Thursday, January 11, 2007

Maasai Village

We left the Ngorongoro Crater with a mix of dread and excitement. We dreaded the punishing journey ahead. At the same time, we were thrilled to be headed to Zanzibar and then to Cape Town. Two nights in tents had left us tired, and the excitement seemed to be over for a day or so.

Then our safari guide, aptly-named Livingstone, surprised us by pulling off at a Maasai village. As mentioned in prior postings, we had grown accustomed to the image of a tall Maasai herder walking along a pasture. The village visit offered our first chance to see the Maasai at a close distance.

Before arrival, we knew little about the Maasai. We had heard of them and seen pictures in travel magazines and on calendars and postcards. The very images of the Maasai that circulate through our publications have made the Maasai distrustful of tourists. We were told that many Maasai felt that tourists took pictures and then made huge profits selling those images. While the fear is, for most tourists at least, unfounded, it has led the Maasai to charge fees for visitors who plan to take photographs . . . and for those who don't take photos for good measure.

So, thrilled to be experiencing the mysteries of these nomads, Megan and I handed over 10,000 Tanzanian shillings each (roughly $10 USD), and we walked away from the vehicle.

Immediately, we stood mesmerized at the song and dance. The men sang in a chorus that seemed illogical and bizarre to my ears: some produced a deep, guttural noise reminiscent of Mongolian Buddhist chants. Over those low tones, a voice would occasionally release a high shriek. The photographs help visually represent the experience of these sounds and will have to suffice until we can post our video. In the image below, the men, adorned in the traditional clothing, each have a different role in the song. The one with his mouth opened wide made the loud shriek while the man with a closed mouth produced the lower tones. The song felt other-worldly and inescapably sacred. The song may or may not have had some sort of larger symbolic significance: for us, a pair a tired travelers, we wrapped ourselves in the music as though the sound itself were woven of bright red wool.

The dance was as stunning as the song accompanying it. The women wear large, decorative discs around their necks, and, during the dance, they march softly and steadily while gently flapping the discs. The men march more firmly with steps that seem to dig into the earth. Carrying spears or the long, polished acacia staffs used in herding, they appear to be on the hunt, supported in their journey by the women who travel at their side.

After the dance, we moved into the village center. Inside, we realized that the village was a series of concentric circles. The exterior circle was formed by a tall fence made of smaller branches from the acacia tree. The next circle was a series of huts. The huts are made with an acacia wood support structure filled with straw. The roof is a cake of mud and dung. The circular homes stand roughly four feet from floor to ceiling with a spiral lay out. One enters through a low and narrow passage and then spirals left into the kitchen area. The center of the spiral is two tiny sleeping chambers of roughly equal size. One chamber is for the father, and the other chamber is for the wife and children. The entire area of the home is probably no larger than ten feet by ten feet.

The center circle of the village was a large gathering space with one dead acacia tree in the center. In this circle, the men and women separated, and the women began singing another beautiful, complex song. The song gave us a better opportunity to admire the adornments worn by the women. Many had complicated ear piercings like the woman in the image below.

Meanwhile, the men began singing deeply and jumping really, really amazingly high up in the air. I had heard about Maasai jumping before, but seeing them jump in person was very impressive.

Eventually, our Maasai guide for the event, Jamie, led us into a hut and began explaining the basics of Maasai life. The Maasai are somewhat nomadic. From time to time, the elders will make a decision to move: the huts will be destroyed, and, upon finding a new location, the women will be given four days to build a new house . . . which is apparently quite a chore given the use of acacia wood and a special type of grass . . . heck, forget materials . . . they have to build a house in four days! Jamie did not explain what happened on the fifth day, but I imagine something awful would occur.

The diet of the Maasai is provided entirely by their livestock: blood, milk and meat. Apparently some Maasai are now growing maize, but most traditional Maasai stick to a strict diet. They transport their blood and milk in vessels made of calabash gourds usually affixed with a leather strap and then decorated with beads or shells.

The tour focused on a traditional life, but this village, tourist central, obviously was not a purely traditional village. Maasai men spend their time herding, preserving song and dance for religious and cultural events. The women remain very busy with children, home-building and cooking. This village has dropped many of those activities to bring in tourists.

After chatting with Jamie, he then guided us through the craft market. Megan loved the calabash gourds and was shopping for one of those. Since the gourds are for women in the Maasai world, I was pushed toward spears and shields, clubs and large knives. I simply could not see myself owning a Maasai weapon of any sort, so I helped Megan choose a gourd. During the process I made the mistake of carrying a gourd while Megan shopped around. A man carrying a gourd is apparently shameful--when they found out she was my wife (the possessive being very significant here), I had apparently been completely emasculated in their minds. But back to shopping . . .

Before coming to Africa, we both were made aware of a problem in African craft markets. Most individuals selling crafts live on a very precarious line between life and starvation. The precariousness of their situation leaves them vulnerable in negotiations. The fact that many people resort to making crafts means that the market is highly competitive as four adjacent peddlers may each attempt to sell essentially identical hand-carved animals, for example. Thus, a well-fed tourist can walk into a market with a load of cash, play the starving peddlers against each other, and walk away with a basket of goods for the price of a cappuccino. For the craft-maker, those sales, however bad a deal, mean avoiding the look of a child's hungry eyes . . . at least for that day.

With this in mind, Megan and I did not plan to negotiate much. We wanted something approximating a fair market value for the developed world: a price we would feel good about, but a price that ensured some benefit to the person who produced the object, ideally to the community as well.

So, we found gourds . . . two of them. They were beautiful and unique with a strong odor letting us know we found the real deal. We paid $40 for each one. The price seemed high to us, but, as we watched the two women who had crafted each gourd, and we watched the money pass from Jamie presumably to their husbands (a significant detail), and we felt, at first at least, as though the money may have helped two families . . . if only a little bit.

Before leaving, we were walked by a "school house." I was immediately skeptical. The school was filled with very small children: too young to start herding (so younger than 7 or 8-years-old) but old enough to speak clearly. As we walked up, the building was silent. The moment our faces appeared nearby, the children began shouting their ABC's. While obviously they had learned that much, we doubted the educational purpose of the school. We were urged to donate to the collection box, but we left the school distraught by the obvious scam. The fields around the village were full of small kids hard at work: any educational mission is currently trumped by the culture and the poverty . . .

In a final incident, our guide began to beg for us to buy necklaces from him as we walked away. We had paid him our entry fee and felt content that we had provided money to the community in exchange for experiencing something so unique and beautiful. Our guide was not content, and his face, scarred by countless insect bites, revealed his disappointment. We both left with a menacing knot in the pit of our stomachs, entered the car feeling disillusioned and confused.

Which gets to the fact that this visit, while a beautiful experience on so many levels, was fundamentally disappointing. I was disappointed as a traveler (okay, "tourist"), and we were both disappointed as people who want the world to be a better place.

Travel like Livingstone

As anyone who has kept up with this blog knows, I am shamelessly enamored with David Livingstone, famed Scottish priest and adventurer who wandered Africa for most of his adult life. Livingstone is even a major hero of the people of Zanzibar (more on this in the days to come).

I entered the Maasai village with a naive, romantic image of the people. My image was formed more in my imagination than in fact, and I expected some sort of beautiful encounter with another culture untainted by commerce, poverty, or any other messy aspects of reality. Basically, I wanted to visit the village as Livingstone would have.

Naturally, this sort of tourism is rarely possible anymore. I remember similar disappointment in Tibet where I expected untainted encounters with the Buddhist culture. Most travelers who head out of the comfortable travel destinations hope for untainted encounters with the sacred and often find a world transformed by the tourist presence. For me to arrive as a traveler, others went first. Those others reshaped that world, and I am left with something drastically different.

So this disappointment was disappointment at the reality of tourism: the only way to have a "pure" tourist experience is to go somewhere untouched by tourists. But then you've touched it . . . and then it's never the same.

Encounters with Poverty

This disappointment would have been manageable. I'm used to it. Travel begins with notions of stepping into the unknown and often ends by finding a very known place.

The more serious disappointment came as the problem of Jamie wanting more money from us spiraled into recognition of the broader problems facing the Maasai. Megan and I tried to travel conscientiously. We purchased crafts in South Africa that we knew provided every dime to an artisan suffering from HIV/AIDS. We visited nature reserves that run in environmentally friendly ways, and we treasured a visit to the Maasai: a people that maintain tradition in a culture spiraling toward modernity, a people who live seamlessly with their environment, a people we had built in our minds to be independent, self-sufficient nomads who could care less about the outside world.

Instead, we found a Maasai village that needed money and badly. Some Maasai live traditionally but a portion must travel long distances to urban factories to work for cash: those return to villages with urban diseases, like HIV, and urban viewpoints. The governments put pressure on Maasai land ownership, and funds must be raised to preserve territory for herding. Moreover, the Maasai seem to recognize a need for education and see education as critical to maintaining their culture and lifestyle in the modern world. However, as mentioned above, education is a dream in a world where the young must begin herding to keep the family nourished.

Moreover, the money is necessary because, sometimes, traditional lives can be short and brutal. The red clothing was beautiful, but we noticed one gentleman preferring a modern-style rain jacket against the cool evening temperatures and wet air. The houses had dung roofs, but many featured plastic tarps over the roofs in order to better insulate from the abundant rains of the season. Those of us with comfortable beds and refrigerators full of food can romanticize the traditional life with its picture-perfect beauty and simplicity: the reality often involves malaria, discomfort, and hardship.

We felt initially that we had contributed a great deal to helping in some small way. If each tourist couple dropped $100, the village could invest the funds and, in our minds, cure their financial woes. After all, we were two of at least twenty tourists in the village during that hour alone. Given a very low cost of living in Tanzania, especially rural Tanzania, that money should go a long way.

But we thought about where our money likely went. The money was received in US dollars, which means the money would have to be exchanged for shillings at some point. The nearest bank was hours away by car, and the Maasai tend to travel on foot. I imagined some sort of middleman with a vehicle taking his cut with another cut taken on the exchange. In the end, I could not guess at how much of our cash actually benefited the Maasai, but, based on the realities of geography and local banking, I imagine plenty vanished along the way. Lack of access to financial institutions also means that the cash probably never gains interest payments. Our $100 was instantly depreciating.

Hadn't we done our part though? Why was Jamie so upset with us? We spent $100 in one hour in that village, in a country where the per capita GDP is $770 US. Not only that, we paid a price for our crafts that we definitely knew was high, our guide Jamie, who negotiated the sale, also had to know that the price was high, and still he rejected us in the end for our refusal to spend more.

And I don't know if we've done are part or not. Politically, Megan and I are not in a position to approve billions in aid. Even if we could, we would have no clue where to send it. We can write our elected representatives, but Africa tends to sit on the political back-burner. If we were handing over our own dollars, we would hardly know how to make them count.

I thought about microcredit programs as a solution--perhaps Megan and I could someday have the means to start a program for the Maasai and produce a lasting benefit. For those unfamiliar with microcredit, the programs have been huge successes the world over, culminating in a Nobel Peace Prize for the creator of the model program, Muhammad Yunus. Yunus noted that poor individuals have little access to capital--they just can't get loans. Through the Grameen Bank, Yunus created a set of very small loans ($150 to $300 US) with low rates of interest (usually around 10% to 15%) to give exclusively to impoverished women in Bangladesh. The women receiving the loan would have to meet with other women to discuss their uses of the money and how it would improve their lives. A woman may purchase a sewing machine, for example, and begin a business as a tailor. Others purchased livestock to breed and sell at market. The program was amazingly successful, and the focus on women helped empower them and recognized that women, in most societies, end up being the basic unit of responsibility in the household. If the children are hungry, it is the mother that tends to deal with that horror.

When I studied in Honduras during college, I helped a student gather data for an honors thesis in economics on a microcredit program that had failed, and I learned a number of things from the process. Oversight is essential to the success of a program with banks needing to create group leaders to educate the women on handling the loan. Additionally, the slightest corruption could kill a program since most programs begin with little capital anyway. Finally, loans to men tended to be less successful, much less successful.

With this in mind, I cannot imagine that microcredit loans would help the Maasai. Men dominate the society to the point of, apparently, not carrying blood or milk gourds. Male elders make key decisions, and women still suffer physically through the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. The thought of a woman creating an independent stream of income seems impossible. Moreover, many Maasai groups are very isolated geographically. Arusha was still hours away from the village, so any program would have huge administrative difficulties. However, if the women were given the space in the community to contribute in new ways, amazing things could possibly happen . . . . and the cost of a microcredit program? The traditional Maasai culture we traveled to find.

In the end, we felt that we had helped. We realized our help would probably be much less significant than we had hoped, and we were clueless about what the Maasai really need and how to achieve those goals. We were not looking for a pat on the back or a receipt to show Uncle Sam: we just thought we could bring a measure of happiness, and, given our Maasai guide's reaction, we're not sure that we did.

It's an common problem worldwide. Traditional societies cannot be isolated in the modern world. The clash of these worlds creates a number of unique problems. It's an ugly sight actually. We leave our comfortable world to see something amazing and beautiful: they watch us and see our comfortable world in the midst of a life that by comparison is difficult and short. That comparison only exists through the arrival of tourists and modern culture in the first place, but the comparison is there and inevitable. We loved the experience of the music, color, and sound, but we looked beyond that experience and found something troublesome. But it's probably a really good thing that we looked . . .


Tom said...

I showed your pictures to my roommates and they think you should make a book. This is some great stuff.

Anonymous said...

sayeth the man who laughed

George said...

I bet on the fifth day, the women get attached.

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