We are standing on top of a steep hill, looking down on the Ng’iresi village about an hour away from Arusha. Looking ahead, we can see the peak of Mount Meru. Joseph says that on a good day you can see Kilimanjaro.
Joseph is a local guide I found through the Internet. He lives in a nearby village and works for a small social enterprise specialising in cultural tourism, owned by a local businessman and philanthropist, Mr. Loti.
It took a long and bumpy ride on a steep, rocky path to reach Ng’iresi, a Massai village perched on a mountain. These Maasai are different, however, from the ones I saw in Kenya. In Mara, the Maasai live a nomadic, pastoralist life. They move from place to place with their cattle, only building temporary huts and protecting them from wild animals by spiky branches that resemble barbed wire. Here, in Tanzania, the Maasai have settled down and taken up agriculture. Some even work in Arusha as security guards or watchmen.
Our first stop is Mr. Loti’s farm. It is a nice brick house on a hill, surrounded by a garden and a few pens with two cows and a bunch of goats. Apparently the first cow was donated to Mr. Loti back in the mid nineties as part of a donor-funded support programme for subsistence farmers. He has come a long way since and appears to be quite wealthy. Mr. Loti comes out to greet us – an elderly man with discoloured teeth, wrapped in a red Maasai blanket. He gives me a tour of the farm, proudly showing how he makes biogas from cow urine and manure.
After a cup of nearly white and very sweet tea, Joseph and I set out towards the village. We walk among the greenery looking at small fields with bananas, coffee, maize and yams. All the crops are mixed together, thus spreading the risk of a bad harvest. Joseph shows me plots of land that are used to train farmers to make better use of farming techniques, such as terraces and irrigation. A plant called elephant grass is commonly grown around each field, serving a dual purpose: to mark the boundaries between land belonging to different owners, and preventing soil erosion.
As we start our ascent I notice pine trees that stand out among the omnipresent banana trees and maize. Joseph explains that these are Mexican pines, planted by the local government to prevent erosion.
As we reach the top and look down, I see sparsely scattered huts – some made of mud and wood sticks, with either traditional grass or more modern tin roofs, but quite a few made of brick. Joseph explains that as people’s incomes rise, they abandon their mud huts and build bigger, more durable houses.
Behind us on the mountain stands an enormous fig tree, which is considered sacred in the traditional Maasai religion. When I ask about the name of that religion, Joseph shrugs and simply responds ‘pagan’. He himself is Christian and says that more and more of the villagers are converting. However, a group of elders still adhere to the traditional beliefs. Every now and then they bring a black sheep to the hill and sacrifice it to the gods under the fig tree. I look closely and I can make out a few white bones, perhaps consumed by a hungry god, or more likely by hungry ants.
On the subject of ants, these creatures are simply everywhere. I’m standing next to Joseph admiring the view of Mount Meru, when suddenly he gives out a scream and grabs my ankle. A split second later I know why: there are ants all over my shoes, inside my shoes, under my socks and on my trousers, and the first ones are already beginning to bite. I jump out to a clear spot and join Joseph in shaking the ants off me. From then on I try to pay attention, but unfortunately before the day is over I will walk into an anthill again.
We stand on the mountain for a while, looking down at the sun filling the valley. Joseph tells me about the traditional Maasai ways and how they are changing among people of his generation. He says he can now choose his bride and marry her, with both parents’ permission. He will only have one wife, whereas Maasai men a few years older than himself have several. Dowry is still paid though, at least nine cows for a suitable bride, although more and more often a cash equivalent is offered to the groom and his family. The age of marriage keeps shifting. Girls as young as 13 or 14 used to be considered of marrying age, while now that age is closer to 18, and even higher for men. Joseph himself is 30 and he feels he still has time. He is making preparations though – he has already started building his house, made of bricks, of course. He has one room and is waiting to make more money to be able to build another. He is surprised to hear that in Europe you can get all the money upfront and only pay it off bit by bit later on.
I ask if young people tend to leave the village and move to the city, but, surprisingly, Joseph says no. It seems like the Maasai culture is quite resilient vis a vis the modern world. Young people may be getting jobs in Arusha, but they marry and live in the village next to their parents. This has a rather detrimental effect on agricultural production. Since all children inherit land from their parents, the high natality rate among the Maasai means that land gets partitioned into increasingly small plots, making it harder to survive. Many villagers now need to supplement their diets with produce bought at a market. Still, their diets are much more diverse than those of the Kenyan nomads. The latter subsist predominantly on milk, meat and blood of their cattle. The Arusha Maasai own fewer cattle, so they don’t slaughter animals too often, instead consuming more milk and vegetables that they grow or purchase. The fields around the village display an impressive variety. Next to maize, yams and bananas, I see green and red beans, potatoes and different kinds of cabbage.
Our next stop is the local school, the one Mr. Loti supports with donations from tourists. It is a small bungalow with paint peeling off the walls, some covered in fungus, and just a handful of benches per classroom. One classroom doesn’t have any benches at all. I scribble a greeting on the blackboard, hoping the children will see it on Monday and be pleased that someone from that far away visited their school.
The school comes in shocking contrast to the church standing just a few steps away. It is by the far the biggest and most glamorous building in the village, with brick walls painted an immaculate white, solid wooden benches far outnumbering the ones in the school, a proper altar and even some wall paintings. It is Saturday night and a group of women are hard at work cleaning the church in preparation for the Sunday mass. I ask how the church is financed and I’m surprised to hear that it was built and is maintained exclusively from funds donated by the community. The same community doesn’t think to paint the wall or sweep the floor in the school, where the future of the village’s children is forged. The benches and teaching aids are financed by external donors, so it would cost next to nothing to give the school a new breath of life.
The local clinic is a similar sight to the school, looking rather run down. For the entire village there is just one part-time nurse and a midwife. Joseph explains that people tend to go to the traditional healer with most of their ailments.
As we approach the heart of the village, we see more and more people, mostly women carrying buckets of water on their heads from a well provided by Oxfam. The elderly ones have their earlobes extended through years of wearing heavy jewellery. I learn a Maasai greeting, which resembles singing, and the women stop to greet me back.
Soon we are surrounded by hordes of children, barefoot and dressed in dirty rags, running around and shouting ‘mzungu [white person], photo’. They insist, but when I lift up my camera, some run away, laughing, while some stand proudly and make faces at the camera. When I show them the pictures, they are so keen and surround me so tightly they almost knock me down. Their fascination is mixed with fear, as according to Maasai beliefs taking a photo of a person steals their soul. I make sure not to take pictures of any grown-ups and only photograph kids when they ask for it.
The children are dirty, but most of them look well fed and healthy, and, most of all, happy. They get to run around all day and make the best use of the little that they have. A popular toy is a lid of a plastic bucket rolled around with a stick. However, most of their time is spent helping their parents around the house. My heart tightens when I see a serious-looking girl, four at most, carrying a bucket of water on her head. Most boys spend their days on the hills around the village watching over grazing cattle and collecting firewood that they carry back to the village in the evening, balancing the load on their heads.
One boy makes an income catching rats in potato fields with a trap of his own design. He proudly shows me a nearly dead rat before carrying it to the owner of the field as proof of he deserved compensation.
As we pass by one of the households, a man surrounded by children comes out and waves at us, urging us to come closer. He proudly shows me his mud house and plot of land, with an impressive harvest of pumpkins. Behind a house a mother hen and a bunch of chicks are pecking around in a mountain of empty corn hobs that are drying before they can be used to make fire.
A young man passes by – he is wearing jeans and not the traditional checked blanket, but he has a Maasai knife strapped to his belt. I’ve seen such knives before, used by women and children to cut grass for fire, but never on a man. Joseph explains that the young man is 18 and he has become a warrior, therefore he gets to carry a knife wherever he goes. Joseph himself is older and not a warrior anymore. Maasai men are divided into sets according to their age group. Age is a fuzzy concept though, as each group can be composed of males of quite different actual ages. First of all, nobody here has a birth certificate and hardly anyone knows their exact age. Second of all, ceremonies marking the passage from one group or another happen irregularly and batches of boys of different ages undergo the same rites. The most important is the passage to adulthood, where teenage boys are circumcised without anaesthesia and then sent off to the woods to fend for themselves for a few days. In the past every Maasai man had to kill a lion to prove his masculinity, but that custom is now being phased out, fortunately for the boys and the lions.
All around me, the village is alive with sounds of pre-nocturnal activity. Roosters are crowing and cows are mooing, in anticipation of imminent milking and dinner made up of elephant grass and banana leaves. I want to see a cow being milked, but unfortunately it is still too early. Instead, I stroke the downy fur of a calf and I pick up a young goat, who sits calmly in my arms and doesn’t seem to mind the cuddling. I hope I won’t be having any of her older cousins for dinner…
Before night falls we visit a boma, a traditional grouping of mud houses, called manyattas, standing in a circle facing one another, keeping the inhabitants safe from wild animals. Inside, there is just bare ground. One side of the hut is where the animals live – a cow with a calf and two goats. Nothing separates the humans from their cattle. In the centre of the manyatta there is cooking space with an open fire. The flame is rising dangerously towards the roof covered with wood beams and dried grass. Smoke is entirely filing the hut. I can barely make out a baby sitting on the ground by the fire. Saddened, I begin to understand the dry cough that I heard from many children today.
Joseph walks away to chat to a friend of his, while I try to talk to the young woman who lives in the house. She wants to know if I have children. I shake my head for no, and ask about her. I understand from her answer that she has a three-month old. I want to know where her baby is and she struggles to explain. It is only when Joseph arrives that I find out that her baby has recently died. I apologise profusely, but she only smiles and says ‘it happens’.
In the meantime the night has fallen and we walk back in total darkness, as the village has no electricity. The sky and the stars above us are enormous and bright.
Mr. Loti is already waiting with a seven-dish meal cooked by his teenage granddaughters. As meat is a luxury here, there are only different kinds of beans, cassava and sweet potato, as well as rice and ugali, the traditional maize porridge. I’m relieved as I had imagined I’d have to eat grilled goat, a hard ask on a vegetarian who doesn’t want to offend her hosts.
Before I leave, I make a donation to the school and Mr. Loti thanks me profusely, pushing ripe avocados from his garden into my backpack.
I walk back into my upscale hotel and it feels like I’ve travelled several centuries. Still, given the changes in the Maasai village, I wonder if much will remain of the traditional ways of life in 20 years time. While I hope the culture resists the pressures of modernity, I also hope that if I ever return to the village I will find a proper school, a clinic with a doctor, babies surviving beyond infancy, and no more coughing children.