Modern Maasai


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, May 05, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 200:  You may have seen footage of the Maasai tribal people of eastern Africa in movies or documentaries.  These people of the Tanzanian-Kenyan border region have maintained their cultural identity for centuries, often seen wearing red cloaks known as shukas, holding big staffs to lead a herd of cattle, or jumping up and down as high as they can in what looks like a contest.  The Maasai are best distinguished by their jewelry and ornamentation in their “self-deformation” of the body:  elongated or torn ear lobes and stretched out lips.

While these images are true to life, they aren’t the only way the Maasai people live.  Like many other “primitive” tribes in the world, people have learned to adapt to modern society.

MY ENCOUNTER WITH THE MODERN MAASAI didn’t come without a long morning journey from Arusha to the town of Mtowabu, about two hours west.  Mr. Jalala picked me up at the guesthouse with driver/guide Elia.  From there we picked up my two other safari-mates:  Francesco and Paola, two Italians from the Tuscanny region.  We finalized some business at the tour office, where Mr. Jalala bossed around his underlings in his Sean John gear like a big shot.

He bid the three of us farewell — after reminding us that “tipping is recommended” — and left us with Elia and Simon, our cook for the next five days.  Before leaving Arusha, we made a couple of stops for supplies around town, including one important one.

“Are we going to stop at a bottle store?” I asked.

“We have drinking water,” Elia answered.

“Do you have gin?”

“Ah, gin and tonic.”

We drove to a nearby liquor store.  “You can’t go on safari without gin and tonic,” I said, buying a small bottle of London’s Dry.  From a previous safari in Botswana in 2000 I learned that G & T’s were the quintessential safari cocktail; the quinine in tonic water wards off mosquitoes.  (The gin just gets you drunk.)

Mosquito-preventative cocktails were a good call because our destination was Mtowabu, which translates to “Mosquito River.”  It being the rainy season, mosquitoes were more present than normal, so much that Elia made the decision that we’d stay in a guesthouse with mosquito nets and beds for our first night instead of in tents.

After hanging my clothes to dry (and worrying about putsi flies eggs) since they hadn’t dried completely from laundry service in Arusha, I had a box lunch with Francesco and Paola.  As we ate, Elia introduced us to Isaac, a modern-day Maasai and our tour guide of the day.  He was wearing a button down shirt, slacks and loafers instead of the traditional Maasai garb.  The only physical evidence to his tribal roots were the etchings in his face (believed to prevent disease) and his elongated and torn ears, for ornamentation.

FROM THE CAMPSITE we walked down the main street of Mtowabu, passed the various woodcarving shops selling similar items, the townspeople on foot and on bicycle (a common way to get around) and their rice and maize fields.  These fields were well-irrigated, which was why many tribes came from all over to live there.  Mtowabu was a melting pot of 125 African tribes, including the Chaggas, the Tongas and the Maasai, an epicenter for good agriculture and good cattle grazing lands.

Isaac explained the traditions of the Maasai as we strolled around town.  He told us that the “jumping contest” often seen in documentaries is actually a form of celebratory dance for ceremonies of marriage and a boy’s circumcision into manhood.  What Westerners might call “self-mutilation” of the face is actually considered attractive — although I don’t see even the teenage body-piercing crowd of the West ripping off their lips anytime soon.  The Maasai, a people of shepherds, are dependent on cattle; cows serve many purposes, including medicinal ones.  Pure blood extracted from a cow’s jugular vein is consumed to “replenish” blood lost of an ailing person.  For example, a woman who lost a lot of blood in the process of giving birth is given cow’s blood to drink.

As far as the Maasai diet, it too is dependent on the cow.  Unlike most of the other tribes in Mtowabu that grow grains, fruits and vegetables, the Maasai essentially eat nothing but meat.  Perhaps this explains why many of them are so slender; they are all on the Atkins diet. 

WALKING THROUGH THE SMALLER DIRT ROADS of Mtowabu, passed small markets, houses, mills and kids rushing to the road to wave “Hallo! Hallo!”, we found ourselves in a humble town bar to sample mbege, a local mildly alcoholic brew made from bananas and millet.  The four of us shared a big plastic cup of it, served from a big bucket in the corner.  The milky, fruity blend with a texture of sawdust was bearable, but not something worth having a keg party for.

“I think I prefer beer,” was Francesco’s analysis.

From town we walked a dirt road towards Lake Manyara, passed villagers, banana plantations, coconut trees, yellow acacia tree nurseries and African bee honey orchards.  Isaac continued his informal lecture on the life of the Maasai.

“A man can have many wives,” he said.  “But every night he has to decide which hut to sleep in.”

“So how many wives do you have?” I asked him.

“Just one.”

“Less problems,” Francesco added.  Isaac’s monogamy, as “modern” as it was, was only due to circumstance; to acquire a woman from another family requires an offering of many cattle, and his family couldn’t afford it.

A VAST GRASSLAND SEPARATED the plantation with Lake Manyara, a grassland that fed the water buffaloes, zebras and wildebeests in the distance.  With Isaac’s knowledge of the bush, we avoided confrontations with possible buffalo charges; if the winds blew our scent towards them, they’d make their way over to us in curiosity.  Luckily, for the most part the winds worked for us.  The only really close encounters we had were with flies.  In Africa, they don’t seem to know how to fly away after shooing them.  Paola’s yellow backpack attracted a whole swarm of them, which bummed a ride off her back.

After about an hour’s walk we were at the muddy and smelly shore of Lake Manyara, where flamingos and other birds came to drink and feed.  The winds shifted a little, blowing our scent to a lone buffalo so we had to go around and through a muddy creek that soaked my boots and socks in water infested with God-knows-what.  We walked a long and tiring way back through the grasslands towards a herd of wildebeests that mistook for predators and got out of our way.

With Isaac’s long leg stride, it was impossible for me to keep up and with the sun going down fast, he hardly stopped to wait up.  For an hour and a half I strugged non-stop in my wet shoes with flies buzzing all around me and I’ll admit, I really hated it.  We eventually got back into town by sunset at the Maasai market where people from all the far villages came to trade and buy goods.  The blend of traditionalism and modernism still continued; I noticed a guy with a slick leather jacket under his red shuka; another guy simply waited for a ride instead of walking (picture above); and one guy simply enjoyed the refreshing taste of a Coca-Cola instead of that mbege concoction.

Elia picked us up from there and drive us back to the campsite/lodge.  It was there we said goodbye to our Maasai guide for the day Isaac, who, in true modern-day style, wouldn’t leave without a tip.

Next entry: Crater Of Life

Previous entry: The Path Of The Other Coin

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Comments for “Modern Maasai”

  • “With Isaac’s knowledge of the bush…”

    Must I say anything more?  (ok ok..really i’m not sick!)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  12:42 AM

  • That’s great that you got such a personalized tour. Not so great that you had to walk through water and then walk a ways after that. That always sucks.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:28 AM

  • ummm - ‘boy’s castration into manhood’?????  Did I read that right?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  06:34 AM

  • SHELLY T:  Whoops!  I meant “CIRCUMCISION!” 

    (I’ll go fix that.)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:13 PM

  • SHELLY - I was thinking the same thing… and that there must be a lot of really promiscuous young Masai boys LOL

    ERIK - love the pictures for this post.  Very cool to see people standing around in traditional dress.

    Posted by Liz  on  05/12  at  05:03 PM

  • massai would be extinct right now if that castration bit is true….sounds painful.

    btw, “muddy” pic looks like your standing on some huge brain.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  05:09 PM

  • i dunno about the western piercing obsessed teenagers not wanting to rip off their lips anytime soon. they already like the extended and torn earlobes look. a bit of them are getting into the tongue splitting. so ripping off their lips may be just as cool to them.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  07:23 PM

  • I’ve gotta ask, how are foreigners recieved in these more local settings? You have been mistaken for so many nationalities at this rate it’s hard to keep up, but regardless… do they welcome the tourism? The average folks, not the guys looking for tips.

    And yeah, great pics. I really like the market one.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  01:14 AM

  • Woa. Day 200! I just noticed. Good job buddy!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  01:16 AM

  • Woa. Day 200! I just noticed. Good job buddy! 100 days ago you were in Santa Cruz. Does it feel like yesterday or 100 years ago?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  01:17 AM

  • happy 200th day!

    Posted by Alyson  on  05/13  at  02:50 AM

  • CHRISTY:  Locals treat tourists the way you treat tourists at home… they’re just sort of THERE.

    Santa Cruz?  Where is that again?  wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  09:02 AM

  • Erik,

    Do you happen to know the average life expectancy of the Maasai is . . . them beign on an Atkins like diet all of their lives.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/17  at  06:37 AM

  • WARREN:  Well, I’ll say I haven’t seen any older looking Maasai… but then again, maybe they just age well.  Unlike Atkins people in the States, the Maasai don’t sit in front of computers or in front of cars all day…

    P.S.  Do you think Dr. Atkins REALLY died in a freak accident, or do you think it’s cover up for a heart attack from his own “medicine?”  Hmmm….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/19  at  05:24 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Crater Of Life

Previous entry:
The Path Of The Other Coin


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