I Spent The Night With A Blood-Drinking, Polygamous African Tribe
When first-world privilege meets third-world oppression.
The tribesman blows on the bowl of hot blood before taking a big slurp. Then he gestures to me: Would I like some? I suppress the urge to vomit and politely decline. Just moments ago, I’d watched as that blood spilled from a dying goat’s neck.
These are the Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe in East Africa that believes goat blood improves their sex drive. I’m in northern Tanzania for my honeymoon. When my wife Jo and I planned to come to Africa, we thought spending a night in a Maasai village would be a lens into a different culture. We just didn’t expect to feel so conflicted for the rest of our trip.
The Maasai’s culture is completely removed from our own. Jo and I live on Chicago’s north side, and this is about as third-world as it gets. The Maasai don’t have running water, medical care, vaccines or any modicum of first-world comfort. As my mother-in-law said, “You call this a honeymoon?” Point taken, Marcy!
Who are the Maasai? Here’s a little background
The Maasai live between Kenya and northern Tanzania. They migrated here from the Nile Valley 600 years ago. Due to their proximity to the national parks and their colorful red kangas (wraps) they’ve become one of the most recognizable tribes in sub-Saharan Africa. The women are known for crafting brightly colored beaded jewelry while the men are brought up to be warriors. The Maasai don’t do much fighting these days, but the warrior tradition lives on: the men are responsible for protecting their cattle and goats from lions, cheetahs and hyenas. As pastoralists, their wealth (and sense of pride) is measured by the number of goats and cattle they own.
The Maasai are a proud people: During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the East African slave trade was booming, Arab and British slavers pillaged the area and wreaked havoc on local communities. The Maasai kept the slavers at bay, our Tanzanian tour guide informed us (I later fact-checked this?—?he’s right). Unlike other tribes in this part of Africa, the Maasai fought off both the Arab and British slavers and were left largely untouched as a result.
These days, creeping modernization poses a more immediate threat. In recent years, the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have urged the Maasai to become less nomadic, to assimilate into modern civilization. But the Maasai don’t want to change their way of life (even though they face severe drought and other perils). They’re reluctant to abandon what they know.
I can understand that, but the problem with an unchanging culture is that it tends to maintain its archaic views on gender and equality.
When we arrive to the village, I open the car to get out and two small hands grab my wrist before my feet even touch the ground. I look down to see a giggling boy. There are 15 others like him gathered around our car. They seem to have been waiting for us to arrive. Their faces are bright and smiling, but it’s hard not to notice how malnourished they are. The clothing they wear is covered in dirt and pockmarked with holes. The older girls, who look to be nine or ten years old, have babies on their backs (they aid the older women in care-taking, we later learn).
The chief comes to greet us. His name is Johnson; he’s in his 40s and he welcomes us with open arms. He tells us that all of these kids are his. Yep, he has 16 children?—?and three wives, the youngest of whom is 20. We do our best to reserve judgment, but it’s difficult when he gets one of his kids’ names wrong right in front of us. This happens two or three more times during our stay.
The Maasai village is a circle of huts made of donkey dung with a small fenced-in area in the center for their goats. Johnson leads us into the first hut. It’s darker and hotter than I expected. A woman in the corner tends to a boiling pot over a fire. Johnson tells us this is his first wife, but doesn’t tell us her name.
He immediately barks something in their native tongue and his wife moves out of the way quickly. Johnson motions for Jo to sit down in the place where his wife sat a moment ago. He is the authority in this village. His wives seem to be mere vessels for his offspring. They don’t seem to have agency, to be truly free.
We sit in the smoky hut for as long as we can bear. It’s hard to see or breathe. After five minutes I have to get some fresh air. All I can think is, “Thank God I don’t have to be in there anymore.” My next thought is, “That’s that woman’s life.”
Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with guilt. I couldn’t handle five minutes of what she does every day for (probably) her entire life. Does she know how oppressed she is? Then I feel a fresh wave of guilt for thinking that. My Western privilege is in full effect. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a relationship of servitude, not one of love. I’d like to remain unbiased, to see this foreign culture without imposing my own white, first-world judgment on it. But women here seem to be second-class citizens?—?and how can I not judge them for that?
This repeats itself in each of the three or four huts we visit. Finally the tour concludes and we’re asked to take part in a ritual welcome dance as the sun falls. I line up with the warriors while Jo goes to stand with the women on the opposite side. We all sing, chant and sway while the air turns cool and a massive yellow sun sets over the savannah.
I look out across the circle at Jo. We’ve never been more out of our element. It’s unbelievable that the Maasai have been able to cling to their customs for centuries. My parents’ only tradition was inviting one of their divorced friends to Thanksgiving every year. But it’s hard to reconcile their commitment to their culture with the fact that the village has no running water despite its being only an hour from the city of Moshi (population 185,000). The needless deaths that surely occur here from disease, bacteria and illness could easily be prevented with a little Western medicine.
You might be thinking, who the fuck are you to sum up an entire culture in this glib, judgmental way? And you’d be right: I spent one day with the Maasai. I know nothing of what it’s like to be them.
But all I can do is report what I saw and what I read. What I saw were women who appeared to have no freedom of choice. What I read is that the Maasai still practice female genital mutilation. I feel comfortable judging these things. To remain unbiased when faced with repression and injustice requires a forfeiture of conscience, and I cannot morally agree with some of the decisions that this beautiful, proud people have made.
Then again, I don’t want to boil down a whole culture to a few self-righteous conclusions. Hell, I’m horrified and ashamed of America’s treatment of people of color and our obsession with guns, but I still manage to live here.
So if I can see the ripples and subtleties of American culture, then I have to acknowledge that the Maasai are also a nuanced and multifaceted society. Like America, parts of their society may be repressive, maybe even immoral. But that doesn’t give us permission to write them off. If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that life is not black and white, but a billion shades of gray. And for me, at least, realizing that was my way of staying compassionate and staying human.