Twenty Cows

Trip Start Jun 18, 2008
Trip End Aug 17, 2008

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'll admit (and my husband will agree) that I am not the world's best camper.  However, a camping safari was all my budget would allow. The first night was a little rough, as I did not sleep well. I am a bit of a high maintenance sleeper and do not fare well outside my own bed.  Combine that with jet lag and the unexpected noise of the small town surrounding our campsite, it was a long night.  At one point, I was woken by the sound of loud music and realized it was the song "I Like to Move it! Move It".  I had to laugh.  Just after I drifted back to sleep, a loud wail erupted from outside the campground fence.  A female voice began to shout and cry. At first, I was afraid that she was in danger. However, once I heard a male voice responding, I knew this was a lovers' quarrel.  Although I did not understand a word of the conversation, the woman's cries and desperate voice revealed true heartbreak.  A broken heart sounds the same no matter what the language and I lay awake thinking of how truly similar we all are.
Grateful for the sun's appearance, I exited my tent eager for the second day of safari.  Our cook, Raphael, served us fresh fruit and eggs for breakfast as local boys loaded our supplies back onto the vehicle. Before long we began the trek to Serengeti National Park.  We quickly passed back by Lake Manyara (~ 3000 ft) and began the ascent up the African Rift Valley (~ 7500 ft with peaks higher than 10,000 ft). As we climbed the escarpment and I looked back east at the rolling hills and occasional mountains.   I have to say that I did not expect Tanzania to be this beautiful. The landscape also changes frequently making the mere drive enjoyable. We passed by many fields of maize, wheat and coffee.  As everywhere else I had seen, many people walked the side of the road even when there appears to be no buildings anywhere in sight. Herds of cattle and goats were the most common feature as well as the young Maasai boys tending these animals. The temperature dropped as we climbed higher up the escarpment and we were soon in the clouds.  The fog was dense, but I could see thick jungle vegetation lining the roads and could often tell that a steep cliff lay just off the side of the road. We soon entered the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and left paved roads behind until the drive back to Arusha.
After quite a while of cloud vision, the vehicle descended just enough to glimpse the surroundings. The lush jungle was left at higher elevations and a ring of mountains surrounded a typical African savannah. "This is Africa", Jamie exclaimed as we glimpsed rounded huts nestled in the hills.  Although it is a conservation area, some Maasai are now permitted to live in the area in exchange for leading cultural tourism programs. Sadi stopped at one of the Maasai villages for a short tour.  
As I write this, I am still trying to sort out my feelings about this experience. My current understanding of the Maasai is they are an indigenous group actively resisting modernization choosing to live their traditional lifestyle centering on their cattle.  The Maasai are very visible on the Tanzanian landscape as they still wear their traditional dress consisting of being draped in a blanket.  They also wear large earrings that hang below a large opening in their ear lobe.  We were met by young men in this attire as we approached the village. At this point everyone I had encountered in Tanzania has spoken English yet I was still surprised to be greeted in almost perfect English.  A welcome dance was performed by the young men followed by the women's song. It was quite interesting, but obviously staged leaving me with an unsettling sensation.  Although these were true Maasai they were too comfortable with tourists greatly contributing to an inauthentic feeling that remained throughout the tour.
We walked through the opening in the thick protective stick barrier that surrounded the village. Children called hello and held out their hands before we were brought to a home.
When we entered the house, the women were kicked out although they build the low circular dwellings with sticks and mud.  A young Maasai man spoke to us although traditionally a man his age would be out hunting. Next we were brought behind the village to a simple stick hut kindergarten school (the older children go to school further away). The children sang to us then were led by one of their classmates in counting by tens in English. It was impressive. 
We were then whisked back to the village and asked to purchase jewelry made by the woman.  This is where I became uneased. The tour cost $50 for our group, so it was really not much per person, but is a great deal of money to a Maasai.  I had no problem with the cost and feel it is fair to pay someone to show me where they live and to allow me to take photos. I actually feel more comfortable with this agreement than photographing Maasai along the road as if their daily life is part of an exhibit.  In addition, if I wanted souvenirs I would rather buy directly from the producer.  I suppose the discomfort was due to the begging children and the strong encouragement to obtain souvenirs. If the Maasai chose to rely on a subsistence economy, than why do they need a lot of money? On the other hand,  if they spend most of their day catering to tourists than this would greatly limit their ability to provide for themselves. I would assume in most Maasai villages there would be very few instead of very many men present during the day.  I'll admit the village was very reminiscent of a Sally Struthers' Save the Children commercial, but if the Maasai chose to resist modernization, I want to respect this. If they are a self-sufficient, traditional culture, poverty is more of a Western notion. Perhaps they need the money for cultural survival as it is the only way to continue to live in their original homeland?  However as each of us visit, we erode their traditional lifestyle, and visitors receive more of a performance than a cultural exchange. Perhaps I am thinking too much from two years of teaching Cultural Geography? Perhaps I should wait for a more authentic Maasai experience before making judgments. In the meantime, I will laugh as I remember a conversation with a young Maasai man who told me that I am old, I am very old to not have children, and that my husband should have paid at least twenty cows for my hand in marriage.
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