About a month ago, I wrote on this blog that Africa was not “a place where it’s always acacia trees at sundown” or “potbellied children circled by flies”. And of course, that’s true. But in the interest of giving the whole picture, I also have to say: Sometimes it is.
During my visit to the Mara last month, I had the pleasure of being shown around a manyatta, a traditional Maasai village. Between one and one and a half million Maasai people live in in an area of about 160,000 km2 across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, according to the Maasai Association. However, the actual number of people belonging to this ethnicity is unknown, and census counts are disputed.
Our travel group is welcomed to the manyatta by Lamara. He is the eldest son of the village chief, Depe. The village is home to about 150 people, of which a good part is closely related. “My father has four wives and 23 children”, Lamara tells us.
How many wives a Maasai man can have depends mostly on how many he can afford. One wife can be acquired for ten cows. If the groom is a renowned warrior who has killed a lion, it can go down to five cows, according to the chief’s son.
Lamara himself is still single. “We are looking for a wife in the other villages. The first wife is picked for me, after that I can marry who I want.” What if he does not like the woman who is picked for him? Or if she does not like him? “You don’t have to like each other, you just have to have a few children. Then we can have a divorce, if we want.”
Apart from the children, the Maasai’s lives revolve mostly around their animals. They are traditionally pastoralists, keeping cattle, sheep and goats. Their diet is a vegan’s nightmare: They mostly eat the meat and drink the milk of their livestock. They also mix in some of the animals’ blood, especially to replenish their own reserves after childbirth, sickness or circumcision (unfortunately, also meaning female genital mutilation). They do not kill the animal to get its blood, but rather make an incision into an artery, catch the blood, and then let the wound heal.
According to Lamara, Maasai do not eat anything else, no plant products whatsoever, unless they are medicinal. They keep chickens, but do not eat them (or their eggs). In times of drought, they trade them for maize and other plants, but only for their livestock to eat.
There is a clear division of labour between the genders in the village. Men take the animals out to graze and handle the village’s security, which involves building and maintaining fences made of thorny plants to keep out the lions and other wild animals. Women are shouldering most of the work in the village. They take care of the children, milk the cows, collect water and firewood, clean, cook, do the laundry, make and sell jewellery, and do all the work that has to do with the houses – including building them.
And building Maasai houses is a Sisyphean task. The huts have to be constantly redone, using manure to fix broken parts. This practice can only keep the houses from breaking down for a certain time though, as Lamara tells us: “After about seven years, we have to move because of the termites. The whole village has to be rebuilt in another place.” Guess who will be doing that?
After this first part of the tour, some of the men get together in the middle of the village to show us the lion dance. The men all wear the typical tunics of their tribe: colourful blankets they wrap around their bodies, with patterns that often remind me of Scottish kilts. You can see a short clip from the dance in my Maasai Mara blog post.
Then our group is split up and we are invited to visit some of the village huts. Lamara asks me to join him to see the house of his father, the chief. Inside, it is small and dark. I have to crouch while Lamara is showing me around. Right next to the entrance, there is a room where young calves are kept to seperate them from the mother cows so they can be milked.
The house is centered around a fireplace. There are three bedrooms, one of which is for visitors. “We have guests from all over the world”, Lamara tells me. “A few days ago, we had a visitor from America.”
When Lamara speaks, it is very clear that he has recited all of this many times before. We have paid KSh 500, about 5 US$, for the manyatta tour. We are told that the money will go to the communal village budget, mostly to finance children’s education.
Even though this is a real place, where real people live, and even though everything is much “closer to nature” than it would be in a big city like Nairobi or Berlin, it feels strangely artificial. Like the village was just put there for the enjoyment of tourists like myself. This feeling is only enhanced by the fact that we are encouraged to buy from the women who offer us colourful bead jewellery, fabrics with traditional Maasai patterns and decorative masks.
At the end of our visit, we reunite in the middle of the village. This is where the herders gather the cattle for the night to keep them safe from wild animals, so the floor is completely made of cow dung. There are flies everywhere, including on the children who join us to say hi. One little fellow is a huge fan of my camera and won’t let it go until I take a photo of us and show it to him.
In the end, I got the exact picture I explicitely did not want to have: Me with an African child circled by flies. I am not going to post it on my blog. But hey, it turned out cute.