Feb. 7, 2018
In the afternoon, six of us visited a Maasai village where tourists are welcome, the Irkeepus Cultural Boma. This community makes money from tourists: $20 to take any photos you want and be shown around, encouragement to buy their crafts, and donations for their school.
The village, or “boma” (compound) consists of one large extended family: the chief, his 15 wives and about 70 children and grandchildren. A total of 86 people live there. Each wife has her own house. The children are welcome in any house and treat all the wives as their “mothers.” Maybe the relationship is more like aunts. Our guide, probably the best English speaker there, was the son of wife #4. He led the tour: first there was a dance we were all invited to join in on – the women adorned us with necklaces – which consisted of everyone standing in a row holding hands, bending our knees and moving our feet to the beat of the song, which we tried to sing with them – it was repetitive. Every so often one of the men would jump high into the air – impressive!
The second demonstration was to show us how they make fire. Their first attempt at this was not successful so they had to start again. The first step is to rub a stick against a stone with depressions in it until it sparks. Then they put dried grass on it and finally breathe on it very slowly and gently (pole-pole*) to coax the fire out.
Our guide’s (and everyone’s in the village) native language is Maasai, which is oral – not written. In school he learned to read and write in Swahili (his second language) and English (his third language). After he finished high school, he returned to the village.
The community has 40 heads of cattle, as well as goats and sheep. A man’s wealth is measure by how many cattle he has and David thinks the chief has more than 40. Bride price starts at 4 head of cattle and can go higher. They use their animals for meat, milk and milk products (such as yogurt and to a lesser extent, cheese). They also drink goat’s and sheep’s milk. That’s about all they eat except for fruit they can get from local trees.
The huts are round with a curved entrance, a bit like the beginning of a spiral, because, we were told, it keeps the wind from getting in – the wind is strong at this high altitude on the crater rim. The man showing Dale and I the house told us to be careful when entering because the inner wall of the entrance had been freshly plastered with cow dung! They have to do this about every 3 months to replace the dung that has dried – they strip this off and apply fresh dung (and there were several cow pies in the yard outside the compound!). The dry dung they strip off is then used for fuel.
Inside there’s a fire pit for cooking and keeping warm but no vent in the ceiling, as I would expect, having seen several types of Native American houses. He pointed out a tiny vent hole in a bedroom wall. Still, the smoke hung in the air. The guide said the smoke is good for getting rid of insects. Apparently the fire is extinguished when the family goes to bed. The smoke fills the hut only when no one is there. It clears out the bugs so the family can sleep.
The hut was very small and dark – we had to use cellphone flashlights. There are two bedrooms side by side, used primarily for sleeping. They lay soft branches and leaves on the floor and cover it with a cow hide. Some other small rags were in one of the rooms – to use as pillows, perhaps? Or a blanket for a young child.
Most activities are conducted outside, which is why they don’t need much inside their house. The boys love to play soccer in the yard. Girls help their mothers make crafts with beads and wire.
Children of both sexes attend school. The elementary school is an adobe structure outside the compound walls.
20 children from the village and 20 from a neighboring village attend school here. The community is proud of its school, which they built themselves, funded with donations from visitors. Although they value education, when the boys get a little older they are allowed to get out of school to herd the cattle if they want to.
The one-room school has rows of benches with table surfaces attached as desks. There were many adults and children inside; the adults were having a village meeting. We met a couple of the teachers, who greeted us warmly, especially when we told them we had also been teachers.
On the back wall were the children’s drawings of animals, each one labeled with its Swahili name. on one wall was an ABC chart using syllables, like we teach Spanish to primary kids! The blackboard in the front had a lot written on it. At a desk in the corner sat an administrator and a secretary, both men from the village. They were there because of the meeting.
A group of small children clustered together at desks behind two teachers. They were shy until I held up my hand for a “high 5” and they all knew what it was – is high-5 universal? They extended their little palms for me to high-5 them. (I found out the Maasai handshake is actually a version of this – you touch the palm of the other person but don’t grasp their hand.) Then I did a fist bump and the kids all know that too and wanted to “fist bump” with me! That’s how I broke the ice with them. Then they all sang two songs, the second a version of the ABC song – halfway through it diverts into some other words, perhaps the Swahili alphabet.
As we were leaving, I extended a fist bump to one of the teachers, telling him we had learned it from our president (meaning Obama, who was familiar to them). One of our group members reminded me he wasn’t our president anymore. I replied, “I know, but I wish he were.”
The people had adorned a fenced-in area with all their craft items. I liked the little animals made with beads and wire and decided to buy a lion since we had seen many lions today. I had the lion in my hand when I was at the school. I showed it to the children and said, “A lion, see?” Then I made a roaring sound, which made them laugh.
Perhaps $35 was too much to pay, and I could have bargained, but I didn’t. These people needed the money – their life was hard and they worked hard from a young age. There was a donation box at the school, so Dale put all his leftover euro coins in it!
I have read that 85% of Tanzanians are poor and I’m sure that is true for the Maasai who live traditionally. Yet financial poverty is not total poverty: their possessions are few but they have their cultural traditions and when they look out at the countryside where they live – that vast country of green, gentle hills and huge sky, where one can admire giraffes, zebras, or gazelles that pass by, they can be sure that, in fact, in some ways their life is very rich. The beauty of nature is all around them, they live in harmony with it, they are surrounded by loved ones, and are comfortable in their traditions.
Money, of course, is necessary also – to buy materials to build schools, to send their children to high school, and to buy supplemental food products, among other things. It’s unavoidable – so if we could help by putting money into their community to help them buy what they need, I’m glad for it.
*pole-pole: Swahili word meaning “slowly-slowly” but with the connotation of “gently” or “carefully” as well.