A Travellerspoint blog

19. Among the Masai

A Masai Village and Lake Manyara National Park

The young man introduces himself as Jonathan and invites us to accompany him. He is dressed in a red check cloak, wrapped around his strikingly tall slim figure and he wears black leather sandals with soles made from rubber car tyres. He is a Masai warrior, from the tribal groups that live in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.

We walk together to a nearby Masai village where he has arranged a visit for us; we pass several large vegetable plots and some donkeys laden with harvested grass for cattle fodder. “When I went to South Africa,” he says, “people at the airport offered to buy my clothing and my shoes. The colour of our clothing indicates our stage of life.” He tells us he had the privilege of visiting Nelson Mandela who showed great interest in the Masai people and their culture.

We arrive at the rudimentary village, a collection of circular and oblong mud-walled dirt floored huts, home to the one husband, his five wives and their 30 plus children. The older siblings are away at school but about a dozen little ones, some with obviously runny noses, cluster around us, the bolder ones wanting to hold our hands or be picked up. One small child hovers close to his older brother, afraid of the white strangers in his village. Most of the children have their heads shaven, but wear western style clothing. Jonathan tells us that this village is relatively small, for some Masai men may have up to 30 wives and 300 children.

“How many wives have you?” we ask. “Just one, and that’s all I expect to have, as I am a Christian,” he says. “I had to pay 15 cows as the bride price for her.” So far he has one little child.

Jonathan invites us into one of the houses and we sit on the couches learning more of the Masai culture. Cattle are highly valued, the basis of their wealth and their currency, providing a diet of meat, milk and blood. The village includes a circular fenced kraal where the cattle are kept at night; in the day, it is the job of the older boys to wander with the herd, finding grazing for them. He explains that boys are circumcised at 15; girls used to be, but it is now illegal. Jonathan implies that it is a practice of the past, but I have read that it is still carried out in places and valued as part of the culture. With all my heart, I hope that custom is soon dead and gone.

Jonathan tells us about a bush camp he attended where he ate herbs to clear his system. He walks everywhere, like his tribesmen who are used to walking long distances; however I see a young man arrive at the village on a motorbike and wonder if the long distance walking could be changing. Another force for change and modern tool is the ubiquitous cell phone.

Outside again, eight young men, attired in bright blue and red cloaks, arrive to entertain us with energetic song and dance. Their repertoire includes the athletic jumping dance, when one or more dancers leap high into the air as if they were springing on a trampoline and not on the hard bare earth. At the end they invite us to join them in the dance and one of them wraps his cobalt blue garb around me for a photo. Jonathan takes us through the small cultural museum near the camp site and explains more about their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Beyond the campsite there is a cattle market which seems to take place over several days. We wander along the metal kraal railings, looking at the specimens for sale. They are domestic zebu or Brahman hybrids, with humps on their shoulders, drooping ears and large dewlaps hanging down below their chins; their ability to tolerate high temperatures makes them most suitable for the Masai environment.

In the evening we sit in the camp bar and listen to Ma tells how she and her husband, BJ, came from South Africa to Tanzania 20 years earlier, bought some land and established a snake park. One day an overland truck stopped by with vehicle problems and they asked if they could stay the night. So began the overland camping business; for some years they gave accommodation to many trucks, though the numbers have declined more recently.

We travel on through Masai country, with its herds of cattle and goats attended by check-clad minders. It is evident that overgrazing is a problem with little grass growth available for pasture. We are told that the Masai are reluctant to limit the size of their herds, symbols of wealth and prestige, but with modern land usage curbing the extent of their lands, overgrazing and erosion have resulted.

Our main purpose in camping at Mto Wa Mtu village is to visit Lake Manyara National Park. But there are other highlights. We buy a painting in the Tinkatinka art work style – in bright colours, with naïvely drawn caricatural African animals, particularly the big five. The style began in Dar es Salaam and has spread across the continent, aimed especially at the tourist market. But we like the cheerful humourous style.

A row of huts full of art sits along the main road near the camping ground entrance. But trade is poor at the low end of the tourist season. No wonder the eyes of the traders light up when we appear in the late afternoon.

“Come and look, Mama, come to my shop,” the second vendor implores after we have shown interest at the first booth. We wander on, keen to see if we like anything better. “I haven’t had a sale for two days,” says another. With the few tourists around, I am sure what he is saying is true, but we can’t please them all. At the last shop we turn around and return to the first hut. The in-your-face salesman introduces us to Sulemmi, the artist, who by way of contrast is shy and gentle. We negotiate to purchase two works, a small one for a grandchild and a larger piece for ourselves, both featuring elephants. We ask for them to be removed from their frames so we can roll them up in our cases.

In the evening two tuk tuks pick us up in the dark and take us to a village home for dinner, part of a community development project. We disappear off the main tar seal road and down an unlit uneven dirt lane. Where are we going? I wonder. I reassure myself that the expedition has been organised by our guides, so it must be okay. We splash through some puddles and a group of dogs bark in the darkness.

The community development worker introduces us to the home owner, a Moslem woman who has three children and two grandchildren. He tells us the village is a mixture of Moslem and Christian families living amicably side by side. Long may it stay that way, I think to myself. We are invited to see the kitchen where the cooking takes place. As we enter the small dark circular room, a woman stoops over some terracotta pots on the floor, several sitting on rocks over small fires. She stirs one of the pots and looks up at us with a smile. I wonder if anyone trips in the heat and darkness and burns themselves in the fire. I think of my kitchen at home with all my mod cons and determine never to grumble again about my cooking conditions.

There is electric lighting in the dining area where there is a table for the dishes. We sit on benches around the walls with members of the family, chatting pleasantly with the aid of the development worker. The very acceptable meal consists of about ten dishes, all vegetable except for the beef dish which is perhaps a little tough. Most of the dishes are very tasty, though I am not sure I could acquire a liking for ugali, a solid porridge-like substance made from millet or maize, widely eaten in this part of Africa. Someone brings in our hostess’s little granddaughter and Martin takes the opportunity for a cuddle, a substitute for the grandson born just before we left home, whom we haven’t seen yet. The tuk tuks arrive to transport us back to the camp ground and we agree it has been a most memorable evening.

Lake Manyara is the first of two Tanzanian national parks that are on our itinerary, the other being the Serengeti. It is a narrow stretch of flat land comprising forest and savannah lying between the shallow soda lake and the Rift Valley escarpment. The day is overcast and showery but I enjoy the self-drive trip immensely. We see lots of baboon, wildebeest, zebra, African buffalo, antelope and warthogs. The Masai giraffe there are the largest subspecies of giraffe and the tallest land mammal; the spots on their bodies have a jagged appearance and the dominant males tend to be darker, almost black from a distance. A family of banded mongoose play in the road dust until the noise of our land rover scares them and they scamper away. We spot a shy Kirk's dik-dik in the undergrowth; it’s a petit antelope, only 70 centimetres high.

A group of six large impressively tusked elephants pass us on the road, so close that we can reach out and touch them if we dare. As one overtakes the vehicle in front of us, he turns around and swings his trunk menacingly towards it. I watch as the couple inside, with their pop top elevated, instinctively duck as if to avoid him. If it was me, I would be petrified. Fortunately the animal backs away and turns to follow his companions. What amazing creatures they are!

The highlight is a group of tree-climbing lions. We round the bend and there they are, relaxing in the branches of a large tree beside the road, surrounded by several vehicles filled with open-mouthed captivated humans, all snapping their cameras. There are at least nine lions including two or three cubs up in the tree. We are entranced. From time to time they stretch their limbs and shift their positions a little, but mostly they are at peace, enjoying the afternoon warmth and unfazed by their audience.

The bird life is varied and Martin enjoys focusing his lens on species like the saddle billed stork and the grey crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda. But it’s the 1000s of flamingos that particularly attract our attention, even though we can’t get close to them. Standing in the shallows of the lake they form a pink band of bright colour across the blue water. Lake Manyara NP may be small, but it is really beautiful and well worth a day’s visit.

Posted by rhinospin 17:38 Archived in Tanzania

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