I met Isaya through work. He was a trainer on HIV/AIDS education and its connections to Tanzanian culture. He is traditional Maasai: he wears a shuka (checkered cloth), carries a herding cane, wears tire shoes (actually made out of rubber tires), and lives in the Maasai steppe on a boma.
A boma is a piece of land owned by a Maasai chief (Isaya is a 24-year-old chief). It is a circle enclosure made of high walls of acacia branches, whose two-inch thorns are enough to keep out predators. Inside the walls are a handful of small huts made from wood ash, dung, and hay. There are also usually goat and cow stables. Absent from the boma are all things modern. There are no computers, televisions, showers, or toilets of any variety.
This past weekend Isaya invited me and three other volunteers for a weekend at his boma. We began our journey by taking a two-hour daladala ride west of Arusha, in the direction of Lake Manyara. At a town called Monduli, we got off the dala and hopped on the back of an old Chevy truck, which took us another hour over unpaved roads, then another half an hour overland. Someone would shout from the cab when we should duck for oncoming acacia branches as we drove through the bush. Finally, we walked about 3km into the steppe.
Isaya’s boma is in the middle of nowhere. The only sign of modern life was a plane flying overhead. Well, that, and somehow Isaya’s cell phone works out in the bush. Mysteriously, no one else’s cell phone worked. Personally, I think the man is magic.
Once we arrived, it was time to do as the Maasai do. Isaya’s friends lit a fire and they taught us all to dance, sing, and jump. Each man could jump easily three feet in the air from standing. They are simply incredible athletes (more on their athleticism in the next post). Sadly, the wazungu were a pitiful sight; collectively we jumped a foot in the air–tops.
After working up a sweat, we retired to a hut where we ate fresh ugali (a common Tanzanian food made from maize; it most closely resembles polenta) out of one communal bowl. Someone in our group had brought a bunch of vegetables from town, so one of the women cooked it all up into a vegetable stew. I was so grateful because had it not been for that stew, dinner would have just been plain ugali.
The Maasai have a very rigid diet: ugali, milk, meat, and blood. The concept of other foods is so strange to traditional Maasai that one of the men actually asked me, “How do you eat that?” That is, how do you eat vegetables?
After ugali and milk, we went back outside for more dancing, singing, and jumping. The stars were out by this point, and it was clear. I have never in my life seen a sky like this. Except for our fire and the stars, there was not a single light from horizon to horizon.
All night around the fire I kept noticing the men snorting some sort of brown powder. I asked Isaya’s brother, Ngufu (a derivation of the Swahili word nguvu, meaning “strong”), what it was. He said they just called it snuff. They make it by combining animal fat, salt, and the shredded bark of a steppe tree. Being a generous people, he asked if we wanted to try it. And not wanting to be rude, we all grabbed a pinch and sniffed away. All our eyes watered. We sneezed. And then we all felt ridiculously buzzed–drunk feeling, yet not drunk. I don’t know what to compare it to. It was definitely an upper of some kind. And it certainly made me understand how the Maasai only sleep four hours a night and why they still have so much energy during the day.
Aided by snuff, we all stayed up until two in the morning sitting in front of the fire and talking with our new friends. Then we crashed out on a Maasai bed: a pile of sticks covered with a cow hide. We all laid next to each other like matchsticks. The situation was fine for me, but unfortunate for the taller members of the group whose feet and ankles dangled off the end of the stick bed by more than a foot.
I was the first to wake up the next morning. It was kind of like being the first one up when you are camping. The morning was misty, and I felt like I was the only person around for hundreds of miles. Eventually people started emerging from huts, stretching out, and searching for the “bathroom.” The location was vague: “somewhere behind the cattle pen,” which meant you just squatted somewhere in the far side of the boma.
By 8am everyone was awake, meaning it was time to choose a goat for our slaughter. Yes, our slaughter. As guests of a Maasai chief, a goat would be sacrificed in our honor.
We selected a nice-enough looking goat, who we named Chuck. Isaya’s friend proceeded to suffocate Chuck to death, then skin him from the legs up. Working together (and with me occasionally holding a leg), Chuck was in pieces in less than 15 minutes. The internal organs were cooked in a big pot. The kidneys remained out, and were offered to us raw as an appetizer. My only real impression: salty.
The goat’s open ribcage, which was full of blood, was then offered up to us. We were to drink the blood from a Maasai’s hand. I was the first to go. The blood got smeared all over my face, but I got a nice long sip. It, too, was salty.
Blood drinking out of the way, it was time to roast and eat goat. We all sat around an open flame while whole limbs were grilled, then pieces sliced off and handed around the circle. We were all starving and completely polished off the meat in less than a half hour.
When I took a second to look at my watch I noted that I had watched a goat die, helped skin it, drank its blood, and then consumed it all before 10 in the morning.
We rested after feasting with hot glasses of milk, then packed up for our return to modernity.
But before going, Isaya’s brother gave me a Maasai name, Anganashe. He told me it meant “sister,” but I have since learned that it also means “beautiful,” which is such a lovely compliment given that Ngufu is probably the coolest human being on the planet.
Entering back into Arusha was an odd experience after the boma. Everything seemed excessively fast and loud.
Despite a vigorous washing, I went to bed that night smelling distinctly of the boma and the bush: slightly bloody, dusty, and overwhelmingly smoky.