Corps

We had heard that the national animal of Tanzania was known to frequent the area, but after nearly an hour of hiking through the barren, dusty landscape, that hope was waning.

Then our guide pointed out some poop.

It was giraffe, and it was fresh. Let the tracking begin!

The next step was to find some tracks, and the fine soil of ancient volcanic ash was perfect for that.

In no time we were in hot pursuit, making sure to do our best Elmer Fudd impersonations… be verwy-verwy quiet, we’re hunting girwaffe.

We spotted a giraffe in Tanzania, Africa! With Discover Corps

Giraffe blend into the bush well, but we spotted our long-necked quarry in some distant trees and picked up the pace in an effort to catch up to them.

Soon we were within a few hundred yards and, while they were wary, they allowed us to observe their stately beauty for quite a while. 

We also came upon a small herd of zebras nearby. The moment was magically mesmerizing and no one moved or made a sound.

We spotted zebra in Tanzania, Africa! With Discover Corps

Suddenly, the spell was broken by something unseen. The animals clearly felt some sort of danger, and both herds broke into a run.

Woah! We watched giraffes gallop off as if they were in slow motion, and felt zebra hoof beats vibrating on the ground beneath us.

Then they were gone and we stood in stunned silence, hardly believing that we had just lived a scene we had only seen on film. (If you skipped the video above, you should go back up and watch it, the "stampede" is there in all its glory!)

A Diet of Meat and Milk... and Blood

We witnessed a traditional Maasai goat slaughter in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

Back at the encampment the men were preparing to slaughter a pair of goats down a nearby embankment. This is usually an area where only men are allowed, but an exception was made for our group, since we are not Maasai.

Still, there was more than a little bit of freak out factor involved with witnessing this event, but we also knew that it was a privledge that few will ever see.

Veronica, as a woman, was amazed that she had the opportunity to step foot on the slope where no Maasai female had ever tread.

A slaughter happens only under special circumstances, since both the goats and cattle are used more for their milk than meat. As a matter of fact, the very tall and slender Maasai subsist almost exclusively on milk and meat.

We witnessed a traditional Maasai goat slaughter in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

Two teams of two men held each goat down and clamped their hands over the animal’s nose and mouth to suffocate it.

For some reason we expected knives to the throat, so this certainly struck us as a more humane approach, but the method is more about the avoidance of spilled blood.

The blood is an important source of liquid and nutrition in this incredibly harsh and dry environment.

The Maasai people of Tanzania drink blood for hydration

The animals were skinned -- the pelts are used for bedding -- then internal organs were removed, some of which were eaten on the spot.

As this was done, the blood pooled in the body cavity and several of the men took turns drinking some directly out of the animal.

Nothing was discarded; every bit of the animal is used in one way or another.

WATCH: Learn about the Massai's ritual goat slaughter and blood drinking (if you're squeamish, you may want to skip it)

Maasai men make fire by spinning a stick placed on a dry branch. The friction generates enough heat to create embers that are placed in dry donkey dung. With a bit of blowing, flames appear!

The next step was an obvious one; build a fire to roast the goat.

No matches necessary, the Maasai men made fire by spinning a stick placed on a dry branch.

The friction generated enough heat to create embers that were placed in dry donkey dung.

With a bit of blowing, flames appeared.

How the Maasai of Tanzania make fire

Maasai men make fire by spinning a stick placed on a dry branch. The friction generates enough heat to create embers that are placed in dry donkey dung. With a bit of blowing, flames appear!

Our Discover Corps crew had set up quite a spread for lunch, with fresh goat being the star of the show.

The serving tables were bountifully filled and blankets spread on the ground.

All we had to do was watch the grill and wait, then enjoy an incredible outdoor bar-B-que.

The Birth of Zeus

All morning we had been watching whirlwinds form across the valley. These spinning columns of dust are created when the sun warms the ground causing heated air to rise. The Earth’s rotation sets them spinning like tornadoes, but these are much less powerful.

Whirlwind, or dust devil in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa

Whirlwind, or dust devil in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa

Still, we wouldn’t want to be in the middle of one.

When one formed not more than a hundred yards from our picnic and headed toward us, we thought we were doomed to find out what the center of a dust devil felt like.

Suddenly Zanus rose up and began walking with his fingers pointed directly toward the approaching enemy shouting MOVE!

To our astonishment the whirlwind obeyed and veered off behind our bus.

We all stood in awe. Were these true powers over nature? We couldn’t be sure, but henceforth we addressed him as Zeus.

Home Life

Meeting the Massai people in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

Dust disaster diverted and appetites appeased, we walked back within the fencing of the enkang for a look inside an inkajijik.

Each of the huts is occupied by one of the wives of the village leader; in this case there are twelve; one for each wife and another for their husband.

A Maasai hut in The Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, Africa

The ceiling of a inkajijik hut of Massai people in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps. The construction is mostly wooden, large support poles hold up a thatched roof, with walls made of branches plastered over with adobe-like cement made from dirt, urine, cow dung, and ashes

The small round buildings are divided into three rooms.

We sat in the main area of one of these while the chief explained the design and Mama Simba translated.

The construction is mostly wooden, and a large support pole holds up a thatched roof, with walls made of branches plastered over with adobe-like cement made from dirt, urine, cow dung, and ashes.

Inside a inkajijik hut of Massai people in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps. The construction is mostly wooden, large support poles hold up a thatched roof, with walls made of branches plastered over with adobe-like cement made from dirt, urine, cow dung, and ashes.

The main room serves as kitchen and meeting area, with storage space and an area where baby goats are brought inside each night. An open fire is used for cooking.

The other two rooms are bed chambers, one of which is occupied by the wife, the other by the children.

The husband does not stay in a wife's home, he has his own house and the wives take turns accompanying him there. We were told that there is a set visitation schedule and that the wives hold no jealousy.

A Maasai woman and child in a traditional hut in the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, Africa

Since the Maasai are a nomadic people, their entire structures are portable. It can be dismantled and strapped to a donkey whenever the group  needs to move to a new area for grazing the cattle.

Since the Maasai are a nomadic people, the entire structure is portable.

It can be dismantled and strapped to a donkey whenever the group needs to move to a new area for grazing the cattle.

Surprisingly, as important as cattle are in the lives of the Maasai, we never saw a single cow.

They were all away grazing, being tended by about half of the group’s members, mostly the younger males (click here to see a young Maasai man we later saw in circumcision garb).

Song and Dance

Making beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings has long been a tradition for the Maasai. Originally they made their own beads, then they began trading with European colonists for them.

Just outside of the enkang, women laid out jewelry that they had created.

Making beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings has long been a tradition for the Maasai.

Originally they made their own beads, then they began trading with European colonists for them.

Veronica chose an intricate necklace and a wide beaded bracelet with bangles in colors that represent peace and water.

Discovering the seldom seen Maasai culture in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

As a farewell, we were treated to a sendoff of song and dance. (If you skipped the video at the top, you should watch it, the singing and dancing are wonderful!)

The men began by performing what is known as the jumping dance while chanting and vocalizing in a low-pitched drone.

They took turns leaping high in the air and heaping much praise on each other’s efforts.

The Maasai men enter first and perform what is known as the jumping dance while chanting and vocalizing a sort of low pitched drone.

A Maasai boy jumps with the men in Tanzania, Africa. With Discover Corps

The women followed with call and response songs where a lone woman sings a line and the rest of the group answers in unison.

The two groups continued simultaneously, almost as if they were competing with one another, and then simply stopped.

That seemed to be our cue to be on our way.

We said our goodbyes and boarded our trusty little bus for the journey back our homebase with an incredible amount of new experiences to contemplate.

What Matters Most

Discovering the seldom seen Maasai culture in Tanzania, Africa with Discover Corps

We had just lived a true cross-cultural experience, one in which everyone involved was equally as curious about the other.

We shared feelings that defied language differences by using simple gestures that were immediately comfortable, accepted wildly foreign customs without judgment, and celebrated without inhibition.

These are the exchanges that bring us together as a human family, despite our differences.

A Maasai mother and child in Tanzania, Africa

We learned that it is not how we are different, but how we are the same that matters most.

What family means to the Massai people of Tanzania, Africa

An invaluble lesson while crossing cultures, boundaries, and a millennium... all in one day.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Discover Corps for providing this moving cross-cultural opportunity so we can share their good work. As always, all opinions are our own.

Delve Deeper:
See our Tanzanian adventure from the very beginning
Click to see all of our adventures in Africa!




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