Their appearance fit my every romantic notion.
Tall, lithe, ebony bodies with elongated limbs, sheathed in bright colored fabric. Short cropped hair on perfectly rounded heads with stretched earlobes. Stunningly beautiful women, weighed down by intricate bead jewelry, who wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Vogue. Their posture ramrod straight. Their gait almost insolent.
But their weary eyes spoke a different story.
We were welcomed with a traditional dance, escorted around their Boma, invited into their homes. The welcome felt superficial. Tacky even. The resentment of a proud warrior race reduced to performing for tourists was palpable. Or perhaps I was being over sensitive. Perhaps the reality of their lives clashed too much with the imagery in my mind. Of the majestic, free roaming, iconic symbols of wild Africa.
Their resentment is understandable considering that cultivated imagery hardly ever benefits them. And considering the distinct skew towards beast over man in the colonial as well as the current national conservation policies, that disregard the fact that the Masaai have harmoniously co-existed with wildlife for centuries.
Seven national parks across Kenya and Tanzania were carved out of traditional Masaailand. Bordering the parks are more private game concessions. Denied access to their grazing pastures the Masaai lifestyle and ethnic identity is under severe threat. Many have been integrated into peripheral service industries – mostly as camp guards or guides – or have migrated to cities.
It is remarkable that a majority still fiercely cling to their traditions, despite the hardships of being confined to conservancy areas. Perhaps the only ones of the hundred plus indigenous tribes of Tanzania that still do.