a visit to the Maasai manyatta
Few places we’ve been to on vacation have provoked as many conflicting emotions as the Maasai manyatta we visited as part of our stay in Amboseli. Our guides left us on a sandy road a short distance from the little village, where a group of Maasai warriors awaited. Their leader walked alongside us, explaining the ways of the Maasai.
When a warrior comes of age and completes his rite of passage, which includes circumcision, he is allowed to marry and start his own family. He moves out of his parents’ house, but rather than build his new home nearby, he bands together with other young warriors and together they start a new settlement. This process produces a curious cyclical effect. The manyatta we visited was filled with children who were 3-4 years old, and most of the women held 1 year-olds in their arms. If tradition holds, these children will grow up together, and once they come of age, the boys will marry their childhood playmates and all of them will move away en masse to start a new village.
We stopped before reaching the Maasai settlement to practice spear throwing. Our companions took turns heaving their weapons into the air and we watched as their spears sank upright into the sand after arcing gracefully through the sky. When we tried our hand at it, the results were embarassingly comical. The heavy spears turned over as soon as they left our hands and clanked noisily on the soft sand.
Our visit to the manyatta began with a brief welcome song, after which we shook hands with all of the residents, who had lined up in a semicircle to greet us. We shook hands first with the men, then the women, and lastly greeted the children by placing our hands on their heads.
The Maasai had set up little demonstration stations to showcase the various activities that comprised their way of life. Two warriors engaged in a hastily played game of mancala, not bothering with the rules and both moving their marbles at the same time. Three others worked together rubbing a pair of sticks over some dried donkey dung to start a fire. A pair of women, both with small children in their laps, shared a few laughs with our guide. One occupied herself with threading a beaded necklace while the other was busy cleaning a gourd.
“Look how beautiful the women look with their beads,” commented our guide upon arrival. Both the Maasai men and women adorn themselves with prodigious quantities of beaded jewelry, which produces a socialized notion of beauty that is quite different from our own. We went into one of the dwellings, constructed from mud, sticks, and straw, and so dark inside that the guide had to lead us by the hand after watching us inch blindly forward. The whole visit took little more than half an hour, at the conclusion of which our hosts did a little dance, sang a farewell song, and bid us adieu.
The hardest part of the visit was the harsh contrast between the luxurious tents in which we were staying and the abject poverty that confronted us in the manyatta. The Maasai live in close proximity with their animals, which must be locked up inside the settlement to protect them from the predators that roam the open plains the Maasai call home. Barefooted children, dressed in ragged clothing, played contentedly in the animal droppings that had accumulated inside the manyatta, while swarms of flies, which had been attracted by the ordure, buzzed unmolested about the faces of their younger siblings.
We had been told to take as many pictures as we wanted during our visit, but to refrain from giving money to anyone in the village. Instead, the community benefits by receiving a portion of the fees we had paid for our safari stay at the porini camp. It felt a bit strange to brazenly photograph people as they went about their daily lives, but at the end of our visit we had to admit that it was the best way to do anthropological tourism. We were able to satisfy the cultural curiousity, and the concomitant urge to snap numerous pictures, that arise whenever one travels to a distant land inhabited by people whose lives differ markedly from one’s own. For their part, the Maasai also seemed happy to share their way of life with us, and the whole community benefited economically from our stay.