Next to a small gate, a simple sign with a buffalo skull perched on top announced that we had made it to the entrance of the Serengeti National Park. Before entering the enormous land preserve famous for its multitude of animals and annual wildebeest migration, our safari guide, Ben, explained a bit of the park’s history. As we sat in our SUV he told us how the land had first been designated a game reserve in the early part of the Twentieth Century before it became a national park in the 1960s. The Tanzanian government had forced all of the people living on the land to move, except for the Masai tribe. I hadn’t considered this aspect of the Serengeti, widely heralded for being a sanctuary for many of the world’s great animals, before. Ben asked if we had any questions before we headed on. Anxious to begin our journey we all shook our heads no. And with that we drove past the small gate.
Grassland with occasional trees stretched as far as we could see. Moments after entering we came upon a herd of gazelle. We took closer views through our binoculars and even tested out the technique of shooting the camera through the binocular lens. Shortly after driving on zebras came into view. They munched on grass and stood in groups. They often stand two or more together looking like they’re hugging, facing in different directions, in order to keep an eye out for lions. Up close some looked more brown than black and Ben explained that females and the little ones do have a more brown tint. Ben also mentioned that when a predator approaches the group, a stronger animal will stay behind longer in order to give the others a chance to get away.
The intermingling of all the animals struck me. The animals both shared the same space and sometimes cooperated together, like wildebeests and zebras that often graze and migrate together since one has better eyesight and the other better hearing. A Belgian couple we met related seeing a baboon in a tree that spotted a lion about to prey on zebras. The baboon sent out a call that alerted the zebras and made the lion miss his meal. The mixing went against the orderly separation of zoos. Throughout the first afternoon of our four-day trip we continued to spot giraffes, elephants, wart hogs, buffalo, hippos, monkeys, and a multitude of birds.
Later, Ben asked if he were interested in visiting a Masai village. I knew a little of the cattle herding tribe and did want to know more. But we hesitated a little, feeling slightly weird about being tourists to their lives and homes. Ben explained how the Masai are traditionally nomadic, setting up their simple homes as they moved to better grazing land. The government had asked a few villages to stay put in order for people to get a look into their culture. The money paid to visit the village allows them to buy supplemental milk and food they need since they are not able to be nomadic with their cattle. We decided we would stop in the village two days later after visiting the Ngorongoro Crater.
On the third day, after having seen a wealth of animals up-close, including lions, cheetahs, and rhinos, we headed to the Masai village. The circle of small homes was nestled amidst a backdrop of stunning beauty, but also unimaginable isolation. The word Serengeti stems from a Masai word meaning endless plain. And endless it seemed. In the distance we saw boys and men wearing the traditional red and purple plaid blankets as they herded the cattle not far from where we had spotted lions.
The village we stopped at welcomes tourists at all times, so as we pulled up another safari group was heading out. It seems like it would be a bit tiring constantly greeting people with the traditional dance and song, but the men and women’s faces didn’t give a hint of this if they felt the tedium. Ben had prepped us that when tourists join in with the dances that sometimes this energizes the performance. So after being greeted by about six men and six women who sang out a range of repetitive notes, they ushered us into the village. The men danced first, jumping up as others sang. Then the women danced and sang with smaller hops. Not wanting to be the boring tourists who just watch, we joined in. I don’t know that our addition to the dances necessarily made the Masai feel like dancing more, but we enjoyed it having been sitting most of the day.
A young man, speaking fluent English, greeted us after the dancing. He brought us into a small house made of straw, sticks, and mud. We crouched down to get inside. The structure, not high enough to stand up straight in, had a low-burning fire in one section. The other section was for sleeping. Masai men have multiple wives, so each wife has a house for her and her children.
Our Masai guide showed us the small nursery school and then we visited the cooking area across the road where only Masai men are allowed. Over a pot of boiling meat, the men clarified that the only food they eat is the meat and milk from the cattle and goats. I knew that these were the staples of their diet, but I didn’t consider that this is the only food they ate.
I asked Ben as we walked back to the car whether many Masai leave- thinking of how some Amish in the US end up leaving their contained worlds. He said that even if the men leave and work in the cities that they earn money to then bring back to buy more cattle. As we drove away, I thought how difficult their life seems due to the environment and isolation, but on the other hand, to be connected to the same land and traditions of countless generations offers a link to the past that few people in the world have.