Tanzania – July 2014 – Scenery and Places

I was in East Africa twice in the late summer/early fall of 2014. (For those who are interested in sightings and dates; the dates are July 15-30 and September 9-24 of 2014.)

I apologize for letting the blog lapse for so long but offer these pages of memories to fellow travelers and perhaps a bit of stimulus to those who have never experienced the people, scenery, and wildlife of northern Tanzania. I will be posting quite a few blogs in a row; from both trips, there will be bird, people, mammals, scenery, and miscellaneous pages. I won’t rewrite this introductory material for each page, but will reference back to this page for background and tour information.

This was a bit on a new itinerary for the Smithsonian, or at least for me with a Smithsonian Journeys group. Most visits to East Africa are focused on the great migration of wildebeest, common zebra, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles and the associated hangers-on that occurs annually in northern Tanzania. That migration is a phenomenon of the first month or two of the year in this part of the country. The animals head south from Kenya (the Maasai Mara and other spots) into the Ngorongoro Highlands and on down past Nasera and Oldupai (Olduvai), spilling in their tens of thousands onto the grasslands of the Serengeti. Here they will drop their young and stay for about three-four months as the intermittent rains will provide green grasses through that time. As the rains cease and the grasses dry up they follow their noses, not only toward the dark clouds but following the scent of rain, west and north to the now greening grasses of the Maasai Mara. As they begin to move slowly westward and north, crossing the Grumeti and Sand Rivers heading north into the Mara for the months of June, July, and August, the youngsters are mixed with adults and the overall numbers have swelled from those (once seemingly magnificent) animals that arrived a few months before.

In July and September the numbers were going to be thin, well below peak numbers seen during the few months of each year. We expected some of everything but no great numbers of anything – excepting maybe cats. It was likely to be hot and dry. The itinerary, for this time of year, was augmented to include a couple days in Zanzibar and three days south along the coast near Saadani National Park.

The dates of the migratory movements are never exact and each year will show variation from the years before and those that follow. And the rains that established this pattern over the past few thousand years are no longer as predictable and dependable as they have been. In fact we had rain in July and there were heavy rains (and an early migration of zebra) in September. The safari-town of Arusha almost never gets rain in September and this year there were very heavy rains in the city and throughout the region. It was very surprising to all of the locals.

I am going to do several pages on people and scenery. Part of the decision-making process has been guided by the behavior of the Nikon D7100 that I was carrying. The ISO seemed to jump all over the place and many shots were taken at ISO numbers in the thousands. This makes for grainy images and in general I threw them all away – but I have included a few within the upcoming blog pages. I apologize again, this time for the varied quality of the images.

When one visits the migratory regions of Kenya and Tanzania one is often in the region known as Maasai-land; the lands populated by the livestock-passionate Maasai people. They are a tribal group of rather smallish numbers amongst the nearly two hundred Tanzanian tribes, but they do not eat game meat, do not hunt the animals that share the expanses of grazing land with them, and have (at least historically) left a smallish footprint on their lands. With that in mind I start off with a few images of the Maasai. Their history, culture, language, and rituals are ingrained in the tribal group (though there are six clans with small variations on the cultural themes) and have been brought from their root country to the north. They arrived in this area several hundred years ago. They arrived when the volcano Ol Donyo Lengai was very active and they drew the spewing mountain into their traditions and stories. The Maasai are closely related to the (Wa)Arusha and the Samburu. The Arusha people are now somewhat agricultural on the highlands around Arusha-town and the Samburu are located in northern (arid) Kenya where populations of Somali people have swelled with refugees from Somalia. There has been great pressure on the resources (grass and water) in the area where these people reside.

The gender roles in Maasai are distinct and follow age-related steps through a persons life; a circumstance found in most tribal cultures as well as our “modern” cultures. The Maasai are pastoral and travel to and from grazing areas with cows, sheep, and goats. The male youngsters start tending goats and sheep at kindergarten age and eventually graduate to cattle as the become older. In most seasons they can establish a rather permanent home area and go in and out daily from the same spot, but dry conditions will often force the men to take the animals great distances to find suitable pasturage. The women may or may not accompany them. It depends on the severity of the situation and the assumptions about the future.
Men and women will wear adornments but men alone will have a large piercing in the ear, usually done ceremonially after a courageous act. In the old days it was spearing a lion or elephant that allowed you to get your ear pierced. Most Maasai wear red blankets but purple and blue are also favored. Red woolen blankets were brought into the area, as trade items, by the explorer Thomson in the 1850s.
The presence of a manyata, or village, used to mean that an age-class of young men were living together after passing through one of the many ceremonial rights-of-passage that the tribe uses. In real life an elder will marry and have a home for each of his wives in a small enclave where the extended family and their animals reside. The elders are at least 25-30 years old. These men will gather almost daily to discuss issues and pass along historical tidbits. Older women take care of the young, the house and house-building after a move, and they train the girls in the ways of home-making and food-gathering.
A village like that shown above is based on a “manyata” pattern used by the morani or young warriors. We see these “villages” today near roads and population centers as they are a good way to live if you are opening your home and culture to visits by tourists.
When you fly over the grasslands you still see small home-territory areas where there are two or three huts and a kraal for animals. This is how the older people still live. Most of the sites that tourists visit are actually glorified manyatas and house mostly younger people.
The early European explorers were not very tall. There are tall Maasai but the idea that they are a tall statuesque people is a bit overblown. The suits of armor that are on display in Britain are often created for people about five foot three inches. In the days of colonial exploration the Maasai may have seemed tall to the Europeans but in todays world of rich foods and medicines they are no longer taller than the people who come from afar.
In the image above one of our group seems to have just closed a deal on a small second home in the Serengeti – and both buyer and seller seem pleased.
The Maasai still carry metal-pointed spears when out with their animals. In reality lions, the biggest threat to life and herd, are pretty shy around Maasai. The scent of a Maasai will send lions away. The animals seem to have an innate fear of Maasai, or perhaps it is a learned fear from being poked and prodded, and maybe that is still how a Maasai warrior can get his earlobe pierced. In most public places the walking sticks have replaced the spear – but not in the bush country.
The iconic African plant group, the Acacias, and other plant groups as well, have thorns. Tough sharp thorns, sometimes three inches long, sometimes curled into a nasty circle. I have seen these thorns go through a hiking boot. Footwear is something that the Maasai are now getting in to. Not cross-trainers, or walking shoes, or fancy athletic shoes named after basketball players. They use old motorcycle tires cut to eliminate the sidewall and cut to a length where one shoe fits all. The tread is good for many years of walking on the Serengeti.
This village is surrounded by an acacia-thorn fence that keeps most predators outside. There are lions, leopards, and hyenas that could be a problem in this countryside. The houses are small and used exclusively for sleeping. The people are outside most of the day and at night, as darkness falls, they retire into the houses often with very small calves tethered inside the low door (there is only one opening). Electricity is nonexistent and water is now stored in large plastic cisterns. Until a decade ago there was no water in these villages.
As the realtors say – it is location, location, location. In the foothills of the Ngorongoro Highlands, at an elevation that offers rather comfortable weather year-round, and adjacent to the magnificent Serengeti plains and kopjes the Maasai seem to have one of the best locations in the world.

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