Knowing The Line

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a cultural maasai boma. A cultural boma is a group of traditional homes where you can learn about the culture and traditions of a tribe, and is a common stop for many tourists in Tanzania. The maasai tribe is the most prominent tribe associated with cultural tourism and cultural bomas, and they were the tribe we visited with, as they are very prominent in this area.

When we first got there, we began our morning by collecting cow dung in buckets, and mixing it with water in order to create a soft substance to rub into the cracks on the traditional homes. These homes are usually made solely out of cow dung, sticks, and hay, and the sealing of the cracks which we did is usually done once a month or so in order to maintain a waterproof environment.

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After working on the homes, we cleaned our hands off, grabbed buckets, and began our half-mile trek to the nearest watering hole. On the way we got slightly (read: extremely) distracted by baby goats owned by some local maasai. The watering hole was a simple hole in the ground which collected rainwater. We scooped up the water into our buckets, and headed the half-mile back to the boma with the very heavy buckets balanced precariously on our heads.

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Once we emptied the buckets into a large water storage container at the boma, we headed off again, this time in search of firewood for cooking. We collected and sheered sticks on the ground, and also used a sword/knife combo which every maasai man carries in order to chop down a tree. We lugged these back to the boma and started our next activity.

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Next we learned how to make maasai jewelry, which is a common part of what maasai wear on a daily basis, and is also another source of income for them by selling jewelry to other people. We sat on cow skin mats and dropped tiny little beads through a wire for what seemed like forever. Eventually, I made half of an earring.

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One of our last activities was learning to throw a spear. Spears have been used by maasai men in order to kill lions, which is a large part of their culture. Although the diminishing lion population has made the government restrict this act, human-wildlife conflicts still arise between maasai and lions, which leads to the illegal killing of lions by tribes occasionally.

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Finally, we all joined together for dancing. During this time the maasai showed us their traditional welcome dance, as well as other various celebratory dances. We even joined in, which was a very tiring experience, as their dancing consists mainly of jumping up and down as high as you can (video will be uploaded onto my facebook).

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Warning: This section discusses topics that may not be appropriate for younger children.

Being able to learn about and experience the maasai tribe’s culture gave me a lot to think about. There were several aspect of the culture, that although difference from that of American, were things I though were rather enjoyable. They were very innovative with all of their resources, and even their sheets for clothing could be used to wrap firewood, carry babies on their backs, or carry water buckets.

There were, however, aspects of the culture that were very uncomfortable for me to experience or learn about. Prior to visiting the boma, we had a lesson given by a local maasai man about their culture. In this lecture, we learned that – although illegal in Tanzania – they still practice female genital mutilation when a girl reaches puberty, generally before she is allowed to marry. This is done to dissuade women from being unfaithful to their husbands, because even though men in their culture are encouraged to have several wives (5-10 on average), the women are only allowed one husband. This practice has also been known to cause psychological issues in women, and severe health issues, especially when giving birth.

When we were at the boma, it was clear to see the gender divide between men and women. The women spent nearly the entire day working with us, and were the ones who normally collected the water, built the houses, cooked, and most other activities. The men spent most of their day chatting with us and sitting around not doing much. Although the women did the majority of the work in the community, they are said to be considered “voiceless”. They have no real say or power in what goes on, and it is even considered acceptable to beat women who don’t do their work in the way a man wants it done.

This isn’t just common in the maasai tribe, unfortunately. It is something prevalent across much of Tanzania. And its something that has been very hard for me to battle with. There can be a fine line between respecting another’s culture, and known when something is wrong and needs to change. Who am I to say that how people treat women in their culture is wrong? Is it fair for me to view another’s culture and try to force them to change because my culture has raised me to believe what they do isn’t fair or just? I can’t go into a different country and tell people that live their that their traditions are “wrong” and mine are “right”, but its hard for me to just stand here – being raised to believe women are powerful – and see practices that are intended to suck the power from and dehumanize women. I now find myself trying to determine where exactly this line is, and I unfortunately still have yet to figure it out for myself. I hope that there will come a time where I can find this line, and do what I can to make a difference without disrespecting other’s culture, but I’m not sure if that will ever happen.

For now, I will try my best to be open-minded and respectful about the traditions and lives of others, and yet appreciative of the supportive culture I have grown up in.

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