Walking into and around a Masai village would have been an easy way create a promotional video for World Vision or any other non-governmental organization looking to further health education, water sanitation, child sponsorship or gender equality. It’s unbelievable that people still live in abject poverty given civilizations great advances, human rights advocacies, and various environmental and gender movements. We entered a Masai Village on our way back to Nairboi after a couple of days in a luxury tent in the Masai Mara and saw a deep contrast between the way Westerners are accommodated for versus many of the local people. Masai Mara is named after the people populating the surrounding areas, the Masai people. They are the most culturally preserved Kenyan tribe even inspire of them being only a very small percentage of the Kenyan population. The majority of the tribes have moved away from their traditional ways after the presence numerous NGOs influenced and educated them.
The on-going (but changing) practice of polygamy was a proud tradition of the Masai tribe. Men, especially those rich in cattle, could have multiple wives. In the particular village we visited the chieftain had 8 wives and over 40 children (I would like to say 50 but don’t want to overestimate and can’t recall the specifics). When Camille and I entered we were oriented with a brief history of the Masai tribe by one of the chief’s sons, John. Outside the interior of the village fenced with sticks we sat under a tree only steps away from a group of about 10 Masai men dressed in red and carrying sticks (used to help herd cattle) laying down trying to beat the heat. There wasn’t any motivation for them to do much work and why would they given the heat of the day was starting to pound down on them.
We walked through one of the gates (the number of gates in a village indicates the number of families living inside the particular settlement ) and the first thing we pasted were a ton of goats coped up in a tight enclosure. One of the first huts next to the main gate was the chief elder. The hut like all the other huts was made of cow dung and given the rich equatorial soil and abundance in resources I’m unsure why they chose to use cow shit for their homes. It was later explained that it was an easy way to quickly produces houses which would only be temporary as they would be moving the village. He further explained they would only move their village a few hundred meters every 10 years. This was clear indication of their nomadic pastoralist spirit, given their history of cattle herding and finding green lands for their livestock. Walking in we couldn’t avoid stepping in poop, animal poop. Our host was quick to say that it is considered good luck when stepping in poop. He continued walking through the village in his sandals not minding whether or not he stepped in the lucky substances.
When we went into the chief’s hut, there were 2 “bedrooms” and a kitchen. In addition to that there was a small room for the animal calves. A huge part of their diet consisted of the blood and milk of goats and cattle. When you see skinny cows in rural areas it may be a result of people drinking the the blood of these domestic animals for their nutritional value. Of course if a calf is going to feed on it’s mother that doesn’t leave much for the chief and his family. Next to the calf’s room was the kitchen which was consisted of 3 blocks in a triangle, leaving space in the middle for burning sticks and starting a fire. The room was very dark and smelled of smoke and the total size of the hut was likely to be 20-30 square meters. The neighboring huts were a bit smaller with the same structure.
After an explanation of what happens in the hut we moved towards the market which was likely set up for tourist dollars. The women we’re setting up their crafts on tables arranged in a large circle. The majority were unable to speak English and what we saw were very hard weary faces. This seemed reasonable to us considering the Masai women are the backbones of the entire community and the laborers. They build the huts, make the crafts and garments, cook, clean, mind the children, bring in the water, and do pretty much everything except provide the village security at night. The men lounge around the entire day and guard the village during the evening from animals and other tribes. When they the children are born it is not expected they attend their wives during labor, hold their children at birth or even see them for a period of one or two months after birth. Inside the village we saw women and other older children tending to the young. Outside the village before and after our visit the men remained in the same places.
We had many questions about the gender differences, marriage, and education. John was happy to answer all our questions and had no shame and even joked about his role as a male. Times seem to be changing and the younger generation of Masai men seem to not want to have multiple wives. Most of the men in the group we spoke to only had one wife and not more than 4 children and seemed content with this. BTW- the unofficial exchange rate of cattle to women was 10 cattle to one woman with dowries given to the wife’s family. While this post is clearly from a Western perspective most of the discussion and questions raised were from a respectful approach. The Masai men had a good humor to them when responding and weren’t offended by any of our questions and reactions. It should be noted we had little to no interaction with the women, likely because of both cultural differences and language barriers. A huge question left in our minds was whether or not culture preservation is always a positive and whether or not that question brings it’s own biases given the cultural or western perspective we hold. A week prior we visited the Bomas of Kenya (Boma Swahili for home, more specifically a place of concealment). in Nairobi and had some insight to the various tribes and traditional village life in Kenya. Our visit further enhanced what we learned and our appreciation for cultural anthropology.