14 min read
At the volunteer house in Moshi we have 24-hour security. While Tanzania is one of the safer countries in Africa, due to the severe income disparity, some people become desperate and there has been some crime. Most who can afford it have large, heavy, secured gates for their homes with a security system and some, like Give a Heart to Africa, have watchmen. We have watchmen who rotate shifts each day. One of our watchmen, Edward, is a Maasai warrior. Given Edward’s soft-spoken voice and calm demeanor he is not someone I’d immediately peg as a warrior, but given he has made it through the warrior rites-of-passage, I’m sure the ninja comes out when needed. He has a side business taking visitors on tours of his village. Je_, a fellow volunteer, and I joined him on my third weekend in Tanzania.
Our trip began with a 1.5-hour bus ride to Arusha. After my worst bus experience ever, the previous weekend, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another, but this was blissfully short. We then took a 1-hour dala dala ride (always overcrowded) to Monduli and stopped at a local restaurant to eat and pick up alcohol (you know, the essentials). Two of Edward’s brothers joined us for a lunch of soup made with an oily broth, chunks of questionable meat and potatoes. Edward told Je_ and I that if we ate the soup, we’d be considered strong. Je_ was not having it. He tried the soup, made a face and pushed it away. The waitress told Edward in Swahili, that she didn’t understand why Je_ didn’t want the food and that her feelings were hurt. My soup hadn’t come yet, so I took his soup and the strength challenge. I have no interest in proving how tough I am by putting myself through a torturous Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, but a small food challenge I can accept, leaving Je_ to eat his chapati. With some salt, the soup was actually quite tasty. Edward not-so-subtly peer pressured me to finish it, as I was content to try only a few spoonfuls, so I did. After a few hours, I had no ill-effects from the soup, so I can officially say: I am strong.
After lunch we took the final short leg of our trip on individual boda bodas, small motorbikes used for transport, until we arrived in Monduli Juu, a Maasai village. Monduli is in the same area as many of the famous safari parks, so the landscape and fauna is very much the same: high and low plains for miles, lions, elephants and other wild animals.
Edward gave us a quick rundown of Maasai greetings, which I quickly forgot and thus stared blankly at people when they greeted me, my mind filtering through all the words I know in various languages for “hello”, “nice to meet you” and “how are your goats?” Thankfully, everyone we encountered was patient and amused by my attempts to speak or not speak. We entered a small boma and met more of Edward’s family, including his mother, a tall, imposing-looking woman whose favor I immediately wanted to win. I like for mothers to like me. She welcomed and invited us, in Maa, to make ourselves at home and to feel like their home is our home. His family has several bomas: small huts made of clay and straw. Edward told us that the men generally create the framework of the boma and the women fill in the interior walls and floor with packed clay. Basically, the women do much of the work. I smiled smugly when he said this. Yay, women. We be building things. They have quite a bit of land on which they farm beans and maize, as well as tend to goats, chickens and donkeys.
Edward took us on a tour of the village where we ran into many children who lowered their heads in deference to their elders,
including Je_ and me, and we laid a hand on their head. I’m glad there was a finite number of children or else we never would have made it more than a few feet. There is no waving a quick hello and goodbye in a Maasai village. There are formalities which must be respected. Edward ran into an older woman on a walk the following day and they had a long conversation in Maa. When we asked him what they talked about he told us they spent about 10-minutes greeting each other:
Edward: “Hello, my elder.”
Maasai Elder Woman: “Hi, young warrior.”
Edward: “How is your family? Mine is well.”
Maasai Elder Woman: “All is well. We are healthy. My children are great. And your animals?”
Edward: “Our goats are well, our donkeys are strong, life is good.”
And so on and so forth. I do not think their conversation actually contained more than casual inquiries about the well-being of themselves and their families.
Serendipitously, we arrived in Monduli Juu the weekend they were celebrating a wedding, as well as the transition of several junior warrior males into full-fledged Maasai warriors. While we were not allowed to see the actual transition ceremonies since we aren’t Maasai, we did get to view the afterparty. But, first we ate. Edward’s mother served us a jug of hot milk from one of their many goats. This was Je_’s nightmare as he doesn’t drink milk due to traumatic childhood experiences (don’t ask). But, when Edward’s mother wants you to drink or eat something, you do it. He was a good sport and tried it. The milk was great: fresh and not too fatty. Some of the best milk I’ve had in a long time.
We next walked a couple of miles to another boma where we were served a warm dish of beans and maize blended together. We asked Edward whose home we were in and he told us he didn’t know. Now those are some good neighbors. If I wandered into some strange person’s home in Los Angeles and brought an entourage with me, they would not be serving me food, they’d be calling the cops. A few other Maasai men joined us for lunch, looked at Je_ and me curiously, asked Edward a few questions about us and then chatted among themselves while they ate. Je_ has an ear stud in his left ear and they asked Edward why. I was also later asked by an elderly Maasai man why I was wearing my silver hoop earrings. I’m not sure who is and is not supposed to be wearing earrings in the village.
After we ate and I stalked a baby goat for a while (so cute), we heard the roar of the celebrating Maasai men heading up the hill. The newly transitioned warriors had colored their hair a burnt orange shade and they led us into a room where the Maasai women gave them their new warrior names. After, everyone celebrated with song and dance. The singing involved lots of calls and repeats and loud whooping. The men stood in a circle surrounding tween- and teen-aged Maasai girls wearing ornate neck jewelry. As this was going on, Je_ and Edward pulled out the small bottles of Smirnoff vodka they’d purchased in town. Edward usually only drinks beer, but to keep up with Je_ he bought a bottle of vodka. He and Je_ took capful-sized shots together after which Edward declared, “I will fall down if I drink too much!” I took a couple of shots, as well. Our shot-taking generated much interest from the surrounding warriors. A few meandered over to try. One particularly cheerful Maasai, Baraka (“like the President!” he said), took a capful and exclaimed, “Ow, ow, ow,” then took another shot. He smiled giddily
and continued, “Ow, it kills me. Ow. I have never had this Suh-mer-noff-ee before. I want to dance now,” and wandered off to join the dance circle. Another particularly stoic man poured himself a shotful and a half in a mug, drank the whole thing straight, grunted and stared ahead, showing absolutely no emotion. Should there be an increase in Smirnoff purchases by Maasai, the Smirnoff company should feel free to send Edward, Je_ and I royalties.
Edward introduced us to more of his family. He seems to have a billion cousins. I couldn’t tell if they were cousins he was actually related to or cousins in name only. In any case, they were all very friendly and welcoming and fascinated by me and Je_. We were asked many times where we’re from and met with looks of confusion when we said we’re American. “Where is your father from?” They’d ask. I’d say he’s American too. “What about your grandfather?” Still American. I could see it did not compute. One elderly man, upon being told I’m American, said to me in Maa, “Can I send my daughter with you to become American?” Um…I’m not sure it works that way. He also invited me to his home and offered to slaughter a goat for me. Well, that’s a first. I think I will now demand that friend’s slaughter animals for our dinner if they invite me to dine at their homes. Another warrior in English, “Do you like Obama? I like Obama. His father is from Kenya. He is my ‘brother’.” Several people also inquired whether Je_ and I were married or together. We didn’t really need to understand Maa or Swahili to figure that out.
I also met Emmanuel, one of Edward’s cousins who I think is actually a cousin. He became my unofficial guide for the ceremony, explaining to me in detail all that was going on. His English was very good. He asked if I wanted to join the girls in the center of the circle. I looked at him like he was crazy. After a bit of cajoling from him and Edward I relented. When in a
Maasai village, do as… He had his sister lend me her neck jewelry and walked me into the circle, holding my hand. I was ridiculously self-conscious. With my long hair, eyebrow piercing and Western clothing, I was clearly not one of them. Almost all eyes were on me. Emmanuel showed me how to do the female dance, different from the dance the males were doing. If ever there was a time I felt less black and shamefully unable to dance, that was it. We were to dance up to one of the boys, say something prescribed and dance back to the center of the circle. The little girls giggled at me and some just stared at me with wonderment. Emmanuel then said that he’d let go of my hand and let me approach a male on my own. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on when I approached a male. I feared I would somehow be offering myself up for marriage, so I again looked at him like he was insane and told him it was time for me to go back to being non-Maasai.
The ceremony lasted for a few hours and at nightfall, we walked a few miles back to Edward’s family’s bomas. For dinner, his mother made us a tasty stew and huge bowls of rice, which I could not finish. But, I think it’s fair that someone my size not eat the same amount as men much larger than I, several of whom are warriors.
That night I slept in my own boma, which belonged to one of Edward’s brother. I slept on a twin bed covered by a blanket I’d brought, using a pillow I’d brought and wearing my heavy hoodie as the temperature decreased dramatically at night. During the night I was serenaded by a bleating baby goat who I think got into a crazy fight with a chicken. I heard what sounded like a baby crying, a cat hissing and scrapping. Then a donkey joined in with loud braying. It was animals gone wild out there. In the middle of the night, I awoke to nature’s call – not a donkey or a rooster – the other kind. My only option was an outhouse with a hole in the floor for a toilet. I wasn’t so much bothered by the potty’s form as I was getting out of my warm bed, braving the dark with my nearly useless flashlight in the pitch black and possibly walking in to find god knows what kind of animal had beat me to the bathroom. I debated internally for a good half hour about what to do. Could I hold it ’til morning? Eventually, my body won out and I had to go. Thankfully, the 20-foot adventure was uneventful. No lions or elephants attacked me on the way, no one walked in on me; all was well.
I awoke to Edward banging on my door to wake me up. It was 7:30am. Bitch, it is 7:30am! But, we had to get an early start. I stumbled out of the boma to head to the bathroom in the light of day and encountered Edward, Je_ and two of Edward’s brothers sitting around a fire. My hair was disheveled, my makeup smeared, stank ass breath and I’m sure my eyes were puffy. In short: I looked a hot mess, but hello gentleman. I quickly scampered away, took care of business and snuck back into the boma to dress. I brushed my teeth using the toothpaste, toothbrush and bottled water I’d brought as there wasn’t any running water.
Edward’s mother had already awoken bright and early to milk the goats, so I missed out on that. But, I did get to watch
Edward’s little brother make their local medicine. The Maasai use their natural resources including tree bark and plant roots to make medicine to prevent and cure ails for everything from headaches, to stomach-aches to malaria. Edward swears they rarely get malaria. Je_ and I tried a little bit, but were advised not to drink too much since we were already taking malaria pills. It tasted like Tylenol crushed and mixed with water. But, I’m all for natural medicine. They drink a cup full once a week and swear by it.
For breakfast we were served more hot goat’s milk – much to Je_’s dismay, this time he refused to drink it and was joined in by Edward’s little brother who also doesn’t like milk – and sliced white bread. Edward’s mother was kind enough to make hot tea without milk for Je_. I asked Edward how they make the tea and he replied, “We buy it at the market in town now.” Haha. I guess not everything is natural.
After breakfast, I got to try herding goats. Baraka joined us and told us, “I like that drink from yesterday. It made me dance more. Then I went to my home and I fell asleep.” Je_ and I nearly died laughing at Baraka’s glee that he passed out from two capfuls of vodka. We bid him farewell and I thanked him in Maa for spending time with us. He warned me, “Oh, be careful. If you speak Maasai too good, we will steal you and make you Maasai woman.”
We then headed into another part of the village to visit the weekly Maasai market. At the market, local Maasai sell goats, chicken and donkeys for the farm and chickens and goats for eating. They also sell handmade jewelry, fabric for the shukas they wear and other household wares. Edward told me that a healthy goat can sell for 30 to 60,000 Tanzanian shillings which is about US $19 – $38 per goat. For that kind of money, I could have my own farm. I joked that I would like to buy a few, but I didn’t think I’d be able to carry them on the plane with me. As we walked over to another part of the market, we saw goats being put down to be sold for their meat and hides. I didn’t want to watch. It was hard for me to watch the same cute goats I’d seen, be killed for food. But, I’m a meat eater and I know it’s important to identify the meat we eat with the methods used
to procure it. So, I forced myself to watch (and Edward goaded me into watching anyhow; I told him that he seemed to enjoy torturing me). Meanwhile, Je_ was videotaping the killing from the cut at the jugular to the draining of blood. I told him he was sadistic.
Edward asked us what part of the goat we’d like to eat. We told him and he purchased a goat. We watched as our goat was skinned and the intestines emptied. I still cannot get the imagery out of my head. A doctor checked each goat to make sure they were healthy and okay for human consumption. The discards were thrown into a pit for stray dogs to eat, which they did, with relish. Ugh. We ended up with the goat’s liver, not my choice, because the goat “preparer” (what do you call someone who skins and cleans goats?) suggested we eat it first. Liver of any animal is not my favorite. I even turn my nose up at foie gras and I’ve tried it in many forms. But, again, when in a Maasai village…Edward pulled out his well-hidden knife from under his shuka and his brother chopped the cooked liver up into chunks. We ate it with salt and a mixed salad made up of avocado, tomatoes and cucumbers and pepper. It was…livery, but I must say tasted pretty fresh.
After our goat meal, we walked around the market a bit, Je_ and I purchased shuka’s from one of Edward’s brothers, said goodbye to Edward’s little brother and liver-cutter, and then we headed back to Moshi, the same way we came.
I truly have never met a more welcoming group of people. Whey they said to feel at home, to feel like while there I should feel as comfortable as I do in Los Angeles, I believe they truly meant it. I appreciate them opening up their homes to us and sharing cultural moments with us.