Vail Daily Travel: Adopted by the Maasai in Tanzania
Special to the Vail Daily
A bumpy dirt road led us away from the two-lane highway. We were in northern Tanzania in the lands of the Maasai and bomas, where clusters of earthen homes, protected by circular fences of vicious thorn bushes, flanked the road.
After a few dusty miles, we arrived at the boma of our host, Mzee, and our home for the next two weeks.
The night we arrived, Mzee’s wife had a baby. I had seen her earlier that evening, tending to the herds. She was thin and severe, with a small pregnant belly. I never would have expected that later that night, with the help of local women, she would give birth to a perfect baby girl.
The next morning an elderly woman was standing with Mzee. Beautifully adorned with the beadwork and earrings that all Maasai wear, she had fiery eyes that made me like her immediately. I respectfully greeted her by saying, “Shikamoo, Mama,” the proper way to greet an elder in East Africa. She smiled at me broadly, and we attempted a few difficult exchanges, using a mixture of the meager Kiswahili I was learning, gestures, and her rapid fire Kimaasai. Mzee helped with the translation. She was Mzee’s mother. Apparently, she took a liking to me as well and decided that I should come and hold the newborn baby. I began to call her Yeyo, which I was told means “grandmother.” Yeyo brought me to the small house on the other side of the boma, smiled, and gestured me inside.
The modest room, walled with earth, was dim, light softly filtering in through a small window. A cooking fire with three hearthstones burned in the middle of the cramped space. I carefully moved between the fire and two beds made of stretched hide to where Yeyo pointed for me to sit down, pantomiming holding a baby. As I sat down, I saw Mzee’s wife lounging in the shadows on that same hide bed. She smiled, pulled the baby girl from her breast and handed her over to me, a complete stranger whose name she didn’t even know.
Every day, Yeyo would approach me – a signal that it was time for me to hold the baby – and wait for me to drop whatever I was doing.
I would wash my hands and follow her to the little wattle and daub house into the darkness.
I still don’t understand why she came to me that way each day, but I do know that it was an honor.
One afternoon I was walking with Yeyo. Through our comedic combination of hand-signals and broken Kiswahili, she said, “That house right there. You can live there. You can come and work as Mwalimu (teacher) at the school. I will find you a good man, dress you in pretty clothes and jewelry, and cut off all you hair.” She had accepted me. I could stay. But I couldn’t.
I romanticized the traditional life of the Maasai, with the simple rhythms of daily life, the rich sense of community, and the freedom from the chaotic pace and demands of life back home. But I realized I could never really be at home there.
I knew Yeyo didn’t really understand. Often, when we travel and immerse ourselves in the lives of other cultures, the people welcome us warmly, though they usually don’t quite understand why we came, and much less, why we leave.
I thanked Yeyo profusely and tried my best to explain that I couldn’t stay.
She said, “Okay, when the baby is this high, maybe you come live here then.” She unwound a copper bracelet from her wrist and, taking my hand, wrapped it around mine. I haven’t taken it off since. It stays as a reminder of the choices we have, the different realities we all live in, and Mzee’s little daughter, right now strapped to her mother’s back, as she is calling in the herd.
Britt Basel is a photographer and travel writer focusing on cultural and environmental sustainability. She teaches photography for National Geographic Student Expeditions, leads university semesters abroad, and is a whole systems design consultant. She is a Colorado native living in Summit County. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.