The Masaai Of Tanzania

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.

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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.

Masaai market near Ngorongoro, Tanzania
Massai cattle market near Ngorongoro.
Masaai dance - Ngorongoro Conservancy, Tanzania
Masaai dance – Ngorongoro Conservancy, Tanzania.
Masaai huts
A Boma is a group of huts in a circular enclosure. The stick frames of the huts are plastered with mud & cow dung.
Masai cattle
Livestock is currency in the Masaai world and their cattle naturally occupy the largest enclosures. Their food consists mainly of meat and blood from cattle (drained directly from the jugular!) mixed with milk. But space limitations are forcing them to add grains to their diet.
Interior of Masaai hut
Interior and hearth of a Masaai home.
Masaai girl
A captivating smile
Masaai boy in school
Young boy in the Boma school.
Masaai school
We got the distinct impression that children are herded into school just for the benefit of tourists. We were requested to make a donation to the sleepy teacher, but we insisted on stuffing ours into a locked donation box and hoped for the best.
Masaai mother and child
A gorgeous mother and child

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

137 thoughts on “The Masaai Of Tanzania

  1. On the way to Ngorongoro Crater we had a similar experience. I was disappointed in the performance for tourists and felt like it was all an act. I wish I had seen your blog before I went last year! Interesting learning on Twitter today with you that it may be government encouraged for tourists- not that it is much better but feels less like a scam.

  2. Madhu, you are not only a brilliant blogger/writer , but sensitive,deep and honest in your observation of the Maasai Tribe. I have experienced the same with a 2 weeks mid-range safari outfitter last July which I will treasure my memories forever.. Keep traveling the world and keep putting in paper your emotions and experiences about them…the best way you know how…

    1. Eva, sincere apologies for the very belated response! I just returned to this post and discovered your comment. Thank you so very much for your kind words. Happy travels, no matter where life takes you 🙂

  3. Hi Madhu: I remembered this post and had to contact you! I’m climbing Kilimanjaro in July as part of an international team with an NGO. I have always wanted to see the Maasi people and a friend of mine went to one nearby Arusha and they stayed over night in tents. She said it was very culturally sensitive, not staged and one of her top lifetime experiences. Who did you go with? Did you stay over night? I’m trying to research the right organization to go with as it is very important to feel not like an invader. You can email me at: thirdeyemom@yahoo.com.

    I’m going in July! 🙂 Nicole

  4. Reading your blog is like reading a magazine. I know they just jump high as a courtship dance. They showed it in The amazing Race. 😀 From my landlord, she’s been there, and said that the locals don’t like their pictures taken because they believe it’s taking away a day in their life so she couldn’t take pictures of them. Maybe only back of the day? Or are you just that charming that you were able to take their pictures? 😀 They are beautiful, for real. I wanna go there so badly.

    1. Rommel, I think it is more that they resent the fact that their photos are splashed across magazines without any benefit to them. They are perfectly fine with being photographed inside their villages. I assume they charge a fee for the visit. So no it isn’t all my charm at work 🙂

  5. A thoughtful post, that is, one that gives me furiously to think. You see the surface, you see through it to depths beyond, what else lies beyond that? That’s the question you make arise. I certainly thought of the Masai as iconic; but the politics and geography of their daily lives, no, I never thought of that. I’m sure you’re right, animals are favored over people, and probably that’s because the animals bring in more tourist dollars. For some reason it made me think of Alexander McCall Smith’s “detective” series, The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, set in Botswana; and I wondered if you knew them, and if so, what you thought of them?

  6. I first saw Masaais on the streets and market when I visited Tanzania a couple of years ago. Their clothes were really striking, but a friend told me that many of those who move to town abandon their traditional garb when they can afford western clothes. I did not take any photos even though I desperately wanted to – I don’t know, but it just felt wrong. I would have taken photos if they had been performing, though (like the dancing Austrians I took photos of.)

    1. I guess it is natural to shed your traditions when you leave your native land. We didn’t take any photos outside of the Bomas either. Appreciate your stopping by to comment 🙂

  7. Thank you Madhu for a lovely post. Brought back fond memories of course. I understand the Maasai aren’t doing too badly: a) they managed to keep their traditions and b) I think they make a living of selling meat. Something I heard a long time ago. Not 100% sure.
    🙂

    1. Thank you for reading Brian. The problem is that the Masaai have too little land these days to rear cattle.

  8. How nice to read this post on the tall stately Massai. The Massai was often seen in movies as a warrior to be feared.
    Thanks Madhu for these educative inputs.

  9. Beautiful colors and tradition. Lovely images and well written post. I guess the Massai has became a popular or in fact too popular subject for the tourism 😦

  10. I thought I left a comment – but it might have evaporated – ha! well this post had me thinking abut so many things – first = appreciating diversity – 🙂 – and then the student at the chalkboard and the habitat feel – and well after scrolling the pics – I went and read your words – and in a way I maybe felt your experience more – because after I viewed and then read – and this chilling line “But their weary eyes spoke a different story.” hmmmm
    anyhow, your discernment and caring heart shines through with your colorful, quality photographs –

    and my fav of the post (hard to pick )- but this one kept stopping me – the

    Interior and hearth of a Masaai home.

  11. These are brilliant photos, I would love to go to Africa, but Mrs S doses’t fancy the lizards and insects….

  12. Fabulous photos and my heart is pulled at the thought of them being resentful at the loss of their old lives. In balancing there must be some benefit from tourism or at least I hope so. Thank you for this beautiful and thought provoking post.

    1. Thank you for reading Sue. Not quite sure how much of the benefits of tourism percolate down to these people.

  13. These children are so lovely and the cows. Fabulous shots, Madhu. Their sandals look really comfy….

  14. Your website is looking sleek, Madhu! And your writing as poetic as ever. And great photography to top it all off! Still loving your blog! 😀

  15. Dear Madhu,
    Thank you for sharing your insight on this sensitive and disturbing issue. I felt the same way when we visited the Floating Island on Lake Titicaca in Peru. The lives of the people were oriented toward tourism, and keeping their young from moving away to the city. Some people were critical of them, but I can understand how little choice they have in the face of their circumstances.
    Wonderful photos and, as ever, an insightful interpretation.

    1. Their lack of choice is what is so distressing Naomi. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      1. Dear Madhu, it is always a pleasure to visit your blog, and so often you leave us with a new perspective on important issues.

  16. An incredible series and wonderful photo-journalism ~ an incredible culture, and a perfect perspective from you and your lens. Well done in bringing such emotion with your words ~

  17. Madhu, this post is touching on so many levels. I haven’t visited Africa but whenever I listen to friends who have been through the same Masai experience as you describe, I always felt uncomfortable. These performances sounded degrading for such a proud people. I found your assessment of the school visit shocking and sad. I realize tourism is vital in the area but wish somehow there could be more sensitive control over how the programs are developed. Thanks for sharing your comments and photos which are helping to educate us all.

  18. Just why do we do this, Madhu? It’s not so different than Aboriginals and native American Indians. It makes me cringe inside. And are we worsening and abetting the situation with tourism and our expectations of the ‘bush experience’? There are so many lost causes we could take up in this sorry world of ours, aren’t there? Thanks for a moving and beautifully photographed piece. Hugs, darlin’ 🙂

  19. This was a very touching post Madhu. I have no doubt that the Masai are a very proud people and are very adaptable, but also a very exploited people…very sad.

  20. What a pity that they get the short end of the stick in the skew towards beast over man. Beautifully told (and shown), as always, Madhu.

  21. So cool. I like the last photo with the mother and child. The image of a baby in a sling on a momma’s back is one of my enduring mental images of Africa.

    1. Mine too Jeff. I am glad i managed to capture a couple of shots of mammas with babies slung on their backs.

  22. This saddened me as it did others, especially the part about the school, and it made me reassess the experience we had in Tanzania many years ago. Luckily, I do think our contact with the Maasai was different, probably because we were walking for days across the land and our arrival in a village was not part of a big group tour. At least I hope my memories are not clouded by rose-colored glasses …

    1. We were not in a big group tour either Mary Ann. It was just the two of us on a private tour. Perhaps you went to a less touristy Boma, but that does not change the fact that they have been deprived of their lands.

  23. Sadly the indigenous people from all around the world are struggling to retain their cultures. With their traditional lands taken from them they have to resort to other means of earning money. Tourism is an obvious choice and it is becoming the only way we can see their culture today. You have captured some beautiful images of a proud people. Lynne was lucky to have her genuine experience with a tribe she met on her own. But I imagine it would be hard to arrange that sort of meeting.
    The Aboriginals in Australia are also fighting to retain their culture.
    http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/sorry-apology-to-stolen-generations

    1. True Pauline. The visit to a non touristy Boma would have been possible with more time. Lynne and Ron were in Africa on volunteer work. Our visit was mainly focused on our safari, so we went to the most convenient location en-route.

      I can see the situation in Australia is similar. Truly distressing.

  24. Incredible and amazing post Madhu, you’ve captured once again the human spirit or an element that many of us can’t associate with unless we’ve walk in their steps. You’ve given us a close view of the tribes people and way of life – regardless, if it is a spot for tourist, then consider what their “behind the scenes” / reality must truly be. Thank you for allowing us to see the world through your lens.

  25. There is so much to learn about a person by glancing in their eyes, the window to the soul. Weariness and resignation from being confined to this lifestlyle is a humbling reflection. Your photographs captured a proud and beautful people.

  26. i see my visit to a boma not far from Ngorongoro differently, I think the Masai have adapted to the passing tourist and found a way to benefit from them, they still live as herders and are very proud people but by inviting in the passing tourist making them welcome putting on a dance and showing them round the small school room and homes they can generate an additional income, the boma I was fortunate to visit for example had water delivered by truck and this had to be paid for, I think it’s insulting to pity the Masai they are proud adaptable people making the most of there way of life, some had wen educated in the city’s and had returned to the Boma and were using there knowledge for the good of the community, I found them proud, welcoming and genuinely friendly and would realy like to get back to Tanzania one day to meet them again, great article , got me reminising

    1. Mike, this was never meant to be insulting. And I think it is a fine line between pity and empathy.

      Our experience was totally different from yours. Our guides were constantly wary of tribesmen and requested us to refrain from clicking pictures outside the Bomas. We sensed distinct belligerence and experienced considerable hassle to buy the artifacts on display and at the school, and there was resentment when we did not tip the teacher directly. I know from experience – I come from India – that money handed to individuals does not reach the community.

      I have no doubt there are authentic villages as the one Lynne mentions above, but this wasn’t one of them.

      The thing is I could relate to their resentment considering the raw deal they have been meted out. To say they have adapted perfectly and their lives are hunky dory is a bigger insult in my opinion.

      I did a lot of reading before I wrote this piece, and I was horrified. Much of it was written by educated Masaai. The world needs to know their true story. And worry as much about its disenfranchised humans as it does about its disappearing wildlife.

      Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts and enriching this discussion. Much appreciated.

  27. It is very sad to see these beautiful people reduced to performing for tourists. Like all indigenous people, they are finding it difficult to retain their way of life in a changing world.

  28. I won’t comment further on the information in this post; it’s too sad, really. The photography is beautiful, especially the photo taken inside the Masaai home.

  29. It’s always heartbreaking to see local people being exploited for tourism purposes. Tourism should bring benefits, but too often the money doesn’t trickle down to local communities. I’m glad you insisted to put your donation in the locked box — regardless how it ended up at least you have shown the teacher and students that you really wanted your money to go to them.

  30. I read this post on what is called Australia Day, but is really Invasion Day, and drew parallels with the dispossession of Australian Aboriginal people, who have also been deprived of dignity and culture.

    1. Sad state of affairs for indigenous people around the world isn’t it Meg? And the rest of us justify it by saying they have adapted well! What choices do they have left but to adapt?

    1. They are aren’t they? Appreciate your stopping by Rajiv. And apologies for the belated response.

  31. As always Madhu I learn a lot from your posts. The great photos add perspective and personality to the post. Thank you for sharing them. -Max-

  32. Ron and I had the same experience, Madhu. It sickened us to even have to play our part in this ritual by pretending this was authentic and hold our comments in check. It was as you say, tacky and degrading. However, a week later, while working at the orphanage in Ilula, we visited a Masai tribe in an authentic setting. We sat together on blankets and ate a meal together. Very moving experience. Change is inevitable and I hope many can hold onto their culture and tradition while adapting to some of this change. No easy answers. Everything is political which is why some Masai are highly educated so they can speak up and defend what is theirs. Your pictures put a face on their plight. I’m sure it was hard to narrow your photo choices for this post.

    1. Your experience with the Masaai sounds enriching Lynne. Yes, i did have a hard time selecting photos for this post 🙂

    1. It was a sad experience for us Frank, and I guess that comes through. Thank you for reading.

  33. Fascinating post. I was so absorbed by your photos and the analogy of Vogue is true. Such a change from the warrior tribes they used to be. Did you see this kind of poverty everywhere Madhu?

    1. It isn’t so much their poverty as the unfairness of their condition. And the fact that they are left with little choice. Thank you Kathryn. Have missed you.

  34. This is one of the fascinating people groups on earth. Their customs can be sometimes horrific to those from other cultures but they are survivors and don’t seem to have the stress problems to deal with familiar to those in the Western World. Too bad “civilization” has found them.

  35. Great post, Madhu. So important to see more than the ‘stars of the show’ and to consider their lives, plight, in a world turned upside down by colonialism and modernisation.

    1. The romance of Africa does gloss over all these little details doesn’t it? It is ironic how their land was used for trophy hunting by the very same people who fenced it off to prevent them from hunting for their livelihood!

      Apologies for the belated response Meredith. Hope this finds you well. And I hope you know how much you are missed 🙂

  36. Lovely post, Madhu. However, I can’t help but feel bad for the Masai who like the Native Americans of your have been deprived of their land and inheritance. There is this voice in my heart saying that it is wrong to reduce them to performers and entertainers, to put them in a fish bowl. Yet, on the other hand, only through opening up to the world will the rest of the world know of their plight. I guess, there should be a balance between the two interests.

    The other day, I read a news article that the Masaai will continue the enjoyment of their territory. Here’s hoping that their ancestral rights and land will be respected through the years.

    1. Amen to that Imelda. It would be wonderful if a balance could be worked out for all indigenous people in the world.

  37. Great post and photos as usual, Madhu! It’s truly saddening what is happening to their identity. Just the other day I watched a short report about the Masai and was surprised to see some of them talking on their cell phones! Might just be me with my probably stereotypical idea of what their ways must be like, but it was certainly surprising to learn technology is now part of their daily lives.

    1. Ha, no! Quite a few of them are well educated. And holding on to their traditions does not necessarily mean having to eschew the benefits of modern technology. Thank you for your visit and comment Carla. A pleasure to see you here 🙂

  38. Your writing and pictures are both stellar, Madhu, and go so well together. Have you thought about writing a travel book? (By the way, I love the expression of the kid in the back of the schoolroom. Was he mid-sneeze or just hated being in school?)

  39. Wonderful post, Madhu. You know i love anything close to home!
    A couple of interesting tid-bits (you may already know): the blood drinking (mixed with milk) is actually an ancient way for the inland-based Maasai to incorporate salt into their diet. Of course, the practice goes beyond practical purposes and also carries a strong ceremonial and religious significance.

    And, traditionally, the Maasai believe all cattle on earth belong to them, sent down by their god, ‘Ngai/Enkai. Many a cattle-rustle has been known to happen on account of this belief and you can imagine the Maasais’ frustration at modern life which has no room or tolerance for such traditions and customs. To add insult to injury, so many have now been ‘reduced’ to an agrarian lifestyle – a ling, hard fall for a proud warrior nation.

    1. I knew about their belief that all cattle on earth belongs to them, but was unaware of the former. I guess most dietary traditions, however strange, are in place for a reason. Thank you for reading and for the education 🙂

  40. An excellent thought provoking post Madhu. I have truly wanted to see the Maasi people but have wondered how to do so without threatening their very existence.

    1. Their existence is threatened more by govt. policies than by the actions of individual tourists. I am sure there are any number of NGO’s working with local communities you can contact Nicole. Ron & Lynne spent some time volunteering in Tanzania and might be able to advise you better.

      1. Interesting Madhu. I don’t know much about the governmental policies in Tanzania. I have wanted to go for a very long time and still hope to go soon. New trips just pop up before I can get there. Loved your post.

  41. I think you were wise to put your donation into a locked box, Madhu. I hesitate to donate to a good number of causes because of the scams people will pull to line their own pockets. It’s sad really because so many people world wide could legitimately use a helping hand.

    This, as is true with most of your posts, was an eye-opener, leaving me with so much to be grateful for. Thank you for the share.

  42. Oh Madhu I’ve been to a few places where I’ve felt like this, it’s just too sad and I wonder what the future holds.

  43. Beautiful photos Madhu and so terribly sad, especially for such a proud people, to have to reduce themselves to survive.

    1. It is sad Suzanne. Wish there was some way travelers could mobilize support for these tribes and ensure that some of the tourist dollars reach them.

  44. I agree with you Madhu. These women and so beautiful and elegant in their carriage. They do, however, lead a hard life. It is a pity that theor culture is not respected for what it is – something that is unique and that deserves to survive.

  45. Oh, great series of portraits!
    A wonderful people, we saw a show on them yesterday on French TV !! Thank you for the explanation! Have a good week

  46. What a poignant, beautiful and heart-wrenching post. I don’t think you were being oversensitive, Madhu… had I been there I would most likely have felt the same way. You captured that weariness in their faces so well. It’s sad to think that the children are also put on show in their makeshift “school” – there didn’t seem to be any books or pencils on those tiny desks.

    1. That school was suspect James. The teacher had her head down on her hands when we walked in and looked annoyed at being disturbed! Sad really. I wish some of the massive tourist earnings could be diverted to these poor people somehow. But this is how it is with so many other indigenous tribes residing near popular tourist destinations. I remember the same resigned look in the eyes of the Quechua people in the Sacred Valley.

  47. Beautiful pictures and an interesting story of the Masai. It is sad to hear how their way of living, traditions and culture are under threat. I am lucky to have spent time with these people and learn a lot from them while I was in Tanzania. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I read your post, and it sounds like a life changing experience! Thank YOU for your visit and comment Anna.

  48. Aw! its bad that their traditions are now used to only to entertain tourists. The sad part is they are also used to it as probably this is one of their means of livelihood.
    On the other hand, check the news on what ‘rich tourists’ are upto with the Massai, its just sad.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2837533/Tanzania-orders-40-000-Maasai-tribesmen-leave-homeland-going-promise-not-turn-land-hunting-ground-Dubai-royal-family.html

    And its true what you said, ‘they will never look out of place on the cover of Vogue’.

    1. More bad news for the Masaai. Why am I not surprised? Thank you for reading and for the link.

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