By Judith Voermans
Anyone who visited Tanzania in the late 1980s will not recognize the country today. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the capital Dar es Salaam has turned from a sleepy, car-free socialist village into a hectic big city full of traffic jams.
Tanzania is an artificial country name. It is a composition of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Tanganyika was the former German territory – after the First World War under British rule – that covered the entire mainland. The spice island of Zanzibar was an English colony. In addition to the fact that the word ‘Tanzania’ emphasizes the unity of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, it also echoes from a distant past: Azania. Azania was the name with which Greeks and Romans marked East Africa at the beginning of the era. Steve Biko had Azania in mind, for example, as a name for the new South Africa: a reference to the free, prosperous and happy Africa long before Colonialism had begun.
The population in Tanzania that fascinates many, is the Maasai. The way Maasai are dressed in their red cloths and stride over the dry land with the spear in hand, is enchanting. That’s how they lived centuries ago, and they still live like that. During my visit to Longido, a Maasai village in northern Tanzania, I tried to learn as much as possible about the way of life of this population. Since I was out with the guide Elisha of the cultural tourism program in Longido, who was fluent in English, I was able to ask any questions I wanted. This gave me a better understanding of the culture and a special experience. The information below is mainly based on this memorable encounter.
The Maasai are herders who moved south from the Nile basin in search of grazing land. Roughly four hundred years ago they came to East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya). The Masaai includes all the people who speak ‘Maa’ and there are many different tribes. In addition to differences, these tribes also have a large number of similarities.
Traditionally, and this is still the case today, the Maasai lives in a boma. ‘boma’ refers to the entire site on which a number of mud and manure-made huts stand, fenced by a fence of branches. The cattle have their own place, usually in the middle of the bead. It is the woman’s job to build her own hut, where she is helped by the other women in the family. The man is building the fence. So there’s one family in a boma.
A hut I visited was built as follows: the entrance is formed by a small tunnel about one meter high. This tunnel ensures that the rain does not get into the main room. Then there is a small space for the young cattle to protect during the night. Then comes the main compartment with the sleeping quarters around it. The total area of the hut is no more than 20 m2. In the middle is the fire on which they cook. The smoke goes out through a small hole in the roof. The windows are also small. They provide just enough light and leave the rain outside. The construction also ensures that it stays cool during the day and the heat is retained in the evening.
The husband and wife sleep on separate beds. Children up to the age of three sleep in bed with their mother. As they get older they get their own cabin on the same property. Maasai culture is a polygamy. According to the men, this is not so crazy, because during pregnancy and a number of years after birth, the woman should not have sex. According to the Maasai, it is not good to have sex during pregnancy, as this could cause damage to the child. After birth, sexual contact has a supposed negative impact on breast milk production.
The more women a man has, the higher the status. In order to marry a woman, the man must pay between 25 and 50 cows to the woman’s family. Someone who has a lot of women is a rich man. In addition, it is also very important to have many children. Because as the Maasai say, “A Maasai without cattle or children is better off when he is dead.”
How do husband and wife interact in public? My guide Elisha knows how to illustrate the answer using the following example. “When husband and wife meet in the market, they won’t show that there is a relationship. The man will even adopt a distant and arrogant attitude towards his wife. But when they are together in the boma at night, he whispers sweet words in her ear.”
An important stage of life for a Maasai boy is the becoming of moran (‘warrior’). From the old days it was the elmoran (plural) that were to protect the boma from cattle robbery. They lived in a separate community outside the boma and kept watch with a bow and arrow. Nowadays, this protective role is much smaller and the boys often live with their own families. However, the tradition around the moran is still very much of interest. Somewhere in the age of fifteen to twenty years all boys are inaugurated. This happens once every five years at the same time with all Maasai tribes in Kenya and Tanzania. From that moment on, the boys belong to one year group, to which they are attached for the rest of their lives. This means that if a member of the annual group steals, the whole group is held liable. So there is a great deal of social control between them. This is said to apply to all members of the annual group, regardless of regional borders. During the learning process up to Moran, the young boys are sent out to learn about life from the senior elmoran. The elmoran boys can be recognized by their braided, red colored hair.
If the moran has passed all his trials, the ceremony of circumcision follows. Here is the last test to not give a peep in this painful operation. The girls are also circumcised. After circumcision they have the status of women and are ready to marry. Circumcision gives prestige; It’s something you’re proud of. A girl who for some reason is not circumcised, therefore, gets ignored. It is also clear for everyone to see whether a woman is circumcised or not, as she is dressed in a black skirt with a blue cloth over it from the moment of circumcision.
However, the debate on this subject is very difficult to discuss. When asked why women are circumcised, the answer is simply that it has “always been so in tradition”. The Dutch view that female circumcision would be degrading is crazy to the Masaai.
Tanzania is home to Africa’s oldest national park, Serengeti National Park. A beautiful expanse of plain (“seringit” means: endless plain) where a great variety of animals live. Adjacent is the Ngorongoro nature reserve: an immense crater with a diameter of more than 20 kilometers, where you get the idea that you have landed on Noah’s Ark. The crater is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is not called the eighth wonder of the world for nothing. Some of the original Maasai residents also live in this nature reserve. The Maasai is not allowed to live in the crater itself, but it is allowed to live in the surrounding area, which is quite large. They do have access to the crater to let their livestock drink. The Maasai has stipulated that the Tanzanian government has not declared Ngorongoro a national park, but a “conservation area”. This enabled the Maasai to continue to live in Ngorongoro, which also served as compensation for the loss of the Serengeti. When Serengeti became a national park, the Maasai who lived there had to look for another place to live. The conservationists at that time believed that protecting nature and wildlife could not go hand-in-hand with human activities. Striking of course, because the Maasai had lived together with wildlife for centuries. In Serengeti the Maasai were completely chased away, but in Ngorongoro this was only partly successful. The eternal dilemma: a wildlife park for the wild, for the tourists or as a habitat for the original inhabitants? Or all? Other wildlife parks that are well worth a visit are Lake Manyara, Tarangire, Selous, Mikumi, Ruaha, not to mention Arusha National Park and Kilimanjaro National Park.
Visiting local projects is more than worthwhile! In Tanzania several villages have set up a Cultural Tourism Program (CTP), which gives the visitor the opportunity to get a glimpse into the life of the population. For example, the Pare residents organize a walk through the Pare mountains, where they tell you about the legends and the medicinal properties of the plants. In addition, Mto wa Mbu’s guides will show you how to make local banana beer. The programs were set up by the residents themselves and therefore receive direct income from the visits of tourists. Prices are set by the community itself and are non-negotiable. A so-called development fee is included: an amount per visitor that is intended to finance a project that benefits the entire village. For example, a cattle dip was built in the Maasai village of Longido. Not only individual tourists can visit these projects, travel organizations such as Sawadee Reizen also visit projects of the CTP.
The projects of the CTP, a joint initiative of the Tanzania Tourist Board and the Dutch SNV, are spread all over Tanzania. Don’t expect luxury accommodation in the villages and be open to the Tanzanian culture. Take the time to really get to know the people and remember that it is a two-way street. They too are curious about who their guests are.
Zanzibar is definitely worth a visit to round off your vacation to Tanzania. The tropical island with its white beaches is a paradise for snorkeling and/or diving, but also for those looking for culture. The Arab influence that is present on this island makes it a completely different experience than the mainland. The historic city of Stone Town, the people, the religion (Islam) show you a different side of Tanzania that is worth exploring.
Do’s and don’ts
The most important thing is to show respect for the (local) culture. Never take photos of people without asking permission first and keep in mind that when you do ask to take a photo of for instance the Maasai, you are expected to pay for it. In addition, dress with respect for the Islamic culture in Zanzibar; this means no bare shoulders and trousers/skirts that go over the knees. If you are really interested in Tanzanian culture, be sure to visit one or more CTP projects and take the time for such a visit. Only then can a bond with the inhabitants be formed and can you truly appreciate the experience.
Tanzania as a destination
Tanzania is not a cheap country for tourists. A car is necessary if you want to visit a wildlife park on your own. Organized tours are best arranged in Arusha, where a large number of tour operators offer safaris. The CTP projects can be visited by public transport, if you take the time. Public transport runs very frequently, but the bus waits until it is completely full before it leaves. Do not expect luxury here.
Tanzania is in principle a suitable country for a first introduction to Sub-Saharan Africa. It is important that you are prepared for African culture. The people are friendly, hospitable and have a very good sense of humor. When you open up, have a smile on your face and make jokes, doors open. The situation in the country is usually relatively safe, but of course you should always pay extra attention in the cities, as is the case anywhere else in the world as well. At night it is better not to go out onto the streets alone. Instead, take a taxi or let a local guide accompany you.
The Tanzanians are open, friendly and have a warm heart. As Rob van Mierlo once said: “The Tanzanians have a good sense of self-esteem.” Anyone who actually enters into dialogue with the population is expected to be able to present the same degree of openness.
General information for tourists about Tanzania
Travel organisation from Tanzania
Experience the real Tanzania
Wild things safaris
Visitation to local communities
Ecolodge near Tanzania