Saturday, May 4, 2013

Eight Things I Love About the Maasai Mara (And Two Things I Don't)

So, as you may or may not have been able to tell from the flurry of Facebook pictures and heartfelt articles about my work here, I'm in love with the Mara. I'm also insanely busy in the Mara, which is why I've been sorry to neglect my blog here.

But I'm back now, and I thought I'd start us off with a bit of exposition about what I love so much about this place (in no particular order):

1. The People
Two Maasai elders reading my wildlife identification books.
The Maasai are reliably kind, generous, funny, clever, and just all-around enjoyable to work with. I get to spend every day visiting people at their homes, sitting down for lunch with them in town, chatting on the side of the road about the goings-on of the day, and just generally being a part of the community. Everyone's been unbelievably welcoming to me -- I've been adopted twice and proposed to three times (with cattle, in case you were wondering).

2. The Landscape

Come on. Come on. Come on. Can you imagine ever growing tired of a view like that?

3. The Rain

The clouds come first, rolling over the horizon dark and heavy; in the distance, wide stripes of gray obscure the skyline. That's the rain, coming in. Everyone bets on the rain, and the rain is a point of daily conversation -- Will it rain today? No, don't think so. Better keep the cows out. Will it rain this evening? No, it'll rain in the afternoon -- better bring the goods back into the shop.

4. The Cattle

Two calves with the World's Cutest Guard Puppy.

Maybe it's my Aggie heritage (Texas A&M '09! Gig 'em!), or maybe it's all those agriculture classes finally kicking in, or maybe it's just the sweet, melodic (read: incessant) sound of the cowbells ringing in the hills...but dammit, I love these cows now.

5. The Wildlife

You guys already know that I live in the Garden of Eden. This shouldn't come as a surprise.

6. The Kids

Oh, come on. Look at those faces.

7. The Languages

My Swahili's picking up fast, but I'm also learning a bit of Maa (the Maasai language), and snatches of Kikuyu here and there. Many people in the Mara speak 2 - 3 languages, depending on where their parents are from and where (or whether) they've gone to school. But it's less an exhibition of skill and more a reflection of necessity - when every one of Kenya's 40+ tribes has its own language, cross-linguistic communication become the norm.

8. The Jewelry

Photo by Tim Lee, Knox College 2009 
Nobody does beadwork like the Maasai, and every day, Maasai women wear dozens of beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. I've only got a few so far, but I can't wait for a really good market day, so I can pick up a ton more (plus as much cloth as I can carry back to the States!).

So those are some of the reasons that I love the Mara! But as I slowly turn Maasai (eating goat meat 4 days out of the week and wearing a khanga and beads everyday), there are a few things I'd like to see change:

1. The Lack of Education

By and large, the Maasai are a happy, well-off people. They're rich in cattle and (despite the fact that they personally don't cultivate it), live atop some of the most arable, nutrient-rich soil in the world. They're also an incredibly well-known tribe, and are fortunate to receive thousands of tourists every year - all of whom spend money on Maasai necklaces, bracelets, cloth, and other artifacts.

But schooling is limited among the Maasai, and most kids drop out by about age 14 in favor of tending cattle and goats. Girls, who can be married in Maasai culture as young as 11 or 12, tend to drop out earlier.

This puts the Maasai at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with the Kenyan central government; understanding contracts, land deeds, leases, and declarations of rights are all difficult when you can't speak Swahili, and only know basic math.

Fortunately, due to their own initiative and with the help of several aid organizations, this seems to be changing in Maasailand -- and we hope it's a change that will stick.

2. The Limitations of Women-Children

The two oldest female students (center) at this all-ages school.
I say women-children because often, a Maasai will refer to his wives as part of his children (as in, "Go to the house and ask one of the children to bring us some maziwa."). This is not entirely inaccurate; as I said before, girls can be married as early as 11 or 12 in the polygamous Maasai culture, and not-uncommonly to men 30 - 50 years their senior. So I'm sure they do seem like children to him.

I say that, however, at the risk of incorrectly making the lives of Maasai women seem bleak. They're not; I meet every day with sweet, funny, happy Maasai women who think it's the saddest (or strangest) thing in the world that I'm 26 and unmarried.

Still, I'd like to see a Maasailand that offers women both: (i) the opportunity to grow up and become educated and decide their own fates and the (ii) opportunity to celebrate their identity as mothers and wives and keepers of the Maasai culture.

I'd like to see women live longer, healthier lives without the risk of death or the lifelong complications that teenage births and 8+ pregnancies can bring. I'd like to meet little girls who can read just as well as their brothers, and it frustrates me when they get chased off of the books we've brought by even their younger male siblings. I'd like to see more schools, and more opportunities for women to live in a sphere separate from their sexual value; a space to be just young, growing people -- and not children or wives or too-early women.


  1. Wonderful insights! Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  2. You are a gifted writer. I enjoy taking a few minutes with my caffeine to live vicariously through your blog. Looking forward to seeing some terrific pubs from this experience! :)