Lake Eyasi in Northern Tanzania is an amazing place due to its natural beauty surrounding Ngorongoro Conservation Area and its stunning soda lake, and because it is home to many Tanzanian indigenous people like Datoga, Maasai, Hadzabe, and Iraqw.
Datoga people are Nilotic agro-pastoralists who herd cattle like their better-known neighbors, the Maasai. Datoga houses don't have doors, and they sleep outside their homes during the dry season, lying under the twinkling stars. The Datoga practice animist beliefs and have unique rites, rituals, and ceremonies, including divination, rain-making, witchcraft, and sorcery.
It would be a shame to visit only the beautiful African nature and wildlife without understanding the people and culture of this land who have lived in harmony with animals and nature for thousands of years. They are the people who still know how to balance wild animals in the savanna, and their fascinating and rich cultural habits are worth spending time with after a safari. I'll share my three best secrets for exploring the rich Datoga cultural ceremonies authentically and ethically. And I will give you a tip on how to get there.
As an anthropologist and African researcher, I'm always curious and willing to participate in ceremonies, feasts, and rituals where I can observe these fascinating traditions when invited. Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a respected Datoga elder's funeral for which the people made preparations over three months.
The Datoga warriors, young men, built a whole village for the ceremony, where people from far and close moved to live for a month as a part of the ceremony celebrations. All people attending this long feast brought food, cows, and goats to the village, and multiple giant honey beer containers were full. Every guest's stomach should be complete, and everyone should have shelter, and I also felt it as someone always asked me if I had eaten enough.
I was blown away by the Datoga tradition, where people leave their homes and gather to live in a temporarily built village. They cook, chat, spend time respecting elders, dance, sing, drink honey beer, and stay together to strengthen social cohesion for one month.
We can only learn some things from books. I don't wonder why most African societies have such a strong sense of collectiveness and sharing. It is a thing I miss most when I go back to Europe. And for the same reason, my soul feels more at home in Africa. You need to feel it.
HERE ARE MY TOP 3 SECRETS TO ATTENDING INDIGENOUS CEREMONIES
1. BE PREPARED AND TAKE YOUR TME - NO HURRY!
If people invite you to visit and observe an indigenous ceremony or ritual, remember to dress modestly according to the cultural norms of the people you visit. Sometimes I feel more comfortable wearing clothes my hosts give me, like shukas. I wait to take photos or videos when I arrive at a location. I use much of the time talking to people, observing from a distance, and acting polite.
When I feel connected with people, I can begin to take photos and videos, but I always ask permission first. I also like to show and share images I shot; this leads to great laughs and taking more pictures. Sometimes I give my camera or phone to someone who shoots me random pictures, and I get new perspectives for capturing moments. But most importantly, sometimes it is best to leave your camera and phone in your bag and focus on the moment. These moments will happen only a few times in your life, so live it fully without a camera lens between you and them.
2. TAKE PART! When you feel comfortable, participate in the event if you are invited! You must first understand the ceremony or ritual's purpose and cultural etiquette, and here comes rule number one - you must prepare yourself as much as possible.
There are occasions when you cannot participate or even observe, and you must respect that. When I participated in Datoga's Bungheda ceremony, I could not attend or even look at the room where the elders sat. When the elders came out, people warned me that I needed to move and be careful not to touch passing elders as they are highly respected. If someone accidentally touches a Datoga elder, the elder can stop the ceremony immediately. I was cautious about following others and stepping in the right place when elders passed us. The Datoga's respect for elders goes beyond ancestors, and guests must obey rules.
But on other occasions, you are even encouraged to participate if your hosts wish. Then you should jump in, sing, dance, or do other chores. It might feel awkward to dance in front of a big audience, but it is a part of the cultural exchange and brings people together. Just mirror how all the other people are doing and let it go. Ceremonial dancing and singing can be hypnotizing; sometimes, I wish it would ever end.
3. ASK QUESTIONS AND LEARN
Cultural exchange and immersive travel experiences are reason enough if you are there to learn when your visit benefits the local community. As we all know, there are no stupid questions, and asking questions is a great way to let everyone around you know you're interested in their culture and traditions. The most important reason for me is to deepen my understanding of humanity.
The rare opportunity to attend the Bungheda ceremony taught me more about collectiveness and sharing. If you only live in one culture, you wouldn't notice that Western civilization is experiencing a decline in a collective culture. Cultural understanding expands our global knowledge, which is different from Eurocentric thinking.
Indigenous people can teach us many things, not only about their cultural heritage but also about nature conservation. Be ready to expand your horizons and see the world differently. Your way of living is just one among many others.
HOW TO SEARCH INDIGENOUS CEREMONIES?
Most often, you can only participate in a ceremony or ritual if your stay is accepted and proven by the community or family hosting the feast or ceremony. You need to know the right people; this is often only possible for researchers or people who live in the country. Still, some travel agencies take people on ethical and immersive trips within the indigenous communities. Visit Natives, a travel agency that promotes sustainable indigenous tourism in Tanzania and Norway. You can also book an immersive and authentic stay with the Datoga, Hadzabe and Maasai people in Lake Eyasi.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Anniina Sandberg is passionate about Africa. She holds a Master of Arts in African Studies and is a Swahili interpreter. Anniina has lived among the Maasai for over a year in a Maasai boma in Tanzania, a turning point in her life. Anniina explores Africa with an open mind to learn more about indigenous cultures.
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