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Coming of Age in a Maasai Boma

By Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Our Dalton turned 16 last week.
Like some of his former birthdays, this one could have been given short shrift, being squished, as it is, between Christmas, our wedding anniversary, and New Year’s.
But this was The Big 1-6, and for months Dalton had been counting down the days. So we promised we’d really mark it this time. We’d holler to the heavens for joy at the marvel of our son’s life. We’d dance and sing and generally jubilate about life.
Well, for starters, we’d invite the whole tribe.


This is Dalton with some of his party guests, members of the Maasai tribe of Tanzania.
We happened upon their boma (“boma”: Maa language for community/settlement), which lies between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.
Oh, all right. We didn’t just “happen” upon Africa. In truth, we’d planned this trip to Tanzania specifically to pick up Claire, our daughter, who had just finished her fall internship as an assistant in a juvenile detention center in Moshi, near the Kenyan border.
While there, Claire fell fiercely in love with the people and their corner of the earth which science calls “The Cradle of Humankind”. It was from here, we learned, that mankind is to have sprung; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating to 3.7 million years ago—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our very safari tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a nice ‘n’ tidy poetic kind of way.
But you see I’m already getting ahead of the story.
Let’s get back to the boma. . .
Late in the afternoon of the eve of Dalton’s 16th, we and our travel friends were invited by Masenga Lukeine, a bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma and interview its inhabitants. The Maasai, as you may already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood. For centuries, they’ve lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves a tight fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.
It’s also fantastic stuff for a photo essay.
When our Jeeps approached the thorny thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was this senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.


These Maasai had never had western visitors like us: odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes. Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai, all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults the two missing bottom teeth. (Removed in a childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.) And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, (everyone, that is, but the children, who seemed inured to them), I felt their regal bearing, their dignity.
I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I, if only for a moment, see with their eyes into their world, into my world?


Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. And loads of light.


And beauty.


And darkness. At least when I entered one of their huts. There, I found lightlessness so complete, it froze me. Once I’d crouched through the 4-foot entrance and had gotten past the acrid sting of walls made of cow-dung plaster and the realization of live-in farm animals, (I nearly tripped over a goat then bumped into a sickly calf), I brailled my way to a corner. There, I squatted and, reaching to position myself, realized it wasn’t a knob of wood I was clenching, but someone’s knee. It was the younger of two women huddled beneath an archway, and with the light of my cell phone, I made out an older woman in a checkered robe. Next to her, a younger woman (the second wife, I was told), waited, holding the older wife’s newborn infant under her robes. She would stay at the delivered wife’s side for three consecutive months of rest and confinement. I instinctively reached to stroke both wives’ shoulders and pat the round of the very small baby’s back. The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me, or on Dalton, who bent to me, whispering, “Is this anything like a Biblical manger?”


These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of their personal huts. Twelve huts comprised this boma, one for each wife. It wouldn’t be long before the younger wife—she couldn’t have been much older than Dalton— would deliver the first of her children. From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.
And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space, and I realized quickly that I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.
But I’ll tell you. Man, did I want to.

That initial visit—stunning, enlivening, exhilarating, tender—was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.”
I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview. And I ran away, empty notebook in hand.


That same river which had been hub-cap shallow an hour earlier was, when we finally reached its banks, far too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. By this time, it was heavy evening in the African wild, and our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Weaving along the river for an hour or more, we drove, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog. After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours. Our guides told us to plan on morning. Here are some blankets. Would we mind sleeping in the Jeep?
But what about crashing, I suggested nonchalantly, at the boma?
Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the pitch black interior of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s pearly eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.
As soon as I began “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, the children, at least 25 of them crushing around us, caught right on to singing “in His hands” (or something that sounded like it) over and over again. This turned into a shrill Maasai chant where random children took a solo part and the rest of us shouted (something, but I can’t say what) in response.
We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids trying to “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.
A natural splitting-off made for four groups. Group One orbited around our youngest, who had introduced a bunch of boys to the new wonder of Tickle Tag. The flash of his Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by Maasai children, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.


Group Two formed around the Jeep where children and teens discovered Peek-a-Boo, another fabulous game that left a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window.
Group Three was the beat boxing contingent where Dalton drew an audience with his strange oral rhythmic gifts. They caught right on. And Group Four gathered where our friend Glen from Salt Lake City explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he might as well have been unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this man narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Year in Pictures.” I caught bits of what he said, since he spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, (a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.)
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images. Glen’s running narration went something like this:
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”


It was right about then that Group Five took shape. Behind me, from the darkest part of the darkness, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (freakishly slick to them, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders. (Just a note: White girls can’t flap. Not this one, at least.)
I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I just couldn’t suppress the singing. So I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see a kelly green T-shirt sidling up next to me. Had my son ever looked so fair, so dimpled, so illumined? Next to him was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump. Jump. The famous Maasai vertical jump. The legendary initiation jump.
Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. All of us.
So you see we weren’t actually the ones who invited the entire tribe. As it turned out, the entire tribe invited us. Or was it heaven itself that invited us? Heaven and earth, perhaps, invited us to rock, as it were, in the Cradle of Humankind. Shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, parch-throated yet intoxicated, heads pitched back singing to Pleiades dangling in that high dome of the infinite with its spin-dizzying splash of fiery stars and pulsing planets, heaving and hollering and hopping, we, the black and white, the ancient and the modern, the Maasai and Mormon, joined in the irrefutable, inexplicable, rollicking and vivid exultation of life.













What Coming of Age moments are most vivid in your memory?

About Melissa Dalton-Bradford

(Poetry Board) Melissa Dalton-Bradford resides near Geneva, Switzerland with her husband, Randall, and Dalton and Luc, the two youngest of their four children. (Their daughter, Claire, has just returned from serving a full-time LDS mission in southern Italy. Melissa served a full-time mission in Austria.) Geneva is the eighth international address Melissa and her family call home, having resided in Vienna, Hong Kong, Oslo, Versailles, Paris, Munich and Singapore. At the time of this printing, she and her family are moving to Frankfurt, Germany. Alongside having performed professionally as a soprano soloist in the US, Europe, and South East Asia, Melissa earned a BA in German and an MA in comparative literature (BYU), and taught German, humanities, English and writing at the university level. She is an award-winning poet and essayist, and is an active public speaker on living internationally, family, loss and grief, spirituality and women’s issues. Most recently, she has published her first book, Global Mom: A Memoir, and her next book, Loss & Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them will be released in May of 2014. That volume is a substantial work on loss, grief and the power in communal mourning, and is a tribute to her firstborn, Parker, whose untimely and tragic passing at the age of eighteen redefined her life. Her most consuming passion is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and her family is, by far, her most satisfying creation.

39 thoughts on “Coming of Age in a Maasai Boma”

  1. This was so fun to read, Melissa. Thank you for sharing it!

    I love coming of age stories–one of my favorite subcategories of novels.

  2. I'd love to hear about others' rites of passage. There are many out there in our specific or broader culture, that don't necessarily involve piercing, cutting, spearing or jumping.

    A first date? A farewell or homecoming? A driver's license test? A first day at university? A day in court? Anyone?

    And what thoughts do you have about the Maasai in general? What questions would you have asked, or what dance would you have done, had you been there?

  3. Melissa,

    I cannot express how happy this entry made me . . . To my core, the scene you described illustrates all the reasons why traveling brings me joy. I remember as a small child thumbing throu endless editions of National Geographic and craving the opportunity to see such unique places, and most especially to see the world through an entirely new set of eyes–through the perspective of other people or cultures. I really took at face value the idea that we are all children of God, and as such, have so much in common, and yet so much to uniquely offer each other, too.

    Since then, the times I have felt the most "at home" have been when I've come closest to this ideal . . . When I'm able to sit down with another human being from a different corner of the world, and share what it means to be God's child there. Moments such as dancing at a Palestinian wedding, sharing a five-hour walk with a Yao woman amongst ancient rice fields, receiving a hand-knit sweater from a Russian host mother, or sharing my testimony at a missionary discussion in a hovel-turned-sacred Manila ghetto, all touch me deeply. I find ironic that in such circumstances I often find myself connecting with people more than I do at home even, and I wonder why. Why is it we can connect more deeply in these kinds of cultural exchanges than we do sometimes in our day to day lives? Shouldn't we have the ability to cherish each other in our most common interactions as we do in the unique? . . . Perhaps the difference lies in my own expectations.

    The details about the Maasai are fascinating. I'm curious, did they ever have any questions for you and your family? If so, what was it they asked? We're they shocked you have no livestock of your own?

  4. First coming of age – about 10 years old. My Dad had said something, and I realised that his argument was both illogical and demeaning, while also being ignorant of basic facts. I (wisely) kept the realisation to myself, but it was when I realised I was independent of other people's thoughts.

    Second coming of age – age 20. My firstborn was refusing to go to sleep when I wanted him to. I entered his room and saw his face change from crying to smiling when he saw me. That moment I realised I was a parent. REALLY was a parent, from both his and my perspectives.

    Latest coming of age – early last year. Had to approach the scariest uni lecturer in the world to say I needed to keep my mobile phone on during lab, and leave the lab mid-session if it rang, because it would be a judge in a law court ringing me. I stood in an empty lecture theatre talking to the judge over 1000kms away, and listened to her calmly, simply decree the end of my marriage, and give me custody of my sons.

    It must be amazing to have a coming of age surrounded and engaged with other people. It's astounding enough just to have them on your own.

    I think I would have asked the Maasai women what makes them happy, and what they hope for the future.

  5. I've read it three times to really fix the scene in my mind. What an experience! I can only imagine their thoughts as you appeared with your golden flax hair looking for all the world like an angel or alien. I'm sure they concluded "angel" after spending three moments with you. Thank you for this gift of an experience…it's amazing! ♥

  6. Amanda—Ah, you have a pilgrim heart, too. Those are poignant scenarios you share from the MIddle East, the Far East, Russia and south east Asia. What a palette of colors! And what a plate of diverse cultures. It's a luxury to have such a mix of soils under your nails.

    I think I might have a clue as to why the pilgrim (and the displaced) sometimes connect deeply with folks in foreign cultures, and from your experience, "more deeply", than with those in their home cultures. Does it have something to do with vulnerability and nakedness? And need? We get stripped down, so to speak, when we leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, mother tongue for no tongue at all, a certain social identity to no identity. For me, reach international move has always felt like being reduced to infancy. Desperation follows, especially if you're a person like me who is all wrapped up in words and cares a lot about connecting with people. Then are there no words. ANd all those folks out there. And no (familiar) bridge to them.You have to start all over again to find your tongue and find yourself in that new tongue. When we become those struggling, eager, curious toddlers, we recognize (as children do) how acutely we hang on human connection. We need the natives of a culture to guide us, like a child needs a parent to raise them, and this intensifies our interaction with the host culture.

    At least, that's part of my theory. It is the whole story of my life. By the time I'm old and senile, I'll have already been through my second (and third and fourth and fifth and sixth) childhood so often, I'll have no place left to go!

    To your question: the Maasai asked only a few questions with their mouths, but I saw they were fascinated by my pen and notebook and the scratches and drawings I was making. They asked how many children I have, and some laughed as I sang "I Am a Child of God" to them. (I'm guessing vibrato is not a big Maasai virtue.) They found our youngest, Luc's, braces really scary and sad. (Why woul dhtis boy have imprisoned teeth? What had he done to deserve this punishment?) And why owuld anyone want their teeht straight (and without the hallmark Maasai gap?) Htey then moved on to the boys' hair which was a total hoot (and they pet it while petting their cat, motioning that the two surfaces were the same). Then came my husband's bald head. They approved. They could relate. One young woman, tutoring me in Maa language, cackled as I tried to repeat her sounds. And the next day, the day before we flew home, I had Masenga deliver two of my necklaces to that girl (Flora) and her friend-cousin (Margaret), who told me through the translator that her dream is to one day be educated and become a doctor. She is the "beauty" in the 6th picture.

  7. Kellie:

    Those descriptions just about silence my heart. I so admire your rich insights and refinement of expression. I won't soon forget those three scenarios, and that they are each entirely internal. "Independent of other people's thoughts", "REALLY a parent" and the empty lecture hall echoes of the decreed end of your marriage WITH the custody of your two sons. . . these make a powerful, profound sequence. Had you known at 10 0r 20 what independent thought and parenting were going to mean to your survival. . .and the survival of your boys.


    Really? Honestly? That's a very kind thing to say. Had not thought of that. But now you've ruined me. . .:-)


    No doubt I was the (stringy-haired, pasty white) alien, not the angel. But at one point (during our first singing and dancing spree) I distinctly heard myself whisper under my gasping breaths, "Heaven has places like this."

  8. This was a powerful read. I'd never really connected it before, but each of my coming of age moments is connected with pain in some way. I abhor the infliction of pain as a rite of passage, and yet I now see it as an element in my own history.

    Thank you for this.

  9. Judi: It really was amazing, and I'm still digesting the whole experience. Thank you for tuning in!

    Lynne:Ah, hello! I recognize that my parents planted in us kids more than a generic curiosity in other places and peoples, but a kind of hunger, too, for the whole of God's human creation.

    MelissaY: That's an important connection. Passage=Pain. There are rites, too, I think, that probably do not necessitate physical pain (temple initiatories, for example), but in their various forms have symbols that are supposed to imitate death and rebirth, which are the essence of these rites we;re talking about.

    Debbiemom: Wonderful. My husband and I would love to serve a mission in Africa some day, too. Thank you for being where you are, doing what you're doing. Our prayers are always with you missionaries. There was one lovely senior couple in the Arusha Branch, the Rydalchs from Idaho Falls, ID., who were serving along with the Elders from Uganda and Kenya who were paired with an Elder from Kaysville, UT. It was a meaningful day for our family in their little branch, singing Christmas hymns with them in Swahili and seeing, as the sun shone through the window behind the branch presidency, that light was flickering _through_ the holed-and-stretched earlobes of the second counsellor. A Massai himself. In his white shirt and tie. Gorgeous.

  10. Thanks for this vivid and moving account of your stay at the boma. I visited Tanzania (and the Maasai) in 2007 so I could really envision this rich experience – the smells, the sounds, the sweat, the joy. When I went I took a tiny book of photos of my family and the Maasai were fascinated with it. It was "other-worldly" to see them holding my family in their hands. Beautifully told and gorgeously captured in your words and photos. Thanks so much for posting this!

  11. I am tied to home for various reasons (not least of which is my numerous young progeny) so I don't "get out much" but I LOVE reading accounts like this! Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. What a lovely story! I was in Senegal six months ago, and my favorite part of the whole trip was doing dances with the kids in the villages. This brought back a lot of wonderful memories. Thank you!

  13. Linda: I can only imagine that moment—strange, "other-worldly"—of seeing your family photos in the hands of these families They with their affections and desires, their loves, their losses, their binding ties. Endless much to learn form these moments when humanity collides in unexpected ways.

    Ana: Of course, of course. I am in a different stage of life now where our posse (down to two at home) is much more mobile then years before. Looks like you have your own boma to oversee! (Although you have plumbing, a solid floor, a light or two, and no livestock in the entry way.)

    And no second, third, or tenth wife in the mix. . .:-)

    Kylie: Senegal! What rich exposure. There is simply something freeing and binding about spontaneously dancing shoulder to shoulder with those whose every celebratory impulse is to dance. It's worship and thanks in its most elemental form. So glad you liked the post, Kylie!

  14. Oh, sorry for the few typos above, "From" . .". . .than years before". . .

    Just think: the Maasai never have to spell check.

  15. While the Maasai are small numerically, and anything but major, they are certainly the tourists' vision of east Africa with their trademark red and aversion to modern education, etc. Many of the Maasai in the Serengeti region actually make their living entirely off of tourists like yourself; the drivers and guides have deals with the villages and take their vehicles to specific ones for an "authentic" experience. Singing, dancing, welcoming, allowing indelicate strangers to stomp through your tiny home, ooohing, ahhing, pitying, and armchair anthropologizing: all in a day's work.

  16. Thank Melissa! I did enjoy the post. And ESO, I know that that's a huge part of certain areas, but the villages I went to in Senegal were completely remote, happy to see us, living their own authentic culture in completely poverty-stricken circumstances. I made some good friends there. So while there are certainly issues with the commodification of various cultures, I think there are still spaces, ideologically and physically, for us to have an authentic interaction with authentic individuals and groups. Your comment is insightful, though not applicable in all situations.

  17. ESO–

    I wonder if you know enough Kiswahili to know what my alias name is. I hope so. Your comment, though perhaps not meant so, comes across as a reprimand, and by extension, extremely rude. I am hoping that you have had some experience with East Africa that allows you to make such bold comments, but if you are basing your opinions off of websites and hearsay, it is offensive to those of us that have actually laboured and integrated in places like Tanzania.

    Having spent a substantial amount of time there, I was intrigued to read this blog, that describes a unique experience of two alien cultures colliding. Since you were not even there for the experience, your attempt to narrate Melissa's evening in the Boma is, again, rude.

    Are you an anthropologist? I don't mean this as a snarky question, but I am actually curious. What has your field work in Tanzania included? I ask these questions because I am trying to understand what the source is of your biting comments. If you have been personally offended in some way, perhaps it is best to say this.

    Your comments also seem conflicting: on the one hand, you are criticising the Masaai for making their living off off of curious tourists, but then you turn to criticise the tourist. If you have had experience in East Africa, you would know that the high percentages of poverty will make many people desperate, and rather Masaai inviting tourists into their homes, of their own free will, than high rates of prostitution, which we have in desperate demographics in the Western hemisphere.

    I think an apology is in order. Of course, it is not my place to say what someone should do, and I would hate to read a fake blog apology, but I would be offended if this was my post, this was my research, and my attempt to share quite an unusual experience with other people.

  18. ESO: Thanks for leaving these sharp reflections. Please consider the following clarifying facts:

    1) The Maasai are, among the tribes inhabiting Tanzania and Kenya, not at all small numerically. In fact, they are substantial. The latest census (2011) approximates that the total number of Maasai within Tanzanian borders alone is close to 155,000, and in Kenya over 800,000. Even if those numbers are hard to validate because the Maasai are in constant flux, (these are nomads, after all, to whom the government, in exchange for pushing them out of their original territories, have given the right to freely cross the Kenya-Tanzania border for grazing purposes), I assert that those numbers, for a minority group, do indeed constitute “major”.

    But I never use the word “major” in my blogpost. I use “dominant”, an appellation befitting the Maasai, since they are distinctive, self-governing, thriving, and, among the many tribes inhabiting East Africa, unquestionably the most recognizable “face” of that region.

    2) The Maasai’s trademark color is not only red. It is red and blue and at times purple.

    3) To say the Maasai are averse to modern education is only partly correct. If you reread my words, I was careful to note that there is a resistance to educating the girls. Public education for Maasai boys is in full (though halting) swing; education for Maasai girls, however, is more halting than swinging, given girls’ early entrance into marriage and the innumerable complexities such a cultural pattern imposes. Among the many Tanzanian tribes (including the Chaga, the Meru, The Iraqw, the Hadzabe, the Sonjo, the Datenga), the Maasai are often referred to as the “quickest learners”; when they enter the public school system, Maasai children are reputably among the more academically agile and self-disciplined.

    For more on the tug-of-war between modernization (education) and tradition (the boma), read the following:


    4) On one point you are entirely correct. Some Maasai have unfortunately learned to lean on tourists’ handouts. And it would not be surprising if some not only supplement their livelihood but make, as you claim, their entire living off of things like agreeing to photo ops with Myrtle and Harold from Orlando beaming in their snug-fitting khakis between two stock-still warriors. Since our daughter was a working resident and not a mere tourist in Tanzania, and since she speaks Swahili and is an Africa Studies student, she had in her circle of closest friends local Tanzanian owners, operators and guides of Safari companies who warned her and, in turn, us, against the growing exploitation of the Tourist-Object exchange in Tanzania.

    Reputable companies ask their guests to not acquiesce to some Maasai’s frequent roadside requests for food or water. Neither are they to buy their wares nor pay them for taking their photograph. We adhered strictly to that advice. The dangers of the Maasai becoming “lazily dependant” (as our Maasai guide told us) on western hand-outs is as great a threat to their cultural survival as losing their grazing land. Both will erode and soften an ancient infrastructure rooted in self-reliance and anti-materialism.

    Over the several months that preceded our trip (which was my third trip to Africa), I spent considerable time reading everything I could access about the Maasai. While I would never claim to be an anthropologist, I am a private scholar who anticipated this trip not for its teeming wildlife, but for the promise of leaving my armchair (though I don’t own one) to enter as “indelicately” as possible the world of a fascinating and, to me, previously impenetrable culture. For those reasons, we had also gone to some lengths to specifically find a bilingual Maasai guide who could take us, not to Ye Olde Maasai Reste Stoppe, but to his own family’s boma.

    This he did. That these beautiful people had not had western visitors before was evidenced in their reaction to us. “Ooohing”? “Aaahing”? They were reciprocal, I assure you, but we were all so busy singing, it was hard to distinguish a breathless “aaaah” from a sung one.

    And for “stomping”? I did my utmost to tip-toe and creep with respect and reverence for the children of God I was so incredibly privileged to meet.

    That is, until we got to dancing. Then the stomping really took off!

  19. Mwalimu,

    I didn't take ESO's comment as a criticism of the Maasai, but just a statement of fact from her own observations of Africa while she lived there. I think she was pointing out that this grand experience was a manufactured tourist attraction. There is nothing wrong with people on the Serengeti making a living that way, but it is what it is, despite the sometimes romantic notions of foreign travelers.

    To say ESO has considerable experience in east Africa is an understatement. I'll let her explain herself further if she desires.

  20. Mwalimu–I agree that my comment could indeed be read as rude; it was, I admit dashed off quickly when I really should have been dressing for Church. It is inelegant and just my perspective, not meant for anyone to take it as a universal unquestioned truth.

    mmiles has kindly defended my experience with East Africa, and while it is tempting to expand on that, those blog threads of credibility competitions are rather a snooze. If you click on my name, it will take you to my blog, and that address may give you, as a mwalimu, a better idea of the extent of my affiliation.

    I am not blaming the Maasai for making a living, nor the tourists for taking a peek. Just trying to give other readers a little reality check. People all over the world make money off tourists–that is hardly a slam. And I would be surprised if we had not all been tourists in some time and place.

    I think the OP author did an admirable job in trying to encourage readers to discuss Coming of Age experiences, unfortunately, the exotic (to most Segullah readers, who I assume to be mostly American or European or Australian) nature of this particular post disinclines people from making connections to their lives, where the landmarks of their lives may seem mundane in comparison to safari life.

  21. ESO: Thank you for openly inviting us to visit your blog. I did so. In fact, I am doing so as I type here. It is up on my screen alongside this thread. I have read many weeks worth of your family's life, and can only begin to build a composite picture which includes, I believe, a biological connection to Africa. I'll say quickly that I have less of a right to tread on your sacred ground than I do to stomp into a boma.

    That said, your blog has given me a greater understanding of your perspective on my blogpost. But it's apparent to me that we all aren't _really_ writing to each other just about the Maasai here, are we? Seems there's more under these words, but I dare not visit that level here.

    I'm glad to read that I did an admirable job, in your estimation, of trying to encourage a discussion about coming of age experiences; but I'm disheartened to think that in so sharing I've distanced people and made their lives seem mundane in comparison. This is so painful for me. It is not my intent.

    So I guess this is a Coming of Age moment for me, isn't it? Whether or not our particular night spent unexpectedly crashing at the boma was merely a racket — manufactured—as mmiles asserts, (a point we would only waste time contesting), is less of a concern to me than whether or not my efforts to write about such a rare champagne moment in my son's life makes readers feel alienated, lonely, depressed, bereft, or angry.

    If that's been the effect for other readers, I am truly sorry to you all. Some things, I'm learning, are better left in unwritten.

  22. "…whether or not my efforts to write about such a rare champagne moment in my son’s life makes readers feel alienated, lonely, depressed, bereft, or angry.

    If that’s been the effect for other readers, I am truly sorry to you all. Some things, I’m learning, are better left in unwritten."

    While I wasn't anything close to angry about your post, I was uncomfortable, largely for reasons explained by ESO and mmiles.

    But if a few readers felt this way, why would that mean the post shouldn't have been written? Even if the moment for your son was manufactured, it was still worthwhile for him. Aren't a lot of the big moments in our children's lives manufactured by the adults around them? That manufacturing sets the stage, but your child still has to bring something to it for it to be worthwhile, and that's worth writing about.

    Clearly there were many who commented who benefitted from reading your words. I think your post was worth writing. You were sharing something that was important to you, and I think that's a lot of what Segullah is about.

    I'd hate to see someone here feel like they shouldn't write and share something simply because it made some people unhappy.

  23. Melissa,

    I was just trying to explain where I think ESO was coming from. I have no idea whether this experience was manufactured or not. I wasn't there, and am wholly unfamiliar with Africa.

    I liked reading about the experience nonetheless, as I mentioned in my quick comment before. I don't think it matters either way if it was a tourist attraction or not. It was a meaningful moment for you, your family, and your son as he turned 16. That is certainly enough. We all write from our own perspective. Thanks for sharing your meaningful story.

  24. Melissa–I don't think anyone was angered by your post, at least no comments indicate that. I just think it is really really really hard to write about such a foreign (from the reader) experience in such a way that the reader can get beyond the exotic-ness and to the human-ness. Really hard. I certainly don't think I can do it with any regularity.

  25. The only reason I piped up in the first place is that I wanted to combat the Noble Savage element I fear is the unwelcome guest in lots of mzungu reports of Africa. I just wanted to point out that the people who seemed so sheltered from the world are likely actually very self-aware of the part they play in this sort of transaction.

  26. Melissa, this was exquisite.

    "Or was it heaven itself that invited us? Heaven and earth, perhaps, invited us to rock, as it were, in the Cradle of Humankind. Shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, parch-throated yet intoxicated, heads pitched back singing to Pleiades dangling in that high dome of the infinite with its spin-dizzying splash of fiery stars and pulsing planets, heaving and hollering and hopping, we, the black and white, the ancient and the modern, the Maasai and Mormon, joined in the irrefutable, inexplicable, rollicking and vivid exultation of life."

    Thank you for sharing this very personal and holy moment with us.

    I have a difficult time understanding the impulse that would lead anyone, in this context, to respond in a cynical way to such an intensely intimate experience.

  27. Seriously. Great. Writing. Spine-tingling, even. What a gift you have, Melissa. Thank you for sharing it, for not hiding your light.

  28. Our experiences at a boma village were not as in-depth as yours were and we felt like it was only a tourist attraction. But we have had many other experiences where you first enjoy it on the level of a fascinating and perhaps exotic moment. That is at first glance. But then you ponder it, wonder where the gospel might fit in here, what you can learn and how it can shape your future thinking abut people. The experience for you son will never leave him. It was no more manufactures than sending him to EFY and a lot more fun!


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