Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Masai -- Tribal Traditions Continue!

     In a previous posting, I described how various Masai tribes have held onto their traditions, but have also entered into cooperative agreements to allow several wildlife Conservancies to be created in Kenya along the Masai Mara National Reserve, and along Amboselli National Park and in a few other locations in Kenya.  These conservancies have been created in the last 10 to 12 years and have expanded the percentage of Kenyan land that is protected in some way for wildlife from just 8% to 15%. There is no doubt that this has had a huge benefit on tourism and numbers of wild animals in the country of Kenya. It is quite interesting that as you drive from Masai land that is being grazed extensively and cross the border onto a Conservancy, the visible effect is almost instantaneous. In the distance of a tenth of a mile, you move from seeing the huge herds of cattle and goats with their Masai herdsmen, to seeing a breeding herd of Grant's gazelles, then giraffes, then impala, and so on. The change is indeed instantaneous.
      After our stays at Porini Lion Camp, and Porini Mara Camp, and after one night staying near Lake Nakuru National Park, in a lodge, we then moved on to Porini Amboselli Camp, further south in Kenya. We were still in Masai territory and at this camp, all employees including the director and the chef were Masai. In addition to traveling into Amboselli National Park known for its huge numbers of elephants, we were able to visit a traditional Masai village. One of the employees of the Porini camp acted as our guide. I have some gorgeous photos of this visit. And the visit allows me to narrate what we learned about the Masai traditions.

Much of the village has turned out to welcome us, all dressed in their finest.

     The Masai are the only tribe in Kenya and Tanzania who have steadfastly maintained their tribal traditions in the face of overwhelming pressure to do otherwise. Other tribes such as the Samburu, and Turkana are also pastoralists, but they have succumbed somewhat more to pressure to live in towns and dress and behave in culturally western ways. The Masai were always semi nomadic. Since they grazed large herds of cattle and goats, and some sheep, they had to follow the rains. Also there was a tendency to overgraze these arid lands, so they had to move to new pastures just due to overgrazing. Therefore their villages had to be made from readily available local materials and had to be at least relatively easy to erect.  At the present, the Masai have settled down a bit, and do remain in one spot longer, but they still build their villages the same way. The men erect a "fence" of cut thorny bushes around the entire circumference of the village. Then separate smaller enclosures within that larger circle are erected to enclose the herds of animals that are brought home at the end of each day. They do not leave the animals outside as they would be prey for wild animals. The women actually build the mud huts, using pole walls fixed in the ground, with interwoven twigs to secure them. Over this infrastructure a paste is made from mud, cow dung, and straw, which is then applied and allowed to harden. More cow dung is used to make a mud roof. This surface becomes waterproof and can easily be repaired if holes develop. Around this hut with no windows, and only one door, a trench is dug to promote water run off when the rainy season arrives. Some young animals, such as very young kids, and lambs are also kept inside such huts to protect them from getting trampled or injured by the herds.

     The Masai diet is fairly restricted, consisting of raw meat for special occasions, milk -- a lot of milk and milk products, more than any known culture, often made with buttermilk since the villages have no electricity, therefore no refrigeration. And finally they consume blood either mixed with the milk products or by itself. They actually tap the jugular vein of some of their cows and regularly bleed them to supply this blood. It is especially reserved for the children, pregnant women, and those who are ill or elderly. Due to smaller herds, they have had to resort less to blood to provide some of the essential amino acids, and now often grow some maize or purchase grains and make a gruel or porridge with the grains. It is interesting that in spite of this dairy diet and eating red meat, the Masai as a group have one of the lowest cholesterol levels in the world. And they are usually remarkably healthy, not succumbing to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and not even having tooth decay. The morani (warriors) have an elite "Olympic athlete" or marathoner level of fitness. That may be because they walk or run everywhere they go and they dance and "jump" almost daily.

     Also some research has been done on their DNA. Most peoples commonly develop a lactose intolerance as they grow older due to the gradual inability to produce lactase in the gut to break down milk sugar. The Masai do not develop this intolerance and they consume a lot of milk their whole lives. It is thought that this trait is genetic and has been selected for due to their diet of dairy products. Some research has been done and a gene which also codes for lower cholesterol levels in the blood has been found associated with the lactase gene. So it is thought that the low cholesterol levels are due to more than just the exercise and active lifestyle, but indeed that it is genetic and overcomes any effect of a high saturated fat diet.

     As we came to the Masai village, we were met by the morani ( junior warriors) of the village. They allowed themselves to be photographed with us. They also demonstrated spear throwing to us. I noted that when one young warrior threw his spear, his shuka fell aside and around his waist was a belt holding a nice leather holster holding his cell phone. I could tell these were warriors because many had long hair which is intricately braided and has red ochre applied to the hair. So that you may understand the position of the junior and senior warriors in village life,  I will explain the basis of the patriarchal Masai society,  and the age set in a later paragraph.   

My husband and I standing with the junior warriors. These young warriors spend
a lot of time grooming each others' hair. They have to maintain a certain
appearance. The fellow on the right end has long ochred braided hair. You can
see that certain junior warrior "look" here in this photo.

Warriors demonstrating throwing their spears.

You can see the light brown leather cellphone holster hanging on a light brown belt around this warriors waist.

       The Masai society is patriarchal, polygamous, and polyandrous. These descriptions deserve some explanation. Indeed, the society is patriarchal. Decisions are made about everyday life, when and where to move the village, who the daughters will marry and when, what degree of cooperation or participation in neighboring western style villages and parks the tribe will undertake, etc -- all these decisions are made by the council of elders. There is no one chief or headman. A group of men who have achieved senior elder status in the village gets together and makes these decisions. Only very young boys, toddlers and perhaps up to the age of 4 live in the village with their mothers. Boys as young as 5 years old and certainly by the age of 6 regularly go out with the senior warriors and when a little older by themselves and herd and oversee the livestock herds. Through this mentorship arrangement young boys learn all about animal husbandry, nature, and what it is like to be a warrior.   
     When boys reach about the age of 14 to 18 they participate in the most influential and important ceremony of their life. They are circumcised without anesthesia. This is a big day; a whole group of adolescents from several nearby villages participate on this single day of celebration. These adolescent males have been looking forward to this day for some years, anticipating becoming a warrior. They must not flinch or cry out during the procedure. Such behavior would bring shame on them and their family's head. After this big event, the boys as a group, called an age set, leave the village and more or less go on a "walk-about" wearing black robes, and facial white paint patterns which has now been converted to pieces of white cloth with black stitching worn around the face. They must not enter their village of origin until their wound has healed which takes about 3-4 months. During this time their mothers have built a separate housing village for them without an enclosing thorny fence. After about 6-8 months of this disconnected "walk about" state, the young circumcised men become junior warriors and don the red or purple shuka robes characteristic of the Masai. They now live in the village created for them, are fed sometimes by their mothers, and generally protect their own housing and the village from which they came from, in the past, hostile neighboring tribes, and wild animals. They also are responsible for protecting the herds. During this time they care very much about their appearance and are the usual men who are performing the dances and the in place jumping competitions that permeate the dances and all village celebrations.
     The age set of young men proceeds in some sub tribes from being junior warriors to becoming senior warriors. Sometimes these senior warriors return to their own villages or other villages and may take a wife. Often these are arranged marriages, and since the junior or even the senior warrior has no livestock yet, his father has to agree to his marriage and will provide the bride-price of usually 10 cows to the parents of the bride. The junior warrior usually does not take more wives. He can not afford the bride price. But he now often lives within the village and participates in village celebrations and herding. By the time the warrior has become in his thirties, usually his whole age set then participates in another celebration, the second most important of his life. He becomes an elder of the community. His mother then shaves off his long hair and for the rest of his life, he keeps his head shaved. Often there are various levels of junior elders and senior elders within the community but the lines between these groups are much more ambiguous, unlike the progression of the age set from childhood to eldership, where the group proceeds together. This practice makes the age set brothers very close. In fact, here's where the polyandry comes in. A maiden who has married a warrior in a community has also married his age set brothers. Thus, if an age set brother visits in a warrior's home in the village and there is a wife, if she wishes (she supposedly can refuse) she will share the bed of the age-set brother. After the warrior has become an elder, his livestock have no doubt been multiplying and he has some children who can help him with the herding. He now can afford more bride prices. He will then take more wives, each marriage adding further to his herd and therefore his wealth. Some of these cattle herds are very very large. Our guide would say, "That man has many wives," when we would be held up on the road by a large herd crossing. Often the village mostly consists of the many wives of one or two elders who are the progenitors of all the children running around. Our guide pointed out one village we passed which consisted of an elder and his 80 wives and all their descendants. This man had built a school house for all of his children and grandchildren and was now petitioning the government of Kenya to send him a teacher.
Warriors performing the quintessential and competitive "jumping" dance for which the Masai are famous.

These warriors are chanting and performing a characteristic syncopated upper body dance, while the toddlers
concentrate on their elders and try to learn these complex movements.
      What about the women? Well, they work in the village. They do all the milking, they cook the various foods that were described, ferment the milk in a gourd, take care of the small children, build the fires, and build the houses when the village moves, and repair houses that develop holes. When a girl is about 13, but sometimes younger she also participates in a celebration -- the female circumcision. Among the Masai, it is a clitoridectomy. Although this practice is illegal in Kenya, it still does occur. It is estimated that about 40% of Masai girls still have this procedure. It is performed on an age set of girls also on a day of celebration, but the age set of girls does not continue throughout her life as it does with the boys, because once a girl has been circumcised she will soon be married to someone who can afford to pay her father the bride price. Then she will go to live with that man and not be part of her age set any more. There have been many attempts with publicity, and education to turn this ceremony into a "cutting with words only," but it is very hard to fight some of the ideas that the Masai have about this procedure. They think that without it a woman will remain childlike and not be able to participate as a mature woman in the doings of the village. Also a young woman is not regarded as marriageable if she has not had this procedure. Without marriage, there is no place for a woman in community life. Since the procedure is done by the local midwife, the negative publicity has led some of these women to only do a symbolic cut, not a total clitoridectomy. I don't know if that would be easier on the young girl or not. But there has been some advance in doing away with this practice.  
A lady of the village heats an ember with which
she will sterilize the inside of the gourd used
to ferment the buttermilk.

She will turn this hot stick inside the gourd again and again to sterilize it.

Two villagers start a fire with the well known twisting stick method.

The woman has trapped the embers between two pieces of cow dung.
Steady blowing on these embers has created a fire.
      The photos below show two warriors playing a game called enkeshui in the Maa language. It is basically a complex form of mancala variations of which have been played in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, and in the Caribbean. It has been played less commonly in Europe and the US. The rules vary from place to place, but you begin by placing seeds in a prescribed way in the pits of the board. Then the players pick up the seeds in one pit and "sow" them one at a time in a row, traveling around the board. Certain rules allow that player to continue sowing and capturing the seeds in various pits as he goes along. In Kenya, the seeds are called "cows" and there are rules that apply to certain pits which contain a "bull." Often among the Masai, play occurs in teams with one member of the team doing the "sowing." The game also often includes spectators betting on play. Below are two warriors demonstrating a game to us.

The Enkeshui board

Here they are using pebbles and marbles as the playing pieces.


               I always like to interact with the children. I knelled down near two children and began to just clap my hands with them. Once they were doing that, I began to play kind of a patty cake game and then a "hi five" kind of clapping motion. Soon I had about 10 or twelve little children, all aged 2 to 5, I would guess. They were all eager to try to learn these clapping motions. I found myself praising them when they learned a new move. "Nice! Nice job," I said to the children. "Nice," repeated one little girl, learning the English word. None of these people speak English or Swahili, but instead they speak their own language, called Maa. My husband snapped several photos of me with these children. I loved interacting with them.
I have advanced to the high five clapping game with the children.
How can you not love these faces?
      I asked our guide what kind of medical care the village had. He didn't seem to understand, so I then asked him about obstetrical care, who delivered the babies. He pointed to the 4th lady in the row of village women, an older woman and said she was a midwife. I then went over to her and spoke to her in English, shaking her hand, telling her I was a doctor and I admired her work in taking care of the young mothers and their babies. She clearly didn't understand. I looked down the line of women and asked if anyone spoke English. One young woman nodded Yes, and so I told her to tell the older woman what I had said. She didn't. I don't think any of them understood me, but still I had shaken the midwife's hand and must have made some impression on her. I hope she is one of those who only performs a symbolic "cutting" on the 13 year old girls. Perhaps this village being so associated with Western tourists practices a "cutting with words only."
     I very much enjoyed interacting with the Masai in this village, and with the young warriors who staffed our Porini camps. Speaking English when they worked in our camps, all of them demonstrated an eagerness to learn about where we came from and who we were. They also had a soft spoken gentleness about them in spite of their longstanding reputation for fiercenesst. They all took excellent care of us while we were in the Porini tented camps. And even when we moved on to Tanzania, in the tented camps there, the Masai employees were the ones who guarded the camp at night, and they were our escorts after dusk to and from our tents.
A typical hut just inside the village enclosure.

A partially built hut wall left like this to demonstrate the construction.

A hut that needs some repair. This one is used to house some lambs and kids.

Inside the village with the edge of the animal enclosure fence centrally.

A well made typical hut with its narrow door which excludes the animals.
     In visiting this village, my husband felt some degree of revulsion for the way that these families lived. There was a lot of dust and dirt. And of course they lived, cooked, and ate among their animals and their animals manure. However, thinking back within the village I don't recall having to avoid stepping on cow dung. I believe that the women clean that up and indeed it is used in building houses and it is burned. I, myself,  did not feel repulsed by the lifestyle. Indeed, I felt admiration for these people that they have maintained their way of life into the 21st century with Westernization occurring all around them. Their life might have been hard, but they seemed truly happy. The ceremonies that celebrate milestones in each individual's life seem to draw the community together and in many ways they are very socially advanced. In addition, they are adopting a way of life that increasingly intermeshes with such things as forming Conservancies for wildlife preservation and tourism. In addition, the young Masai male who now moves in Western society paths even to the point of dressing in a Western fashion in the towns and cities, returns to his home village and dons the shuka and steps back into his former role with no apparent conflict. It takes a fairly complex and healthy society to be able to accomplish this fusion. More power to them.

1 comment:

  1. Check out this fellow traveler to Porini Amboselli Camp in Kenya -- her wonderful photos. They are the same thing we saw. So you can read my articles on Africa and learn a lot and then look at her many photos and get a further visual idea. Thank you Beth Miller.