“How many more posts can you write about Tanzania?” asks my family about our three-week trip there.
“You have no idea how many ideas are on my mental list!” I reply. Here’s another in the series that began here, about our return trip there after 15 years away.
Change is not one of the words that comes to mind when you think of the people and culture of the Maasai tribe. Images of the Maasai people are employed more than any other group to illustrate exotic, traditional, and wild Africa. With their beautiful red cloths, white teeth against darkest skin, and colorful beads, all set on the expansive scenery of Tanzania – they do offer a visual feast for the eyes and the imagination.
But like any other culture, theirs is not static, which can be very difficult to remember. I won’t forget being taught this twenty years ago while looking to buy a beaded necklace at a market. The Maasai woman I was with didn’t approve of the seller’s selection and told me in what might be translated this way, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in those beads. They look like my Grandma’s!” This statement upended what I thought I was beginning to understand about the people living in my area. “Fashion? There are Maasai fashion trends when it comes to beads?!” I pondered this for a long time and began to notice that in fact, there were. Old-fashioned beadwork featured red and yellow while contemporary designs emphasized white. (Here and above in the fashions from 1996.)
Fast-forward two decades to our family trip, when I had a similar experience with my assumptions being turned topsy-turvy. It happened during a day-long visit to the boma of one of my dearest friends in Monduli. Sandam Lesian was my “night guard,” employed to come and sit outside my house every evening for three years. Though he never attended school, he was my number one Swahili teacher, not to mention my go-to authority on just about everything in Tanzania, including the Maasai people.
The walk down to his home and visit with his family were two of the things I had longed for and anticipated most before our trip. I was not disappointed. We were welcomed like family, enjoying hugs, laughter, and stories. Sandam’s second wife, Naisui, served us chai and food. Children on both sides were paraded and admired.
While visiting in one of the simple structures at his boma, built with mud and dung, another visitor stopped by. He came in wearing traditional robes and sandals made from tires, took note of us, and proceeded to have the same type of welcome we received. He was Naisui’s brother and had obviously been gone for several years. The conversation was in Maa and though Scott and I could not understand it, we were aware that he and his sister were exchanging news in the traditional way that can go on for a long time. Nothing out of the ordinary about this – we’ve observed this tradition hundreds of times and always enjoyed hearing the quiet, “Aaaay, Aaaaay…” the affirming response from the listener before exchanging roles.
News sharing complete, he turned to us and we greeted each other in Swahili. We came to learn he was back visiting his homeland from Ireland. Ireland! We then switched to English and listened in awe as he told us about his work as a Roman Catholic priest.
Father John Laizer is his name; I read later about him that he is the first Maasai ordained in the Holy Ghost Fathers or Spiritans. I cannot describe how delightful it was to be sitting there in rural Tanzania, flies buzzing about us and cows mooing, listening to him. The juxtaposition of the traditional setting around us together with the statement, “The Church must change” spoken by a seemingly traditional Maasai man, still has my head spinning. If anyone knows about change, it’s this man whose life experiences gather indigenous knowledge and rites of passage together with university education and world travel. His strong views on expanding the role of women among other things, gave me hope for the changes that may lie ahead in my lifetime.
There were different experiences to remember for our children during that day, though. Elsa Ruth watched Naisui and some of the girls beading anklets which they then gave to her. They also showed each other different hand games.
Simon met another Simon, one of Sandam’s many children by two wives, and had the opportunity to herd cattle. The day was gorgeous and the landscape rich as they walked with the cows to a watering hole down on the plain.
Sometimes change is visible and sometime it’s hidden. We enjoyed looking for it during our trip. But, as our experience with Father John confirms, what we see may not be the best guide.
I commented many times that Sandam and Naisui hadn’t changed a bit – indeed, their bodies hadn’t seemed to age; their smiles and generosity remained the same. But they are part of an evolving culture under enormous pressure. As grazing land and other resources that sustain a traditional lifestyle shrink, what does it mean to be Maasai? Sandam and Naisui are making choices with significance far beyond clothing and adornment. Their children have attended school AND learned to herd cows. Their daughter-in-law lives with them while her husband is off working a job on the island of Zanzibar. A tap brings water to their plot of land reducing the work needed to fetch it daily but requiring a monthly payment. Sandam uses a cell phone though he does not read or write. He still visits his elderly mother in her boma to exchange news everyday. He grazes cows and goats on the surrounding hills where he grew up.
I enjoy this photo of the two Simons. My son is out herding cows with a Maasai boy on break from his school, wearing his rapper t-shirt and tire sandals! It’s a beautiful visual that only hints at the complexity of his and their and our future. Isn’t it stunning to consider what could happen in the lifetimes of these two Simons?