As we sat around the blazing bonfire, the crackling sounds of the firewood and the humming of tribal chants were the only sounds to fill the night air.
Cosily wrapped up in a blanket by the fire, I took a sip from my plastic cup filled with Konyagi gin and looked up to the sky…
“WOW” I whispered under my breath as I caught a glimpse of a shooting star zooming across the inked black sky.
I had never seen a sky so clear that you could see the Milky Way. The more I stared in complete awe, my eyes would gradually adjust and more and more stars would appear.
Although my neck was starting to ache…I continued to look up; my eyes fixated on the sky, trying to make out the various constellations that I had learnt about in school.
Whoooooosh…there goes another one. Whoooooosh…and then another.
A huge smile spread across my face.
I don’t know what it is about looking at a night sky, but it makes me feel incredibly humble and thankful for the experiences I have been so fortunate enough to have.
It serves as a reminder that there is still a whole big universe out there still waiting to be discovered. But that I have been lucky enough to see even a tiny part of it.
And right in that moment, I couldn’t have been further away from a civilisation and a world I was so used to living in.
Earlier that day we had arrived at a local Maasai village where we would spend the next two days camping in the heart of the African Bush, learning about their way of life.
THE MAASAI – A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
The Maasai are probably one of East Africa’s most emblematic tribes and wherever you go in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, these semi-nomadic people have a prevalent presence.
Maasais are easy to spot. They are a spectacular group of very tall, slender cattle herders living mainly off milk, blood and meat.
The young men leave to become morans, before returning to start family life, and can usually be seen roaming vast open farmlands wearing brightly coloured shúkas (cloth sheets wrapped around the body). The women have shaven heads and often wear many coils of colourful beaded jewellery around their necks and shoulders.
Despite education, civilisation, western cultural influences and years of geopolitical issues, the Maasai people have clung to their traditional way of life. And it’s a unique lifestyle that is hard not to be curious about.
VISITING THE MAASAI VILLAGE
When we arrived at the village that morning, we were greeted by the smiles of the Maasai tribe women and their children. Welcoming us to their community, the children grabbed hold of our hands and were very excited to show us around.
The villages themselves mainly comprise of mud huts called bomas, which are made from natural resources such as animal dung and sticks. Fencing made of acacia thorns circle the huts to prevent predators attacking their livestock, which is the main source of income for the tribe.
As we were shown around the grounds of the village, I noticed some zebra skin on the floor. They explained to us that they had recently experienced a bad drought and sadly this zebra had not survived and was most likely eaten by predators after its death.
I wasn’t entirely sure how what was left of this poor zebra had made its way into grounds, but as it turns out it had become something of a toy for the Maasai children who found great amusement in throwing it at each other and us (much to my dismay!).
THE MAASAI MEN AND WOMEN
As we walked around, the women gladly showed us their homes while telling us about the roles of both the women and men in the community. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family.
Warriors are in charge of security, while boys are responsible for herding livestock (although during the drought season, both warriors and boys assume the responsibility for herding livestock). The elders tend to act as directors and advisors for day-to-day activities.
We also learnt that the Maasai practice polygamy. Traditionally a man’s first wife is found by his parents and after that, he is free to choose his own additional wives. Each wife lives in a separate hut with her children and the male divides his time between each.
For the rest of the day, we fully embraced the Maasai culture, from jewellery-making to milking goats. We even participated in a jumping dance ceremony, a tradition which is synonymous with the Maasai culture (it really is crazy how high these guys can jump!) However, I did refrain from watching them slaughter a goat (and drinking its blood!) which would later serve as dinner while we sang and danced the night away around the bonfire.
A NATURE WALK WITH THE MAASAI
The following day, we were up at the crack of dawn to head out into the African Bush with some of the Maasai Warriors.
Armed with our walking sticks made from surrounding trees, we embarked on our three-hour trek. The surrounding lands were dry and desolate, with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru looming above grasslands far away in the distance. The only sounds you could hear was the rustling of the wind and the echo of zebras as they passed us by.
We learnt a lot about the Maasai’s relationship with the land that day.
At one small shrub, our guide took out his knife and started cutting pieces off the stem. We watched in confusion, as he carefully cleaned a few centimetres of the bark from one side and then started to chew on the stick. After some biting and twisting, our guide showed us a perfectly formed toothbrush!
In addition to this, he told us how the leaves of the shrub can be eaten as a salad or used as traditional medicine for coughs, asthma and other diseases. He also told us that the juice you get after boiling the roots is a good remedy for ‘cleaning your body’.
This is just one example of how the Maasai use what nature provides to treat ailments and make everyday items. They have a simple philosophy that the earth provides enough to support an individual’s existence and over hundreds of years they have harvested many natural remedies said to prevent diseases and cure many illnesses.
AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE
Those two days with the Maasai was probably one of the most eye-opening and interesting cultural experiences I’ve had yet.
The lessons I learned about their way of life during my very short stay were far greater than any book or documentary could ever show me. And I am sure there is still plenty more to learn!
But from what I did learn and witness, I can certainly recommend spending some time getting to know these indigenous people during any trip to Tanzania or Kenya.
Even though our worlds are miles apart, they welcomed us with big open arms and treated us with nothing but kindness. By the time we had left, my cheeks were hurting from smiling so much. I didn’t think the trip could get any better until we had an very unexpected wildlife encounter our way home (but more on that later…)
Time will only tell how development, modernisation and political issues will affect the Maasai over the coming years. But for now, life remains simple. Beautiful, fierce, soft, friendly and kind, the Maasai are people to be reckoned with.
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