Like many first time travelers, I was initially drawn to Tanzania because of its phenomenal wildlife populations. You often hear stories of lion kills, cheetahs running, huge herds of wildebeest and zebra, leopard sightings, and the possibility of checking the Big 5 off your safari checklist. With these images ingrained in my mind, I left for Tanzania in 2006 with dreams of seeing it all. While I came away with more than my share of stories, it was not the animals that touched me the most. It was the people.
When I found out that I was going to join the Signature Thomson Safari in May, I was most looking forward to the Maasai visit portion of the trip. Although I have spent a considerable amount of time in Tanzania, I hadn’t yet traveled with Thomson and had the opportunity to meet the Maasai in their local setting. The Maasai I had met had either left their bomas long ago to live in the cities or were part of a scheduled visit along well-traveled paths teeming with tourists, which I’ve found can feel a bit contrived and inauthentic.
One day during the Signature Thomson Safari last May, my eight safari companions and I got into our Land Rovers and took off for what we were told was an unscheduled, spontaneous village visit. As we approached the village, dozens of kids ran as fast as they could beside our vehicle smiling, laughing and waving at us. As we got out of the vehicle, we saw a group of Maasai boys, about 30-40 strong, gathering on the outskirts of the boma.
Maasai woman and son in front of the boma she is building to honor her son's achievement.
Maasai women singing and chanting during the ceremony. The festivities warranted full regalia, jewelry and face paint for these proud mothers.
Warrior marching in for the start of the ceremony.
Young warrior smiling
Warriors watching the jumping circle, admiring and laughing at the various attempts by their peers to jump the highest.
Maasai woman singing with young son on her back.
Young Maasai warriors marching in to join their mothers in song and celebration.
Warrior preparing to show off his jumping skills in the circle.
Maasai women chanting before being joined by the young warriors.
Maasai women singing to their sons in honor of their impending inititations.
As we walked into the main area of the boma, a group of 20 women started singing, jumping and laughing as if on cue. We naively assumed they were singing a welcome song for us. After several minutes, the group of boys began dancing slowly towards the women to the deep, rumbling beat of a make-shift horn crafted from a plastic pipe. The women began to move towards them and the two groups combined creating one harmonious chant. Everyone in the village was looking on, clapping and singing – very few of the Maasai paid any attention to us standing there watching. At this point, we were in complete awe, and passed a look around to one another that said “this was definitely not planned for us”.
Our Thomson guide, James (who is Maasai), explained that we had stumbled upon a rite of passage ceremony for the communities’ young generation of warriors. We quickly came to realize the women were not singing for our benefit; the women were singing to the warriors, their sons, in honor of their impending initiations. The warriors were showing off their skills by forming a circle and jumping, and they were celebrating their long journey to this point.
James further explained that this ceremony marked the boys’ transition into adulthood as well as a transition to move into a new manyatta (group of huts) specially built by their mothers. In the near future, once warrior training was complete, another ceremony was to take place where the mothers shave their sons’ long, braided hair to officially mark the warriors’ transition into the category of elders.
We couldn’t believe we had the opportunity to experience this rare, intimate moment. The raw emotion that the mothers and warriors displayed – love, devotion, pride and happiness – moved each of us. Though we could not communicate directly or speak Maa, we had been present for something more powerful than words can describe. What surprised me the most was that we were not looked at as unwelcome visitors, instead we were welcomed into the ceremony as part of the community. This is the “karibu spirit” that Tanzanians embody, regardless of tribe. This is the reason I love returning to Tanzania year after year.