Walking with the Masai

walking with the Maasai

Many of the Maasai, surprisingly, come armed with a mobile phone Photo: GETTY

Tall and angular, dressed in purple and red checks and armed with simple spears, the Maasai warriors of the Ngorongoro highlands maintain a steady gaze as we slow past them in the Land Cruiser.

It is rumoured that they patrol the border country of Tanzania to deter illegal immigrants and that their treatment of any unwelcome intruders onto their pasturelands is swift and bloody.

Our Maasai guide, Lengai Moluo has walked through the wet buffalo grass from his nearby village of Nainokanoka to meet us for our foot safari. We are surprised to see that he is armed with no more than a short stick and a Nokia mobile phone.

Nainokanoka means “foggy cloud” and this morning, there is no need to ask Lengai where this name comes from. The Olmoti ranger post, 2,400 feet above sea level, is cloaked in a chilly mist and moisture drips from the Arcacia trees.

Lengai leads us up the steep incline ahead with the distinctive smooth lope of the Maasai. He seems to bounce gently from step to step in his rubber sandals, fashioned from re-cycled car tyres, while he answers our clumsy questions.

“Much is written about the Maasai and their role in eco-tourism in Tanzania,” he tells us, as we descend a rocky gorge, “but much less is actually implemented”.

Lengai sold much of his family’s cattle to finance his two-year diploma course in tourism and he regards education as the key to survival for his people. The Maasai population is increasing but the cattle on which their economy depends is not; they struggle against disease, climate change and reducing pasturelands. At a tight corner at the foot of the gorge, a well thumbed Spanish language text book spills from Langai’s shuka and falls onto the track in front of us.

“We need to speak European languages if we are to benefit from the growth in tourism,” explains Langai, looking slightly embarrassed, as he secretes the book again under his clothes.

It is market day in Nainokanoka and we are invited by Langai to visit the village and meet his friends and family, who greet us warmly.

“Jambo, mambo, habari, nzuri” – the Swahili greetings and responses, flashing smiles and offers of hand-shakes arrive from every angle. There is the scent of cooking meat and cow dung. Excited teenage girls, in white bead jewellery, giggle and point at us while browsing the mobile phone accessories on the market stalls. Discarded goat body parts are stacked in neat piles near the perimeter, where meat is smoked over small wood fires.

“Soon, our culture may be our only asset, so we try to treasure it,” says Langai smiling, before he shakes our hands and goodbyes are exchanged. We bump and shake again in our Land Cruiser, all rendered silent with culture shock and an aching realisation that the Maasai have retained something special in their fragile world that is, now, long gone from ours.

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