Lisa and I have finally reached the Maasai Mara in Kenya, after a long drive from Lake Nikuru. The Mara has been a much anticipated part of out trip, an enormous game reserve-a photographer's dream. This said, today we're headed to the Enkutoto Village in the Rift Valley Province where we'll see an incredible Maasai village. Mui Gai, our guide, has arranged for us to experience the people and culture of this area, a truly remarkable opportunity.
As we enter the village, I'm struck by the distinctive appearance of the tribe in front of us. They are attired in bright orange and turquoise robes. Many of the women have beautiful, hand made, beaded jewelry around their necks, giving them an exotic appeal. Their skin tone is quite dark, and their facial structures include high cheek bones, quite unique relative to what I've seen thus far in Africa.
The Maasai are part of an ethnic group known as the Nilotic, emanating from southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Numbering 841,622 in the 2009 census, this local population has become well known due to their close proximity to the game reserves of the African Great Lakes. While the language spoken by this tribe is Maa, many are educated in the use of Swahili and English.
The tribe we are visiting today has a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, and its people have maintained age old customs. For instance, we see a small group of men on the ground with what appear to be hand drills. By rapidly grinding pieces of wood against each other on a hard surface, the friction of this combustible material produces smoke, then a flame. This looks like magic to me!
According to their own oral history, the Maasai began migrating from their orgins in the lower Nile valley around the 14th century. Consistent with their reputation as fearless warriors and cattle-rustlers, they forcibly displaced many ethnic groups in this region, absorbing mainly Southern Cushitic groups. By the mid-19th century, the Maasai teritory had reached its largest size, covering the majority of the Great Rift Valley. Predominantly cattle raisers, many in this group became raiders, using spears, shields and throwing clubs to depopulate southeastern Kenya.
As we walk around the grounds, a Maasai elder comes into view, sitting on the ground, appearing deep in reverie. I don't want to disturb him; he appears so contemplative. Mui Gai explains that the Massai society are strongly patriachal, with elder men deciding most major matters for the tribe. The laws that govern behavior are oral, passed on from one generation to the next. Conflicts between tribe members are settled in an out-of-court process known as amitu, to make peace. Settlements in disputes result in payment with cattle and a substantial apology.
The Massai have had an historically high infant mortality rate. It is for this reason that babies are not recognized by the tribe until they reach 3 months of age. This problem has improved as women have been introduced to clinics and hospitals during pregnancy, allowing more infants to survive. Wandering around the grounds, I come in contact with a beautiful woman with her baby. We're in the mid-day sun, and her bright white teeth stand out, surrounded by her dark skin and colorful dress. These people seem very friendly to tourists, which I'm sure has to do with the admission fee Mui Gai paid on the way in.
After several hours, it's time to go back to our bungalow. We've bought some tchotchke from the natives, making them quite happy we came to visit them. I know that a lot of what we've seen today is a show for the tourists. Nevertheless, the Massai people have done a fairly good job of maintaining their pastoral lifestyle in the face of influences imposed upon them by the modern world. I'm now looking forward to our late afternoon jeep drive through the game reserve, in search of free roaming animals in optimal lighting conditions.