VISITING WITH THE MASAI: Since I’m here in Arusha alone, I was looking for a good day-hike I could sign up with for yesterday, Sunday. Luckily, in the Tanzania Tourism Board office in town I found something much better: a “cultural tourism program” in the nearby Masai (Wa-arusha) village of Ilkiding’a.. What’s more, on the brochure it said there was an option to walk to the starting point from the city. So I signed up.
The TTB person said my guide would come and pick me up from the hotel. I was waiting to see if someone in full-scale red-and-blue Masai robes–perhaps with the elaborately braided and decorated hair that I had seen on several Masai men around town– would walk into the hotel lobby. But no. Jeremiah, when he came, was wearing jeans, tee-shirt, and sneakers. The main thing that stood out about him was his loping, loose-limbed walk.
I should have realised: these people really know how to walk. They do it, after all, nearly all the time: up and down the foothills of Mount Meru where their villages lie, and where wheeled vehicles only rarely penetrate.
So Jeremiah and I set off at a brisk clip from the hotel, through some peri-urban areas around Arusha. Then, from the main Nairobi-Moshi highway, we took what looked like an insignificant back alley which took us to the main track leading up to the group of villages of which Ilkiding’a is a part. Nearly all the other traffic on this precipitously rutted track was pedestrians. Sometimes a bicycle would come by, or we would see a car painstakingly navigating a dusty way between the potholes.
But a LOT of people were walking to and fro. It being Sunday, many of them were dressed in some form of best clothing, carrying well-worn Bibles as they made their way to or from church. Three or four times, as we walked along, we passed tiny churches that seemed uplifted by the multi-part singing that came forth from within.
Jeremiah seemed to know a lot of people. I was really glad he was with me. If people shouted over some comment about the “muzungU” (that was me, the only white woman anywhere in sight), he would goodnaturedly shout back something about “m’africa” (an African person). And to the many calls of “how are you?” or “good morning?” that came– mainly from small children– he would often take turns with me in shouting back an appropriate English-language response.
As we loped along, I had also been trying to get him to teach me some words in his mother-tongue(which is wa-arusha, not Swahili; English is his third language.) However, I proved myself a truly really lousy learner. My ear was definitely NOT in tune. He taught me two ways to say “How are you?” in wa-arusha, and told me that they were gendered. But whether gendered according to the speaker or the addressee I couldn’t entirely fathom. So when someone said “takweniya” (“How are you?”) to me, I was generally supposed to say “Ee-ko” back to them. But I often couldn’t even hear when they “takweniya”, along with everything else they might be saying. So then Jeremiah had to prompt me on the “ee-ko” bit, which always caused great merriment all round. Two of the people who seemed to get the most laughter out of this performance were two fully regalia-ed Masai men who walked a little but of the way up to Ilkiding’a with us.
The track took us slowly up above the town and through a couple of villages. The terrain here was all intensely cultivated. Coffee bushes I saw for the first time ever. There were maize fields, cabbage fields, beans, tomatoes and other crops. Generally, though, the track was shielded (and shaded) with high hedges of woven thorns, and many different kinds of trees.
At a certain point, Jeremiah announced that we had crossed into his village. It would now be possible– after asking permission each time– to take photos. “People worried about camera,” J. had explained earlier. But from here on, people had been exposed to the “cultural tourism program”. Not only had their worries about cameras been somewhat allayed. But also, as it would turn out later, the parents of all the kids in Ilkiding’a were on alert to teach the kids not to harrass the muzungi. (Given the way whitefolks have, in the not-too-distant past, treated the indigenous people of this part of the world, I would say a certain amount of residual resentment would be more than understandable. That was why I was really happy that the CTP allowed me to have this lightly-mediated experience with some Wa-arusha in their own environment.)
There was still a bit more walking till we reached the starting point, however. Ilkiding’a is not a compact village. Far from it. The people of the village live in a number of hamlets scattered over the foothills here: In each, there are from around six to more than 20 boma’s, with a boma being a fenced household compound belonging usually to a man, and housing however many wives he has, and their children. Jeremiah, who is 29, told me that his late father had had, I think, six wives. He himself has only one.
The main form of shelter within the boma is a sturdy round hut with a heavy thatch of straw. The hut, around 20 feet in diameter, is built from thick wood staves planted close together in the ground, and plastered with a pink-brown mud plaster. Each wife has her own hut for herself, her children and animals. There are separate, smaller huts for cooking.
We walked quickly past Jeremiah’s boma. His wife wasn’t there, but his 5-year-old daughter Lucy waved from the door.
Jeremiah’s two cows lowed at us from behind the hut. They are a legacy from the life-plan he had had a lot earlier, of sticking with the traditional Masai men’s heavy focus on livestock-raising. He had followed that life-plan until he was about 15. But then his dad died, and at that point an elder brother who had been put into a school by an uncle intervened, and put Jeremiah himself into a school. So he started doing book-learning only at that point. And he never thereafter pursued the traditional Masai men’s (and women’s) forms of personal beautification such as splitting the ear-lobes and letting the lower loop dangle down to hold heavy pieces of beaded finery; or various forms of scarification on the face and arms that I saw; or putting the long, intricate braids and metal decorations into their hair… He said he’d tried to put piercings through the top-back of his ear-lobes, such as many Masai people have. (This allows them to have pretty beaded ear-decorations that dangle down the back of their ears quite fetchingly.) But he’d even given up on that after a while. Now, the only apparently non-‘western’ thing about his looks and grooming was a bead-covered belt such as I’ve seen several urban Africans wear– as a sort of ‘legacy’ thing, I guess.
Soon we came to his mother’s boma; and shortly after that to the CTP “starting point”, which was a little thatched shelter looking out over the next hill. His mother had laid out some beadwork here, and I bought a couple of items.
Then, after about 3 minutes sitting down, we started the “real” program…. For the next four hours we walked practically nonstop up and down hills that seemed to get steepr each time. Mainly, we were walking along narrow paths that cut across beautifully cultivated fields– of cabbage, maize, beans, or tomatoes– or where the land was steeper, across lush green pastures. All the cultivating that I saw being done– and this was tough, back-breaking work– was being done by women and girls. With their checkered Masai cloths knotted over one shoulder and tied around their waists, they would hoist those hoes over their shoulders and over and over again– thwack, thwack, thwack– and tilll that dark-covered, well-irrigated soil.
The herding was being done by young boys. I have to say I didn’t see any adult men actually DOING any work unless you count Jeremiah’s guiding (which can’t have been easy for him), or the handful of men we saw on the track who were leading cows to or from the market.
Well, there were men selling in the market, too. I’ll come to that later.
One of the main things I was looking forward to on the tour was the promised meeting with the traditional healer. I’m actually very interested in learning about all non-western views on the question of violence. So I had imagined myself having a wonderfully revealing discussion on the cosmology and ontology of violence with a wise Masai elder… until it slowly dawned on me that what with Jeremiah’s very limited English and my far, far more limited ability to communicate in either wa-arusha or Swahili, this conversation would probably have many of the same bizarre qualities as the (twice-interpreted) discussion on the same topic that I’d attempted with a Mozambican traditional healer, in Maputo, two years ago.
Anyway, once we had climbed the enormous hill to the boma of the Ilkiding’a traditional healer, he was out. Darn it.
I should note that I found the visit to the “traditional” knife-maker a little disappointing, too.
Masai men like to walk around with a specifically-shaped kind of knife, carried in a particular kind of pink-stained scabbard, hanging form their belts. The brochure promised a visit to the knifemaker. Turns out the knifemaker in question buys regular-style, Chinese-made agricultural machetes (pangas) from someplace, and then essentially cuts them down to the dimensions favored by the Masai; then he makes the scabbard. Somehow it didn’t seem like the “timeless handicraft” passed down from “many generations” that I had been expecting. (I guess that’s the problem with my naive, essentialist view of culture. Oh well.)
But those disappointments were tiny, compared with the exhilaration– I can only call it that– of having this great new hiking-plus-cultural adventure with my new friend, Jeremiah. It really did feel great to be able to walk with him around his home environs, and to have him pay such close attention to trying to help me understand everything I saw. The inside of the huts that I visited, and how the space there is used. The “maize stores” high up in the trees. (Someone climbs the tree and sits on a likely branch. A colleague on the ground tosses up each corn-cob with its streamer-like wrapping; and then the streamers are somehow tied over the branch, one and then the next, till hundreds of corn-cobs are tied up there in a huge clump, secure from any animal predators…. And we’re talking sometimes maybe 40 or more feet high.) So many things to learn about!
Along the way, Jeremiah and I decide that, since we have no traditional healer visit, we’ll have time to go to the “Masai market” late in the afternoon. He promises that it’ll be interesting. But it seems he’s also fairly eager to go there himself.
At one point, as the afternoon hours wear on, we walk along an extremely steep-sided ravine to see the waterfall at the end of it. The streams and rivers here generally gush plentifully down from deep inside Mount Meru. Jeremiah does explain one ritual the traditional helaer leads, at a specific tree, to beg the power-that-be for rain in times of drought. As he explains, it involves four calabashes being reverently placed by the tree, each containing various things; and then the name of Jesus being invoked. “Jesus?” I ask. “What is his role in all this?” “Well, they just say ‘Jesus’,” Jeremiah explains. “They don’t say the word Christ. That would not be right.”
But that explanation came later. We were there, at the bottom of the ravine. It was nearly 2 p.m. We’d been walking nearly nonstop for five-and-a-half hours. “Up here,” said Jeremiah. And he led me just about vertically up the mud-covered, many-hundred-feet-high bank of the ravine. I knew if I missed my footing even once, I would slip back straight to the bottom. Amazingly– I don’t know how– I made it. “We reach!” Jeremiah told me exultantly as we emerged into the pasture above. And indeed we had: we’d reached exactly back to the “starting point.”
“You hungry,” he said matter-of-factly. And yes, by then it was a burningly evident matter of fact. His mother brought four covered pots of food and I wolfed down a huge plateful. There was a traditional dish (I think) of beans and maize. There were rice, potatoes boiled in a tasty broth, and some cooked greens. I was beyond ethnography and failed to ask the name of a single dish. Eating seemed more ways important at that point.
We sat, ate, and visited for about an hour. But then it was time to leave if we wanted to catch the market. Jeremiah, his CTP “coordinator” Eliakim, and I had a short discussion of how much it would cost for J & I to get a “transport” to the market, and then back to Arusha. So then J and I walked the 20 minutes or so to the “stand” for the “transport”. There were no vehicles there, and seemed little prospect of any coming; so we decided to walk down to the market instead.
It was a good experience. (1) It’s the way that most of the Masai people get around. So as we walked along those tracks, there was a constant stream of other folks walking to and from the market. (2) It was mainly downhill.
Do I need to note the observation that when there were things to be carried, it was nearly always the women and girls who did that? A girl skipping along with a hoe balanced on her head; a Masai woman with a baby tied on her back and a huge woven basket on her head; teenage girls elegantly carrying huge, heavy heads of bananas on their heads… The main time that I saw men and boys helping withe conveying goods was where there was either a bicycle, or some kind of a hand-barow involved. I’m not saying those jobs weren’t hard, too. They were. But a lot more sheer weight of stuff was getting carried by women and girls than ended up being pushed along by guys.
Jeremiah’s estimate that it would take “about 40 minutes more” to get to the market proved remarkably accurate.
When we got there it was vast! It spread out all over the creekside settlement of Ngarantoni. It was all open-air; and most of it was quite unshaded. Jeremiah led me through various sections: the used-clothing section; the used-shoe section; along a little back-alley to the fabric section– many red-and-blue Masai wraps, but many batik-style wraps in other bright hues as well; the basket section; the fresh-produce section; a row of women selling baked goods; the meat section; the beans section… on and on and on. Buyers and sellers tiumbling over each other in the dust. A man improbably trying to drive five cows through the crush in the middle of the market– one with viciously long horns. People yelling their wares. Friends greeting other. Buyers haggling. Sellers pleading for custom… A dizzying maelstrom. And not another mazungu to be seen anywhere.
We emerged breathless on the other side. Jeremiah had said I should NOT take pictures here– we were no longer in “the program” here. I hadn’t bought anything either. I wouldn’t have minded looking at the baskets, or some of the baked goods. But there was no leisurely buying and enjoying the atmosphere here: these people, who hold the market here twice a week, were all here strictly for business.
My main achievement as we emerged was not to have lost Jeremiah. His was, I think, to have said hi to around three dozen of his friends, and as far as I could figure to have repaid a few of his financial debts along the way.
We emerged onto a paved road. Actually, according to my map it looks like the Nairobi Road, just several miles further along it by now.
“You want the livestock market?” Jeremiah asked.
Another whole market?? “Where?” I asked, weakly. He pointed to a cloud of dust somewhere over near the horizon. “There!”
“I think not. Perhaps we go back to my hotel?”
Haha! Easier said than done… What I got included in my “extra” of the trip to the market was my first two rides in Tanzanian dalla-dallas — the ones that took us back to the Impala Hotel. A dalla-dalla, as I was to learn from the inside, is a totally overstuffed Japanese passenger van that is plied at breakneck speed along a fixed route by a team of at least two people: one to drive it, and the other one or two to hang out of the sliding door on the pasenger side and drum up business along the route.
In the first of the two dalla-dallas that we rode, J and I ended up scrunched backwards onto a four-inch bench placed in right behind the front seat. (That one lost all power for a worrying ten minutes too, somewhere along the road, until on about the eighth attempt it got pushed back into life.) The second dalla-dalla was remarkable for the fact that once the seats had all filled up, the passenger side jockey pushed up a huge section of the roof on double hinges and then proceeded to cram in additional passengers who traveled standing, with their heads and shoulders stuck out the top of the van…
So I certainly ended up getting more than I’d bargained for, cultural-experience-wise, with the Ilkiding’a Cultural Tourism Program. I am totally grateful to Jeremiah, his mom, Eliakim, and all the other people who make such a great set of experiences available to a total stranger who happen to walk into the Tanzania Tourism Board office looking for an interesting day-hike. Sure, the Ilkiding’a folks could work out some of those small wrinkles in the program. (I want my traditional healer!!!) But all-in-all it seemed like a fabulous program that helped this ignorant muzungu to see beyond the mere “exoticism” of the Masai people and to initiate a respectful interaction with some actual Masai persons.
The TTB actually has a number of different cultural tourism programs that they offer. I have some brochures for this one. But the brochure says you can get more info from www.tourismtanzania.org .