Three women in red checked fabric wraps
Culture & tradition,  Lens-Artists,  Tanzania

The Maasai people of the Ngorongoro Crater

Despite the invasion of modern living in many parts of their country, the Tanzanian Maasai cling proudly to their traditional way of life. They never cultivate land (they consider it demeaning) but instead graze cattle, which hold a god-like status in their culture. The cows provide almost everything they need to live: meat, skin, milk, dung for the walls and floor of their huts, and warm blood extracted from the neck of a live cow and mixed with milk as an iron rich food.

One morning during our stay by the Ngorongoro Crater, our guide Reginald asked if we would be interested in visiting some typical Maasai homes, to which the answer was most definitely ‘yes’. We drove away from the crater to one of the upland areas where the Maasai herd their cattle. The home or boma we visited was one of the ‘Cultural Bomas’, which have been established to offer visitors the chance to learn about the Maasai culture. These places open up the world of the Maasai to visitors, while offering the Maasai themselves an opportunity to share their values with the outside world and provide them with an income in the form of handicraft sales.

I thought this was an excellent idea; it meant that we experienced none of that uncomfortable sense of intrusion that we have felt in some other countries when visiting a local home. We could take all the photos we wanted, secure in the knowledge that the people we met had chosen to come here to interact with us and to show us their way of life. Chris enjoyed meeting and posing for photos with the chief; while I admired the women’s jewellery and smiled at the shy children. I made sure to make a purchase while there too – a pretty bangle.

Maasai lifestyle

Today there are approximately 52,000 Maasai living in the Ngorongoro area. During the rains they move out on to the open plains; in the dry season they move into the adjacent woodlands and mountain slopes. The Maasai are allowed to take their animals into the crater for water and grazing, but not to live or cultivate there. Elsewhere they have the right to roam freely.

Thus the Maasai live in harmony with the wildlife and the environment, herding their cattle, goats and sheep, and living a semi-nomadic life. Their seasonal homes, the bomas, are scattered throughout the landscape; they are rebuilt as needed as the people move between their dry and wet season quarters.

Their choice of clothing is traditional too. This fabric, mainly red and usually striped or plaid with blue and sometimes other shades too, is known as Maasai Shuka. The blankets are worn by both men and women, and are ideal for protection from both sun and wind on these dry plains.

Some sources claim that the designs stem from the influence of Scottish missionaries and their tartans, but this has more recently been disputed. Whatever their origin, these fabrics are today influencing fashion designers and proving popular purchases for tourists, as this roadside stall demonstrates.

Red and blue fabric and cattle hide shields
Roadside stall selling shields and Maasai Shuka

And their traditional patterns are, I think, a perfect illustration of Ann-Christine’s chosen theme for this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge, ‘Striped and Checked’.

I visited the Ngorongoro Crater in 1999.

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