Thoughts from the Maasai Steppe

Well it’s been quite a week. I finally left the crowded paved roads and took off on back roads to explore an area called the Maasai steppe, a huge 10,000 square mile area of northern Tanzania. Sparsely populated, it contains a variety of terrain–from rolling hills, to forest, to grassy plains. As the name suggests, it is also home to many of the fascinating Maasai tribespeople.

Getting off the main road is a fun, but challenging, experience. The roads are rough, it’s easy to get lost, the riding slow, food and water are hard to come by, and camping is the only option. But after the crowds of people over the past month it was nice to breeze along with only the birds and trees (and bugs) to keep me company. I did not see a whole lot of big game–just some impalas, ostriches and warthogs. Most days only one or two vehicles would pass during the entire day, and at times I would not even see any people for 3-4 hours. I had a lot of time to think, which is always dangerous.

Here are some photos.

There were lots of these ugly, stumpy trees. They looked hilarious. Just a huge trunk and some scrawny branches.


Some views of the different types of terrain.

one of my campsites.


A nice sunset.


A woman selling roasted corn at night in a small village.


A family at work in front of their house.


Selling tomatoes in a small village market.


A baby getting its meal.


Woman and child by house.


A passed a number of dung beetles. They claw at the dung and pad it into little round balls about the size of a raquetball. Then with amazing speed they roll it to its destination.


A young girl in a village I stopped at.


Many Maasai wear sandals made of old tires. They won’t win any fashion awards but they are cheap, durable, and comfortable, and good for the environment! Here’s a guy making them.


Cardamom grows in the region. Here, these guys were packing up sacks of the stuff for export to Nairobi. I chewed on a piece of it and it exploded with flavor. The smell was incredible.


I camped five nights in a row, and six out of seven. That’s a record for this trip. I could have gone more but the villages to get food and water were becoming scarce, and there was no water to wash clothes. Plus, the roads and biting flies were getting worse. At one point the road became mostly sand which was impossible to ride on. So I had to push/drag my bike through this mess for about five hours. Worse, there were hundreds of biting flies that would attack me because I was going so slow. It was almost as bad as the bugs near Copper Harbor, MI. I put on heavy duty insect repellent but it did not seem to faze these tough African monsters. They ignored it as if it was not there. I swore I could hear them scornfully saying to me, “dude, we eat this repellent for lunch.”

But, by 5 o’clock the flies had departed and as I set up my campsite it was quiet. After a sponge bath, a hot bowl of ramen noodles and some local spirits called Konyagi, I settled in to my tent for the night, clean, content, a full belly, and slightly drunk. It seems no matter how tough the day is, 99% of the time it works out OK in the end.

The Maasai

I had a chance to observe many Maasai people in their traditional environment. In some small villages, everyone was dressed in traditional attire; there was no western dress.

My Lonely Planet guidebook says this about the Maasai:

One of the region’s most colorful tribes, the Maasai are pastoral nomads who have actively resisted change and still follow the same lifestyle that they have for centuries. Their culture centers on their cattle, which provide many of their needs–milk, blood and meat for diet, and hides and skins for clothing. The land, cattle and all elements related to cattle are considered sacred.
Maasai society is patriarchal and highly decentralized. Villages, called bomas,  are comprised of several mud and grass huts arranged in a circle. Elders meet to decide on general issues but ultimately it is the well being of the cattle that determines a course of action. Maasai boys pass through a number of transitions throughout life, the first of which is marked by the circumcision rite. Successive stages include junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders and senior elders. Each level is distinguished by its own unique rights, responsibilities, and dress. Junior elders, for example, are expected to marry and begin a family, somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. Senior elders assume the responsibility of making wise and moderate decisions for the community. The most important group is that of the newly intitiated warriors, moran, who are charged with defending the cattle herds.
Maasai women play a markedly subservient role and have no inheritance rights. Polygamy is widespread and marriages are arranged by the elders, without consulting the bride or her mother. Since most women are significantly younger than men at the time of marriage–usually 12-16 years old– they often become widows; remarriage is rare.

Here are a few more articles about the plight of young Maasai women and their struggle to escape the bonds of traditional Maasai culture.

Meanwhile, some photos.

Typical Maasai women on the road. As usual, they don’t like their photos taken. Some even became hostile towards me. But others let me photograph them, for a fee–usually about $ US 1.

The Maasai walk a lot. They graze their cattle over many kilometers and to them it’s nothing to walk 50 km to the market to sell their cattle. So I saw a lot of sights like this guy walking down the road to who knows where.


Two Maasai men. The guy on the right works in Zanzibar and spoke fluent Italian and Spanish. I could not believe it. I guess some of them have abandoned their pastoral tradition and work in the tourist industry. But when they go home they put back on their Maasai dress. Hearing a Maasai warrior speak fluent Spanish was a bit surreal.


Another Maasai woman and man on the road.

At one point I was desperately low on food. I stopped in one very tiny Maasai village where all they had to offer me was a freshly slaughtered goat. I had no choice but to buy a roasted goat leg and carry it around all day, snacking on it. I cut up what remained and had goat soup for dinner that night.

Here I am waiting for my goat leg to roast, posing with a local Maasai warrior from the village.


The guy let me take some photos of him (no charge). You can see the circular brand marks on his cheeks which distinguish the tribe. They are branded at a young age, about 10 years old. At that age they also have their lower two front teeth knocked out. Strange.


Later that day, here I am chomping on my tough roasted goat leg. This was after five days in the bush, where every day is a bad hair day.


A little boy strolling around in the Maasai village.


Tradition–a comfort or a curse?

I got thinking about the Maasai during the many quiet long hours on the road. In some ways traditions and societal norms can make life easier. Maasai women, for example, don’t have to decide if they should get married or go to college. Those decisions are made for them. You just perform your role and live as your ancestors have always done.

But what if you don’t want that? What if you want to get an education, or work in the big city? In Maasai culture you would become an outcast, excommunicated from your tribe. You would have no family or friends. All your connections would be severed.

Are they happy, I wondered? Are people happier when they fit into roles expected of them, thus maintaining the social order and keeping the universe unruffled? Or do people need to examine their own wants and needs and decide for themselves what makes them happy, even if it disappoints their family and friends?

How many of the people reading this blog are happy with their choices in life? Most people get a job, get married and raise a family. This is normal and most people expect it. But how many people get pressured into marriage and family because others expect them to do it? Family, friends and society dictate certain norms and behaviors that most of us find difficult to resist. But how many of us really do exactly what we want to do? How many of our decisions are influenced by society’s expectations of us rather than following our own hearts?

How do we even know what we really want, since what we think we want has already been influenced by our environment? That, I guess is my fundamental question. How much of who we are is a result of our environment and upbringing, and how much is inherent in us as human beings? We are clearly influenced by our environment but it takes strength and self awareness to go against the grain and do what you truly want. Frank Sinatra may have did it “his way”, but how many of us can say that?

Further, it may not be a good thing to do it “your way.” Maybe individuals should conform to society, for the good of the group. If everyone just did whatever they wanted, wouldn’t chaos reign? If everyone decided to not have children, quit working, and just enjoy traveling, the world would stop and the human race would die out. So keep working everyone.

Finally, I thought, we do what we want in order to be happy. But if everyone did what they wanted all the time, would we be happy all the time? Is it possible to be happy all the time? Isn’t happiness only relative to unhappiness? If you are never unhappy then by definition, you can never be happy either, you are just in a normal state.  We need to be unhappy from time to time to understand what happiness really is.

The same is true with freedom. Freedom only makes sense relative to “unfreedom.” If you are completely free all the time to do what you want then freedom has no meaning. If you are never unfree you can never be free.

I think I am losing my mind. I better stop before I end up in therapy.

So, that’s what you get after riding alone for several days in central Tanzania. Looking forward to your comments. I will be in the bush for a few more days but I am rapidly closing in on  the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts from the Maasai Steppe

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. May 14, 2009 / 3:06 pm

    That spear looks ominous. Sharp.

    You might be interested to know that we start our 39th year on the Queen tomorrow. Life here goes on, Kevin, and might I say that you look younger than ever. You must be eating something right. Did you take a ferry to Zanzibar?

    I am amazed by your reception in the villages. Can’t wait to see your post on Dar es Salaam.

  2. Ben Kilpela May 15, 2009 / 3:04 pm

    Great post, Kev. Enjoyed all the photos and the chit-chat a great deal. You’re getting better and better and better. I think you have a great photo book here.

    Kippis, Ben

  3. DAD May 18, 2009 / 1:26 am

    Im following you.

  4. Nicola May 18, 2009 / 10:46 am

    I agree with Ben. I hope you do something with this Kev


  5. Max May 19, 2009 / 8:46 am

    Comparison is the only means humans have for analysis, and understanding.
    And yes, you’re right – if one has no VISION of different reality, that one has a limited perception of reality, because that’s the only thing the eyes can see.
    If you think deeper you will understand how much of what people CAN do depends on what they have SEEN other people around them could do.
    Just imaging the role of the parents towards their siblings in that sense,
    or leaders towards their teams. this is called “to set example”.

  6. Ben Kilpela May 19, 2009 / 9:38 pm

    Of course, Kev, paradoxically, the very way you frame your questions about traditions vs. freedom betrays the American middle-class cultural forces that have shaped you. You give the distinct feeling in your phrasing and word-choice that following traditions is somehow a detriment to the fulfillment of some personal purpose or goal or desire. But many cultures teach those who share the culture that the keeping of traditions and following heathful rules brings joy in time and are themselves forms of freedom. I could go on, but I will leave it at that.

    For middle-class Americans it has become a requirement that we must form our own personal identities and make our own personal choices in life to fulfill some personal goal or purpose that is worthy and important. But this often leads, as some have been noticing lately, to deep anxieties about identity and a distinct loss of satisfaction in life. We are constrained, in other words, to be free, to a degree. So much so that we now are almost required to look down on those who follow traditional paths.

    By the way, you should check the very fine book “The Paradox of Choice,” which concerns consumer culture in America, though its ideas can be applied in a wide manner, such as to spiritual concerns. The basic premise of the book is that having too many choices, as we have at grocery stores in the US, for example, causes heavy anxieties and a lot of unhappiness.

    Kippis tervydeksi, Ben

  7. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. May 20, 2009 / 9:05 pm

    Adding to Ben’s comment, I point to Professor David MacClelland’s study in the early 60s on “achievement,” in which he pointed out that in Northern Europe and North America mostly, personal achievement was most often prized and, therefore, stressed in school. Conversely, it was rarely,if ever, stressed in such places as India and China.

    In a most dramatic way, in the past 50 years that has changed in the East and we now see personal achievement (also personal gratification) ascending rapidly. And, to my mind, to the detriment of the “group achievement” or “society” if you will. Sort of a “I got mine and I don’t care if you get yours” or, worse, “I got mine and I hope it takes away from yours because there isn’t enough to go around.”

  8. Alix May 21, 2009 / 5:20 pm

    Kevin–these are the sorts of questions that plague my mind at two in the morning as I wrestle to get back to sleep. I personally think that the problem is not so much what we chose but the fact that we evolve over time and so often we are pigeonholed and unable to experience the freedom of just making a different decision that would be more in keeping with our new sense of who we are.

    Women all over the world has so many fewer choices than do men, but, I won’t get on that soapbox.

    You are so lucky that you have been able to just pick up and decide to do something radically different, I’m sure I’m not the only one living vicariously through your travels!

  9. Kevin Koski May 23, 2009 / 1:20 pm

    Don–I am currently reading a great book about Africa called, “The Shackled Continent,” by Robert Guest. He compares Japan and sub sahara Africa in terms of wealth, but notes it’s impossible to say who is happier. Is the Japanese salaryman who works 80 hours a week, smokes like a fiend and dies of stress happier than a poor shop keeper in rural Kenya who sits around chatting with his friends and family all day? The achievement syndrome may be a curse to some people, as it can literally kill them. As I have said before, we need to stop and smell the roses occassionally (but not all the time).

  10. JoJo May 24, 2009 / 1:17 pm

    Hey kev,
    How wonderful to experience a tribe up close. I love to watch the documentaries on tribes, I think on the National Geographic channel. It just fascinates me. I do sort of admire that roll to which you are assigned, so to speak. It does seem it would make life a little easier. who knows. Maybe inside they are saying, “is this all there is?”….
    Ah, the quest for happiness. Sometimes I say to myself, if I died tonight, would I die being happy for my life?…And I guess I would say, yes, I am happy for the life I’ve lived and have been relatively happy in my life. But there is so much more I want to see and do. Will I do them? Will I see them? Only if I make it happen. Will I be unhappy if I don’t? I hope not. I just try to enjoy life as much as I can and realize that, yes, without pain, there is no happiness. The million dollar question….What’s happiness?

    I agree with my Dad…you look great! Miss you lots.


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