Despite their spindly frames, the Acacia trees couldn’t hide them, so out into the soft afternoon light they step toward us, spears in hand. There was silence. We all stood frozen – waiting for the next move.
I’d only been on the African continent for a week and yet, today, our first day on the dusty plains of northern Tanzania hugging the Rift Valley told me that the red hair, red robes and painted bodies of the figures before us were Maasai tribal warriors.
The oldest of the three smiles and we all relax. Our truck driver jumps down from the cab and within minutes hands are being shaken, some awkward photos taken and an invitation extended to visit the family village.
The younger of the Maasai, we learn, has today returned from his final warrior hood journey, or eunoto initiation rite to become a man where he lived in the wild by himself for over a month. It is said that this experience teaches him how to overcome pride, egotism and selfishness. Around the age of 14 is when males become morans (warriors), and upon successful return to the family they can start to dye their hair red with ochre and fat.
For Masai, red clothing symbolises bravery, strength and courage. The clothing can vary by age, sex and place, but is traditionally made up of red soil dyed cloth or cotton worn as a shuka (cape) and skirt. Other traditional dress includes cowhide sandals, however, today the Maasai men before us wear sandals made from strips of old tires. Top to toe these Maasai are draped in red, save the fathers’ wristwatch and the gold necklaces peaking out from underneath the sons clothing.
The trees give way to a hardened dirt clearing lined with three straw huts and a makeshift fence of branches enclosing the families’ prized possession – the cows. The African village is smaller than I imagined, and quieter. Here the land talks to you, through the whispers on the wind, the heat haze hovering the horizon line and the … “aaahhhhhhhhhhh” snapping me out of my David Attenborough doco moment are ear-piercing screams – the type to shake leaves off trees and have neck hairs stand at attention. A mother, daughter and little girl race in circles near us, screaming at the top of their lungs. We watch in wonder – was it a welcome call, an abduction or group panic attack?
My dreamlike documentary setting quickly changes into a science fiction movie scene – only we are the aliens. David, a fellow traveller from Melbourne saves the moment of panic. He quickly stops video recording, rewinds and shows the Maasai footage of them selves on the camera. What an amazing scene! The chaos replaced by awe and wonder as the Maassai intently observe themselves on the tiny screen.
In an instant the teenage daughter runs into one of the little straw huts. Moments later she steps toward us, a serious look upon her face, her décolletage adorned with hundreds of beads threaded together and draped around her neck. She stands perfectly still, statue like, with a face of strong determination, waiting for us to take photos of her embellished body.
Absorbing this surreal moment takes me a while and before I have the chance to ready my camera, the mother with baby in hand has already stepped in for her turn. This time the moment is not lost on me and I have a chance to take a quick photo of her smiling face.
For Maasai, jewellery holds a lot of relevance to a person’s age and status. Young married ladies, for example, cannot wear necklaces or arm bands that a married woman wears. For this reason only the mother before us has an arm, leg and wrist band made of metal brass.
While the accumulation of beads through out a Maasai’s life can tell details of their age, marital status and if they have children, the colour is also important within the culture. Each colour holds a different meaning. Red is the most popular as it represents power. Blue and green are highly regarded as they represent the sky and grass while white is the purest colour symbolising milk coming from the Maasai’s lifeblood and most sacred animal; the cow. Today here in front of us both the oldest daughter and the mother are wearing intricately designed white beaded jewellery.
In addition to the metal bracelets the mother (and youngest son) wear enormous earrings. Ear piercing within the region are important for both men and women and are made into the upper ear cartilage with a hot iron. Afterwards, a hole in the ear lobe is made and gradually enlarged by inserting leaves or balls of mud. This unique body adornment is prevalent in Tanzania and since my arrival into the country I’ve noticed that film canisters and empty tin cans have been serving the same purpose – with the added benefit of storage!