I have always been interested in different cultures and languages, so I started to study African Studies at the university. As a part of my graduating, I spent almost a year living with the Maasai in Tanzania while conducting fieldwork about the Maasai marriage system.
But my time with the Maasai didn't end up there. The time I spent with my Maasai village in Tanzania changed my life. Maasai became my family, who opened their home doors and hearts to me.
I want to share four things I learned while living with the Maasai. I got a chance to live a life that is so different from the Western world but so enhancing. Sometimes, we only need to spend time outside our comfort zone to see further. It is precisely what happened after living with pastoralists for a year without running water, electricity, toilet, or other Western commodities. And it was my best experience ever. Let me explain to you why.
1. YOU DON'T NEED TO ACCEPT, BUT YOU NEED TO TOLERATE
When we live in a different culture, we will encounter different habits and cultural patterns. When I first time went to live with the Maasai, my host family was a family where the husband had three wives. I spent my time living with all his wives, moving from hut to hut after a few nights. The wife's age gap was big, too. Later, I stayed longer with the husband's youngest wife, Maria, because we became very good friends. She taught me a lot about polygynous marriage, a practice where a man can marry multiple wives. At night, we shared the same bed made of sticks and covered with dried cow's skin. We giggled and told stories about love affairs. Normal girls talk in any culture.
I got so interested in the topic that I decided to write my thesis about Maasai marriage transactions and the bridewealth system. As a woman raised in the West, I would not marry a man with multiple wives as I would be jealous, and in my culture, it's seen as oppressive for women.
But in Maasai culture, the marriage pattern has its meaning. Having a sister-wife is not always a bad thing. Maasai co-wives help each other in their many daily chores. Also, feelings are universal, and we all can feel jealousy, love, and passion, but our culture shapes how we react to these feelings. What makes me jealous may not make a Maasai woman jealous. But it doesn't mean that Maasai women cannot be jealous; they have these feelings, too, as all human beings. Maasai's marriage pattern is just one example. Every culture has its unique cultural habits that may differ from ours. But instead of judging or calling them right or wrong, we should try to understand how the culture works- as everything has meaning. The core lesson I learned with the Maasai is to be open-minded. I don't need to accept everything, but I can tolerate it.
2. YOU CAN BE HAPPY WITHOUT MONEY
As I'm someone coming from a capitalist culture, it was my first time to see people whose property can fit in one bag. Maasai are pastoralists, and they don't have many things - the house where I lived with Maria has few plates and mugs (it's common for everyone to eat with fingers from one plate or straight from the cooking pot), clothes known as Maasai shukas, some self-made jewelry, shoes, a cellphone, and some families has a solar panel on the hut's roof.
Maria doesn't go to work or have any bills to pay. Her life is doing daily chores like cutting firewood, fetching water, milking cows, cooking, and caring for children. Maria needs money to pay for school books and clothes for those children who go to school; she needs to buy maize to make porridge and medicine if natural medication does not help, and she goes to the hospital.
Maria can get cash from her husband if he sells cattle. Some Maasai women also sell milk. Maasai didn't farm in the past, but these days, many Maasai cultivate some food themselves as life has become more challenging due to drought and cattle diseases when cows' milk is not enough. Maria also goes to the farm but only has a little to harvest this year. First, the problem was drought, and then Il Nino and floods destroyed the field.
Maasai don't live outside the cash economy, but they are highly self-sufficient. Western culture concentrates on individualism, where consumption plays a significant role in people's lives. But Maasai culture is more collective, and instead of high economic capital, they have high social capital.
Social capital means that Maasai spend most of their time together: cooking, playing, telling jokes, resting, and working. They invest in building meaningful connections with others. Maasai culture is well-known for its Age-Set system. Maasai don't necessarily know their age, but they know to which age set they belong. For example, Maasai warriors are called "morani" and can never eat alone. So they always need to seek the company of their fellow warriors if they want to eat.
I have never felt lonely while staying with the Maasai. Recent studies have also revealed that people are happiest when they have a rich social life. Studies suggest that social relations are crucial to happiness and life satisfaction. We humans need each other more than things we can buy. It is one of the most important lessons I learned while living in a Maasai village (boma).
3. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED
One day, I was hiking in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with my Maasai friend. While I was watching and taking pictures of those beautiful highlands, their vibrant colors, trees, thorn bushes, forest shadows, and their light interplay, at the same time, my Maasai friend was observing plants as he saw an enormous medicine bank that can cure countless diseases, from malaria to nausea.
When I can barely name an Acasia tree, he can tell which of many species of Acasia it is and what diseases it can cure. He knows the plants, the trees, and the landscape like his own pocket. I understood that he sees biodiversity when I see just beautiful scenery. When I perceive something extraordinary, he sees something essential. When I talk about nature, he talks about Mother Earth.
Our relationship with nature is different. In Western culture, we go "out" to nature to relax, but Maasai live within nature. Western concept of nature conservation is based on thinking that nature is something separate from human beings that needs to be protected, like national parks. But for the Maasai, people belong to nature.
Indigenous people have this unique relationship with nature that we are losing in the Western world. We might lose our planet if we don't value the indigenous wisdom and their unique skills to protect biodiversity. The third lesson was I learned what a holistic nature relationship is, where people are part of nature.
4. LIFE CAN BE AN ENDLESS ADVENTURE
We all know the cliche that life is short. But it's true. Many people are fearing things that are unknown to them. It doesn't mean that everyone needs to go and live in a Maasai village for a year to live fully, but we all should do the things we are passionate about.
When we become vulnerable and jump into unknown adventures, we also get so much in return. I will never forget how exciting it was to attend big ceremonies in the savanna. My Maasai mother always dressed me well with a lot of jewelry, and we danced until midnight. Sometimes, I needed to pinch myself to realize it was me, dancing here in the savanna with hundreds of Maasai in a secret ceremony. Or how privileged I felt when I met the Maasai laibon, the Maasai spiritual leader and prophet. He blessed us by marking our forehead with ashes while we climbed Maasai's holy mountain, where I observed the sacrificial ceremony.
If I hadn't followed my heart and passion to go and live with the Maasai, I would have so many fewer memories, and I would not have created my dream job, Visit Natives.