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Out of Africa

20th September 2010

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Following the world cup, South Africa has successfully put itself on the map as an exciting and popular tourist destination. The homeland of "Befana Befana" took advantage of the extensive media coverage brought by the competition in order to promote tourism and has successfully proved to the world that it is home to exciting safaris, exclusive resorts and breathtaking natural parks. However, just a couple of hundred miles north east of South Africa lies Tanzania. Home to the infamous Maasai tribe where the culture is so far removed from that of the South that tourists rarely venture there. We followed a group of students with the "Friends of Africa" charity to the town of Moita Bwawani in Tanzania on their six week African venture to meet the Maasai.


The trip is one of many projects throughout Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa organised by the Irish lay charity Friends of Africa, associated with the Society of African Missions. Students from Northern Ireland embark on a six week summer camp teaching students from the Maasai. The objective is to aid them with their English, maths and science studies, teach them fun and interaction through sport and also educate the adolescent members of the Maasai by introducing them to different cultures and traditions.

However, what the volunteers didn't expect was that they themselves would return home having experienced a rich, exciting and colourful culture that they will never forget and will forever enhance their lives.

It would seem that the differences between traditional tribal life and that of the Western world are vast. As recalled by volunteer Maria McLaughlin, the five volunteers along with Irish priest Kevin Mulhern were welcomed warmly by the elder Maasai women with a chorus of emotive song and dance. The women donned ornate beaded jewellery which moved in perfect harmony with their routine. Throughout the six week programme they made countless pieces as gifts for the volunteers to take home as an expression of their gratitude for educating their children. This is a huge step for the Maasai given that as little as two years ago girls were not permitted an education.

The summer camp saw 46 girls and 50 boys travel from their nearby villages to stay at the camp which was built by the SMA Brothers. The girls gradually opened up to the volunteers through discussion and group activity and appeared to gain a lot of confidence through the afternoon sports. One girl explained that their timid nature stems from a culture where women are placed in a "special group" in society. She also told the volunteers of the tribal opinion which states that "girls should do what their father requests and what he deems to be appropriate." This is yet another encouraging indication that the Maasai are slowly allowing the volunteers into their world and feel close enough to talk in confidence with them.
Another obvious cultural difference is that of Polygamy. The Maasai men or "Morani" as they are known tribally are predominantly proud warriors who can walk up to 20kms daily attending to their cattle. They are highly honourable and proud men but they are also polygamous ironically in a Christian society. It is common for one male to have up to nine wives living together in a village of Boma's. These are the homes of the Morani families consisting of sticks and manure which hardens to form a plaster. Following a trip to a village of Boma's, the volunteer's explained how the Maasai place an extremely strong emphasis on family and their children help to look after their siblings. They spend their days mostly farming but in the evenings they can be seen performing tribal song and dance, praying and giving thanks for the gift of their families. The subject of polygamy was a delicate one to discuss during camp. However, one of the lessons incorporated a debate with the motion "polygamy in Africa should be abolished," and surprisingly it concluded with a majority vote.

The tribe also advocate female circumcision although it is illegal in Africa. Young girls as young as 14 undergo this operation performed by their own mothers and grandmothers without any medical professionals and very few medical supplies such as anaesthetics and clean tools. Following the girl's recovery, a party is held to celebrate her womanhood in which the men eat rice, potatoes and goat and drink home-brewed beer. Meanwhile, the women stand together on the edge of the group and partake in the celebration separately.

Although this may seem shocking and horrific, the Maasai women do not appear oppressed and a strong emphasis is placed on honour among the tribe. The Morani were highly respectful and kind to the group of volunteers and were not unkind to their women. They welcomed the volunteers into their Boma's and thanked them for the gift of education they were bringing to their children. It is simply a different way of life and one which has never been challenged. Education can be paid for in a straight swap for cattle and money does not exist to the tribe. Their wealth is measured according to the size of their herds of cattle and goat and the Morani spend all day protecting them and finding water for them to drink.
Throughout the camp, the volunteers grew very close to the students and were invited back to one girl's Boma. Two volunteers walked for over an hour to meet her family and were greeted with proud smiles and warm hugs as she brought them into her home. She offered them "chai," (tea) goat's milk, hard boiled eggs and a traditional rice and potato dish. She introduced them to all of her family (which took a considerable amount of time) and showed them around her village. Her mother then emerged with a stunning one month old baby and offered the child to the volunteers uttering words of "a better future in Ireland."

It would seem that the culture of the Maasai is a far cry from the stunning and prestigious holiday resorts of the South and their primitive culture appears to be male dominated. However, it is a proud, abundant and exhilarating one rich in a strong Christian faith, a proud love of family and a simplistic existence which gives rise to a profound appreciation for the mere joy that is life. We westerners could learn a thing or two form their vast appreciation of all things living. Despite the shocking differences between men and women the volunteers were met with an enriching experience and became very close to the Maasai members. They were nothing but warm and friendly despite their obvious treatment of women as second class citizens. Think you've seen Africa because you've been on Safari? Travel thousands of miles to spend six weeks with the Tanzanian Maasai and think again!

Aims of Friends of Africa:

1) To be a voice for the people of Africa in our home countries.
2) To fundraise for designated projects in Africa.
3) To send volunteers to work on specific projects in Africa.
4) To make friends and support each other both home and overseas.

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