A day on the beach with a Maasai
The beautiful beaches of Zanzibar
I am feeling blessed. Despite a spot of rain, I am on the Paradise Island of Zanzibar. It is dance which has brought me here; a gig in the mainland Tanzanian beach town of Dar Es Salaam had the added benefit of a free stay in Zanzibar thrown in. The drizzle wasn’t going to stop me from making the most of every second in this heaven.
The beach is an overwhelming sight and even though I had seen it the day before it still took my breath away. In a strange way the low misty clouds gave it an extra beauty: on the horizon you couldn’t see where the sea ended and the sky began – an infinite wonder. It was still warm; the thin clouds couldn’t shield the heat of the Tanzanian sun. The temperature was over 30 degrees.
The tide was in. The shallow water glistening aqua blue and the white sand was soft between my toes. I walked along the mostly empty beach, slowly breathing it in, occasionally being greeted by locals saying, “Jambo” as they passed or someone wanting to sell me their wares. There were next to no tourists on the beach. It was out of season but this was amplified by the fact that it was drizzling, hardly sunbathing weather!
The beach goes on for miles but I come to a standstill as a rocky prominence means I need to wade out into the sea to get round it. I stand there contemplating whether to walk back to the last set of steps up on to the costal path or hitch up my skirt and wade around it. I stand there for a while seeing if I can judge just how deep the water is. I may even need to take my dress off which was ok as I had my bikini on.
Moses the Massai
As these numerous thoughts go through my head I hear a voice behind me, “Mambo.” I turn and I am slightly taken back. Behind me stands a tall, Maasai, his very presence pronounced and strong. I try to contain my intrigue, my excitement and act as I would with anyone else. But inside I was undeniably full of the urge to know more about this person. I had only seen one Maasai in Nairobi but since landing in Tanzania I had seen MANY. For those who don’t know, the Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic tribal people who span across Kenya and Tanzania. Some wear elaborate jewellery, and have large holes in their ears, others with very little: just cuffs and bracelets. Some had braided long hair, dyed orange, others had very short or shaven heads but all very distinctively tribal Maasai – very different from the Swahili and other Tanzanians/Kenyans. They had intrigued me from the moment I saw them. How do they live? What are they like? What is their life-style like? Is their life so different from ours? I never thought I would get to ever really know.
He was tall. He held a large, long stick (rungu) in his hand which was dug into the sand. Wrapped around his dark silky body was his kanga, a red checked cloth. His sandals were black and obviously made from car tyres. On one of his arms he had a long, thick, white beaded cuff which went from his wrist to his elbow.
I replied calmly, “Poa Sana.” My time in Kenya meant I was not shy of speaking a little Swahili. “Oh you speak Swahili!” he replied in English. “Kidogo!” (a little) I tell him. He asked how and I told him (in English ) that I live in Kenya so I know some Swahili. His English, though broken, is very good. He welcomes me,:
“Karibu Sana!” I turn back round to face the high rocks, expecting him to go away.
We can get to the other side
I notice he was waiting around behind me….. I turned around again and smiled. We continued with small talk. How long had I been in Zanziba / Kenya? This went on for a while. I started to wonder why he was hanging around. It then hit me that he was in the same situation, stuck, deciding whether to walk through the water or not. I asked if he was walking the rest of the beach and if he was going to walk through the water. He said yes. I asked why he hadn’t gone round yet. “I can’t swim. I am afraid to go through the water!”
I started laughing and taking the micky out of him, “How can you live on an Island next to the sea and not swim?” He laughed and told me that he grew up in mainland Tanzania and had only been living here for a few months. We continued to talk and joke. He was very easy going and didn’t mind me making fun of him. He told me his name was Moses, a name I like a lot so I complimented it, which he really appreciated. As we were chatting a few people came from around the other side of the rocks and finally I got a grasp of just how deep the water was. I now know I can just about get round if I hitch my skirt up.
“Come on Moses we can do this. Let’s do this! We can get to the other side!” He told me he was scared; now taking the micky out of himself. I told him how good I was at swimming; that I will hold his hand and if anything happens I’ll save him. He finally agrees to walk round with me holding his hand and with the other he uses his rungu to guide himself through the water. It makes me giggle so much.
Cows on the beach
Once on the other side we continue to walk along the beach together. We then see at least 3-4 cows sitting on the beach. Cows!! I point them out and he agrees at how insane it is and even he thinks it is crazy. He explains how there is no logical reason for them to be on the beach as they don’t eat sand and concludes that they must be tourist cows on holiday in Zanzibar! He’s very funny. He tells me he owns only 8 cows in his home town which is nothing. Apparently, you need at least 15 cows to ever consider being able to get a wife (a gift to the parents of the bride, a dowry) and a wealthy Maasai would usually own around 60 cows. When you consider each cow is worth around $500 you can see why a young guy like himself is struggling to get more.
He goes on to tell me that he’s in Zanziba to make money from tourism. Lots of Maasai go to beach resorts to make money, through either selling beaded jewellery made in the villages by the Maasai women or by performing Maasai dance shows in the hotels for tourists to get a feel of traditional tribal life. Moses was doing both. He had a stall with his best friend, Michael, in the Maasai market which was further along the beach, the destination I had in mind at the start of my walk. Also, in the evenings he tells me that at 8pm he dances in a show in one of the big hotels. He writes 8pm in the sand to be sure that I know the time!
Of course my ears prick up – he’s a dancer! He’s here on the island to perform his traditional dance for tourists who probably have no clue what they are watching, all in exchange for making a living and escaping a more predictable way of life. Our stories were not so different. I explained I was here do basically the same and that I love to dance.
He demands that I come and see the show tonight. It will be free and I can’t miss it! I demand back that he has to show and teach me some of the dance moves. “Here?”
“YES!” I reply. He was hesitant. Though there is hardly anyone around (other than cows) on the beach there were hotels on the costal path, many with restaurants that overlook the beach, a few had tourists in them. Though they were far away we could be seen.
We strike a deal – Moses Jumps
I had been talking with him for a while and though yes he has come from a very different lifestyle from most people I have met, humans are humans and deep down we are all the same; this was obvious. I didn’t feel there was any great difference between us – on the contrary there were actually quite a lot of similarities, both of us dancers, both traveling with dance, both the same age, with our birthdays in the same month, both of us liked modern Afrobeat music including Wizkid…….. And hey Maasai or not, men are all the same. I knew how to convince him, wide eyed and with my cutest voice, I pleaded with him again to show me some of his dancing. He looked slightly more convinced and then I struck a deal, “You teach me how to dance and I will teach you how to swim!” I could tell that he really wanted to show me his moves anyway, so he agreed and then suddenly he started leaping up and down in the air, rungu in hand.
Traditional Maasai dancing involves a LOT of jumping up and down, with a lot of pride on how high one can jump. He also showed me a very fast shoulder shimmy move which I am ashamed to say I had no clue as to how it was executed. It was so fast and contained and it appeared that the movement came from in-between the shoulder blades.
Then it was my turn. He handed me his rungu. And then there we were, a “muzungu” (white /western person) and Maasai bouncing around on the beach by the sea! I could tell everyone was looking at us and any random passers-by were deeply confused. I couldn’t care less. I was having fun and I loved holding the stick (rungu). It was very sturdy and actually surprisingly heavy. It gave an automatic feeling of assertion and aggressive power.
It could only go on for so long, partly because I was getting tired and partly because I was in fits of laughter. We both were.
“Ok, ok I owe you.” I tell him, “I will have to teach you how to swim.”
“Shall we swim now!?” he asks. “Let’s go!” He was full of pure excitement. I couldn’t tell whether it was as a result of us having such a silly fun time jumping, or that he thought in 10 minutes time I would have worked a miracle and he would be able to swim – or was it simply that he wanted to see me in my bikini and get me in the water?!?
Intrigued to see what he would do if I called his bluff, I agreed and started taking off my top and skirt. He started eagerly unwrapping his kanga – the thought that he probably had no swimming trunks underneath went through my mind, but before I could ask, I was shocked to see what was revealed. He was carrying a massive bush knife! It was about the size of my arm. It was massive! I felt slightly uneasy. It was a serious weapon to be carrying on one’s person and obviously could do some real damage. From one extreme to the next, as alongside the traditional, tribal weapon he was wearing a very modern Adidas watch, had a pair of cool sunglasses and a bum bag with his wallet in. He put his earrings, which were in the shape of giraffes, in the bum bag. And then BAM there he was standing in his boxers! Luckily they were black in colour and he was wearing two pairs!
“We’d better jump in,” I tell him and we run towards the sea. This was the first time I had swum in Zanzibar’s waters. It was so warm, so calm – ecstasy. Moses wasn’t as poor a swimmer as he made out. He wasn’t afraid to put his head under the water and actually did quite a good doggy paddle. I gave him a few tips which he took on well. However, when I tried to drag him into slightly deeper water he screamed in a funny high pitched manner which had us both in giggles.
How to kill a Lion
I noticed a large tooth hanging around his neck and asked about it. He said it was a tiger’s tooth. I asked if he had killed a tiger, he replied no and told me he had bought it. “But I have killed a lion” he added. Astounded I asked him how and why? He told me the story of how he threw his spear at the animal which only brought it to the ground. Then how he had to charge over and pull back the lion’s head by its mane and slice its neck with the very knife that was on the beach with our things. Apparently, the lion had killed some of the villagers’ livestock on several occasions and was returning to the settlement frequently, putting all at risk. When I asked if had kept the skin or teeth he explained how he had to leave the animal intact, taking nothing, otherwise the police would come and arrest him assuming he had been poaching rather than protecting his village. He then, with great pride, told me in his village area of around 2,000 people only 30 people had killed lions. It seemed to be a well-documented event. He was actually not that arrogant when telling me but I still laughed and reminded him that he screamed when invited to move into deep water.
Why the Maasai don’t eat fish
As we got out of the sea the clouds had started to clear. Beams of sunlight shone down through them. We continued to walk along the beach to the Maasai market. He wanted to show me his stall and also to meet Michael, his best friend. As we walked along the beach I could see weird bloody things floating in the water. Moses poked them with his stick. It wasn’t long before we realised that there were fishermen sitting on the beach with their catch of the day – gutting them and throwing the innards back into the sea. Lying on the beach was a dead, gutted, massive, red snapper. It was beautiful, so beautiful I can’t put it into words. Its eyes so wide and skin such a perfect pink colour. How I wished that I had my phone with me to take a photo, but I had left it in the hotel. One of the fishermen came and lifted the fish up for both me and Moses to have a closer look! Up close it was even more beautiful the scales had as shimmery rainbow effect. The fisherman told us how he was going to cook and eat it that night. Juices in my mouth began to flow mmmmmm. I announced out loud just how much of a seafood lover I was and how, on the island, I had been enjoying the seafood platters.
I asked Moses if he liked eating fish. He made a screwed up face of disgust at me, “Massai don’t eat fish.”
“Massai don’t eat fish!?” I ask for clarification, to ensure I understood correctly. He went on to tell me that in all of Tanzania the Massai do not fish (I don’t know if this is true). “Why?!” He told me (what I assume is a folkloric story) that many years back a boat capsized on the coast of Dar Es Salaam, and that two Maasai were eaten by, ‘big fish.’ From then on it was announced, by a Maasai chief, that never again shall they eat fish because in the stomach of fish is Maasai and by eating fish you could be eating Maasai. Wow, there Moses is, surrounded by all this delicious, abundant seafood and yet is denied its delight.
We turn back
We finally arrived at the Massai market. He showed me his stall and I met Michel. He also takes me around the other stalls showing me all the delights including a stall owner’s pet monkeys.
I then told him I needed to head home. He insisted on walking me all the way back along the beach, back to where my hotel was. The time went quickly we picked up his phone from a local supermarket where it had been charging. There was no electricity where he lived or in the market place. All the way home he kept insisting that I come to see the show at 8pm and he pointed out the hotel. I kept saying yes, though honestly I was not sure what my friend Azin had planned for the evening and if I would be able to go.
We got right back to where I had started my walk on the beach and hugged good bye. I disappeared
behind the costal path and through the little alleyways to my hotel. He headed back along the beach to the Massai market.
Whilst in the shower and getting ready for dinner I realised that I really wanted to see the show. It would be horrible to miss it. Despite both of us feeling ravenous, having eaten nothing since breakfast, I convinced Azin to come, assuring her that it would be fun, “It’s free! It’s interesting from a dance perspective and it probably won’t last long and then we’ll go straight for food.” I promised her.
We headed off at about 7.45pm. I predicted it was about a 10 min walk to roughly where the Maasai market was and the hotel he said he was working in was near there. I couldn’t remember the name but I was sure that if I was in the area I would either recognise it, hear the show, see it through the hotel restaurant, or ask someone and they would know.
It took nearly 25 min to get to the Maasai market and that was walking at full pace. I couldn’t believe how far it was. It had felt like a 5 minute trip with Moses. We got to the Massai market and for the life of me I couldn’t recognise anything in the dark! All the hotels looked the same and Mosses had pointed out so many to me, telling me different things about each of them. I was confused. I asked a few passers-by if they knew about the show, with no luck. We walked around hopeless.
Finally I gave in to the moans of hunger and we started to walk back towards a restaurant closer to our hotel. By now it was 8:30pm and I assumed the show was mostly over. I felt deflated and upset. I realised just how much I wanted to see the show and felt angry at myself. I should have paid more attention to Moses when he was giving instructions!
As if by magic
The walk back felt horrible I was tired, hungry, upset and frustrated; we both were. It was pitch dark on the beach and I looked up at the stars for comfort as we walked, wishing that we magically came across the show or that by some miracle could see the show. Just over half way back to the hotel I saw two dark figures coming towards us; they were obviously Massai, from their Kanga silhouettes and wooden rungus. I yearned for it to be Moses but dismissed that stupid thought. He would be in a hotel right now finishing his dance. As they got closer I started to think that I was going insane – I could swear that it was Moses and Michael, but I was still hesitant. Once again I was taken back by how tall and over-powering the figures were. Was Moses really that tall? They got closer and I saw the sunglasses on Moses’ head - I knew it was him! It had to be!
“Moses! Michael! I have been looking for you both! I’ve been walking up and down the beach trying to find your show. Why are you not there?” They both greated me with hugs and smiles and I introduced them to Azin. They started telling me that they were on the way to the hotel now to perform and that they had been walking up and down the beach near my hotel seeing if they could find me to take me. Moses obviously wanted me to see the show. “WHAT but isn’t the show going on right now??” I asked.
“No” replied Moses, “ I told them to delay it until 9pm.” He then got out his mobile and called what I assumed was the hotel to say they were on their way.
I felt filled with glee! But also disbelief, the whole show had been delayed for me! We got back to the other end of the beach; the walk didn’t seem that far. On the way they told us about the dance and Moses was very sweet telling me how good Michael was at jumping. “Michael can jump so far into the air that he won’t come back until tomorrow!”
Meeting all of the Maasai
We approach the Maasai market and Moses leads us down an alleyway along a tall wall. He tells me the hotel is massive and the grounds are all behind the wall. As we go deeper and deeper into the unlit alleyway and further and further away from the beach, I start to wonder: should I question our safety, are they actually taking us to the show? Is there even a show? Just as I am about to say something, we follow the wall around the corner and bam! I am taken aback. In the alleyway there are about 20 massive Maasai men standing or sitting around, lit by light flooding through a doorway in the wall.
They are obviously hanging around waiting for Moses and Michel. Moses explains the situation and the group are quick to forgive and welcome us kindly, all being happy to jump into a photo when Azin and I ask. Moses argues with the hotel gate staff to let me and Azin in. It works. I have since found out that it is extremely rare for a Maasai to allow you to take a photo of them without giving them money. It was a great honour that they took to us so well and kindly.
When we get in, it is obvious we at the back of the main dining hall. There is a little door which goes straight from outside on to a dance floor surrounded by dining tables. I take a quick peek through the door. It is very grand. The hotel is obviously very posh. The dinners are very upper class, mostly westerners, all very well dressed.
I started to wonder why the others bothered to wait for Moses and Michael when there were so many of them in the group. Why didn’t they just do the show without them?
The show finally begins
All the Maasai start to line up to go through the door and start the show. Moses sticks us on the end of the line with him behind and tells us the moment we get through the door to make a sharp left, get off of the stage area and sit at the first free dining table. It must have looked very strange to the spectators to see all these Maasai popping through the door followed by two western girls in pretty dresses.
Before the show starts a guy on the microphone introduces the Maasai and tells the audience a bit about the tribe and then he starts to describe their dress. Michel goes forward to be the example whilst the guy explains his shoes, dress, rungu etc. to the audience. It feels strange to see my friend, being dissected as though he was an Alien. And yes, I know I am hypocritical as this whole article basically does that but to be made to stand in front of a western crowd as they were eating a very expensive meal left a bad taste in my mouth.
The dancing begins. There is no music. The Maasai start making humming and growling noises with an occasional screech. One of the Maasai I met earlier, Tom, is the main screecher and singer. Pairs of, or single Maasai walk out, from the semi-circle line, in what seems a random order, their rungus held out strongly in front of them and staring straight in front aggressively, and growling. Then the jumping starts again. It appears random as to who is jumping and when but then there is a massive big jump together and the structure, pattern, and communication is apparent.
As the show goes on, I am drawn in, more and more fascinated by the dance. The chanting is hypnotizing, the jumping so enthralling and the shoulder shimmies exciting. The aggressive walk forward really takes you aback.
It also becomes more and more obvious as to why the show had to wait for Moses and Michel – they seem to be the main star dancers! And though I know Moses was complimentary of Michael’s jumping he was playing himself down. He was by far the most superior of the dancers, jumping the highest and for the longest. Michael was the second best and the rest were nothing in comparison. Moses often came out by himself into the semi-circle leading the beginning of each dance. His shoulder shimmers were even better than on the beach.
It ends with a ‘Maasai fight’ as the annoying guy on the mic informs us. Moses grabs another’s rungu and with the two sticks, in a warrior like dance, he battels two other Maasai by clashing rungus - all very exciting.
I have to say I am overwhelmed with just how masculine, and aggressive Moses came across in the whole of the show. From our initial meeting on the beach and then when bumping into him again that evening, I mostly saw Moses as a non-threating individual. We had just spent the day giggling like teenagers, running around, squealing in the water and jumping around in hysterics on the beach. It is easy to forget he is a Maasai warrior.
A few Maasai disappear from the line, not Moses or Michael. Moses walks over to check if we are ok. The other Maasai come back, led by a waiter carrying a birthday cake. They have to sing and chant around a table of about 4 western girls. I thought, “How humiliating,” but then I remind myself I do exactly the same with belly dance but actually find it all amusing that I get paid to do such novelty. I think they feel the same. Really, it is a privilege to be paid to do something you love, to share a little of your culture, love of dance, to show your skills and hopefully to give some happiness to others. I am thankful to have this opportunity and hope the Maasai I met are too.
Jumping for the Stars
After the show we wait for Moses, Michael and the rest. They come out the back. I shower them all with compliments. They are all buzzing and love it. I know how great it is to get a compliment after a show. Moses is dripping with sweat more that all the others. I am not surprised he did most of the work!
We say we are heading back towards the hotel and will eat on the way home. Moses and Michel insist on coming with us. Along the beach I once again stare at the stars. My thoughts are of my grandparents who recently died. I wonder if they are looking down on me. Moses asks if I like the stars, I tell him just how much I love them. “Do you want me to get you one?” before I can answer he leaps in to the sky and pretends to grab one. I burst into laughter. “Jump higher!” I tell him. He leaps up again, sooo high and with the background of the stars he looks magnificent.
Both he and Michael are eager to see the videos I took of them dancing on my phone. They watch them back again and again as we walk, each studying themselves. They are excited.
I dink the blood of an ox
As we sit down in the restaurant we get a few stares. Both Azin and I order octopus and chips. One of the best things on this island it the octopus, so very very tasty. The guys order nothing. They sit there still watching the videos on the phone and going through the photos. They love them. They have very basic camera phones with no app system hence no WhatsApp so I can’t send them the videos. I tell them I can send it to them with Bluetooth. I pair with Michael’s phone and try to send one video but it is too large for his phone’s memory. I pick out the best video of him and Moses and cut it down to a smaller size and send that along with one of the group photos. Michael’s face beams with happiness when he watches the videos back on his phone. Whilst paired to his device he sends me a picture of himself that he has on his phone and obviously likes and also a short clip of a Maasai documentary which was made in their village. sHe points out his mother in the video.
When my food arrive, I can see the guys looking at it. I offer them some of the chips over 100 times and even though they look hungry they refuse to take any. I am shocked usually anybody else would have taken one out of politeness if nothing else. (I have since found out that Maasai men never eat in the presence of women or there is some weird rule about them eating with women. I wonder now if that is why they took nothing.)
As I go back to eating my chips and yummy octopus, I also go back to complimenting them both on how much I enjoyed the dance. I ask them questions about it and tell them that they are the best of all the dancers. They like hearing that. I can see it in their smiles, but they act modest.
I ask them seriously, just how they come to jump so high and for so long! “I drink the blood of an ox.” replies Moses.
“What?” I need clarification and assurance that I heard correctly.
“In my village I drink the blood of an ox for 3 days so I become strong and become the best jumper.” My face must look totally confused as he goes on to explain in more detail, a lot more detail.
With hand gestures included he tells me, “I put a string around the neck” then he points to the veins in his neck, “vein” I say.
“Yes” he replies. “Then I wait for the vein to get fat before I cut the vein and I drink all the blood.
“What!?” this is by far the most shocking story I have heard all day. “Whilst the ox is alive?” I ask. “Yes” he goes on, “The ox stays alive. I do this for 3 days. Each day I drink 1 litre of blood, then I get strong and can jump very high.”
I’m speechless and the thought of it all makes me a little uncomfortable. Moses and Michael just sit there and continue as normal. It’s no shock to them. I look at Azin. She doesn’t seem phased at all! I think she is just too tired to even follow the conversation.
Moses and Micheal walk us to the point on the beach were Azin and I leave. I give him and Micheal. whom I have also grown really fond of, a big hug and kiss on the cheek. Moses’ kanga is still wet from sweating during the performance. Michael gives Azin a very small beaded bracelet he’s wearing from the stall, knowing that I already have one (and I am wearing it) to remember them by.
Moses knows my flight is tomorrow but asks if we can meet in the morning - I tell him there’s no point and not to put himself out. I have to pack and the flight is early. We say our last goodbyes and leave. They walk off in to the darkness of the night beach and we go off to our beds.
In the morning I find myself ahead of schedule and have about 40 mins to go down to the beach one last time before the taxi comes. I go down there to say my last goodbyes to the sea I have come to love so much.
Whilst down there I find myself wishing that Moses would come. He doesn’t. I regret not arranging to meet him for one last time. For the full 40 min I keep hoping but all in vain. I didn’t realise how much I would miss him and regret that I didn’t say a good enough goodbye.
I take my last deep breaths of the sea air and bid farewell to the island and Moses, before heading back to the hotel for my taxi.
I cried on leaving the Island, for many reasons, Moses being one.