by Barbara Arnold — July 6, 2020
One of the paintings out of my Longitude & Latitude series from 2017 is a painting called Maasai Mara. This painting was strongly influenced by my travels through Kenya and Africa. This trip was so full of new experiences and meeting different cultures and races. It had a profound influence on many of my paintings.
The newspapers and the internet have been painting some horrible pictures of Black Life Matters. So many disturbing and shocking stories about African Americans and colonialism. I find it so disturbing when there is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex. We, humans, are all the same and we should treat each other with kindness and respect.
In light of this, I would like to share a positive story about some of my travels and my encounters with some very special African people where we all treated each other with immense respect despite our many differences.
In 1997 I had the fortune to travel to Kenya and meet the Maasai with their unique culture and tribal dress. We travelled by horse through the Maasai Mara for 14 days and camped out among these extraordinary people.
What a privilege it was to ride on horseback with Gordie Church of Safaris Unlimited along the banks of the Maasai Mara and Olare Orok rivers in Kenya. The landscape consists of rolling savannas and acacia woodlands, intersected by dark green veins of riverine forest. Each day was exciting and magical. We had unforgettable encounters with lions, wildebeests and elephants, and nothing beats galloping alongside giraffes in a surreal natural setting. I relish memories of river crossings on our horses. We met the astonishingly beautiful people of the Maasai Mara, who brought me gifts, seemingly bewitched by my red hair. I am sure they offered several cows to our leader to trade me as a new wife (they can have multiple wives). We saw no other tourists, just livestock and these very special tribe people.
The people of the Maasai Tribe are semi-nomadic. They live in game reserves like the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park and the Serengeti National Park. Living in these parks, means they co-exist with wildlife like lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos and every other wild animal that lives within their territory. They herd cows and goats so a big piece of land for their cattle to graze is very important. The Maasai are always in search of the most fertile lands to settle for a while so their life follows patterns of rainfall over vast areas of land. Constantly looking for food and water for their cattle. And over the years that hasn’t been easy. Anyone who has ever met them will agree with me that it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for every traveller to meet these beautiful souls.
They are so tall! Okay, so I am a short Dutch girl but in general Dutch people are the tallest people in the world. However, the Maasai are right up there with my fellow countrymen, with their long limbs, they belong to the tallest people of Africa. It’s because of their rich calcium diet that they are so tall.
Their diet is very simple; raw meat, raw milk and on special occasions they drink raw blood. Yes, cow blood. They drink it pure or mixed with milk during special ceremonies or when they are sick.
The cows are the most valuable things in the lives of the tribe so not killing your livestock is very important to them. So, to obtain blood the Maasai precisely hit the jugular artery of a cow so enough blood comes out without killing the animal.
Nowadays, many Maasai people live an urban lifestyle so they eat a more varied diet than just milk, blood and meat. As a Maasai warrior, having a big herd of cows means you are wealthy. The size of the cattle indicates the status within the tribe.
The Maasai use cows also as a currency for their major transactions. Paying with cows also strengthens the bond between families. And maintains the social harmony within the tribe.
Exchanging cattle between a bride and groom’s family is a tradition, I still wonder how many cows I am worth.
The Maasai see lion hunting as the bravest thing to do as a warrior. Hunting the king of the jungle is a personal achievement and has been a tradition for a very long time.
In the past, the Warriors went on a solo lion hunt when the lion population was still high. Later they hunted a lion in groups because they saw the population decline. The warrior who speared the lion first received respect throughout his lifetime from the Maasai community. Due to the decline of the lion population and a lot of controversies the Tribe replaced lion hunting with a sports competition since 2008.
They live in huts ‘manyattas’ which the Maasai build and are semi-permanent. They settle in one place for a couple of months/ years, depending on the amount of food and water in the area. The women make the huts with mud, sticks, grass, ash and also cow dung and human urine. The cow dung is needed to make the roof waterproof.
Everyone in the world recognizes the Maasai through their red cloths and high jumps. Traditionally the Maasai dressed in animal skins but now they wear red cloths wrapped around their body. With also a great amount of beaded jewellery around their neck, arms and head.
The women shave their heads and are dressed in colourful clothing. They also pierce their ears and stretch their earlobes. Maasai jewellery plays a big part in their culture and also has meaning to it. Some general meanings for a few colours are; red = warrior/blood/bravery, white = peace, blue = water. Also, Maasai men can recognize a single lady or someone who is married by the way the women are dressed. And Warriors are the only members of the tribe to wear long hair.
During my trip, the women made some beautiful pieces of jewelry for us and refused anything in return. The men stood guard at our tents at night and escorted us to the urinal tent through the dark, always standing tall holding their spears. It gave me a great feeling of comfort to have them surround and guard our camp at night. On our third night, we were surrounded by lions and it was these magical special men that build a big fire around our horses to protect them from being attacked by the majestic lions.
Speaking of Lions I think of the Great Lion: Winston Churchill which brings us to the British. Like many other colonializing Europeans, the British would force their beliefs and ideas of a more “civilized” lifestyle on the native people of Africa. However, the Maasai people stood against slavery and lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai land now has East Africa’s finest game areas. Maasai society never condoned traffic of human beings, and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai
Government policies focusing on the preservation of their national parks and reserves, with the exclusion of the culturally rich Maasai tribe, have now made the traditional Maasai way of life increasingly difficult to maintain and preserve for coming generations to experience and learn about.
During recent years, projects have been implemented to help Maasai tribal leaders find a way to preserve their traditions and way of life while also trying to balance the educational needs of the Maasai children for the modern world.
Many Maasai people have stirred away from the nomadic life to positions in business commerce and government roles. Yet despite the modernized urban lifestyle they lead, many Maasai’ still happily head homewards clothed in designer brands, only to emerge from the traditional lands wearing their traditionally colourful shuka (cloth), cowhide sandals and with a wooden orinka (throwing club) in their hand- at ease with themselves and the world.
The things that have happened in history between different races are often despicable. but we can learn from the Maasai that if you let them live their traditional life as only they know and not interfere as we did with the Native Indians in North America, that we can all live alongside each other without too many issues. Call me an idealist but I will not give up hope for tribes like the Maasai or those deeply hidden in the Amazon rainforest. These tribes are part of our shared humanity, and their unique cultures are worth preserving and protecting.
“Kindness is being someone who makes everyone feel like a somebody” or better yet treat someone the way you want to be treated!
If you enjoyed reading this blog about Kenya you might enjoy reading the book Longitude & Latitude that I published in 2017. The book includes stories about the special encounters that inspired me and my photographs and paintings, giving you a glimpse into where I traveled and the adventures these trips brought along with them. To purchase the book contact me via my e-mail.