The Land of the Masai

Mention East African culture or the dominate language of Swahili to a Westerner and you might just stir up images of brightly clad Masai people with gauged (stretched lob piercings) ears, elaborate jewelry and lethal spears. Ironically enough, the Masai have their own language, yet four warriors grace the cover of my own Swahili phrasebook. Go figure! Anyway, we’ve all seen the scene on TV or in the pages of National Geographic. For many tourists, the Masai village visit is an integral part of a safari. For $80 you can see a “spontaneous” traditional dance and take your picture with the warriors!

Luckily for us, we visited the Masai under a different context. The village leaders of Akaria invited us to their village to see their current water infrastructure and learn more about the delicate relationship the Masai have with their native land and their desperate reliance on water. Long story short, large-scale tilling and agriculture eliminate the lifeblood of the Masai livestock, namely, hearty pasture grasses. The village is intermixed with acres and acres of corn – some planted by city dwellers who “hijacked” the land for farming purposes.

A young Masai boy watches over his cattle.
A young Masai boy watches over his livestock.

To begin, we took tea (along with a wide variety of samosas, fried breads, rice cakes and cassava chips) with our host multiple times before getting started. We couldn’t put down a teacup without immediately being offered more! Their generosity was amazing. With the proper protocol followed, it was time to begin. I kid you not – we sat through a PowerPoint presentation about pastoralism. We did not see that coming.

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Masai woman gathering water from 100 year old well - all the more dangerous without the help of our driver.

With more knowledge, full stomachs and satiated thirst, we took a tour of the village, taking in a rain capture system (initially built by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s), the village school and new community center, as well as the village’s last three water tanks. The village seemed to be doing relatively well – in large part, we think, because of our host’s efforts. He seemed to be spearheading each and every project we saw. Repeatedly, though, he stressed the importance of water and the dire situations the village has faced and will face again. A few miles away from the village, there’s a local dam that services part of the area. Our host told us that the villagers have learned, from experience, to up and move within six hours if the dam dries out – or potentially face death from dehydration. So tenuous is the region’s water supply that mere hours can change everything. To more vividly illustrate this struggle, our host told us about an instance in which a delivery tanker full of water (ordered during a particularly bad drought) overwhelmed the water tank, destroying the structure and sending precious liters of water onto the dusty ground. The villagers took to grabbing handfuls of the newly created mud and sucking what moisture they could from it. The tanker driver was so moved by the scene he broke company regulation and returned with another load.

The GWI team with a few of our Masai hosts.
The GWI team with a few of our Masai hosts.

In the end, we thanked them graciously for their time and hospitality. We wanted to help and thought of a few quick fix ideas, but it hardly seems like enough. Our project is long-term and will require much, much more than three weeks of research to effectively roll out. Dry season is descending upon Tanzania, and these very villages we continue to visit will face tough times. It’s amazing that after millennia of living in the same climate, the Masai are still faced with a new environment year after year. Nothing is guaranteed except that they will continue to endure.

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