Tanzania’s Simanjiro plain is a vast arid region, covered with low brush and small trees, and punctuated by the occasional hulking baobab or yellow-blossomed orbili tree. Even during the rainy season, a thick layer of dust on the leaves mutes the greens of the flora so that its palette is limited to a few reddish browns and grays. It is a landscape of contrast, consisting of miles and miles of flatlands, with sudden jagged mountain ranges bursting up with little or no foothills, framing the plains below. Following the crest of one of these ranges, the road gently rises and falls into the distance, all the way to the horizon, then recedes again in the other direction, running narrow and straight as far as the eye can see. For all its geographic isolation, it is far from empty. Simanjiro is home to a significant portion of the country’s Maasai population.
The semi-nomadic Maasai are herders.1 While the men roam the country with their cows, sometimes for months at a time looking for good grazing territory, the women stay at home in the bomas and tend to the children. Maasai have a very strong sense of cultural identity, which has contributed to their iconic status in the rest of the world. In a wide barren landscape, the Maasai stand out in stark contrast wearing their red and blue checkered shukas. There are roughly 800,000 Maasai living in Tanzania, but they are spread thin over the Northern part of the country, living in small groups. Traveling through the rough desert, as rural as it might seem, you will frequently encounter Maasai herdsmen crossing your path, goats and cattle in tow.
Field recording of the morani chanting and jumping
Maasai men who have just undergone circumcision jump up and down, stomping down as hard as they can when they land as part of the ceremony of their becoming morani (warriors). The idea is that they want everyone to know just how much pain they can endure without letting it show. Many of them wear red face paint to show that they are among the fiercest in the group. In the past, in order to be considered a man, a young Maasai would have to kill a lion, but this no longer the case since it’s not legal to kill them any more outside of defending themselves or their livestock. As well as circumcising the men, most Maasai still practice female genital mutilation (FGM). Many in this region however, including this village, have abandoned it due to their conversion to Christianity, which happened sans missionary involvement. Interestingly enough, the traditional Maasai belief system vaguely resembles ancient Judaism, and it legend has it that before they crossed over the Rift Valley escarpment, they encountered a group of Jews somewhere in Ethiopia who heavily influenced their religious system. Since then, they have held a monotheistic belief mixed with various other African traditions.
In light of recent events in Zimbabwe, I should note that while lions are respected2, and a great source of pride3 for Tanzanians, they are a menace to rural communities. Killing a lion here is considered a serious act of bravery. One of the members of the En-Kata choir, Yona, had to kill a lion with a spear after it attacked his livestock and threatened his village. It’s certainly a different situation from big game hunting or poaching, but it shows how priorities differ between people who live in the bush and those who don’t. There are no tame animals in the wild, and to think otherwise is foolish, and potentially fatal.4 The places where these animals live are home to many people as well, and those aren’t always the coziest of living arrangements. I can’t say it’s easy to get behind killing such an impressive and beautiful animal, but there is an appropriate time and place for it. Even so, the conservationist in me keeps thinking back to the story of the American bison, where more were shot for sport than could even be used for food, and the species was nearly wiped out.
Male lion, Serengeti National Park5
I spent some time growing up on a small island off Virginia’s Eastern Shore6. Its economy is fueled almost exclusively by tourism for five months out of the year. The neighboring island is a National Wildlife Reserve populated by wild ponies, many of which are rounded up every summer and sold at auction. If it weren’t for the annual influx of tourists, the island’s economy would suffer. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle; tourism is a boon for the island, but it means other industries that could support the local economy, like commercial fishing, hardly exist. It is dependent on outsiders to keep it functioning. Something like that is also happening with the Maasai in areas that are visited by wealthy tourists on safari. In the region surrounding Lake Natron there are “model villages” that supposedly preserve Maasai culture in its purest form for the enjoyment of tourists. All traces of modernity have been scrubbed away so that people will see exactly what they expect to see: a scene pulled from the pages of a National Geographic circa 1950. Nearby, women will gather around decked out in ceremonial gear to try and sell you beaded bangles and knickknacks, or just ask for gifts. Selling souvenirs is not at all uncommon, but the concentration of Westerners looking for some sort of authentic experience is so high here that it’s become a cottage industry. What this will mean for the Maasai in the future, I can’t say. Time will tell.
I know that my understanding of the tourist economy here is colored by the time I spent in Chincoteague. I’m well aware of my biases and how they affect my perception of Tanzania and its people. Rather than allowing me to (falsely) think that I fully understand the complexities at work in African society, they give a frame of reference. Not all the answers, but some of the right questions.
When you look at how the Maasai live in places less traveled by tourists, like Simanjiro, you will see a society that is a blend of old tradition and modern influences. They drive diesel trucks and have solar panels attached to the roofs of their clay houses. Many of them have several cell phones for the different carriers so that when they roam with their cattle, they’ll always have 3G coverage. Those things are just on the surface, and affect how society operates on a day-to-day basis. The deeper changes are those that affect ways of thinking. The En-Kata choir was started in the early days of this boma’s conversion to Christianity as a way for girls to congregate and protect themselves from sexual abuse. It soon expanded to include men among its’ ranks (in part because that’s suddenly where all the women were) and the nightly choir practices provided a safe place for men and women to interact. En-Kata is indicative of some of the ways that Maasai culture has been changing, especially in terms of the social status of women. Their songs center around themes of faith and social justice, including the education of women. These are initiatives that came from within, and the work that has gone into implementing them has been done by the Maasai. Maliaki (below) is one of the leaders of En-Kata, and the head of MAPED, an NGO that is building a school in Simanjiro for both boys and girls. They raise money taking the choir on tour throughout the US and Canada. For the past few years, Pamoja has been working with them to produce music videos and release their albums, which are available on iTunes and Spotify.
It’s important to keep in mind that cultures are malleable, and are constantly evolving. As much as that evolution is influenced by foreign ideas, it is the members of that culture who ultimately guide it, and who have the exclusive right to decide what their society looks like. There’s a tendency to forget that about people like the Maasai. There’s an idealized version of them that people expect, and when the culture changes and no longer reflects that ideal, it is seen as dilution of their heritage. Outsiders, especially Westerners, often try to place them under a bell jar to preserve them forever, and see any change as a loss of culture as if they were some fragile species of bird on the edge of extinction.
On a more personal note, I’m going to be returning to the US in January, and after five months there I’ll be coming back to Tanzania to continue working for Pamoja and doing projects for Kahawa Media on a more long-term basis. Right now we’re in early pre-production for the biggest project we’ve undertaken, which is an independent feature-film that tells the story of the Maasai. While I’m here I’ll continue to visit Simanjiro, partly to do location scouting for the film, and to do more documentary photography that will be the basis for the look of the film. Right now is a very interesting time to be in East Africa, especially as a documentary photographer. Things are changing very quickly, and right now I still have more questions than answers about what has been happening here in the past few decades, and what is changing right now. I have a chance to be here as things continue to change over the next few years and be witness to them. One of our core ideas at Pamoja is that we should present Africa’s strengths rather that show it at its weakest. That’s the goal of my personal work as well, and I hope that in the time I spend living here, I’ll be able to do that.
As always, I’ll be regularly posting images and mini photo essays on Instagram.
- There is an old myth among the them that all the cows in the world were given to them by God, and are rightfully theirs forever.
- A lot of businesses use the Swahili names of animals. There’s a “Twiga Bank” (giraffe) and countless “Simba” (lion) companies.
- Lion pun. Sorry.
- This past June, an American woman in South Africa was mauled to death by a lion that attacked her as she was driving through a game park in an open-topped Jeep.
- About ten minutes after passing this guy (as well as his mate and cubs), our rattletrap Land Rover stalled and had to be push started. Talk about bad timing.
- There’s a mildly famous book about it, Misty of Chincoteague, and a movie by the same name. They are roughly as accurate about island life as The Lion King is about Tanzanian life.