“We are comfortable living like our ancestors; it is our pride and identity. I am a proud and independent Maasai and will never give in to slavery,” said Sumaria, son of the village chief in the Maasai Mara. It was my second visit to Masaai Mara in November 2012. Sumaira recognised me as the woman who had brought bags of chocolates for the kids four years ago. I was happy to see him once again, now married with two daughters.
Sumaria is one of the many proud Maasais living in the Great Rift Valley. The Maasai are one of the many ethnic groups called ‘Nilotes’ made famous by their geographical proximity to the river Nile. Despite the invasion of modern technology and western influences, the Maasai have managed to preserve their traditional way of life and their ancient beliefs. The majority of them reside in ‘Kraals’ near the many game parks of East Africa. Each ‘Kraal’ is a semi-circular settlement of 350 people belonging to a clan. Sumaria’s ‘Kraal’ is a fenced territory of Acacia houses, loaf-shaped structures built with mud, sticks, grass, and cow dung. The fences are there to protect from the invasion of wild animals.
Even amidst the tidal waves of modernisation and urbanisation, the Maasai have retained their distinct identity. Simultaneously, they have kept pace with education and development, learning Mathematics, English and immersing themselves in the sciences. During my visit, Sumaria spoke in comprehensible English and proudly showed me the school that he had attended. The school was a respectable centre of learning in his community.
During our trip, my colleague and I had an amazing time living in the Kraal and chatting with women, children and families. It was interesting to observe their daily life as I clicked away with my camera. Owing to the endless visits of tourists, women and children were completely at ease being photographed. Sumaria proudly introduced me to his wife who had come back with a herd of cattle. Cattle are the centre of life of Maasai tribes representing food and power. The more cattle you have, the richer you are, and the more power and influence you have within your tribe. As I walked around the Kraal, captivated by the sights and sounds of this nomadic lifestyle, I found, all of a sudden, some children and women running towards a heap of hay with a roar of excitement. A newly born calf was being bathed, a moment of joyful celebration.
Maasai women are very strong. Although they are family oriented, they could easy give the men a run for their money through the tasks they perform. In addition to milking cows and looking after their children, these women are not intimidated by building huts or fetching water in even the most difficult of terrain. These strong family figures were easily identifiable by their shaved heads, bright clothing and beaded jewellery.
Both men and women wore typical Maasai dress consisting of red sheets (shuka) that is wrapped around the body. The Shuka comes in bright shades of red, blue, yellow and also floral prints, patterns, checks and broad stripes. Beaded jewelleries were worn by both men and women, varying in color depending on the occasion, and as a sign of beauty and prosperity for the Maasai tribes. Under the shade of trees, young girls sat alongside their grandmothers engrossed in designing jewelleries and carving wooden figurines of animals and wooden masks.
At the sight of my camera, the craftswomen boasted their creations proudly. One of the girls told me that these handicrafts would be sold in game parks and at tourist sites.
Two things about the Maasai’s physical features were instantly striking — their stretched earlobes and a deciduous canine tooth. There is an old practice observed among Maasai people which entails removing the canine tooth buds in early childhood. It is their belief that this will keep them safe from many illnesses and an early death.
On our last day, we were hauled to one side of the Kraal by a sudden thick glottal sound, typical of African tribes. There a group of Maasai Mooranis, the youth warriors, were gearing up to perform ‘adamu’, their traditional jumping dance. They stood in a circle as one singer lead the others in chorus. Each young man jumped as high as he could while the others remained in the circle, singing. Sumaria told me that the one who jumps highest gets the best girl to marry!
Even though I did not understand the lyrics of the songs, I found the melody and the rhythm totally mystical. The people of Maasai lived no lavish lifestyle, but their sense of contentment was moving. The days I spent with them are now a fond memory, and the rhythm of the ‘adamu’ still rings in my ears as I reminisce on quiet Karachi evenings.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 3rd, 2013.
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