He’s wearing an Obama toque.
The cracked, weathered face and hesitant gap-toothed smile don’t take me by surprise. I succeed in keeping my eyes from fixating on the dangling fleshy earlobes that hang like ropes of silly-putty from his elongated ears. But I can’t get past the swirl of black knit cotton emblazoned with the American President’s name that sits atop his shaved head like an inverted soft-serve ice cream cone.
I’ve travelled over 12,000 km from America’s shores but party politics knows no bounds. Or maybe he just wants to keep his head warm during the cold African nights.
Taking a break from the game drives that have become routine on our safari, our truck jostles and bumps across the barely passable dirt track until we arrive at a dense thicket of thorn bushes arranged in a circle. We are joined by a guest guide who loftily introduces himself to me as “Johnston, your Maasai ambassador.” Johnston is a living breathing example of the incredible contradictions apparent in the lives of this semi-nomadic pastoralist cultural group. He is rail thin and clad in the distinctive red cloth and beaded adornments of the Maasai. Around his waist, a belt loop grips a wicked-looking machete while on his other hip is strapped an Android-powered smart phone. Leaning on his wooden staff, he switches easily between English, Swahili and Maasai. University educated in nearby Nairobi, Kenya, Johnston tells me he hopes to develop a career combining his ambassadorial skills with environmental and wildlife protection.
We bend our heads and follow Johnston under the low-hanging thorn branches that mark the entrance to the Maasi boma(village) we have come to visit. It’s immediately apparent that these Maasai do not lead an easy life. Their homes (known asmanyata) are built of thatched wood held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung that dries into a kind concrete after baking in the hot sun. Slabs of corrugated steel sit as makeshift repairs to an occasional leaky roof. We are invited into one of themanyatas. The blackness inside takes on a palpable physicality as we choke on the remnants of the hundreds of cooking fires that have been lit here over the years. Young children wander about the village caked in dust, barely clothed, and swarmed by flies. And yet, to say that the Maasai are “poor” is an over-simplification.
As I talk at greater length with our guides, I learn that some groups have amassed substantial wealth. This is particularly true for those communities on whose land the gemstone Tanzanite has been discovered. Wealth itself cannot be measured by Western standards when speaking of the Maasai. Although some talked of trying to save enough money to purchase a motorcycle or a phone, the true measure of prosperity in their community is the size of one’s cattle herd. Several days earlier, as we drove between the lush environment of the Ngorongoro Crater towards the vast flat plains of the Serengeti, we were stopped on the dirt road for many minutes as a group of Maasai shepherded a line of humped Brahmin cattle that snaked into the distance as far as the eye could see. One of our guides, a Maasai himself, whistled softly from the front seat of the truck and tipped his head in respectful acknowledgement as they filed past us. “That is a very rich man,” he said.
But standing here in the middle of this isolated village with no running water, electricity or medicine, it is apparent that the Maasai we are visiting today face tremendous challenges. Despite efforts by the Tanzanian government to push the Maasai into embracing modern assimilation, most members are fiercely protective of their cultural traditions. While the government has succeeded in discouraging the hunting of lions that long formed a coming-of-age right for the Maasai, polygamy is the norm and ritual circumcision is still practiced around the age of thirteen. An awkwardly painful procedure for men, it is widely accepted as genital mutilation and torture when practiced on women, as the Maasai still do. I ask one of the men about the hardships of Maasai life, expecting complaints about food, schooling or healthcare. Instead he replies through my translator, “The biggest problem we have now are the leopards. They come each night and try to eat our cattle.” Um, right. Leopards.
Whereas Johnston seems casually at ease with us, the Maasai villagers keep a safe distance from our group at first, staring at us with bemused expressions that I can only imagine mimic closely the bewilderment our own faces reflect back at them. I train my camera on a group of young children. No one mugs for the camera, or even smiles. Johnston explains that while he leads groups like ours several times a month, each batch of tourists is taken to a different boma. This ensures that the fees paid by the groups are shared equally across the many different villages but also has the side-effect of creating a dramatic cultural experience for both sides. I ask Johnston when the last time a group like ours visited this boma. “Probably never,” he answers.
My daughter snaps a pic on her iTouch, stretching out her arm to show the children her shot. They step back reflexively. But then, slowly, necks crane forward to stare. Whispers and giggles begin to break out. The adults inch forward a bit leaning over their children to see what all the fuss is about. Ten minutes later I may as well be at a bar-mitzvah. The entire community is laughing and shouting loudly as they take turns posing for pictures. The adults start lining up kids in different combinations motioning for us to take more shots. I comment on the beauty of a man’s beaded earring and next thing I know, he’s clipped a pair to my lobes.
The following day, a group of the Maasai come to our tented camp and allow us to join them in traditional Maasai singing and dancing. One of the community’s elders is surrounded by the children in our group as she relates an ancient folk tale to the kids in her native tongue. Although Johnston is translating line-by-line, most of the meaning is relayed through her incredible intonation and wildly exaggerated body language.
In the afternoon, we visit a nearby women’s cooperative where the women of the community work with wire and beads to craft souvenirs. Shopping in the middle of the Serengeti was not what I expected when I departed for Tanzania, yet we happily leave behind some much-needed greenbacks and return to our camp laden with necklaces, bowls and decorations.
In the end, it is the many contradictions of the Maasai that make them most fascinating to me. A young warrior juggling his wooden spear in one hand and his cell phone in the other; an elder, her broad shoulders hunched under the weight of dozens of beaded necklaces, relating ancient Maasai myths to my daughters while sipping a bottle of Sprite to quench her thirst; and of course, my Presidential Maasai leaning on a crooked wooden cane in front of his manyata wearing an Obama hat atop his head.