A bright journey to the dark continent

By Maureen Bay


So read the sign in the safari truck. If you have the stamina (and means) to travel over 8,000 miles to a destination and see things that you thought you’d never see in person, South-East Africa is for you.

The climate is dry, the landscape is varied, and the wildlife is abundant. I was able to see and experience every form of animal that this area of Africa had to offer. It was truly a remarkable experience. I encountered life and death and forces of nature close and occasionally, within my reach.  The sounds and smells of Africa will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Naturally, seeing and experiencing the wildlife was unbelievable, but my exposure to the indigenous Masai natives of Kenya and Tanzania made an even bigger impact on me. I had the opportunity to visit three separate and distinct Masai villages. They are a polygamist society. Our last guide and driver, Victor, was a young Masai man who was born and raised in the Serengeti area that he was guiding us through.  His Father is 96 years old; he has 10 wives and 108 children. This arrangement may seem complicated, but for the Masai, it has worked for centuries. The wives all live next to each other and, I was told, live peacefully with each other. This is also one reason why they don’t celebrate birthdays.

The Masai live in huts made of elephant dung and mud. They each average about 150 square feet of shelter and house an average of 8-10 people along with a few goats. A kitchen/cooking area is formed in the center of the hut. The women do all the work associated with child-rearing and the home, including fetching gallons of water from the government well, located miles from the village. This they do on foot every day. The men are responsible for the protection of the village and each man will carry a stick, a club and a machete.

The Masai diet leaves much to be desired. They subsist on cow blood (which they “harvest” from the living cow) and cow’s milk. There is very little variation from this diet for the whole of their lives. They do raise chickens and goats that they sell for income, but do not consume. Their medicines are holistic and are sourced from local flora, like the Acacia tree, and fauna, like the buffalo horn.

I could see that certain historical traditions of the Masai are slowly being relaxed. Newborn children routinely had the two middle teeth removed (top center and bottom center) and again when the second set of teeth appeared. This practice facilitated the dispensing of medication through the lips and would be unimpeded by teeth. In accordance with tradition the Masai will brand a baby with a quarter-sized circle on their cheek or three slashes. This scar will proudly identify them for life as Masai. I did, however, observe some small Masai children without this brand.

We had the opportunity to go into a Masai school. At the village we were greeted by the women, and we were draped with the traditional Masai cloth wrap, called a Shuka and beaded collars were put around our necks. Now, properly dressed, we were escorted to the classroom. The children, all ages 5-7 years old, were being taught English, the national language of Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Swahili, the spoken language. The children welcomed us and seemed very curious. The government encourages and advocates education at the earliest ages for boys and now for girls.

The Masai men have a contest. They gather in a circle, and they compete to see which of them can jump the highest. The winner of this contest may choose a bride for free! He doesn’t have to pay the usual price to the future Father-in-law of one cow (a cow is valued at $600.00) for his bride. Our last guide, Victor, had one wife (so far) and no plans for another.  He pointed out that he had won her in the jumping contest.

Obviously, the Gloria Steinem women’s bill of rights has not yet reached this area of the world.

Animal tourism is number one in this region of Africa. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have developed a system of hiring and compensating native Masai men with certain jobs. This employment helps to reduce poaching and boosts the native Masai economy. The government also has a system of controlled burning of the grasslands to lessen the areas that poachers can hide. Gladly officials of these countries are committed to conservation and protection of their national resources for future generations to enjoy. Single-use plastics had recently been outlawed and strongly discouraged.

The Masai people are friendly and warm. They reach for your hand with a “jambo-jambo” (hello-hello) and want to know what your name is. They are truly beautiful and handsome people. They have learned to live with a continuing pattern of culture beliefs and practices without any of the luxuries that the rest of the world enjoys.

 As we entered a village on our way back to our camp, we always had an apple, or juice box or crackers left over from our packed lunch out on the bush. We passed these food items out the window to the children who would always come running to our truck when they heard us approach. Any kindness or gift was always followed by “Mungu Akubariki” which means “God Bless You” in Swahili. I was invariably left with the urge to give more to them but satisfied that I could at last do one small thing and bring a smile to their faces.

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