In the heart of Africa
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series chronicling Katie Hilborn’s travel to the Maasai tribe.
It was like a ghost was in their midst. Shocked, wide-eyed and apprehensive, my little African friends really didn’t know what to make of me when I first arrived at the village.
“What is this stranger doing here?” they thought. “Her eyes are the color of water. Her skin, like the clouds. And she’s taller than most men.” They kept their distance, just staring at me like kids glued to the TV set.
I said “hello” to them in their native tongue, which translates to “keyaa.” After practicing the Maasai language for several days now, the disappointment I felt was evident when I couldn’t entice a reaction.
Was I saying it wrong, I wondered? Had all my practice gone terribly astray?
The opportunity to live with the Maasai tribe had been a month in the making. I had heard from a fellow backpacker in Kenya that it was possible, but I didn’t know the course of action I needed to take. One could see, however, that this was the beginning of a beautiful experience; it was evident that fate led me into the hearts and care of this magnificent culture.
My quest to meet and live with these inhabitants began the week prior. I had been traveling all over East Africa in my 11-person group from the college outdoor program, going from one national park to another. I felt trapped and disappointed that I was missing out on what I thought was the last frontier. I needed culture – diversity, adventure – and it seemed as if I was never going to get it.
Upon arriving in Arusha, the safari capital of Tanzania, I felt irritated after a grueling 24-hour bus ride from Uganda, so I left my group at the hostel and ventured out in the town, not exactly sure of what I was searching for but hoping that it would cross my path.
A group of locals had been chasing me for blocks trying to sell hand-made necklaces and earrings.
“Sista buy this; sista look at this,” they would yell. I couldn’t run fast enough and every corner I turned seemed like another human barricade.
I spotted a five-star hotel in the distance. “Ah ha!” I thought. After noticing that the security guards were holding AK-47s, I knew I could somehow make this hotel my refuge. Just as I had foreseen, the peddlers immobilized at the hotel gate; I could see them staring up at me from the street below with a faint look of disappointment.
Once inside, I noticed a smiling face glancing in my direction. She was an employee of the hotel, well-dressed in black pressed pants and a maroon collared shirt.
I was instantly drawn to this young African woman; she seemed to possess a quality that I had been searching for since my arrival in this foreign land.
Neima, as I found her name to be, immediately started speaking with me, asking questions about my origin and telling me that it’s every African’s dream to travel to America. They think everything is fabulous in the States, that we all live like Rachel and Ross on “Friends” and that all one has to do to earn a living is become a rapper like 50 Cent or Dr. Dre.
I had to sadly inform her that most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and are in debt. Neima didn’t want to believe it.
After exchanging some more words, I had finally expressed interest in wanting to spend some time with a local Maasai tribe, and it turned out that she was of Maasai blood!
She was very excited for my interest in her heritage and invited me back to her house for dinner. I graciously accepted her offer, as I was just as curious about her as she was about me.
Once outside, Neima hailed a dalla-dallas – which is a minibus used to transport people all over the city.
Most minibuses tend to be packed to the brim with people, and combined with excessively fast speeds and poor maintenance, it made for an interesting journey to her neighborhood (or village, as she referred to it).
It was dark by then, which made it hard to see as I found my way along the pot-hole infested, long, slender dirt road. The street was aligned with tall tin fences and random shops gathered here or there.
I heard dogs barking in the distance, and while completely dark, I could imagine what the road might look like in daylight. Listening to the sounds of locals mingling and dirt bikes whizzing past me opened up an entirely different world.
“It’s okay Katie (pronounced Kah-tee),” she assured me as the dimly lit light of the moon cast shadows upon her face. “My father owns most of this neighborhood; you have nothing to worry about. No one will bother you.”
We finally arrived at the gates of her home. Inside, I found a garden with all types of vegetables, a banana tree with a goat tied to it and random chickens running around. The property consisted of three homes; the larger belonged to her father, where all five unmarried siblings lived, and the two married brothers occupied the houses immediately next door.
I received one of the grandest welcomes I can ever recall. The African people are by far the most hospitable culture I have ever encountered!
The whole family was very excited to see me, and the younger children (who didn’t speak any English) laughed at everything I said.
The mother immediately came out and gave me a huge hug, mumbling something in Swahili and laughing the entire time. She grabbed my head and nestled it against her cushioned body and large breasts and I was told by Neima that she was very happy to see a white person taking so much interest in her culture.
The youngest child brought me a traditional Maasai dish consisting of beef-stew soup poured over a bed of rice. The entire family watched me eat and insisted that I didn’t leave until it was all done.
In the African culture, especially the Maasai, they place more importance on food and family than materialistic belongings. It is customary that the head of the household or the guest eat first before anyone else can even take one bite.
The family would be considered upper-middle class for African standards but would be considered lower class for American standards. The father was a business man and owned 1,000 acres of farmland outside the city as well as seven houses in their neighborhood (called villages) for rental property.
Around town, their family would be considered successful; however, I would have never guessed it by their home … which was small with old furniture, a vintage analog TV and a hideous airbrushed portrait of Jesus on the stained wall.
After dinner, the parents offered me their bed to sleep in and told me I was now considered a Maasai person of the Laizer tribe (which is their clan). It truly was an honor.
Through a translator, the father asked me what type of dowry is given in America when the girl is ready to marry. Wanting me to wed one of his sons, he wondered where my father lived so he could send him the cows. To his disappointment, however, I humbly declined the offer.
My evening spent with Neima’s family was a wonderful culturally engaging experience, but it eventually was my time to leave. I had plans to go on a four-day safari that was departing the following morning, but I had promised them that I would return later in the week.
Katie Hilborn is a freelance travel writer and Breckenridge local. She has backpacked or volunteered in 17 countries on five continents. Hilborn has written articles for USA Today Travel and is currently creating downloadable self-guided walking tours of Denver for iPhone. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.
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