Thursday, January 5, 2012

Culture Share: Tanzania - A Scandinavian visits the Masai

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures:  Therese Lindberg discusses a short visit with the Masai of Tanzania (at the border of Kenya), which she made while studying language and culture in Africa.

A Scandinavian visits the Masai
Therese Lindberg

Some years ago, while studying religion, I was offered the chance to go to Africa for a couple of months to observe religion and culture first hand. I jumped on the opportunity, and started saving, and reading about cultural and religious practices in Africa.

By way of Amsterdam, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya, and from there I traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

When I stepped out from the airplane the air hit me like a wall. I've never felt warmth and humidity in that way before. Even though I was dressed for the climate, I couldn't wait until I got my luggage, so I cut off the sleeves on my t shirt and rolled up the legs on my shorts even further.

I bought two bottles of water, slipped on my sunglasses and stood there waiting. Even though the workers and people on the airport of Dar es Salaam were used to white people, they still stared quite a bit. I suppose I stood out, a Scandinavian wearing brand clothes and sparkly sunglasses.

I stayed the first night at a missionary outpost, and they were very friendly. The staff, all locals, insisted on washing my clothes even though I'd just arrived. And when I tried to politely decline, they just as politely, explained it would be taken as an offense if I did. So I handed over my luggage and the next day everything had been washed, pressed and folded neatly.

Through my travels and time there, a lot of things happened. Too much in fact, for one single article. Which is why I will focus on some key events.

I'd decided to learn as much of the language as possible. I have knack for picking them up, and with an extended dictionary I did my best. After roughly three weeks I no longer needed my interpreter and could manage by way of Swahili and substituting certain words in French and English.

In fact I was headed towards the border between Tanzania and Kenya to spend some time with the Masai, and got the chance to sleep outside under the stars in a nature preserve. I was told it was fenced in, but the area was so big you would have to drive for weeks if you wanted to get from one end to another. We made camp in what seemed the middle of no where, and we were met by large Masai men who were sent to guard us. I asked from what, imagining the answer would be lions. Surprisingly the answer was elephants and baboons, mostly the latter.

When the sun set, it was something taken out from a movie. I've never seen such strong brilliant colors before, radiating across the sky in purple, blue, yellow, pink, red and even green. Once the sun was gone, darkness came quickly. I lay still when it was completely dark, listening to the wild life around me. There were lions, although they wouldn't approach. There were baboons and other animals one would expect to hear. I opened my eyes when a baboon screamed, and what I saw I'll never forget. It was the stars. Being Norwegian, I'm used to seeing them. The winters get cold and dark and so we always see them sparkling, but this was different. It was as if someone had copy-pasted a particularly star crowded part of the sky, multiplying it a thousand times. They lit up everything, and it was no longer pitch black. There were constellations I'd never seen before. I remember seeing the outlines of giraffes in the background, and the odd looking trees far away.

The next morning I woke up after barely having slept, but I was still very excited. I'd met a few Masai throughout the weeks, but mostly they were selling jewelry. We left the preserve and drove through a jungle for some hours, but most of the ride was through red desert. The bus-ride took nearly twelve hours and when I got to their village I was covered in red dust. The Masai women greeted me by smiling and nodding their heads. The Masai men jumped. And they jumped really high up in the air. They didn't bend their knees, they simply bounced up and down. I didn't have a measuring-tape but saying they neared almost a meter jumping up and down is not exaggerating. When the women deemed me “okay” the children started swarming. They all wanted to be picked up and they touched my hair and skin and I had tiny hands all over me. They were a group who lived far out in the desert, and being half-nomadic they didn't see outsiders that often, and for most of the children I was the first white person they had ever seen. While they were dissecting my every move and trying to figure me out, I did the same with them. Most of the girls there had their front teeth on their lower jaw pulled out. They also had black dots tattooed into their cheeks and a lot of jewelry. It was a special kind, it looked like tiny orange, white, blue, and black beads threaded onto thin wire. It was made up of different patterns, and wires crossed and formed into various shapes. One of the women caught me staring and gracefully unhooked her necklace and placed it around my neck. I was at a loss for what to do, and then a man came over to me and spat me in the face.

My jaw unhinged and I stood staring at him. My interpreter came over to me and explained that they had been told to show me and the others their native ways. And in their native ways, spitting in someone's face meant a sign of great friendship and respect. He told me I should spit back, but being brought up the way I am, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I explained awkwardly in Swahili that I accepted his token of respect, and shook his hand, explaining that this is how I showed great respect. He accepted this and smiled broadly. His earlobes had been stretched and were fitted with round jewelry too, in such a manner one could look through his earlobes.

We were all shown to our cottages where we were staying for the week and night came quickly. We slept on straw beds, but they'd laid thick blankets on top for us. The next few days they explained how the men who were warriors went out hunting, and were not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke, marry or be involved with women. Their sole task was to protect the tribe, and they took turns during the night protecting everyone from elephants, lions and baboons. They spent their lives like this from the age of eighteen when they were circumcised. The immediate three to six months after this they spent alone in the bush, proving themselves. According to Masai tradition they would become a true warrior when they killed a lion at the end of this period. After which they would remain a warrior for the next twelve to fifteen years.

The women had their own society. They taught the girls how to make food, how to respect the men and how to act. They were also in charge of herding the goats and milking them. While the boys playfully fought amongst each other and learned to be men.

On our last night they had a big party. With a huge bonfire in the middle and we all sat together. Oddly enough, for a moment it reminded me of Ace Ventura – Nature calls, when they sit in front of the bonfire and everyone dances. It had similar aspects to this, but the men didn't interact as much. They mostly kept to themselves, and stood jumping up and down while talking. The women braided my hair, and talked too fast for me to grasp everything but my interpreter explained it to me as quickly as he could. They offered to tattoo my cheeks as a sign of welcoming me to their tribe, which I respectfully declined together with having my own teeth drawn. I also declined adopting a little girl who had lost her mother. Apparently, my hips indicated I would be an excellent mother. They meant it as a big compliment, but I was raised in a place where having broad hips is frowned upon and only means finding jeans to fit is difficult! But I smiled and thanked them for the compliment, and figured I liked their way of seeing it much better.

At the end of the night they slaughtered a goat. They cut its neck and the way the goat shrieked is forever burned into my mind. They placed a cup underneath its neck and filled it with blood. Prior to slaughtering it they had milked it. They mixed the milk with the blood and handed it to me. They told me that by drinking this I would be cleansing my body spiritually and it would give me strength. It smelled quite rancid and the color was slightly pink and chunky. I nodded my head respectfully, forced myself not to gag, and finished the cup of blood and goat milk. I handed the cup made of tree back to the Masai man and bowed my head deeply again. Once I did this the men broke out in a sound I've tried to replicate thousands of times. Their tongues moved from side to side really quickly and the sound coming out was very loud. While doing this the men jumped up and down and the women once again hurdled around me. They placed jewelry around my neck, arms, ankles, waist and in my ears. I was completely covered when they were done.

I felt warm from appreciation and acceptance and came to realize that the Masai are some of the friendliest and interesting people I have ever met.

Therese Lindberg
lives in Fredrikstad, Norway, except when she is on the road.


  1. This brings back a lot of memories for me. We visited Tanzania two years ago, and spent some time with the Masai as well. The tribe we visited was not as remote as the village you visited, so some of the things were a bit different, but all told, most were the same. :)

    It definitely changes you, going to a place like Tanzania and seeing how people live. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. That's such an interesting experience. The Masai have always fascinated me.


  3. Angela, it sounds fascinating indeed. Thanks for sharing!

    Misha, thanks for your comment!