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Jane Ahlin, Published March 03 2012

Ahlin: Seeing the old and the new with the Maasai in Africa

This is the story of three drivers on a safari in Tanzania (East Africa). More specifically, it’s the story of modern Africa through the lives of three men whose tribal backgrounds are much different from the lives they lead working for tour companies. On a lesser plane, it’s the story of a group of tourists (including my husband and me) whose senses and sensibilities were awakened in new ways – uncomfortable for us at times, to be sure, but also captivating where cultures old and new overlap.

There were 15 of us on the safari (viewing/photo safari, not hunting), five per vehicle. The drivers drove the same vehicles all the time, but we traded spots, riding in different vehicles and getting to know all three drivers. The name of the driver who also served as our overall guide was Lubenga (called Lubey). His major tribe was Bantu and his home village was not far from the Serengeti where we spent most of our time in the wild. Lubey was in his late 30s, married and had two little boys.

Emanuel, another driver, also was Bantu, although his home village was in the Mount Kilimanjaro area. He was single, and eight or nine years younger than Lubey. The tradition in his village was for men to have multiple wives, and Emanuel’s father had five wives before he died at age 47 of malaria.

The third driver, Selemani, was Maasai. Because we visited a Maasai village like the one he came from, we learned the most about his tribe’s traditions. The Maasai are one of the “lost tribes of Israel” and didn’t end up in Kenya and Tanzania until the 17th century. Today, those in the villages live much the way they always have.

The Maasai are handsome people often pictured in colorful photographs of Africa wearing bright red shukas (blankets) and large beaded necklaces, flat and plate-like around their necks. Their sandals are made from old rubber tires instead of tanned cowhide – one of the few capitulations to modern society they’ve made. Men, women and children alike shave their heads – mostly for cleanliness, although there are rituals involving hair. The walls of their round huts are covered with mud and dung (dung for waterproofing).

Men marry several wives, and each wife makes her own hut, enlarging it as her family grows (10 children is an average family). Roofs are thatched; floors are of dirt swept hard. Each hut has a doorway but no door. Beds are made from cowhide stretched between poles and stacked out of the way during the day. There’s no soft furniture – just wood chairs or benches – no decorations and a bare minimum of pans and dishes for cooking and eating. Blankets and clothing are kept in wooden boxes to keep insects and animals from ruining them. Because there is no running water or even a well, water must be carried by the women each day. There is no electricity, nor are there ovens. Cooking is done inside or outside over fire. When we asked why their huts are so spare, Selemani said, “Maasai live outside.”

Indeed, the Maasai are cattle herders, and that’s all that men do (women do every other kind of work). A circumcision rite for young men done out in the bush remains extremely important for the tribe. Indeed, we saw boys dressed in black blankets with white painted faces away from their villages, signifying that they were in the healing period between circumcision and the feasting celebration of their reaching “warrior” status.

Selemani had gone through all that, but he also had stayed in school and gone on to “flora and fauna” college – as had Lubey and Emanuel. (Actually, Lubey was fluent in English and Japanese and had other degrees, too.) All three honored the traditions they grew up with. For instance, Lubey and his wife went through a three-year period of his family “investigating” her and her family “investigating” him before they could marry. He also had to pay a dowry in cows to her family. (Emanuel told us the investigation part is no longer important in his Bantu village, but everybody insists on dowry in cows.)

And yet, the three drivers all lived in the city of Arusha away from the rules of the village with no intention of living the subsistence/pastoral life they were born to. A foot in both worlds, they, nevertheless, are part of modern Africa.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.