Today offered a brief break from the safari animals so we could spend some time learning about the local tribes and people before entering the Serengeti for the next portion of the adventure. As I previously mentioned, the area around Lake Natron is surrounded by many tribes, the best known of which is the Maasai tribe. The Maasai people are nomadic and historically have survived by herding cattle.
Everyone in Tanzania belongs to one of the 130 tribes in the country, and most tribes get along peacefully. To start our day, we explored some of the nearby villages and met the local people before spending the afternoon with the Maasai tribes. The area we are in is called Mto Wa Mbu, which translates to “mosquito river.” After meeting up with Michael, our guide for the villages, we started walking through farm fields to see the rice, beans and banana crops that are the major food staples here. As we walked, we had a chance to see some of the mud huts that house families here. Most of the residents lack electricity, running water, and normal sanitation, so it was fascinating to see their way of life. For instance, a spigot for water was found in most housing clusters, but individual homes lacked running water. Toilets were made from the dried stalks of corn (not the green ones as the cows would then eat your toilet!). I saw very few homes that had wire leading to the hut to suggest electric power.
We had a chance to look inside one of these huts and get a sense of the home these people live in. The mud house has a roof made from corn leaves, but both the roof and walls require regular patching to repair. If it had rained while we were inside that home, the roof would have offered minimal protection to stop the rains. There was a single bedroom with a mosquito net (provided by USAID) and the floors were hard packed mud. The older boys lived in a nearby hut which was very similar, although they had decorated it with posters of American musicians like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Rick Ross. The family kitchen was located outside in another hut, although this one was basically a bunch of sticks crudely assembled to form a structure.
After touring some of the local life, we saw some of the tribes that specialize in wood carving. Of course the primary customer for these wood carvings is the western tourists, but I had a new found appreciation for woodworking as I watched these men working barefoot and chiseling out ebony into figures that can take weeks to complete. From there, we moved toward the market, but were first intercepted by some school children. One of the little girls ran over and grabbed our hands and escorted into her school, which is for children aged 3-6yrs. Inside the school was approximately 70 kids who had already learned a decent amount of English and were able to identify animals in English when they were pointed out on a particular sign. We joined them in counting and singing the alphabet. To these kids, we were rock stars. They all wanted a high five and to touch us. They grabbed at my camera - not aggressively - but with the interest and fascination of a little kid that has never seen something like that before.
As we left the school, we had a chance to see some more USAID money being put to good use; some men were walking around to the homes of young children and were passing out a drug that is used to prevent eye disease that is common in these parts. While the disease has been eradicated in the United States and western countries, it is still prevalent here and is transmitted by infected flies biting the eyeball. The USAID workers used a measuring stick to determine how many pills each child needed and distributed them to the families. Recognizing that we were from the USA, they were eager to show us how the aid we send was being put to use and I was glad to see that with my own eyes - and I was proud that my country could help to stop terrible diseases like that!
Speaking of American pride, we often get asked where we are from. The typical answer is the “United States” but sometimes they would ask more specifically. At one point I responded “Washington, DC” and they suddenly got very animated….. I live near Obama! President Obama is very popular in this area (Kenya, where his family is from is just to the north) and we have just started telling people we live in the same city as Obama. It’s incredible watching people’s reaction to us change when they hear we live near Obama - they go from being a little timid and hesitant to giving big smiles, cheers and thumbs up. Regardless of what you think of his politics, it is clear that having an African American President has really changed the impression these people have of America in a positive way.
Our morning ended with a tour of the market and villagers selling produce, spices and other oddities. We then took a “Tuk-Tuk” (rickshaw) back to the lodge for lunch before our tour of the Maasai villages outside town.
The Maasai people and culture deserves its own, special, and unique post to really capture what we experienced; therefore, I am ending the Day 4 log early and will come back to a post about the Maasai in the future.