The Secret Life of the Maasai Tribes

** Warning: Controversial and possibly upsetting content ***

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then I shouldn’t need any words to describe the Maasai people seen in these photographs; however, I feel compelled to add to the story - the story the photographs don’t tell about the Maasai. It’s the dark side of the Maasai - the part they don’t show the tourists.

The Maasai are one of the biggest tribes in Tanzania and Kenya and span large areas of the countryside. Traditionally nomadic, they are cow herders and believe all cattle were given to the Maasai by God. Maasai don’t farm crops, their lifestyle involves herding goats and cattle. Before seeing it for myself, I assumed the Maasai were similar to the Amish of the United States; a small group living traditional lifestyle. The reality is that over 1.5 million Maasai people are spread over thousands of miles - that’s more people then there are living in San Diego! Not a small community!

Their society is entirely male dominated; a man has many wives and is allowed to marry as many women as he has cattle. In other words, wives are a sign of wealth. Equally, children are considered a sign of wealth and Maasai men strive to have as many cattle, wives and children as possible. 

Women have essentially no rights in Maasai culture; they are rarely educated and very few Maasai women speak Swahili - they only know their tribal language. Likewise, very few can read or write. Although the Tanzanian government has a legal marriage age of 18 years, Maasai women are regularly married well before then, often shortly after going through puberty. Their marriages are arranged by the parents in exchange for a dowry. Maasai men will invite other like-aged males into their homes, meaning sometimes their wives are asked to share the bed with another man. Reports from health organizations suggest almost 90% of Maasai women are subject to female genital mutilation (the removal of female external genitals in order to ‘prepare them for marriage’). Despite being outlawed by the government, Maasai girls are held down as a tribal elder uses a razor blade to remove portions of the female genitalia - often causing lifelong pain and suffering. Even men are subjected to some cruel treatment; boys are circumcised around the age of thirteen as part of a warrior tradition and it’s highly shameful to make any sound of pain during the process, which is done without anesthetic. 

The Maasai village we visited was run by a man who proudly had eight wives. Each wife and the children had by her live in one of the huts constructed from cow dung. The hut also holds some of the livestock at night; sleeping in such small quarters with restricted air flow and along animals means tuberculosis is a common killer of Maasai children. In fact, the infant mortality rate is so high that children aren’t even acknowledged in a Maasai village until they have achieved “three moons” of age. The Maasai reject modern medicine and most modern technologies. Lacking an education, most Maasai women do not understand to protect themselves against diseases like HIV/AIDS.

In all fairness, I need to acknowledge that there are two groups of Maasai - the modern and traditional. The modern Maasai blend into society; it is the traditional Maasai living in the bush that I’m referring to here.

While much of the Maasai lifestyle is troubling to westerners, there are some aspects that are rather fascinating. For instance, a common meal is to fill a gourd with goat milk, animal blood, and a millet of sorts to form a sludge drink rich in protein. No thanks! Their footwear of choice? Old car tires cut into thin strips as they last much longer than normal shoes- Maasai walk a LOT! Finally, Maasai attend a weekly market where they can trade goods and purchase other produce.

Amongst tourists, the Maasai villages have become a popular place to visit and see the nomadic lifestyle these people still enjoy. The Maasai have learned to exploit the tourists’ curiosity and now sell various knick-knacks to the visitors under the guise that it ‘raises money for the women.’ This is almost certainly a lie; Maasai women aren’t allowed to own property and certainly would not be allowed to keep American cash! Their entrepreneurship has led Maasai to stand by the side of the road, waving at safari jeeps driving past, hoping for a cash hand out. This caused me great personal conflict - in a society where poverty is so common, you feel obligated to help, but at the same time, I am then knowingly giving money to men who oppress the rights of women. 

The Maasai were fascinating subjects to photograph and observe, but my conscious could not allow me to be a neutral observer of the Maasai. I feel obligated for you, the viewer of these images, to really understand the Maasai culture and lifestyle. Aid groups have historically had very limited success in offering education and options to the women, although some men are starting to become educated and leave the traditional Maasai way of life. I cannot begin to fully capture the Maasai in this post, so I encourage you to take a moment to educate yourself about these tribes and their traditions - below are a few links to get you started.