I have mixed feelings about the Maasai.
On one hand they are emblematic of Africa with their red robes, spears and ochre smeared hair. A visit to their village/boma is fascinating cultural tourism and gives a visitor a thrill for being so daring. On the other hand they aren’t so much integrated into the regions tourism but got it in a headlock – grasping for money after a photo is taken and pushing flimsy made gew-gaws into your culture-shocked face.
After visiting Olduvai Gorge our guide suggested a visit to a Maasai Boma. To be frank, I wasn’t enthusiastic. My encounters with the Maasai in Kenya hadn’t endeared them to me. When we were entering the Talek gate at the Masai Mara National Park we were accosted by Maasai women. One of our passengers took a picture and the woman aggressively asked for money by banging on the window. Later on we were asked if we wanted to visit a "cultural village"? Our group were against it having experienced one on a previous tour where they found the experience unnerving and depressing.
So, I found myself in exactly the same position in Tanzania.
I had to ask myself why I was so intimidated by the Maasai? For some people they are the "real Africa". In a continent that has been westernised to an excessive degree they offer a glimpse of tribal Africa. An Africa where people live in conjunction with nature. They represent an age where we went confined to cities. The Maasai are pastoralists – they move themselves and the cattle around from one grazing spot to another. There is almost a nation of Maasai. There are regional Maasai capitals with Narok in Kenya and Mto wa Mbu in Tanzania. The Maasai range over a massive area even reaching the coast at Mombasa.
Then I remembered I had met a Maasai before.
At Riverside camp at the Masai Mara we had a Maasai guard called John. He was a delight. In appearance he was rather scary – six foot tall, fierce looking, perforated earlobes, and clutched a frightening spear. He would sit and talk with us in the evening over a camp fire. He would tell us about his two wives, his cattle and the fact that his children were just starting school. He was absolutely fascinated by tourists and the outside world. And I had never felt so safe at night with him sitting there guarding us in the firelight.
If I thought the area around Olduvai Gorge was bleak it was nothing compared with where the Maasai lived. It was just a landscape of white dust broken only by acacia trees. There were a few other tourists there, climbing out of vans with looks of trepidaton on their faces. The Maasai were around us very quickly. Not demanding but very polite and explaining that being shown around the boma will cost 25000 shillings (£40/$65). As my travel companion wanted to do this we paid and were shown into the boma by a young Maasai warrior.
The boma is a mud village surrounded by a thorn fence to keep lions away from cattle. Inside is a number of huts made from cow dung. To greet visitors the Maasai performed a dance in the middle of the cattle kraal to greet visitors. Jumping up and down and singng they encouraged visitors to join in. Then we were taken into one of the mud huts. Cramped and dark we sat awkwardly in about 3ft of space while the Maasai told us about his life. The most precious thing in the world for the Maasai is his cow. It provides food for him but not just with milk – he can drink its blood as well. Stoppering the wound so he could drink it later. The Maasai diet, he proudly told us – contains no vegetables.
Afterwards we got the soft sell and were allowed to travel around the village. There was a school hut at the back of the village with the cutest looking children imaginable. They were singing a song and tourists were clapping their hands in appreciation. The thought hit me that the kids were cute, almost deliberately so. I suppose the children were just a part of the tourist scene as the adults.
While we were approached by Maasai women selling necklaces and spears (we spotted a tag on a spear saying ‘Made in China’) I found to my reluctance that I was being won over by the Maasai.
I remarked to our guide that the boma was actually quite charming.
"Ah" he says "Tanzanian Maasai nicer then Kenyan Maasai? Yes?"