Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Weekend with the Maasai

Editor’s Note: This journal entry involves blood and killing a goat, so I would not read it if you are squeamish. The weekend referenced is this past weekend.

I just spent the past weekend with the Maasai Tribe in Monduli, Tanzania. I know that I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but again, another incredible experience. This experience was perhaps the most authentic of all that I’ve experienced this summer, and was off the beaten path.

While I was named “Strong Warrior” [Omurani] in Maasai by Matthew the Maasai over the weekend, I could not have done this trip alone. It was organized Holly, and four other ICTR interns traveled to Monduli, rounding our group out at six.

We left Friday immediately from work, and met in downtown Arusha at the Africafe. Most of my friends were going to Zanzibar for a weekend of beach and relaxation, which I would do, but, I have the beach in Miami. One of the goals of traveling to Africa was to immerse myself in true African culture; not just do “cookie-cutter” trips, and man, let me tell you: Mission Accomplished.

So after meeting Matthew the Maasai in downtown Arusha, he hands us a list of Maasai phrases, none of which is similar to Swahili at all. To be honest, I’ve been pretty lucky for the past month, because 90% of the people that I interact with in Arusha, speak English [at least limited] along with their Swahili. This is due in part, because Arusha is the main stopping point for most tourists prior to going on safari or going to Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’ve been spoiled but I’ve tried to learn what I call “Survival Swahili”. “Susha” means “drop off”, “hapana asante” means no thank you, “jambo mambo” means, “hello how are you?”, and I can use all of the words from the Lion King. “Hakuna matata, rafiki.”

However I have no experience with Maasai [the language], so it was much appreciated that Matthew gave us a list, even though I was still ultimately struggling to communicate. Here’s the list [I’ve copied it word for word for you]:

Maasai Salutations.
A. Supai? – How are you? – All genders
B. Ipa or Epa – Fine or I am fine.

A. Keyaa – How
B. Keeya Mbaak? – How are things?

A. Sidai – Good
B. Sidai Naleng - Very Good

A. Supai Papa? – How are you, father?
B. Ipa or Epa

A. Yeyo takwenya – How are you, mama?
B Iko – I am fine. [Men do not say iko.]

A. Supai Ormuran? – How are you (a warrior)?
B. Ipa or Epa.

Other terms:
A. Endito –Girl
B. Omurani – Warrior
C. Papa – Father
D. Ndoye – Girls
E. Irmuran – Warriors
F. Ngakwi – Grandfather
G. Koko – Grandmother

Aomonu – Asking for something
Aomonu engare – Can I have some water?

Endaa – Food
Emoti – Cooking pot
Mbesai – Money [I was thinking I should ask everyone, “Aomonu Mbesai”, from now on.]
Kule – Milk
Ngiring – Meat
Osarge – Blood
Euji – Porridge
Orgali – Stiff porridge
Ormushele – Rice

The other term that wasn’t on the list, that I tried to learn early on was “Ashi” or “Ashid”, which means “thank you” in Maasai. It was important to me to be as thankful/respectful as possible while I was a guest in their village.

After taking a two hour bus ride out of Arusha, we arrived at the village. The first thing that we saw was the schoolhouse, where the younger children were learning school lessons such as Reading, Writing, Math, English, History, etc. The schoolhouse looked very similar to 18th century American schoolhouses: all grades were taught in one room. From what I remember, there was no electricity at the schoolhouse whatsoever.

Past the schoolhouse were the Bomas [huts/ also a term for village in general] where we would be staying for the evening. As we were arriving, the villagers were celebrating a wedding of one of the younger warriors who had just married his first wife. The Maasai are polygamous; men will marry 3, 5, or 7 wives, based upon the number of cattle that they own [which the Maasai consider sacred – understandably so, it serves as a major sources of life for them]. Maasai women will be promised to men when they are as young as 10 years old and will serve a somewhat of a servant role to the first wife until they turn about 15 years old, when they are officially married, and then immediately start their own family. When I stayed in the hut, I was not sure if my hut papa was living with his wife/daughters/son, or just his wives and sons [I’m mostly sure he was living with his wife/daughters/son.] Men will often marry when they are older, and more established.

To describe the location, basically, there’s a central cowpen, where the village congregates, with the bomas situated in a circle around the central cowpen. Additionally, the entire village is fenced off from the outside Savannah [we were specifically right outside of the Lake Manyara area], so that lions and other predators could not come in at night and kill the Maasai cattle. The ground was quite rocky and there was cow poop everywhere. Additionally during the day, flies would swarm the entire area, crawling all over the faces, mouths, eyes of the Maasai, especially the children. I used bug spray on myself, which was only minimally effective, because bug spray only stops mosquitoes from biting, these were just common fruit flies that don’t bite.

Anyway, the Maasai celebrated the wedding, and then we were introduced to our host families for the weekend. I had thought that all three of us male interns would sleep in a hut, and then the three female interns would sleep in a different hut, but in actually, each of us was assigned to a different family. This was somewhat daunting to deal with but I made it home ok. For most of the weekend, we were supposed to refer to the father as “papa”, and the mother as “mama”, however, I learned that the mother’s name was Nazaro, while the father’s name was Otakwe [it was unpronounceable, but this is as I close as I remember/ could pronounce.]

At this point, we presented the gift of tea, specifically chai bora to each of our host families. For the weekend, we also brought candy, a soccer ball, and blankets. We retired for the evening to the bomas, where Nazaro made one of the best chai tea lattes that I’ve probably ever had. Specifically, it was made with whole cow milk, so that’s probably why it tasted pretty well. Additionally for dinner, she made Orgali, which I believe is the same as ugali, the staple dish of Tanzanians, basically which is a giant rice-like dough. Ugali usually tastes like paste, but the orgali that she made was fairly good, and she gave me a mixture of a tomato/onion like broth to dip the orgali, which made it a pretty good dinner.

During dinner, it became immediately apparent that there would be difficulty in communicating between Otakwe/Nazaro and myself. They spoke no English [they knew “cow” and “milk”, which they pronounced “millek”], and I spoke no Maasai. It was like this episode [“Darmok” for my fellow Trekkies] from Star Trek The Next Generation, when Picard gets stranded on a planet with this other alien and the universal translator can’t translate. Over the course of the whole weekend, I tried to use body language to communicate, and sometimes it would work. Before I learned “thank you”, I would bow; when I was full I would rub my belly, and when I was going to sleep, I would make a sleeping motion.

Anyway, after dinner, I basically went to sleep on one of the beds, which was basically cowskin stretched over wooden logs. To be honest, the ground may have been more comfortable, but I don’t know.

The next morning, I woke up, and was again served Chai, as well as Euji, which basically tastes like oatmeal/cream of wheat. I was served Chai at literally every meal, and they served us Euji for breakfast and lunch everyday. Euji was good the first time [tastes like oatmeal/cream of wheat. Mom, I’m so glad you made me oatmeal as a kid because you helped prepare me for euji], but I was sick of Euji/Chai by Sunday.

After breakfast, Otakwe and I went out and counted cows [well, I mostly watched, while he counted. Cows = wealth/ bartering chip, so it’s important that you haven’t lost any cows!] Then, we met with Matthew, who speaks perfect English [it was great to communicate in my own language again], and he said “When you are in Maasai village, you must wear Maasai clothes.” So we went to another empty boma, and we stripped down to just underwear, and then put on the Maasai clothes. Basically, Maasai wear just three long sheets, positioned to cover up the whole body. We look somewhat like what the shepards look like in Christmas plays. Anyway Maasai clothing is brilliant, because it protects you from cold weather when it is cold in the morning/night, as well is light enough to stay cool in hot weather.

After we changed/took pictures, Otakwe and Matthew took us to one of the cattle to retrieve some blood from the cattle’s neck. Typically, the Maasai make blood milk, which is high in protein, and an infinitely renewable source of life; however, this time we just drank cow blood. The cow does not die from the process, because the Maasai patch up the wound with dirt/cow dung. They also do not use the same cow for blood each time, giving each of the cows plenty of time to heal. Otakwe shot an arrow into the cow’s neck, and then Matthew used a gourd to collect the blood. They then invited us to each taste and drink the cow’s blood. Because I didn’t want to be rude, and I wanted to sample the culture, I agreed.

Cow blood is delicious. I hope I don’t ruin Campbell’s Tomato Soup for you, but cow blood tastes like a saltier version of Campbell’s. After everyone had tried the cow blood, then Otakwe and Matthew brought the gourd to the boma of a woman who had recently given birth which supposedly helps brings strength to the weak.

After the cow blood experience, they asked us if anyone wanted to be “marked”. Two of the more well-known physical features of the Maasai is that they have long holes in their earlobes for earrings, as well as permanent circle marks on their cheeks. I did not get “marked” [due to liking things the way they are, and fear of tetanus/other diseases], but Holly wanted to get marked, and so the Maasai marked/branded both of her arms permanently with two circles on each arm. We were also told that around 17 years, Maasai boys are circumcised in a ceremony in which they cannot flinch at all; otherwise, it shows dishonor. Holly was very brave and did not flinch. Holly said it wasn’t that bad, but even I have my limits.

After our cow blood / Holly’s branding experience, we went on a morning walk through the Savannah. During our walk, we saw giraffes approximately 100 meters in the distance, as well as gazelles. We tried to get closer to the giraffes, but when they saw us, they fled. I used to think that giraffes were slow creatures, but they can run quite quickly. We went to the lake where the Maasai bring their cattle as well as get their own water. The lake was pretty, but it was obvious that it was quite polluted. Additionally, it was a 3-4 mile walk from the village, so I can imagine it is difficult to transport water back and forth. Our Maasai guide also showed us the treebark which supposedly mitigates some of the effects of the unclean drinking water. Fortunately, for the weekend, we had brought clean drinking water for everyone, which we eventually left with the village.

After our walk, we came back, had euji lunch, and had some downtime. We brought out the soccer ball and played with the children, who love soccer. They kicked the ball all over the village, and often, the imuran would stop what they were doing and would join in. After soccer one of the Maasai decided to show us how to throw spears. Granted, we used sticks, because they/we were afraid we would hurt ourselves, but we practiced with a can. The Maasai omurani could hit the can 10 out of 10 times, when I couldn’t even hit it once.

Also during the afternoon, a small dirt devil tore through the Maasai village and literally tore a little bit of thatch roofing off my host family’s boma. It was so fast that I couldn’t get a picture, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that happen. I was literally ten feet away from the very small tornado. It was somewhat bizarre.


After this, Matthew [who had gone into town during the morning] had brought back a live goat which he said was going to be our dinner. Around 5pm, we went approximately 400 – 500 meters outside of the village to prepare for our goat barbeque. They didn’t want to kill the goat in the village, because the smell of blood from the goat might attract lions, which you do not want in the village. [“Lions: Great to look at from a car.”]

At this time, Matthew asked us if any of us wanted to help kill the goat. I volunteered. No one else did.

Why did I chose to try to kill the goat? I’ve never killed anything in my life [with the exception of insects]. I eat meat, and I’ve always enjoyed eating meat, but I have never really connected the fact that I’ve eaten a hamburger with the fact that I’ve killed an animal in the process in order to do that. Granted, I didn’t plunge the knife in the cow’s throat, but I’m the beneficiary of the spoils of the cow’s death, and without meat-eaters such as myself, the cow would not die. I respect vegans/vegetarians’s choice to abstain from meat; but I like to eat meat, and my ancestors have eaten meat, and I’m consciously will choose to continue to eat meat. I think everyone should be free to make their own choice in this matter. However, the reason why I volunteered is that I want to appreciate what actually happens, when I chose to eat meat, and I want to appreciate the sacrifice that goes into every hot dog, hamburger or steak. I don’t think I’ll look at meat the same again.

So after it seemed an eternity of waiting [one minute real time], Matthew said it was time to kill the goat, gave me the knife, and showed me the vein on the goat’s neck to cut. Three other Maasai held down the goat, so that it wouldn’t move. So I tried to cut the goat’s throat, but I could not pierce the skin. I swear that knife wasn’t sharp enough, but Matthew said it was. Anyway, Matthew got down next to me, and he guided my hand with the force on the goat’s throat, killing it. So, I did not kill the goat myself; I did it with Matthew’s help.

After we killed the goat, it is Maasai custom to immediately drink the neck blood of the goat from a bowl. Unlike cow blood, this was disgusting, especially because the goat’s raw neck fat mixed into the blood. I literally only took a sip of this blood to just show respect.

Then, the Maasai showed us how to skin the goat, which I and the other male interns helped skin. Women are not even supposed to watch the sacrifice of the goat [which the female interns did], but they definitely cannot help with the preparation of the meat.

After we helped skin the goat, the Maasai took over and removed body parts from the goat. One thing that I admire about the Maasai is how they literally waste almost nothing. I asked Matthew what they do not use, and he said that they do not use/eat the tongue or eyes, but that’s it.

The other Maasai cooked the meat, and they shared with us. According to custom, the person who cuts the meat eats first. So, since I cut the neck, I drank the goat neck blood first, and since another Maasai was cutting the cooked meat, he ate first. I ate goat leg, goat heart, goat liver, and goat ribs. The best part of the goat is the goat heart which tastes similar to lobster. It was actually pretty good.

It was at this time that Matthew began to refer to me as “strong warrior” for being willing to try to kill the goat. I take this name with honor, but I do not think I will ever kill another animal with my own hand again. Additionally, I do not condone/support anyone killing animal for sport; we killed this goat for food. The goat would have died as a result of me, whether I had killed it myself or just eaten from it afterwards.

After dinner, we went to bed. During the night, I felt mice running through the bed, which truthfully was somewhat disconcerting, however, such is life for the Maasai. I took approximately six half-hour naps over the course of the night because I couldn’t get comfortable.

On Sunday, we began the same routine that we did on Saturday. Sunday was somewhat a short day, but the Maasai children and woman perform a song and dance that involved jumping with us. Jumping in Maasai culture is an important custom, and people are valued for how high that they can jump. After giving our host families and children more gifts, we said “Ashid” and departed back to Arusha.

Final Thoughts
This was an incredible cultural experience, nearly like an experience out of a National Geographic magazine. I think most importantly I saw the best and the essence of humanity in the simplicity that is the Maasai. They didn’t speak my language, didn’t have the same things that I had, and yet, still welcomed me into their home and fed me for a weekend. I also appreciated their fascination with little things such as my flashlight or my watch. I’ve never paid that much attention or cared that much for these items, but for someone who doesn’t regularly see these items, I can understand how they are interesting now. I also want to note that these people are not inferior intellectually; Nazaro and Otakwe both interacted very intelligently with me and others, and could read and write. In fact, I think they had an easier time communicating with me; than I had communicating with them. While I was not physically branded [unlike Holly], I think this trip left a permanent indent on me that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Maasai Children in Ceremonial Garments [for wedding]

Masaai Celebrating as part of the Wedding.

Me and one of the sons, right outside our Boma.

Nazaro, my Boma's mama [the taller one], and some other children.  I can't tell if the girl on the left is Otakwe/Nazaro's child, or Otakwe's second wife.

Matthew and Me outside of my Boma

It's hard to see from this picture, but my house papa, Otakwe is shooting the cow in the neck with a bow and arrow.  Again, the cow doesn't die from the process, it's like giving blood. 

Maasai Weekend: $150
Drinking Cow Blood from a Gourd: Priceless.

Near the lake where the Maasai get their water from.  The little specks are cows in the distance.

Another picture of the lake where the cows/Maasai get their water from.  Note the cow poop on the ground, which I believe heavily pollutes this water.

School next to the village.  All grades learn in one room.

My boma, post dust-devil.  Note how the thatching on the roof is missing.

This is right before I killed the goat.  I did not put any pictures of me actually killing the goat, hakuna matata.

After I cut the goat's neck, I had the honor of drinking the goat's blood first.

The "room" in the Boma where I slept.

I am a giant to these people.

Otakwe, my house papa, and I.  Otakwe looks scary but he's actually quite friendly.

Me, jumping with the Maasai in our "goodbye ceremony". The Maasai are laughing because I have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever.


  1. What an amazing experience! It's always fun to go off the beaten path and actually experience a local culture.

  2. Simply incredible. You're doing great, I'm jealous. You might be a bit braver than me, though. You seem to really be getting a feel for Tanzanian culture and all that that area of the world has to offer. Can't wait to hear more about it when you get back!