Friday, December 21, 2012

Maasai Women . . .

Our small group gathered in a large round Maasai hut to talk directly with three elders and a translator, all men, to ask them any question about their way of life. I wanted to learn what folktales or stories they told their children. My question was ignored. I wanted to learn more about the wonderful women who had welcomed us with song.

What we learned about that morning was the nearly unmentionable rite of passage that traditional people still practice. Both boys and girls go through circumcision, though for girls, this is called clitoridectomy or excision. The 'surgery' is very painful, and the government is trying to end this ritual. But because this practice is part of bedrock belief, people still at puberty undergo the rite.

In fact, we saw young boys -- who, if they show pain, shame their families -- with faces painted in elaborate white masks who had completed this ceremony. The boys approached our jeeps. Ombeni, our guide, told us not to take photos or give money because it meant the boys learned early to be dependent. One person took a beautiful portrait of these young boys, but I think I understand why Ombeni was angry, for the picture makes these boys into objects, a thing of beauty barely understood, out of a process that is difficult for the West to accept.

We were told that the men take care of the cattle and think, and that the women do everything else. So, the women of our group were invited to help 'refresh' the walls of one of the Maasai round houses with a mixture of dirt and dung. We dove in, appreciating this 'hands on' opportunity, again welcomed into a community of women whose cultural identity we did not understand.

When I came home, I looked up Maasai folktales to see if this would add to my understanding of the division between genders. I found the Maasai believe that in the beginning, the women and the men were once equal, but they lived separately. The men raised cattle. The women raised antelopes and gazelles; zebras and elephants were their helpers. Occasionally, two would meet deep in the forest to mate. Boy children would go with the men at puberty; girl children would stay with their mothers.

But there was trouble in this paradise for the women were never satisfied, not even with their magical animal helpers -- their herds ran away, and the elephants and the zebras deserted them. The women were unable to survive, so they went to live with the men. In so doing, they gave up their independence. Forever.

I will remember these strong women, their voices welcoming us to their homes, their children close by, their impromptu dancing and market. I wonder how their culture, essentially a village culture, will be changed by the rush to modernity. What will be lost? What will be gained?

To read more about Maasai culture, go to this very helpful site on Every Culture.


KM Huber said...

This is such a stunning post, Beth. I think you ask the only questions possible: loss and gain. I wonder if anything really separates the two.

I've not commented on every post but do know I have so enjoyed On the Road. Wow! Have I learned things.


Beth Camp said...

Thank you, Karen. Re Africa, there's so much to learn and so much I will not learn. But I do feel privileged to have experienced some small part. The issues facing Tanzania are like a mirror to the rest of the continent.