Exactly a week ago, I got home from a three-week trip to Tanzania. I was there to research a book. It was an amazing experience. There’s a lot to say about Tanzania. But the part I want to talk about is a visit I took to a traditional Maasai village.
As they have for centuries, the Maasai primarily live by herding cattle. As we drove around the country, it was common to see young boys in traditional Maasai blankets driving cattle or goats out into the countryside to graze. But it’s not a very secure way to make a living and some Maasai are looking for other ways to make money. A few villages have opened themselves to tourist visits. They sing and dance, offer crafts for sale and show visitors around.
But I had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a visit to Williamsburg or the Polynesian village in Hawaii. This wasn’t an “enactment,” but real life in one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world where the average income is less than $50 a month.
The hands I held were rough. They had worked much harder than I had ever done in my life, but the smiles felt genuine. It’s hard to say. I can say for sure that the bouncing dance of the Maasai is harder to do than it looks.
Here are the village homes.
And no, they don’t go someplace else when the “gates” close, as I had to keep reminding myself. Here’s the kitchen:
The heat and “stove”:
And the bedroom, sitting area:
It’s true that the Maasai probably spend most of their time outdoors and use their homes mostly for sleeping, but most of the rooms in my house are bigger than any of the huts we saw.
We also visited the village pre-school. I’d done an earlier school visit as an author in the town of Morogoro and was shocked by the contrast. The Morogoro school was a private school and by Tanzanian standards very well off. They had a library of hundreds of books, slide projectors, colorful teaching aids, and well-fed, well-clothed students.
Here’s the school in the Maasai village.
Paper is scarce, (that cupboard in the back was their entire supply closet) so students use a slate until they perfect their letters and numbers and then they might get to work with paper.
Of course, this was the local preschool, which is not mandatory or paid for by the government. I have to hope that the elementary school and secondary school in the area have more resources.
As the Maasai have been traditionally nomadic it’s been a challenge figuring out how to serve this population. It’s a problem the country is still working on. And the Maasai are just one of some 120 different tribes there.
But some things were the same as they are everywhere. The ABCs:
An encouraging teacher:
And the incandescent beauty of children:
My book isn’t about the Maasai or about poverty. But it reminded me that as a writer, and as a person, travel can do so many things. It brings alive the world you’re trying to create in your book, but it also brings alive the world itself.
P.S. After I posted this, my friend and fellow writer, Carmen Bernier Grand, asked if there was any way to help. I’m so glad she asked because it prompted me to do some research and I found this organization that helps the Maasai right where this school is located in the Ngorongoro region. Here’s a link: http://www.aidtanzania.org/index.cfm