“The wealth of a Maasai depends on how many cows he has” – our safari guide told us, as we drove into northern Tanzania. The landscape was dotted with herds of cows and little boys in red, tending to them.
As our jeep drove through the dusty dirt roads, we learned that boys as young as 2 years of age to 10 years are in charge of taking the cows out grazing. "The Maasai teach responsibility to their children at a very young age. And if the little boys return home with a cow missing, they are punished", our guide continued.
We also learned of another reason that cows are tended to by young children. It is to prevent an adult from stealing a cow from someone else's herd. Stealing from a child, in Maasai tradition, is punishable by death.
Who Are The Maasai?
The Maasai are a tribe of people who live in northern Tanzania and Kenya, and are known to be fierce warriors. The Maasai are referred to as Nilotic people, because they originated in the lower Nile valley in Egypt. They migrated south to Kenya and Tanzania between the 15th and 19th century. Today, most Maasai are restricted to areas outside of the national parks.
The men can be distinguished by their tall, lanky figure, a red cloth draped over them and a spear in their hands. The women look colorful in their beaded jewelry. We learned that the Maasai have their two front lower teeth knocked out because they are prone to a disease that causes their muscles to freeze-- sometimes for hours. Through this opening in their teeth, they can be fed food and medicine.
Most Maasai still live a nomadic life – moving from place to place in search of pasture for their cows. Women set up homes called kraals which are made of mud, sticks, grass and cowdung. They have to walk long distances to fetch water for daily use. Men build fences around their temporary settlements, and protect their homes and livestock.
Living In A Changing World
Traditionally, teenage boys would have to hunt a lion before being initiated into adulthood. However, the government of Tanzania has worked with the Maasai, in an effort to conserve wildlife. These days, Maasai boys between the ages of 14 and 16 have to fend for themselves in the wilderness for 3 months to prove themselves as warriors. They dress in black with their faces painted white, to distinguish themselves.
Cows are sacred to the Maasai who depend on them for meat and milk, and occasionally drink their blood. However, some Maasai can be seen herding goats instead of cows, which are less expensive to own. Their diet has also changed with the addition of grains and a maize-based porridge that is fed to children.
We visited a small Maasai school where young children are taught the basics, and the smarter ones sent to nearby schools. Some even get college-educated and take up jobs in cities or in the tourism industry. For these Maasai, adapting to the changing world is a huge step from their simple, nomadic way of life.