Personal Journey: In a Masai village, a day of wonderful work

A dance with the Masai tribe in Tanzania begins a series of hands-on lessons in the life of women.
A dance with the Masai tribe in Tanzania begins a series of hands-on lessons in the life of women. (Courtesy Sonja Eveslage)
Posted: May 05, 2014

My husband and I were on our first trip to Africa, a 17-plus-hour trip to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. I was filled with the same senses of trepidation and awe that I experience on other long flights. I knew I would arrive halfway around the world tired, but still energized by the prospect of a safari in the Serengeti. What I didn't expect was the kindness and warmth of tribal women.

We chose an organized tour that promised a safari adventure with no more than 16 travelers. The tour included several cultural visits to a Masai village, with local craftspeople, and inside a government elementary school. We considered these activities secondary to our first goal - seeing the animals. But the cultural glimpses were more than a bonus.

The safari was even more spectacular than we expected: Wildebeests as far as you could see to the left and the right during a 10-mile drive. Lions sleeping by the roadside. Leopards in the trees. A herd of nearly 100 elephants. More than 50 hippos in the water. Countless Cape buffalo, giraffes, zebras, and birds. Even a black mamba snake.

But it was the visit to the village that I found particularly moving. I had been alerted that it is the Masai women who work in the village - the men work the fields and tend cattle. And I knew the women in our group would be asked to participate in traditional women's work.

As we approached the village, chanting women greeted us, dancing in a line behind the huts. Their dresses were blankets, red-brown layered over sky-blue, and tied above their shoulders. Two intricately beaded collars bounced as each woman danced. They spoke no English, but beckoned the seven women visitors to join them. We did.

Then, at the direction of the woman who led the line, they took turns reaching out to us - first to Donnalee, our 85-year-old traveler. With care, each woman draped Masai-red blankets over our uniforms of T-shirts and khaki pants.

They added two beaded collars to each of us. My shoulders felt strained as I bounced my collars as they had.

The young woman assigned to me said her name and I said mine. We danced. She helped me carry sticks on my head and later led me up a ladder to help thatch a roof. She then pointed to the mixture of mud, water, and cow dung that I would use to patch the hut's wall. Then she took great care scrubbing my hands, using gritty soap a small cup to scoop water carried from miles away. She cleaned my nails with a stick.

The village women took care of us. They extended a gentle invitation to share a moment in their lives - halfway across the world, centuries away from mine in a Center City high-rise.

Sonja Eveslage lives and writes in Center City.

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