The Maasai take their culture with them wherever they go.
WORDS AND IMAGES Melanie Furman
“My grandparents only ate cow’s milk, cow’s meat, cow’s blood, and wild fruit they would find while grazing cattle. They still don’t eat maize meal, but now we have to. They never go to a hospital when they get sick. The forest always has all the medicine they need. Now that I am away from my home and the plants that are our medicine, when I get sick, I go to the hospital.”
I am sitting in the back room of a dark, cool hut listening to my friend Adam. He is Maasai, and he uses this hut to sell his people’s crafts to tourists. Not only does he sell the crafts and the usual tourist gear — sunglasses, beach blankets, and numerous objects with the words “hakuna matata” (no worries), but he also sleeps here. The hut is situated on the high tideline of Michamvi Kae, a resort town on the eastern part of the Zanzibar archipelago.
I ask him about his life in Zanzibar, and he patiently reminds me once again that his life isn’t here. He says kindly, “I am on Zanzibar to work.” His life is at home in Olkitikiti, Kiteto District in the Manyara Region of Tanzania — on the mainland. Tourism is Zanzibar’s main source of revenue and is the reason he is here.
Zanzibar is home to Muslims, with a smaller population of Christians and Hindus. Among them is a smattering of tribal people who have migrated from the mainland’s 125 tribes. Most of the tribal inhabitants choose to wear mainstream clothes and hairstyles. Except for the Maasai. Most Maasai still choose to wear their traditional cloth called ormisimbiji, beaded jewelry, sandals, and hairstyles. It’s easy to discern them from other Indigenous Peoples.
Adam is one of many young Maasai men who spend their days selling handmade crafts. His situation is unusual in that he rents a tiny semi-permanent shack made of palm fronds above the tideline. Most Maasai men don’t have access to a space; instead, they walk the beach with a tote bag of handmade crafts made by family members back home. The crafts include intricately beaded jewelry and carved wooden animals, sarongs, and T-shirts. Some men have small two-foot folding tables where they display their wares.
They have solicited me, as I’m here on vacation with my son. They have been polite, respectful of boundaries, and engaging. Conversations between us have been easy, and most of them offered warmth and generosity. I mostly replied to their gentle soliciting with a kind “no, thank you,” and then if they were still interested, we’d walk together, inquiring about each other’s lives with simple questions: “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “Where do you stay?”
If there was time and desire, and if they knew enough English, these young Maasai men walked longer with me and shared more. And that is how I came to befriend Adam, and also Ole, Matema, Moy, Lessingo, Jakob, Moses, and others. I’ve learned a lot about the issues facing the Maasai people and the reasons they’ve come to Zanzibar.
Maasai Forced to Give Up Nomadic Pastoralism
The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists, and over a short period of time, their access to land and water — and therefore their ability to herd cattle, their sustenance — has changed. The climate catastrophe, maize farms, and forcible eviction from their land are having the largest impact on their pastoralist way of life. The land has provided the best grazing for their cattle for generations. Without land and water to sustain the herds, young Maasai men cannot have as many cattle as their parents had. These changes are a constant threat to their livelihood and their lives, their traditions, and their culture, one that is ancient.
The climate catastrophe has worsened the Maasai’s access to grazing land and waterways. When I asked my Maasai friends when the rains come, they kept giving different answers. At first, I was a little confused by this. As I understood it, their lives and livelihood rely on knowing the rhythm of the rains so that they know when to plant maize and when and where to move their cattle at the right times of the year. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t they know when the rains come? I soon learned that their varying answers are due to the rapidly changing weather patterns that Tanzania, just like everywhere, is experiencing. They are used to two rainy seasons: one in November and another from February to March. But for all of February, the rains did not come.
The climate catastrophe, maize farms, and forcible eviction from their land are having the largest impact on their pastoralist way of life.
Ole invited me to Kimana, on the mainland, to visit his boma (cluster of small huts made of mud and cow dung) where he and his fourteen siblings, two mothers, father, nieces, and nephews live. It was remote. To get there, we took a nine-hour bus trip and rode another four hours along a bumpy dusty road. Then we hiked for forty-five minutes. Without electricity, toilets, or running water, Kimana was not your average tourist destination. In fact, I was the first White person to visit Kimana and Ole’s boma.
During my visit, I watched as crops withered and died. I saw cattle being moved to grazing lands farther and farther away. I could even see the rain-fed Kimana Lake close to Ole’s boma evaporating by the day. Kimana Lake was the source of their drinking water, and it was becoming increasingly opaque and gray. As a result, the Maasai are being forced to buy water for their cattle.
More and more land is being used to grow maize, and maize farms are encroaching on the land used for the Maasai’s sustenance. Ole shared with me how this has impacted his family, in which he’s of the first generation that has had to leave home to find work. He worries how the traditions and way of life will continue if all the men leave. As I accompanied Ole in the bush, he knew what every tree was used for: treatment for stomach problems, medicine for the flu, twigs for cleaning teeth. His people have relied on these plants for their survival for generations. What will happen if these areas are converted to maize farms?
In June 2022, the most recent eviction occurred. According to unconfirmed reports (accurate news about this has been difficult to source in Tanzania), Maasai pastoralists in the northern part of the country were forced from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation. In June, Tanzania’s president declared 1500 km2 of land in the Loliondo division in Ngorongoro district a game reserve — land that had been promised to the Maasai. The game reserve is reportedly meant for wealthy foreign hunters. The protests and resistance by residents of the area resulted in brutal beatings and death threats by security forces.
As land and water become increasingly scarce, the Maasai are being forced out of their semi-nomadic way of life.
As land and water become increasingly scarce, the Maasai are being forced out of their semi-nomadic way of life. To adapt to the changing conditions, young men are supporting their families by uprooting themselves to make a scrap of money off the tourism boom. They send money home to pay for family members’ school fees, supplies, clothing and school uniforms, food, and hay and water for the cattle. Adam, who has been coming to Zanzibar since 2018, says he makes USD 100 a month as an overnight security guard for a bar. He stays awake from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am every night. The money he sends home means that his niece can take a local bus to school instead of walking or running ninety minutes each way, five days a week. This is the only way she can get an education. He knows this and feels proud to sacrifice his life and time at home so that she and his family can survive in this new world. He hopes that she can get a better job than he has.
I comment on his pride and loyalty. Adam says that in the Maasai culture, at age fifteen, boys start their rights of passage into adulthood, and one of the main pillars of the teachings is to protect and care for their people. That explains why I am noticing it in all the Maasai men I meet. Life is changing rapidly, and this generation is taking the burden. Sent to Zanzibar by their families, they leave home between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-eight, and they go willingly due to their deep and unwavering loyalty. But what will become of their connection to the land, their traditional knowledge, and their ancient customs if the next generation is catering to tourists in a tropical paradise?
Discrimination of the Maasai: The Heavy Cost of Paradise
With tropical fruit, white sand beaches, pastel sunsets, bikinis, and warm turquoise oceans, Zanzibar is the land of hakuna matata. It’s a phrase that my thirteen-year-old son and I hear daily, as if it were the sound of the breeze blowing through the palms or the song of the tropical birds. The tourists who come for it are also attracted to the Maasai because of their mystique and exoticism. Most tourists I have talked with say that the Maasai are a large part of what they love about the island.
The locals, on the other hand, have something different to say. The manager of a hotel where my son and I stayed warned me: “A lot of the Maasai here aren’t real. If they were, they would be home with their cattle and not have a cell phone and sunglasses.” He added that there are fake Maasai who dress up to sell me things. An Airbnb owner also warned me to stay away from the “beach boy Maasai, as they will lie to me and steal my money and cell phone once we felt comfortable with them.” Their distrust of the Maasai is echoed by others and means that locals won’t rent to them.
‘People want to know about us because we a have story.’
I tried to go to an outdoor musical performance with Ole one night. The Maasai security guard, under orders from the manager of this French-owned boutique hotel, told us we weren’t allowed to enter even if we bought drinks because Ole is Maasai and was wearing his traditional cloth. In other words, if he would assimilate, he would be welcome. This incident opened up the underbelly of this supposed tropical paradise that I couldn’t cover up again. The more time I spend with my new Maasai friends, the more they share how common this discrimination is.
“We have tourist friends that tell us that locals tell them to not get close to Maasai. I told them I don’t know why, but I think it’s because they are jealous,” says Adam. “Rastas generally don’t like us, but not all. My boss is a Rasta. I think they are jealous because when we are on the beach, we have a business, so people come to see what we sell. And people want to know about us because we a have story.”
And, indeed, they do have a story, but who is listening?
Formal Education: Opportunities or Threats to Maasai Culture?
I have heard the same story over and over: “I am here selling crafts because this is one of two jobs I can do here as an uneducated Maasai. The other is a security guard for hotels and bars.” The work and professions that the Maasai can do in Zanzibar are limited. Some end up selling sex to tourists; sometimes they’re hired to be informal escorts and offer entertainment to guests at the local hotels.
Discouraging experiences with getting an education were a common reason the Maasai came to Zanzibar. Ole told me, “I left school in grade four because it was too far to run. I would be late so my teacher would beat me. I told my parents that I would rather be herding cows than being beaten.” Matema and Moy told me the same story. It turns out most of the young men between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-eight have similar experiences.
Lessingo shared details about the traditions of Maasai culture. He said that between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, the men are the warriors and protectors of their people, land, and cattle. At fifteen, they undergo rigorous rituals and sacrifices that last one year. They learn from the elder men how to fight off lions and survive in the wild with only their cattle, knives, and staffs. It is for this reason they are hired as security guards for hotels and bars in Zanzibar.
Only twelve years ago, becoming a herder was a viable option. But now, a formal education is needed to survive.
And, yet, he wants to go back to school and get a degree in culture and tourism. He said that, with the money he could make in the industry, he could provide his younger siblings and his own children with the education he didn’t need when he chose to leave school in grade four to continue his ancestral tradition of herding cattle. At the time, only twelve years ago, becoming a herder was a viable option. There was no need for him to step into the education system, to get a job to provide for his family. All the food, medicine, building supplies, and water they needed came from the land. They could sell a cow or goat every few months to get some money for clothing, a few plastic buckets, beads, and jewelry to adorn themselves. The women raise chickens to sell to the Swahili people to have some cash for themselves. But now, a formal education is needed to survive.
Adam shares with me the value of Maasai children attending school now. He says that in school they will learn English and Swahili. At home all families speak Maasai, and kids start learning Swahili only once they attend school. I share with Adam and Ole my concern that if the kids go to school full-time, in the next few generations maybe Maa (the Maasai language) will disappear, just as many Indigenous languages do if there isn’t a strong effort to keep them alive. I ask Ole and Adam if they also worry. “We will not lose our language if we go to school. See our teeth and cheeks?” says Adam, pointing to the ceremonial brandings on his cheeks and the gap where the inferior incisor teeth were removed during ceremony. “We won’t lose this. It’s part of our body, just like our language. It goes with us wherever we go.”
Due to the lack of clean water and electricity in Kimana where Ole’s boma is located, funds are being raised to drill a deep borehole and install a solar pump and holding tank. Not only will this allow access to clean water for his community, but it will free up the girls’ time so they can attend school instead of walking all day to collect water. It will also allow the men to stay home and create an economy growing fruit trees and vegetables to sell, rather than having to migrate to tourist areas. Growing fruit trees will also create more shade and store water in the root systems. All this depends on easy access to clean water.
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Melanie Furman (she/her) is a freelance writer who humbly lives and works on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, which is also known as Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada. She is passionate about mothering, social and environmental justice, and her business Culturalive Fermented Foods.