Vail Daily Travel: Changing times in Northern Tanzania |

Vail Daily Travel: Changing times in Northern Tanzania

Britt Basel
Vail, CO Colorado
Britt Basel/Special to the Vail DailyMen from the nearby bomas (traditional Maasai dwellings) watch over the barbecue.

It was hot. So hot that all I could do was lie still in my tent, waiting for the heat of the high sun to have a little mercy as the afternoon slowly rolled on. I was with a group of students, fresh off the thrill of safari, staying with the Maasai of Esilalei in Northern Tanzania.

From a Land Rover in a national park, this landscape is the stuff of childhood fantasies. For the Maasai, it is a harsh reality: here the land teems with animals that can gore, maim, or trample you. For much of the year, the land is covered by dry grass and scrub, both inedible to humans. The few pools of fresh water are stagnant and uninviting.

With incredible ingenuity, the Maasai adapted to this harsh environment: the goats and cows of their herds eat the grasses that people can’t, making something inedible into meat that humans can eat. The animals can drink from the stagnant pools of water so that, instead of putrid water, the Maasai drink the blood and milk of the animals. Not quite the traditional diet of the Western world, but the perfect way to survive in this hostile environment.

My students and I had come to this unique corner of the world to learn about the Maasai firsthand; talk with them, learn from them, and at least get a taste of what it is like to live the way that they do.

After much discussion, we decided that this included having a barbecue.

A few days after we were arrived, our host Mzee took me to the market to buy the goat.

We arrived early at the market. The vendors unpacked boxes of shoes made from used tires, thick enough to walk on the vicious thorns that cover the ground, knives covered with red-hide sheaths, and shukas, the traditional dress of the Maasai, now made in China and sent back for them to buy.

Buying the goat was a quick exchange, Mzee knew the animal. It belonged to his brother-in-law and he could tell by looking at it that it was healthy.

The way Mzee picked up the goat and shoved it into the back of the SUV was anything but ceremonious.

I started to think about our separation from the food we eat the Western world. We have to go out of our way to think about where the meat in the cellophane package comes from and remember it was an animal, just like this goat. In contrast to the inhumane factories that our meat is raised in, this goat spent its life grazing the fields under the African sun.

There was nothing easy about watching Mzee and a few of the other men slaughter the goat, though we all stood on the sidelines in solemn silence. Shortly, pieces of meat, no different than most of us see everyday, were skewered onto sticks and put over the fire to barbecue.

The traditional world of the Maasai is ceasing to exist all around them. They are boxed in by towns, agricultural areas, and national parks. But they are adapting. Some have changed drastically, abandoning their traditional shukas for jeans and looking for cash income in Arusha, the nearest city and the safari capital of Tanzania. Others have taken just as much as they need, like the three young Maasai warriors that joined us at our feast, whipping out dated cell phones that have to be charged in town, since there is no electricity out here. A few, like Mzee, are looking for ways to adapt while preserving the heritage they come from. Mzee chooses to bring in respectful outsiders so we can learn about this beautiful people and the rich traditions they have.

One day I was walking with Mzee. He stopped me, pointing out nearby tracks and a spot where the earth was disturbed.

“A giraffe slept here last night,” he said.

We were just a couple hundred feet from my safari tent where I waited out the afternoon heat earlier that day and had slept the night before. The same rush flooded over me as when I saw that first elephant out on safari. This was a world where lions hunt, elephants roam, and giraffes lay down for the night so close to where you, yourself, slept. This reality is romantic as it is harsh, just as it is in danger of vanishing. More than anything, though, at this very moment and on the other side of the world, it is real.

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

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