I have been working with Sandra Smith and Beginnings Guides for one year. I recently
stumbled upon an old article from 2007-Notes from the Field-Home Visiting in Tanzania.
I enjoyed reading about Sandra's experience with the Maasai and found myself wishing
I had been around then...perhaps I could have tagged along. In any case I enjoyed the
article so much I thought I would share it with all of you as well. -Simone Snyder
Notes from the Field March 1, 2007
Home visiting in Tanzania
Earlier this year I traveled for 3 weeks in northern Tanzania, one of the most wild and
primitive places on the planet and home to the Maasai. It was a trip to the beginning
of time. I was enchanted by these tall elegant graceful totally-alive people who consider
themselves part of the wilderness. Despite our vast differences, they made me welcome
and invited me into their homes. What I saw there gave me a whole new perspective on
public health and mothering.
Back at the tent now, sitting out front at the table, I’m watching the sun fade on
Kilimanjaro and reflecting on the morning. The party learned last night that we had
received, through our Maasai guides, an extraordinary invitation to visit a nearby boma.
We’ve seen many bomas in our explorations of these endless grasslands in the shadow
of Kili and Mt Meru. But only from the outside, looking like the backsides of elephants in
tall grass. A boma is a circle of huts, usually six or eight well spaced, facing inward and
surrounded by a thorn bush barrier. Each hut is home to one of a Maasai warrior’s wives
and her children. The huts are arranged in a specific order signifying the wives’ rank.
Each boma is home to the warrior who owns it, his cattle and goats, and his wives and
children. A group of bomas built a few hundred yards apart make up a village of related
warriors and their families.
A Home Visit to the Beginning of Time
The boma was about 6 miles from camp. We arrived shortly after sunrise. We wanted to
be sure to get there before the boys set off with the animals to find grass; the women
and girls set off with gourds to find water; and the father set off with his spear to find
his fellow warriors.
Inside the boma it was milking time. Cows and to a lesser degree, goats define the Maasai
culture and life in the boma. The herds are food, shelter, fuel and wealth. It is said here
that a Maasai will tell you exactly how many cows and how many goats he owns, he’s not
so sure about how many children he has. The cows and goats live inside the boma for
protection from wild animals. Dung is everywhere. The huts are made of dung – it does not
smell when it is dry. The ground is not dirt; it is dung, feet deep. These animals do not
drink much water. Their “patties” are not soft and steamy like the cattle I know. Sniff as I
might, I detected no foul smell.
This mother milked the cow into a gourd – a baby bottle of sorts. She never missed a drop,
although, her baby dribbled a bit. Flies are everywhere and barely noticed. No one attempts
to brush them away from the corners of the children’s eyes or from their own hair. The flies
are part of the cow wealth. A shortage of flies is a sign of poverty and hunger.
With the milking done, I was invited into one of the huts. It was cool and dark inside despite
the smoldering cook fire on the dirt floor. The ceiling was high enough for me to stand bent
over, although there was little space for my feet once I got beyond the small entryway. My
eyes burned with smoke. As they adjusted to the dark I found my hostess. She was sitting c
ross legged with an infant in her lap on a sleeping platform that occupied one wall of the hut.
She was radiant and proud in a red kanga and her white beaded jewelry.
Although my guide came in to translate, and I so wanted to ask her about her birth experience,
it was not possible to carry on a conversation across languages and eons. We exchanged greetings
and thanks. I saw her again just before we left as the women and children sang their traditional
songs for us.
Outside again, I played with the children. I was enchanted by them. These little goat herds 5 to
8 years old (boys and girls), spend their days alone in the wilderness leading their herds to grass
and water and safely home again. Most are barefoot. They carry only a stick. I was not allowed to
walk unescorted outside of camp due to the abundance of huge wild animals– these are not helpless
children. They must possess skills and knowledge and confidence that no 5 year old in America could
Through all this, my public health training was screaming at me. The dung. The flies. No water.
No sanitation. No toothbrushes. No refrigeration. No fruits or vegetables – a diet of milk and goat
meat – that’s it. The Maasai are neither hunters nor farmers. No plates or utensils. No antibiotics.
No medical or dental care. One father for all these children and their mothers; and he is away for
days and weeks at a time.
And yet, the people in this boma are healthy. They exude an inner happiness. The babies on their
mothers’ backs have chubby legs, bright eyes and serene faces. The children are energetic,
athletic and eager to engage. The adults are strong, tall and elegant. They all have beautiful white
teeth and easy smiles. They routinely walk for days with little to eat or drink. No sunscreen. No
hats. No sunglasses. No body odor. I saw one toddler about 3 years old with a deep burn on her leg,
no bandage. Hot porridge spilled on her, they said. But there was no sign of infection. I did not see
very old people, but certainly grandmothers. Life expectancy and the infant mortality rate are
unknown – the Maasai do not write, there are no records. Still there is much to be learned from
them. What allows them to be healthy and happy in these conditions? What do their healers know,
I wonder. How do the warriors see beyond the range of my binoculars?
I don’t know how long I was in the boma. I bought some beaded jewelry that the women laid out
on kangas on the ground. I wondered where they got their sense of design – I will wear this jewelry
back in the city. I asked my guide what they would do with the dollars I gave them in exchange.
The warriors will walk to town and trade for maize or rice or a plastic water bucket.
(That will take days!) I was enjoying the look on the warriors’ faces as they figured out my binoculars
and saw the distance come into focus when noticed the rest of the party was gone and Larry was
at the gate calling me. I fear for these gentle people living at the beginning time
with the future rushing headlong at them.
About the Maasai
The Maasai (say Ma- sigh) are an ancient nomadic people thought to have originated in Egypt
two thousand years BC. DNA evidence suggests they may be the lost tribe of Israel. Tanzania
gained independence from Britain in 1964. The nation just elected its fourth president who
seems to be leading them thoughtfully and optimistically into the first world. But not the
Maasai. Most have decided to maintain their primitive lifestyle. They have rejected government
offers of fertile farmlands and opted instead for rights to live undisturbed and graze their herds
in these vast wild lands. Primary education is free and mandatory in Tanzania, but few Maasai
parents want to send their children.