I was very nervous to go to the Masai village but not due to the reasons most may think.
The Masai people are an indigenous tribe that lives in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. They’re estimated at about one million people and live in local villages throughout the region. Masai are traditionalists and have resisted the urging of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more modern lifestyle. They are one of few groups left in the world that preserves their traditional ways. One of the ways they make money is by providing tours and homestays in their local villages to tourists.
I’ve been on dozens of village tours before. Most of them are problematic to the point of being nauseating. The poorly run tours come off as human zoos at best and racist caricatures of cultural experiences at worst. We once participated in a village tour that went as far as to have a “put your face in the hole” style cardboard cutout of one of the villagers. They didn’t understand why we hesitated when they suggested we pose for funny pictures with our faces on the cardboard body of the guy standing next to it. That was a hard pass for me. I’ve also been to other village tours that were basically a two-minute look around a 30-minute sales pitch. Neither of those options felt authentic or educational in the slightest bit.
Needless to say, I was a bit hesitant before this part of the trip even began.
The night before we had a meeting around the fire pit where our Contiki trip manager told us we’d be separating into gendered groups to discuss controversial issues with the Masai people.
I was immediately nervous about which group Lindsay would go with. As a gender-nonconforming person who is often unidentifiable by gender, I knew it was going to be an issue. We knew the Masai people were reading her as male and knew that the trip leaders knew she was female. We were nervous that the Maasai people would insist on her going with the male group and the trip managers would correct it and create an awkward or dangerous situation.
It’s illegal to be LGBT in both Kenya and Tanzania and still deeply culturally taboo in both countries. In the deep logical side of my head, I knew that as white tourists the likelihood of us being attested or put in a dangerous situation in front of a tour group was very low but I couldn’t shake the anxious gut feeling I had in my belly. It was anxiety to the extreme from a place of fear for the person I love – but it made me want to opt-out of the experience completely.
Ultimately, Linds made the choice to go and I stuck by her decision.
Early the next morning the Masai Chief, Joseph and his deputy Moses arrived to walk us to their village in the middle of Amboseli National Park. As we walked across the rust-colored savannah, kicking up dust in our wake, Chief Joseph explained the traditional uses for the plants and animal droppings along the way. We walked along the road. Well, it wasn’t much of one anymore and ended up winding our way through the bush while impalas, ostriches, and a few giraffes often rushed through the landscape.
The village was tiny, consisting of several bomas, which is the name for the Masai houses enclosed in a circular fencing structure.
The village looks like it’s straight out of the pages of National Geographic.
I’m not going to sugar coat it – I’m also struggling a bit while writing this article. The coverage of most African countries in the western world is limited, biased, and incomplete. The narratives are almost always revolving around starving children, war conflicts, extreme poverty, and a lack of infrastructures like electricity, plumbing, and freshwater sources. While this is a reality for many people throughout the African continent, it is not true to the whole population. Remember, Africa is huge. You could fit America nearly four times inside the continent. With an area that large, filled with wildly different cultures, it’s unfair to generalize.
Before I left the US, I promised myself I’d write a fair and accurate reflection of my encounters. I would report the truth of my experiences and not dwell on the typical issues. But then I got to Kenya and witnessed first hand many of the issues I swore I wouldn’t dwell on. The Masai DID struggle with infrastructure issues, food scarcity, political corruption, and poverty. Not only the Masai villagers but many people throughout the ten different regions of Kenya and Tanzania we visited. Being very honest, my month in East Africa was one of the more difficult travel experiences I’ve had. Tourism in East Africa is impacted by hundreds of years of colonial oppression, which has resulted in many white tourists being treated like walking ATM machines. I get it – when your family is struggling, hounding a few tourists to buy your products is a no brainer. Nonetheless, witnessing extreme poverty, struggling with travel-related illness, and being asked for money at every turn makes for a challenging travel experience.
That being said, our visit to the Masai village in Amboseli was one of the most culturally immersive experiences I’ve ever had and I’m a tough critic. I don’t have any judgment for communities that provide less authentic experiences or the tourists that support them but for me contrived and choreographed isn’t for my liking. I’m less interested in the voyeuristic aspects of the villages and more interested in learning about the people and their way of life.
I chose to participate in this tour because I wanted to support an authentic travel experience and I’m pleased to say that it truly is an immersive experience that supports local entrepreneurship and provides a genuine cultural exchange.
When we arrived at the village after our walk we were told that we were allowed to take photos of whatever we’d like and we’d be introduced to the Masai way of life by contributing to the village through regular chores. I laughed nervously because I thought he was kidding, I’m a city kid through and through I wouldn’t know what to do with a cow if it looked me dead in the eyes – nope. He was serious.
Upon reflecting on this experience, I loved that we started this way. We weren’t greeted by some dance performance, like other tours do, but were casually introduced to family and friends living their daily life.
Chief Joseph introduced us to a woman in her late 20s named Charity. She spoke English well and was going to instruct us in the art of Masai home repair. Women build houses using tree branches, ashes from the fire and cow dung as a means of binding. They asked us to help demonstrate and most of the group eagerly grabbed a handful of fresh cow turds to fix one of the village homes. It was a great ice breaker and forced the group to reacclimate themselves to a new environment. People in the group were laughing and cracking jokes with the Masai women as they smeared handfuls of cowshit along the cracks in the houses to patch holes. After you’ve taken massive piles of shit to a shit covered wall by hand, you’re really able to reassess your expectations for an afternoon.
After Masai home repair 101 we were lead through a goat milking demonstration by Charity and were taken to view the village animals. We learned about the Masai way of life and how villagers live traditionally on meat, blood, and milk. Nowadays, the Maasai are able to trade meat, milk, and goat cheese in the nearest town for vegetables and other foods but for the most part, they still stick to the traditional diet. The one difference is that Elders usually reserve the drinking of cow blood for during celebrations and ceremonies. During the goat demonstrations, we learned about the importance of livestock to the livelihood of the community. We learned that cows are often treated as currency and used in every aspect of the Masai lives. From the cowskin beds to the meat they eat, to the ability to trade animals for dowries and as a means of financial exchange.
Masai children start learning to care for and grazing livestock at a very young age. Sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years old in a group of children. At that age, most American children aren’t left alone in a room – let alone free to graze their goats for 10-12 hours.
Throughout history, the Masai people traveled with their herds to grazing lands but now the government has stopped their nomadic lifestyle and encouraged them to put down permanent villages. This change has resulted in Masai men traveling with the herds to seek grasslands and water while the women and children stay in the village.
Afterward the goat milking demonstration, the Masai Chief, Joseph lead us through the village and showed us how the men build fires using two sticks and donkey dung to create friction. The guys in our group enjoyed the opportunity to attempt to make fire themselves, let’s just say they weren’t quite as skilled as the warriors.
Society for Masai people is extremely gendered and there are few – if any – opportunities for Masai women. After the fire demonstration, we separated into two groups. Lindsay opted to stay with the women while our Tour Manager, Haron smoothed over the gender questions expertly and discreetly. Haron was incredible in this situation and couldn’t have been more amazing.
What came next was perhaps the most interesting part of our entire trip. We sat for just about an hour with a group of roughly 10 Masai women ranging in age from 18-48. The majority of the women were in their late 20s and all of them were married and had children. We were allowed to ask as many questions as we liked and in turn, they could ask us questions. The women were all dressed in brightly colored fabrics over patterned dresses and wearing Masai sandals made of recycled motorcycle tires. Some of the women had small children on their hips and many of the women bore the marks of body modifications and deliberate facial scarring.
We learned about marriage, childbearing, and typical women’s work in the village. We learned that Masai women make beautiful beaded jewelry during the day and spend their time collecting firewood, water, and taking care of their families. Eventually, the questions became more in-depth and covered issues of sex, women’s rights, birth control, and other controversial issues.
Maasai marriages may be polygamous, but one-sided, in that a man may take several wives and bare many children, but a woman may not. Eventually, we learned that women are the property of their husbands or their fathers in the village. In Masai culture, cows are the currency. When a man wants to marry, he must pay the father of the bride in cows. The more cows one has, the wealthier they are. They are literally buying and selling women at the whims of the men in the community. While I was listening to these women speak of their lives, they were very nonchalant about being beaten, living in plural marriages, and living an existence of hard labor and childbearing. As I was sitting and listening to these women speak, there was a sting in the knowledge that here in Kenya the divine arithmetic valued one man as the balance for countless women. No matter how hard I try to understand this cultural difference, I cannot justify the lack of personhood and agency of choice that was so apparent in these conversations.
While many of the questions were factual or deep or hard to hear, some of them were light and funny.
Contiki Traveler: “Do you have any questions for us?”
Louise – Masai woman: “How do you have sex? Is it in the day or the night? What positions are you allowed to be in? How often? What does the light look like?
For the most part, the questions they asked us were the same questions any group of late 20s and early 30s women would discuss over drinks. They were funny, smart, and insightful. It was a pleasure getting to know them. The conversation allowed us to learn and understand the personalities of these women. It humanized them and made them more accessible as people to our understandings of each other.
One of the women we talked to was Suzanna – 48 years old and the fourth wife of her husband. After 8 children she was now on birth control. The women said they were content with their lives and lived in the village by choice but also complained with a smirk about forced sexual relations with their husbands and how they don’t enjoy it because they didn’t want to fall pregnant. Even during pregnancy Masai women have to work in physically demanding roles. In a village where there is no electricity, no running water, and illnesses are treated by drinking the blood of a cow or goat, it’s hard to even have a conversation about equality. The question hovering on my lips during this conversation was if the reason they did not enjoy sexual activity was due to Female Genital Mutilation. Traditionally, Masai women undergo a procedure at or around 15 years old that involves surgically removing the clitoris, the labia minora, narrowing the vaginal opening for nonmedical reasons. I couldn’t bring myself to ask about another person genital trauma even when we were talking about other body modifications like ear gauging or the practice of facial scarring of children.
While many of these traditions are falling out of practice it’s not for the reasons one may think. For example, plural marriages are less common than they used to be but not because of some women’s liberation spreading through the villages but rather the more wives and children you have the more expensive it is. Another practice that’s falling out is the tradition of young boys hunting a lion as a rite of passage into manhood. Not because the people believe less in the importance of a show of masculinity but because the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have forbidden the poaching of endangered animals.
While we were chatting with Chief Joseph, who spoke impeccable English, we learned that he is dedicated to improving the conditions of the village and modernizing. In one breath he was showing us the medicinal uses for elephant feces and in the next breath, he was talking about the importance of a college education to the children of the village.
When I asked him why he opened his village to foreign tourists, he said, “We do these tours because we want you to go back to your country and talk about what you learned in this community and about my culture. I want to uplift my people and this community through education and exposure to those who are different than us. I made school compulsory for everyone in our village. We’ve already seen the fruits of our work because we have had many children complete their high school and go to Nairobi university and then come back and uplift our village as teachers and nurses and other occupations. One of our biggest issues is that the Maasai cannot work in the [tourist] lodges because few have the education and experience necessary to be a guide or work in tourism. Education is a very big problem for us and tourism is the key to education.”
While Chief Joseph is obviously passionate and dedicated to his people, it’s hard to shake the clearly misogynistic viewpoints prevalent in the culture. When asked by one of our male Contiki travelers if they’d ever elect a female chief the men laughed and said it would never be possible to trust a woman to lead them.
Our actual experience ended up being an incredible learning opportunity. While moralistically, I obviously have differing viewpoints on human rights issues, but I tried to view the experience with an open mind. We learned about the daily lives of the people in the village by talking to them directly and participating in their everyday routine. We learned how they repair their houses and how they milk their goats to make cheese. We learned to build fires and talked about their economic systems. While Lindsay did get a few glances and was asked what her gender was, she was quickly accepted once she took a side.
As we were leaving the village I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d tell this story to an audience of LGBT people in the most privileged countries in the world. In a society where everything is gendered down to who tends the fire and who fixes the houses, how could they relate to being between genders?
What I ended up discovering is a people at a crossroads between cultures. While the Massai in some areas have limited access to modern facilities. The internet is still more widely available than plumbing. I couldn’t stop watching the modern marvel of a Maasai woman talking on her cell phone while carrying a gigantic tank of water on her head back from the water hole. I was surprised to learn that while electricity is scarcely available and only by solar panels, social media still plays a role in the lives of Maasai people. I naively and perhaps ignorantly assumed that a people living without modern infrastructure would have no time or need for Instagram, but the reality is social media and smartphones have allowed the Maasai people a window outside of their villages and into the broader world. A few of the villagers asked to stay connected with people in our group via Facebook and WhatsApp. Many of us eagerly agreed. Regardless of how isolated we are, the internet provides us an opportunity to connect with others and build an understanding of cultural differences. While not all village tours are created equally, the one I experienced with Contiki showed me a window into another way of life. If I learned one thing during my trip to the Massai village, it’s that relatability moves us to empathy.