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The search for Maasai culture

Tuesday morning, March 7, and the clock has already struck saa tatu, or nine, when Laia, Giulia, Msafiri and myself leave our humble abode in Moshi for Maji Moto, a Maasai village in the North of Tanzania. I am going ostensibly to help them do some additional research for a dispensary that is going to be built there next year, funds permitting, with the help of C-re-aid, but in reality I am much more interested in learning about Maasai culture and the village itself.

If you have never heard about Maasai before, in which case you must not be a regular reader of our blog, still odds are that you have come across them in the form of highly stereotyped pictures of indigenous African tribes in picture books, on postcards or in films. These representations obviously do not tell the full, nor often times even the real, story. In short, Maasai are part of various Maa-speaking peoples who “migrated into what is now known as Kenya and Tanzania at least several hundred years ago from a homeland they call “Kerio,” which some archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests may be in southern Sudan” (Hodgson 65). They began to “specialize almost solely in livestock herding” (Hodgson 65) and during the colonial period, roughly between 1890 and 1964, “Maasai identity as “pure pastoralists” was further reinforced” (Hodgson 65). By being allowed to tag along and stay at Msafiri’s in Maji Moto for a few days, I am fortunate enough to experience a tiny part of Maasai life in the 21st century, and one far away from the tourist circuit at that.

Maji Moto

A lot has changed for the indigenous peoples of northern Tanzania in the last five decades and the village of Maji Moto serves as a microcosm through which to explain at least some of these shifts in Maasai culture. Msafiri and his siblings were born in the village a few years after it was established sometime between 1973 and 1975. It marked the beginning of sedentary life for a people who had been nomadic for hundreds of years, for reasons that will become clear later.

The trip is supposed to take no more than a few hours, but we only arrive a little after two in the afternoon. Why is that you ask? Could it be because taking a two hour bus to Arusha, buying groceries, getting on a dala dala and then having to wait for four boda bodas to take us into town is a major hassle? Well, no. This is all smooth sailing, relatively speaking. However, leaving stuff at the hostel and only realising fifteen minutes into our journey, still having to take photocopies of the architectural plans on the day and somehow having to find a way to withdraw money with a faulty credit card makes for considerably less efficient traveling. Not naming any names though. You know who you are, Laia and Giulia.

Measuring rough construction dispensary

After finally getting to Maji Moto and being taken on a tour of the village and some of the previous C-re-aid projects there, we start taking measurements of the rough construction of the dispensary in order to be able to draw up the definitive architectural plans accordingly at a later stage. At least, I suppose that is what is going to happen, I am not an architect. We spend the first two days doing this essentially, although we still find the time to enjoy a few home-cooked meals from Mama Makai, Msafiri’s wife, and have a few too many banana beers, or at least I do. What starts as a fun little activity for me, quickly becomes almost mind-numbingly boring and I am lucky to discover the joys of the laser distance measurer before I completely lose my mind.

The third, and in our case also our last, day with the Maasai is where it gets interesting though. In order to understand what the people from the village really need and what they expect from the dispensary, we get to sit down with the village elders and anyone interested in offering us insights into the culture.

Firstly, we are eager to get into the circumstances that led them to become sedentary. It quickly becomes apparent that they were forced into it by a number of reasons, not the least of which some British colonial policies and their continuation under President Julius Nyerere, incidentally one of Africa’s most beloved statesmen, which ended in the stripping of some of the best Maasai grazing lands, among other things. The “creation of Maasai “reserves” in both colonies [Kenya and Tanzania] to contain and control the seemingly chaotic movements of the semi-nomadic herders and take possession of their most fertile rangelands and permanent water supplies” (Hodgson 65) is one example of such measures. But there were other “ambivalent colonial policies that either sought to protect and “preserve” Maasai “culture” by limiting their access to education, healthcare, and other “detribalizing” influences or to demand immediate, radical changes to their lives and livelihoods in the name of “progress,” “productivity,” and “prosperity” (such as in the Masai Development Project of the 1950s)” (Hodgson 65).

After independence, the Tanzanian nation-state continued their assault on the indigenous peoples’ rights and the elites “embraced the developmentalist agendas of modernity and progress propounded by the British in the 1950s and 1960s” (Hodgson 66). There were “repeated campaigns such as “Operation Dress-up” to force Maasai to modernize, including decrees banning old men from wearing blankets in the daytime, the application of ochre to clothing and skin [ochre being the most commonly used colour among Maasai tribes], leather dresses for women, and pigtails for warriors” (Hodgson 66).

The Maasai we talk to do not say a lot about President Nyerere, neither positive nor negative, but they do mention him and his socialist Ujamaa, familyhood in Swahili, policies as a contributing force to the establishment of the settlements. I later find out that his government did indeed continue the “colonial practices of alienating and redistributing the most fertile areas of Masai District … to more economically “productive” people and enterprises” (Hodgson 66) until there was basically not enough land left and indigenous peoples were forced to start settling down.

Discussing Maasai culture and the history of Maji Moto in particular

More and more people start coming into the office where at first only a handful of us had gathered. I am squashed between Msafiri and an older woman when a sharp-dressed man with an air of wisdom about him raises his hand and starts recounting what he remembers from the early days in the village. When the Maasai chose Maji Moto, it was because it was suited to agriculture and there was no one living there. According to him, “the river running through it, a lack of harmful insects and that people did not start dying after settling down” meant that there was no reason to move on from there. He tells us everyone was entitled to an acre of land while the village was being established, even though actual plot sizes varied depending on the size of the family. Being sedentary meant protection, a duty shared by everyone. It was safer than having individuals fend for themselves. Afterwards, children started to become educated by going to school. When we ask him if they would go back on their decision to settle down if they could, everyone in the room quickly assures us that they would not. It has undoubtedly had a positive impact on their collective lives.

I am especially curious to find out what has remained of the traditional Maasai culture in the last 50 years after this massive change in lifestyle. When the question is posed to the man in the smart suit, he so quickly and confidently responds that “Masai culture is already finished” that initially I cannot help but feel it is heartbreaking. Others protest, but he goes on to explain why and they eventually back down in what appears  to be agreement. He says the fact that there is no longer enough cattle means that people are getting educated at a faster rate than ever before in an attempt to look for different ways in which to organise their lives. Children now recognise dubious practices in the culture, such as ill-informed beliefs about the spread of HIV, the practice of female mutilation and applying facial scars. Most children no longer speak Maasai and technology is speeding up the process of change even more. He clarifies that the culture remained unchanged probably for thousands of years, but that it has evolved very quickly in the last 50 years and that it might disappear entirely in the next 20.

The dispassionate way in which he tells us is both eyeopening and somehow comforting to me. It would be selfish and wrong to impose on them our own wishes for the culture to remain unchanged, just as it was wrong to force them to change and develop too quickly during colonialism. Change is simply a fact of life and for better or worse, it is going to happen.

We sit down with local fundis, Swahili for construction supervisors, and a group of exclusively women in subsequent meetings to discuss the traditional building culture and in particular women’s medical needs for the dispensary. Seeing as I am neither an architect, nor a woman and I have already gone on for too long as it stands, however, I will leave it for someone else to discuss some other time, hopefully.

It only leaves for me, therefore, to stress the fact that on the drive home from the village I felt happy to have been in Maji Moto and optimistic about the future of the village and the people. I am incredibly thankful for the experience and I hope to help C-re-aid contribute a tiny bit to their, and our, ongoing development in the future.



Hodgson, Dorothy L. Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World. Bloomington Ind.: Indiana U Press, 2011. Print.

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