The People of Tanzania


The Maasai people are the largest and best known of the 120 ethnic groups of Tanzania. As lean and straight as their walking sticks, the men wear red ketangas and the women wear colorful prints and elaborate beaded jewelery, including large earrings that hang from stretched ear lobes. The men and boys herd goats and cows and the animals are their wealth and food.

We visited a boma. The corral is built out of thorn branches to protect the herd and and the family’s small mud hut made with cow dung roof and one bed for as many as six kids. Inside the hut is a fire pit for cooking, but there is no electricity or running water and families ride donkeys ten miles one way to get water for two days.

The women and children wanted to see every picture that we took with our cameras and phones and there was surprise and laughter when they recognized themselves. Greeting children includes putting a hand on their heads or shaking hands and they wanted this touch over and over. Women took off their own earrings or bracelets and put them on our wrists and ears, but they did not know what to do with our hugs of appreciation. The men in our group led the kids through the hokey pokey and the chicken dance.

There is no light in the huts, so the Maasai live outside most of the day. It is easy to see  the ketanges blowing in the wind as they walked to town or drove flocks to the fields, and from far away, the ketanges are flashes of bright color against dry grass and dirt roads. Five-year-olds with goats wave as we drove by and recently circumcised 13-year olds wearing black robes and white painted faces will soon have their ceremony to become warriors. The Maasai has proudly kept their traditions and ways of life  for 200 years, but electricity and wells bring farmers and development that take the land and iPhones help the boys pass the time in the fields.

We visited the Sukenya school where  children run from as far as four miles each morning to get to school by 7:30 AM. That day was a holiday, but over 100 kids showed up in uniforms anyway. The school teaches English, Swahili, history, math and civics to 398 children in grades K-7. Some classes have up to 92 students in one room. There aren’t enough desks so many students sit on stones of the floor. The school needs many more textbooks, but the students are bright and happy and want to be teachers, nurses, pilots and doctors.

SuKenya Students Singing (video)

Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and the per capita income is $600 per year. The government can’t afford to give basic supplies to schools, so organizations like Focus on Tanzanian Communities (FOTC) provides  funding for schools, dormitories, supplies and computers. The website is www.fotzc.org.

Women have little power in the Maasai tribes. We shopped at a market close to the school where all of the crafts were made by the women and the money goes directly to them.

It is our last night in Tanzania and I am not quite ready to leave the parks, animals, and the Swahili language. I will miss spotting animals from the top of the Land Rover with the wind blowing in our faces, camp fire soccer games at sunset, hot water bottles in bed at night, strange animal sounds outside the tents, our new friends from Boston and Seattle who have been everywhere in the world except the south (Rob, Suzanne, Mark, and Jill—you need to come soon). I will miss our Thomson Safari guides O.J., Phanuel, Beatus, and Tom who opened Tanzania up to us, knew right angle for pictures, and protected us from animals and ourselves while always taking care of Babu and Bibi (Shahili for grandfather and grandmother).

At our last dinner together, our head guide O.J. told us “who knows how the Serengetti or the Masai will be in ten years, so keep what happened this week in you. Remember how it is now.”

Tanzania started as the place my father always wanted to see. Now, it is more than his dream and a name on a map. The people and the land are personal to my family and we will find ways to help the school and kids that we met.We have to leave so that we can return soon.