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Friday, July 09, 2010

Maasai for Money

As we pull onto the long dirt road leading to the village, a haze of dust kicking up in our wake, Sandy is dismayed.  Uh-oh.  I’ve only seen Sandy dismayed once before, on Kilimanjaro, and it wasn’t pretty.  After repeated falls in Day Six rainforest mud, he slipped (again) outside his tent.  It was a big, whooshing fall that sullied his pants and his spirit.  In retaliation, he began kicking the offending ground, cursing it strongly, while assuring himself (and those eavesdropping in wonder from nearby tents) that he “knew how to fucking walk, even in the freaking, fucking mud.  Fuck!”  I wondered how dismayed would play out this time…

As he gathered his cameras from the 4x4, Sandy, our Rhode Island-based trip photographer, lamented the “fakey-ness bullshit” of the visit we were about to make.  The Maasai, a Tanzanian tribe that sought to leap forward to modern times and capitalize on the fascination that their lifestyle held over passing foreigners, charged for visits into their village.  “It’s all staged, I’m not paying for access.  I’ll just freakin’ watch from the car,” he sulked.  For $20, I wasn’t sure about what I was about to encounter either.  A writer to Sandy’s photographer, I’m always searching for the authentic story.  Sandy, understandably, didn’t want to sign onto on Flickr to find twenty of his June 2010 Maasai photos already posted in April of 2007 by Roy from Nebraska who won his Maasai visit off a Coca-Cola Bottle Cap Sweepstakes.  Fair enough.

I wasn’t sure what to expect either, especially when the Maasai people, outfitted in their red, royal blue, and purple scarves—colors of strength—began to bounce up and down in welcome ritual.  Our whittled group of seven safari hunters dutifully handed over $20 to the chief’s son, agreeing quietly with Sandy.  Hoax.  Stupid Americans.  As we traveled out of Arusha, post-climb, I was fascinated by the circular clusters of mud-brown huts that dotted the passing horizon.  “Maasai,” said Rajai, our safari guide.  “They are a nomadic peoples, Maasai,” he continued.  “If you wish, we can have arrangement to visit them.”  Cut to the scene before me.

Placing a large, flat, beaded chocker around my neck, I was pulled into the women’s circle with Darryl.  The searing eyes of the Maasai women met ours.  I felt my hand being taken by the older woman next to me.  She wore flowing blue scarves, an elaborate headdress detailed her slick, shaved head, and multiple earrings hung from her long, stretched ears.  She smiled as we bounced and jumped.  A different Maasai woman took my other hand; a small child joined our circle.  Then, it was announced that we could enter the village.

Sandy lurked on the periphery as we entered the area encircled by their homes.  I sensed his frustration.  The colors of the Maasai in contrast to the earth tones of the land would make stunning photographs, but he hadn’t yet been convinced of our village’s authenticity.  Initially, we all just listened.  Nomadic, the Maasai stayed in each village for about five years.  The many children running around were a testament to the polygamous nature of the clan.  The chief’s son carried a walking stick that gave him a regal air.  He seemed smug in his role; he was one of the few who would be privileged enough to get a formal education and, possibly, lead a more modern life.  Since men in Maasai don’t live to see ages much past sixty, the level of interest about the trio of traveling babus (“grandpa” in Swahili) was palpable.

As we made our way toward the huts, I heard the hushed flutter of camera lenses.  Sandy was beginning to come around.  He and I were escorted into one of the huts by the head of the household.  We ducked carefully through the doorway and I was momentarily reminded of the half-sized houses of Oz’s Lollipop Kids.  The women build the homes, our guide explained.  The base was made of sticks and straw, and it was reinforced with three layers of—what else—cow dung.  Each hut, which was roughly 150 square feet in size, was divided into two or three “rooms.”  One area was for sleeping, usually on a piece of cowhide for warmth, the other was for sitting and eating.  In the center of the room, a burning fire glowed.  Women, of course, also cooked.  The Maasai diet was specific—cow/goat/sheep meat (only from their own herd), milk, beans, and maize.  The men had the added dietary bonus of animal blood.  “Make man strong to fight lions,” explained our new friend. 

As we sit crouched in the Maasai hut, the flutters increased.  “It isn’t often that you can arrange access like this,” Sandy confessed.  “Pretty amazing, huh?”  Yep.  After the formality of his presentation, our head of household indulged our questions, and before we knew it, we were in the throes of a full-blown conversation.  It could’ve been taking place in a Scarsdale dining room over espresso.  But, instead, it was in a Maasai living room.  After a while, the smoke from the fire began to strangle us.  The Maasai only have a small window, a slit really, that serves as ventilation.  It protects their fires from rain, and their people from predators.  No wonder the babus were a wonder; hut-induced lung disease must run rampant.

After the hard sell on buying a lion skin—a rug for my home, or maybe just a tail for good luck—we emerge into the fresh air, clearing our throats delicately so as not to offend our gracious host.  We are guided to the “market,” an extensive arc of crafts, made by the dwellers of the village.  As wanderers, the Maasai need money to buy beans and maize, and fresh water supplies.  It’s for this reason that they have turned their attention to the bounty to be gained from tourism.  Of course, I buy some beaded bracelets, haggling over pennies on principle.

We make a quick trip to the kindergarten classroom, a one-room building where approximately 25 children sit on low, wooden benches.  Primitive?  Maybe.  But those kids already speak three languages: English, Swahili, and Maasai.  We sheepishly admit that’s more languages than anyone in our American group. 

Heading back to the 4x4, I’m glad we made the effort.  “Hey, Marie!” yells Sandy, as I’m climbing into the back seat.  I turn around to see him running toward me with a Maasai at his arm.  “Marie, this is Lazaro.  He’s the PR guy for the village.  We should all exchange information and try to do something when we’re back in the States, don’t you think?” 

Well, look at that.  Sandy.  Hook, line, sinker…

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