Life of the Massai
May 31, 2001
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I noticed the Massai wear a lot of red--what is the significance in that?
I would say that red is sort of like a fashion. If you look at the traditional dress of the Massai since it was documented in the late 1800s, you'll find that it changed greatly with the introduction of woven fabric and glass beads that were traded from Europe. About 100 years ago, the Massai really only wore leather, and their adornment was largely metal. But when these fabrics were introduced and they began wearing them, I think they favored red because it was available and it appealed to their aesthetic sense.
The Massai used two different kinds of paint which are available to them in their environment to decorate themselves. One is a white diatomite which is a chalk-like substance, and the second is a red ochre. For that reason, I wonder if the red fabrics they wear which are now so famous didn't appeal to them early on because of that.
How long did you spend with the Massai people?
I've been with them on and off for the past four years. I would call them trips in and out. The most extended period of time that I have stayed with them without a break was about four weeks.
Being in such a place, how did you find the dietary differences? Was your body able to cope with the differences well, or did you take your own stocks with you?
Funny you should ask that question! I was always somewhat reluctant to eat the local foods because if you're not used to them, they can make you sick--not because they're bad foods to eat, but because they have a completely different makeup that my system is not accustomed to. I do bring my own food supplies on the trips, but I still participate in sort of Massai barbecues. Goat is a staple food amongst the Massai, and I frequently eat goat with them and drink tea they make. But I do not drink the blood or eat some of the other things that they're known to have in their diet. On the last trip that I took, the foods I ate inflicted Typhoid Amoebiasis and worms on my system.
I heard the Massai use their body for ritual scarring. Is this true, and if so, what is the purpose of it?
There is some scarring amongst the Massai, but it's not the kind of structured beautification that you see amongst tribes like the Nuba of Sudan. It's not a design-like scarring. Mainly the people who scar themselves are warriors, and they do this by lighting an ember and dropping it on their leg and holding it there as long as they can stand the pain. This creates a round burn-like scar which appears in random places, especially on the thighs. Much like the lion hunting, its function seems to be mostly to prove the bravery and courage of the warrior.
Were the Massai at all hostile to your being there?
I have met incredible hospitality everywhere I have been amongst the Massai. They are very sophisticated in their ideas about etiquette and taking care of strangers. It is true that on some occasions there were people who were afraid or mistrustful of my cameras and protested being photographed. But I largely felt protected by all the people I traveled with.
I think the Massai don't place a high value on education. Aren't girls are often considered important because, when they marry, they fetch a bride price? And what does such price consist of?
Education was first introduced to the Massai by the British when they colonized Kenya. At that time, the Massai signed a treaty which put them on a reserve, and for a long time there was only one school to service all of the Massai living on that reserve. Of course the Massai had never heard of school and did not fully understand its purpose. It was to them a foreign idea, and its teachings were foreign. So initially when the Massai were sent to school, they opposed it. In fact I would say it was forced upon them, with good intentions, by the district officers in the area. But when the Massai sent their children to school, they were afraid that they would never see them again, and this created a lot of problems. Many, many children tried to run away and return home. Many parents tried to negotiate deals with the district officers to keep their children at home. Some even stole children from other tribes and sent them to school, calling them their own so that they would not lose their families. It took a long time for the benefits of education to sink in.
The second problem for the Massai where education is concerned is the expense of it now. Around the time of independence, when the Massai were marginalized and other tribes took high positions in government, I think the Massai began to see the necessity of education, and it became more popular. More schools were built in Maasiland, but even today because of poverty, they find it hard to put more than one child in a family in school. But most families will put at least one child, and more if they can, through education.
To answer the question about dowries and women's position amongst the Massai, I'm stumped because it's a complicated question. It's a male dominated society in which women do almost all the work, and they are very important for that reason. But they have little say in matters of business or politics or any major decision making. They are really second class citizens within the society, and they have to follow the orders of the men with whom they live. There is a price paid to the family of a bride, and that is usually paid in cattle, depending on the wealth of the groom.
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