BAAYA TRAVEL DIARIES | THE MAASAI TRIBES
I just returned from a safari trip to Kenya. The wildlife, the rolling savannah grasslands, gurgling creeks, liquid gold sunsets take your breath away. But culturally, the hunter-gatherer Maasai tribes of this ancient land are truly intriguing. My guide and driver Mulei, gave us a talk and took us to the tribal village for a visit.
Literally, ‘Maa’ is the language of the ‘Sai’ Tribes, while ‘Mara’ means a dotted place. In other words, the Maasai Mara is the tree dotted grassland of the Sai/Maasai tribe. They live in an enclosure of app 20 huts called an ‘Enkang’. The village is nestled within a protective, tall fence made of thorns, bush and grass. Each hut has two or three rooms, with tiny little windows that let in some air, but keep out the wild animals.
The tribe wears bright red and blue chequered costumes, intricate braided hair styles and sparkling jewelry. Their tall, lithe frames stand out against the flat, green grassland. They even beat the brightly colored male birds of this beautiful national park.
What fascinated me, was some of their ancient customs- their welcome singing- which sounded like some age old pagan rhythm, their way of making fire, their craft skills and their homes. Everything seemed strange, yet familiar, somewhat like India’s own ancient tribes- the Warlis and the Nagas.
They make fire by using two types of wood- a flat, hard, cedar wood base is created with a number of holes punched in, of different sizes. And a soft wood stick, buffed by the local sandpaper plant leaf is also made. The soft wood stick is rotated rapidly, by hand, in a hole on the cedar wood base. This causes friction, leading to formation of embers from the soft wood. The embers are then transferred to dry grass or donkey dung – which is then inflamed, by gently blowing on the pile. Voila, in a few seconds, you have fire, no matchsticks needed!
Another intriguing custom was that of a community jumping sport. It’s a competition for the men of the village- the one that leaps highest will get a girl without having to pay any dowry! And the village elders decide which girl it will be.
As I was in their midst, I could not help but wonder about how much the tribe will be able to retain its ancient ways. They already know English and Swahili, but are still choosing to live without electricity in their homes. They have adopted Christianity and Islam as their religion, but still worship their animistic gods. Change is the only constant after all, and everyone has the right to be in step with the times. At the same time, they hold the keys to our ancient past and how humanity itself may have evolved.