Practicing Swahili in the Lands of the Masai

Leaving perhaps the last bit of civilization I’ll see in a week I ask Simon to stop at a supermarket where I can buy some water, savory and sweet treats and a couple bottles of wine. Yes. You can find decent South African wine here in Arusha. Later I learn there is no corkscrew. Never a problem, only an opportunity.


Ingrid and Chris of Bush2Beach prior to my setting off on my cross-Serengeti safari.


Africans are very versatile when it comes to transporting goods. In Arusha it’s illegal to use donkey’s or oxen to pull carts, so the still use the carts but pull and push them manually. For the lighter loads, there’s always a bicycle or using your head!

Heading west from Arusha, Simon dressed in his pressed Bush2Beach collared shirt runs through the days itinerary while Big Ben finds a safe place for he several dozen eggs he carefully loaded before leaving. Simon moves into guide mode and gets serious explaining in detail how the day will pan out. I soon turn the conversation to Tanzanian politics and poke fun at Lowassa, the corrupt Prime Minister who resigned just two weeks prior. Passing through the outskirts of Monduli, Simon explains that Lowassa is originally Masai from this village.

The Masai are a semi-nomadic indigenous ethnic tribe who roam and live in Kenya and Northern Tanzania.Typicall tall and lanky they still live in their traditional thatched huts and tend to herds of cattle, goats and sometimes sheep. Dressed in colorful reds, blues and purple, the men where these colors with a blanked slung over their shoulder like a sash. In the heat and blazing sun of the bush, this clothing is functional as well as ceremonial protecting their skin. Though not unique to the Masai, these people pierce and stretch their earlobes with thorns, stones, twigs and more. Most are missing their canine teeth as they are traditionally removed during childhood due to age old beliefs that this will help prevent and resist disease and sickness. The men carry a stick usually about four-feet long and a machete tucked into a sheath at their side. These tools are used to keep cattle in line and well as protection in the event of an encounter with a lion or buffalo.

A partriarchial society, men customarily have many wives. The number of wives is a symbol of status and wealth. Passing by one settlement that looked like a small village Simon informs me that the village is one man’s compound for his 24 wives and nearly 100 children. I’m confident he doesn’t know the names of all his children nor which of his wives birthed them. But like cows, it’s good to have a lot of wives. I guess. I’m not sure if ex-prime minister Lowassa sticks to his traditional customs, but the phony company that was funneled millions of dollars was named Richmond — supposedly based in the United States. Most Tanzanians believe that the name was derived from the town he grew up, Mondoli and his eldest brother, Richard.


Typical Masai Village outside of Arusha.


(above) Masai man grabbing some shade in the bush near Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. (below) Masai woman with baby in typical dress and jewelry.


After a couple hours we arrive in the dusty and hobbled together Masai-dominated town of Karatu, the last chance for supplies, service, fuel or an ATM — not that you’d need money in the bush. Simon pulls into a petrol station. Something’s bothering him about the Land Cruiser. He enlists a bush mechanic and in minutes the left front wheel is removed and they’re replacing three studs. Best to be safe before venturing further.


Taking time to check out the mechanics of our Land Cruiser in Karatu.

While the work is performed I serve as entertainment for the gathering crowd interested in hearing this Mzungo talk. I quickly use up my limited inventory of Swahili vocabulary and turn to english and jokes about the crooked prime minister. My posse soon teaches me a new word: hanja – meaning thief or robber in the local Swahili dialect. As new members join the posse I refer to Mr. Lowassa as “hanja”. Eager to use my new word I spot a policeman and while I generally get a positive response when joking about the corrupt Lowassa, this police officer doesn’t find my humor nor accusations funny.

“Where’s the proof?” he asks me after I ask him if he’s going to arrest and imprison Lowassa.

“Where’s the money?” I ask perhaps putting my foot to deep into my mouth. The usual crowd of Masai and locals have thinned out and moved away from me and the cop.

“There’s no proof,” the cop continues, “it’s the opposition.”

“Where’s the money,” I repeat. But the thorny conversation goes nowhere and I decide it’s better to move away before I’m arrested. So I find a cold Fanta orange soda and buy more CelTel credits for my mobile phone. I’m told that I’ll have a signal througho ut the Serengeti. Amazing.

2 replies
  1. TheDarkDestroyer
    TheDarkDestroyer says:

    I have a short video of you practising your first few words of Swahili… It’s a scream!! We were riding through that National Park in Tanzania, the one where you mistook Baboons for Porcupines… Remember?? Your voice on my speakers brings back great memories… If I leave now, I’m sure I’ll catch you before you get to Cairo…
    Cheers, RonnieB


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