One of the neatest and most educational experiences we had when traveling in Tanzania last year was a visit to a Maasai village. They have such a unique and amazing culture and it was really cool to be able to visit with them and learn more about their way of life.
We took a 4 day safari thru Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Along our many drives we would see the Maasai villages and the young boys out herding their cattle. It was fascinating to see how they lived from a far, but we wanted to know more about their culture and way of life.
That is why we were very happy when our safari guide told us that he knew of a Maasai village that is very open to visitors and asked us if we wanted to stop by. We jumped at the chance immediately. The village was near the Ngorongoro Crater along our drive home. So with that settled, we set off for the village, excited to meet some new people and learn about a new culture.
When we first arrived at the village, we were greeted with a very warm welcome and asked if they could perform a welcome dance for us. You can see that welcome dance in the video that we have posted below. It was absolutely amazing.
The women stood in a line and sang while the men, with their spears and instruments, danced among us. After a short time we were asked to come into the village, where the dancing continued. The men gathered into a semi-circle, and then one or two at a time they moved to the center of the circle to jump. After a few jumps they would stomp their feet and then give way for the next man to move to the center.
It was amazing to be there and witness their dancing in person. It was obvious that they take great pride in their dancing and that it plays a big part in their traditions. We would come to learn more about the meaning behind some of their dances when we got to talk to the Maasai during our visit.
They asked us to join in the dancing and we took our turns jumping. I think I got a whole two or three inches off the ground when I jumped, to the delight and amusement of our hosts. It was fun to partake in the dancing and learn about their culture none-the-less, and we were all very grateful for the experience.
Their Way of Life
The Maasai are a nomadic people, meaning that they don’t stay in one place too long. The Maasai rely heavily on the cattle they raise, so they are constantly on the move to find good grazing ground. We were told that the measure of a man’s wealth in the Maasai culture is how many heads of cattle he has. They are very protective of their cattle, which has led to some tensions in Tanzania between the Maasai and the government regarding whether cattle should be allowed to graze within the country’s conservation areas.
The Maasai culture is a patriarchal one, so most decisions are made by the elder males in the community. Marriages in the Maasai community are arranged by village elders, and polygamy is normal in the Maasai culture. If you watch the video we posted below, it is explained to us that polygamy originated in the Maasai culture because the men in the community travel much more than the women when herding the cattle.
When a woman marries, she is gifted a herd of cattle from which her sons will care for, overseen by their father, and build up herds of their own. When the parents pass away, the eldest son will inherit his father’s herd and the youngest son will inherit his mother’s herd. Their daughters do not receive any inheritance.
Maasai warrior culture is roughly broken down into a set of broad age groups. Children generally live at home with their parents. However, once young boys hit their teen years, they will start to be taught the warrior culture by their older brothers.
It is during these teens years that boys will also go thru the process of Emuratta, which is a ritualistic circumcision ceremony that marks the first stage in their transition to manhood. Once they have graduated this process, they will be sent to live in a “manyatta”, which is a camp for like-aged boys. They will live there for up to ten years as they prepare to make their final transition to manhood and marriage.
In these camps they are separated from the rest of the Maasai, and not allowed to eat or drink in the presence of a woman, so that they can learn to become independent. We saw several young Maasai men going thru this life transition in our travels to-and-from the wildlife parks when we are on safari. You can tell these young men a part because they have white painted marks on their faces and generally dress in black (not the colorful garb that most Maasai wear). Out of respect for their culture, we did not photograph any of these young men.
The Eunoto ceremonies, which mark a young man’s final transition to manhood, includes a ceremonial cow slaughter, their first taste of alcohol, and lots and lots of dancing. We came to learn that one of these dances, the adumu, they had performed for us when we entered the village. This was the dance where the men formed a semi-circle and took turns jumping. We learned that the higher a warrior jumps during the dance, the stronger the warrior he is said to be. I guess I am not much of a warrior.
Women, from an early age, are conditioned to be subservient and to be respectful of their father and the village elders. Women will typically take a communal approach to raising children in the Maasai culture, so the women in a Maasai community are typically very close to one another.
When we visited, we asked to purchase some of the beautiful jewelry that the women in the community had made. By custom, we could not discuss this with the women and the men could not give us a price on the jewelry. We had to pick out the items we were interested in and a man who was helping us would go to the woman who made that item to get the price for us.
The jewelry, and the sculpted animals they make by hand, are absolutely beautiful. We were happy to pay a bit more at the village than we could get in Arusha for similar items. You could tell that great pride was put into making these items.
One of the coolest, and by far the cutest, things we got to see during our visit was the village school. Class was in session when we visited, so we got to pop our heads into the classroom and say hello to all of the children. The children were a bit shy at first, and who can blame them, but after an introduction they became more comfortable and sang us a beautiful (and adorable) song.
Video of Our Visit
In case you would like to learn more about the Maasai culture, we have prepared a short video of our visit. The video includes much of the dancing that we were privileged to be able to watch, as well as our visit to the chief’s house. It was an honor to be asked to tour his house and listen to him tell us more about the Maasai way of life. We want to share those experiences with you.
For those wondering, we did ask to take the photographs we took during our visit and the Maasai were very gracious to allow us to take the video and the pictures that we did. Below is a gallery of some of our favorite pictures we took during our visit.