Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: A Visit to the Maasai

The next day brought us to a slightly more rustic visit, this time to a Maasai village. It was a fairly long drive in, this time on the flat plains but still very dry. The first word that came to mind when we stepped into the compound was “squalid”. This village was simply a group of little huts circling enclosed by a fence made of twigs, with a corral for the livestock right in the middle. There was plenty of space in between the huts – space for the animals to roam. Then the smell of livestock and poo struck. Squalid. No wonder.

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We went into one of the huts and were shocked at how dark it was inside. The sun was bright and pretty much overhead when we visited, yet when we entered the hut, everything was pitch black. It had no windows at all! The walls were made from dirt, ash and animal dung, with a roof of twigs. The twigs overhung the walls so that any rain would roll easily off and not wash away the walls. The inside contained a central area with with several alcoves. Two medium sized alcoves were for humans – one for the men and the other for the women and children. A big one was for the calves and a smaller one for the goat kids. Apparently lambs couldn’t be kept indoors and were put together with the sheep and other livestock in the large outdoor corral.

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We emerged from the dark hut and found that the village kids had discovered us. They ran up and charmingly tried out all their English words on us. It was clear that they had no clue what they were saying because they were shrieking “byebye, byebye!” gaily at us while trying to hold our hands and touch us. I’d normally be quite happy to pet the kids and play along, but I was horrified to find that flies were buzzing all over, concentrating on their eyes and seemingly feeding on their eye secretions. This is true village life all right, Maasai Wanderings had taken us to see a real village with its attendant problems like trachoma. It wasn’t a dressed up version like the one they attempted to show us at the Masai Mara for USD50 per person with a young man barely out of his teens claiming to be the village headman just because he had a hat made of a lion head.

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They taught DC how to use a stick to prop himself up the Maasai way – this helped to relax the body and allows a herdsman to stand for ages watching over his livestock. It’s so much of a habit that you can check out the young leader’s pose inside the hut. Look carefully and you can see him standing in a typically Maasai pose. And the man in the bright red plaid? He’s the village elder and it was beautifully endearing to see how much affection he had for his grandchildren.

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Soon, it was time for dancing. The village women gathered in a wide circle.

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They insisted that I join in too, and tried on several beaded collars on me till they were satisfied with the results.

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It was just sign language and smiles between us, and soon we were ready. Two ladies grabbed my hands and they started to chant.

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The ladies started dancing, a sort of hopping motion while jerking their ribcages so the beaded collars flipped up and down to the chanting. I shuffled along in a rather ungainly fashion and shrugged my shoulders up and down to simulate the flipping of the collar.

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Then it was time for the silly tourist to do her thing. My leading lady grabbed my hand even tighter and we crossed the circle, hopping away and went close to the other side, with a lady from the other side approaching too, and we almost crossed collars. “Hnee! Hnee!” chanted my leading lady in time with the beaded clashes.

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She then brought me over to DC and again “Hnee! Hnee!” as we hopped in front of him. Later DC told me it was some sort of presentation of a his woman dance and they were well pleased. Or somesuch. Pfft.

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Soon, the dancing was over and the ladies only let me admire the collar for a short while before asking if I wanted to keep it for USD25.

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This is where all the ladies took out their wares and the bargaining began. I ended up with a bracelet made from porcupine quills for USD5.

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I think the experience and the pictures are worth far more than that!

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The Serengeti: Traces of the Maasai

The Serengeti used to be the home ground of the Maasai where they set their cattle to graze. When the Serengeti National Park was established in 1952, they were required to move out. Whether the colonialists did it for the sake of conservation or for hunting, I’m grateful for the legacy of wildlife left behind for later generations. But as with much of public policy, there are tradeoffs involved and clearly it is the Maasai who lost out in this instance. Muba said that the last of the Maasai moved out in the 1960s and he took us to a couple of sites where they had left their mark.

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One was a kopje were there was a small shelter from the elements that was too small to be called a cave. Here we could see cave drawings and the remnants of past fires – black charred walls and pale grey ash on the floor of the shelter.

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It was hard to make out what the cryptic drawings meant. No doubt, these drawings were rather recent and hardly prehistoric like neolithic cave paintings. Check out the man on the bicycle. The rest of the drawings perhaps represent shields. To my imagination, it seemed like an expression of their oppression – many indigenous shields against the one foreign bicycle.

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But on to happier things as we enjoyed the view of the endless plains from the top. Even though the kopje was not very tall, it was obvious how flat and vast the land was. One can only imagine how much could be seen from somewhere properly high up.

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Another interesting sight was the Ngong Rock. This was a strange white rock made of a completely different material from any of the others nearby. It was pitted with indentations that strangely fit little stones quite well. Muba explained that this rock was used as a musical instrument by the Maasai and that the rock itself may be a meteorite from a comet or some such. When struck with a stone, the indentations gave off metallic noises. Each indentation gave off a very slightly different tone, so the sounds deepened somewhat working round the rock. It was a bit like listening an off-tone gong that didn’t resound. Nonetheless, it was rather awe-inspiring to realise that the indentations had been caused by centuries of being struck to make music. I imagined romanticised images of Maasai rituals and dancing with the rock as centrepiece.

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It couldn’t be helped given the beautiful view. What a lovely place to hold a rock concert.

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(Click for a larger image.)