Just west of Ngorongoro crater, where one drops below the mists into the desert-like conditions of the conservation area, we visited a Northern Maasai tribe. As the cool winds blew dirt into our faces, the tribe entertained us with dancing, started a fire with two pieces of wood and showed us their houses. Entertaining of the safari circuit of tourists is how these traditional, nomadic groups earn money to pay for medicines and school; this is definitely not the case in the less touristed part of Western Tanzania where the Olive Branch works.
The Maasai are among the few tribes in Tanzania who maintain most of their traditional practices.* In the Ngorongoro Conservation area they herd their cows and goats while keeping an eye out for poachers; in this way the wildlife and Maasai protect each other. This also gives the government a reason to allow the them access to the protected lands. The lions and Maasai do not always live peacefully together, but it’s an arrangement that seems to be sustaining itself, at least for now.
Villages tend to consist of one chief, his wives (the quantity dependent on his wealth in cows) and their many children. In the village we visited there were eight wives, about 40 children, their spouses and grandchildren. Currently our guide, one of the 40 children, has one wife but told us that when his herd grows he plans on adding more wives.
These traditional compounds are protected from wild animals by a circular fencing of plants with 2” long thorns.** These corrals are common in Tanzania, but typically only encircle the animals at night to protect them from the cats and hyenas. Here in Ngorongoro, within the fencing is a ring of organic, almost dome-like mud structures, whose entrances face toward the center. The homes create another ring which, like nesting Russian dolls, creates another enclosed space for goats and sheep.
Stooping to enter the home of our guide, we followed the curving walls through a maze-like entrance. The entrances are ingeniously designed to keep the interior cozy, warm and protected from the blowing dust. Houses are made from a layer of vertical sticks bent and tied in the middle to form the dome. A second layer of smaller sticks and leaves is wrapped horizontally around the first layer. A third layer, similar to the first, is added before the whole structure is sealed by a ‘cement’ made of cow dung. There are two raised beds in the house, each covered by a cow-hide with space underneath for storage and firewood. A fire inside provides warmth and a hole in the roof adds ventilation and a little light. Along one wall sticks are arranged to create a shelf and the nook along the other side is set aside for food preparation.
The Maasai of this region are still nomadic, and so these villages won’t be lived in all year. When the grass for their cows is gone they will move their animals onto other locations, closing the thorny gates behind them to return the next year, when they will patch and make the necessary repairs for the new season.
*Hadzabe, Sukuma, Watatulu, Wabarbeg, along with some others
**Some of the villages, where wood is more accessible, use tall wood posts to surround their compounds. Lower in the valley where we stopped wood is not readily available, but the thorny tree-plant is everywhere.