A Peek Inside the Maasai Boma

Posted: March 6, 2012

Name: Julia Frankenbach
School: Mount Holyoke College
Program: Wildlife Management Studies, Kenya

I’m back from my first home-stay with the Maasai. What an incredible experience. The home-stay is a day-long experience in which you enter a Maasai homestead early morning and live with the household for an entire day, participating in the household chores, taking care of children, sharing meals, and just living with them in their homes as they go about their daily routines.

The Maasai speak no English and limited Kiswahili (their actual language is Kimaasai, which we haven’t learned), and so this is an endeavor that calls for creative communication and a very open mind.

SFS has established very friendly and mutually beneficial relationships with many local Maasai bomas; the Maasai are known for their hospitality and friendliness towards guests, and so SFS offers them two students per boma (we come bearing gifts: namely flour, sugar, clean water, wood, and cooking fat), and in return, the Maasai agree not to give us special treatment or to prepare anything special for us, but to put us to work and give us a feel for what daily life is like.

This morning the Land Rover dropped three of us off at a Maasai homestead about two miles from Kilimanjaro Bush Camp and into the bush. I was welcomed into the homestead along with Erin and Laura, who were my only English-speaking companions for the day.

The Maasai homestead is composed of about 10 bomas, or houses, situated in a circle around a central paddock, where cows and goats are kept at night. The circle of bomas is protected by a wall of brush that cannot be seen over and that protects the people and their livestock from lions and other predators.

Cultural differences are very apparent; each boma is headed by a woman who is most often the third or fourth wife of the few men who inhabit the homestead. The men go from boma to boma as they please, and the women tend to their respective children and interact with each other with comfortable friendship; no jealousy or unease detected. During the day, the men are outside of the homestead tending the livestock, and so we came into contact with no men. Instead we spent the day with the women, and were put to work immediately.

After spending an hour patching up the boma walls with cow manure, we spent about three hours learning to prepare traditional Maasai chai–a blend of milk, hot water, sugar, and African tea leaves. We also cooked enough ugali (flour and water) and boiled cabbage for the entire homestead. Once the meal was ready, we served all the women and sat on the dirt floor of the shaded, sweet-smelling “kitchen,” rubbing elbows with the women and eating our meal with only our hands.

During the meal, my hair inspired much conversation. The Maasai women all keep their heads closely shaved, as this is considered beautiful for women here, but they like long, wavy hair on foreigners and at one point I had about five women standing around me petting my head and braiding strands of my hair.

Something that you have to get used to when in a Maasai home is different norms in regards to levels of physical closeness. Basically, nothing is abnormal. You are seated on the floor, squeezed between two brightly-dressed, ornately-decorated women, a child in your lap and a bowl of food between your knees, the elbows of the women leaned casually against your legs and their hands absentmindedly playing with your hair and stroking the fabric of your skirt. It’s an experience. The food is plain and rather bland, but steaming hot and delicious nonetheless. The women talk and laugh at each other, cooing at their babies and smacking each other playfully. A lively and happy way to eat a meal.

After cleaning up from the meal, fetching water, playing with children, and making beadwork, it was late in the evening, and we said our goodbyes. Even though we barely knew ten words of the same language, we shared many funny, sometimes even touching, moments with these women.

This is how they live their lives: with shared husbands, many many children, endless manual labor, and a world limited to a closely-considered sphere of firewood and water resources; as limiting as these stipulations may seem when considered in the context of American affluence/feminism/rugged individuality, these women emanated spark, enjoyment, and happiness.

Happiness means so many different things to different peoples around the world; our definition is not nearly the only one, nor is it right or even logical to consider it the superior one.