“Hello, how are you, welcome Maasai shop.” Matthew Joseph gestures to a pair of tourists who glance at the small duka and quickly continue walking. He smiles and shrugs, beads jangling on his tassled body jewelry worn over the traditional red Maasai shuka. In Zanzibar, he is far from home.
Miles away, in the northern highlands of Tanzania, his family lives in a cluster of Maasai villages in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Herding cows, cultivating small crops of subsistence foods, and patrolling the vast plains and bushlands, the Maasai are some of the world’s most identifiable people. Their distinctive clothing and jewelry, as well as their fierce resistance to changing their lifestyle, makes them stand out. Their lifestyle, though, is threatened, and more and more Maasai are leaving their families to strike out and try to make a living in other ways.
I first got to know Matthew because his shop is around the corner from my regular coffee haunt. We became buddies, chatting about our days and the (invariably hot) weather. Visiting the Ngorongoro area, I thought of Matthew when I saw the young Maasai boys, dressed in black to mark their coming of age, singing traditional songs for tourists, or the tall, solitary figure of a single Maasai warrior patrolling his land. What could bring a man with obvious attachment and pride in his culture so far from home?
The Maasai people, a semi-nomadic culture based in northern Tanzania and Kenya, are famous for many things. Notorious warriors, they were avoided during the slave trade and famously refused to participate in the trafficking of people. They are known for killing lions with their bare hands, and mixing cow blood with milk to drink. They are known for their bright red garments and beaded body jewelry, for their cowhide sandals and shaved and dreaded hair. They are known for grazing herds of cattle alongside the wild game of the Serengeti, and valuing cows above all else.
In the past century, the governments of both Tanzania and Kenya have encouraged or forced the Maasai to abandon their traditional lifestyles. This pressure, along with other outside influences, has vastly changed the Maasai lifestyle in the past 150 years.
“The bank of Maasai, it is cows,” says Matthew. “It used to be you keep many cows. Now it is harder to keep a lot.” At one time, Maasai territory covered almost all of the Great Rift Valley and the surrounding lands. The Maasai were kings of this land, known as fearsome warriors with spears and heavy throwing clubs, protecting massive herds of cattle numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In the late 19th century, a virus killed an estimated 90% of domestic animals in the Maasai territory. It was accompanied by a long drought. It has been estimated that over two thirds of the Maasai population died during this time. This blight weakened the Maasai immeasurably, and made it easier for the government to force them out of their ancestral lands.
Matthew’s family has lived in the Ngorongoro highlands for generations. In the 1940s and 50s, their settlements grew in size when the government forced the Maasai out of the Serengeti to preserve the area for wildlife conservation. The increase in population and reduction of grazing lands due to new park boundaries forced the Maasai to look for new ways of supporting themselves. Many settled into permanent villages and adapted cultivation practices, which were then banned in 1975 by the government*. Slowly but surely, the Maasai were forced into the modern economy.
“Long time ago, Maasai only know how to keep cows. Then we see a lot of tourists are visiting our village. We see it’s a business, we have to move to sell the Maasai jewelry.”
It’s this business prospect that moved Matthew to Zanzibar. His family makes the jewelry he sells in his shop, and he sends money home to support them. His parents, brothers and sisters all still live in Ngorongoro.
In spite of their entrance into the mainstream Tanzanian economy, most Maasai still hold on to their several of their traditions. Even Matthew, miles from home, dresses every day in traditional garments and proudly tells visitors about his culture. In the cities of Arusha and Dar es Salaam, suited professionals walking home from the office are accompanied by spear-holding young men wearing the shukas and body jewelry of their tribe. In the villages, the Maasai still practice circumcision as a rite of passage. Maasai culture is split into age-sets, with boys advancing in the phases of life with other boys of their group. At around fifteen years of age (the age set can span between 12 and 25), the boys will be circumcised and have to undergo the procedure silently.
“Until then, you’re not really a man,” says Matthew. Between the ages of 18 and 35, men are socially-conscripted warriors, growing their hear in dreadlocks and spending their days patrolling the lands and protecting their villages. The long hair signifies your age and warrior status. Unless, of course, you’re one of those who live far away, sending money home. “I still have five years,” says 30-year-old Matthew, rubbing his bald head.
Like indigenous people all over the world, the Maasai are increasingly asking the government to legitimize their traditional lifestyle. An active lobby demands grazing rights for their cattle in many of the national parks in both Kenya and Tanzania, including the Serengeti. There is increasing demand that private tourist operators not be able to displace the Maasai with their holdings, as in the 2006 case of a Dubai business that forced thousands of villages off their lands to make room for a jetport and luxury lodge.
Trying to survive in the modern world while maintaining a proud tradition is a difficult balancing act. “Most of the children, when they come to the city, they send home money,” says Matthew. “But some of them never come home.” In spite of saying he’s happy in Zanzibar, Matthew says he’ll go home one day. “Sometimes I feel sad because I think about the Maasai places, when I was there I enjoyed every day,” he says. “I don’t want to stay here for a long time. I have to go back to find a wife and keep cows and farm.”
*Cultivation was relegalized in the 1990s.