In Maasai culture, women are traditionally not permitted to remarry. Once they are married, they become part of their husbands family and their cattle and possessions belong to him. Because many times young women (and girls) are married to much older men, it is common for a women to become a widow at a young age, often with several children and her options are few.
Salaton was encouraged by his mother (a “medicine woman”) to do something about this – to help the widows and to discourage child marriage and female circumcision (or FGM – for female genital mutilation.) His mother, he told me, was a very strong woman, a very wise woman and he knew he had to do as she asked. He has donated land for a “Widow’s Village” where widows can live together as a family, own their own livestock, build their own houses and make and sell jewellery.
We were greeted at the entrance to the village by some of the widows, who sang a welcoming song, and then brought us into the middle of the group of houses; into an enclosure where they keep the cows at night. This is the most important place of all, because the cows are so important. There, they sang another song and had me and the other girl in our group join in the singing and the dancing.
We were invited to see the inside of one of the homes – this is a very traditional Maasai house, with a low door and no windows. Inside was a cook fire and two beds, one for the mother and young children and one for older children and any guests. In addition, there was a space for the goats and young sheep.
The women had spread all their wares out on individual shukas and we were invited to look and buy. Everything was beautifully made.
There is also a refuge center at the Widow’s Village. This is for girls who are being forced into marriage or circumcision. The girls can stay here safely and go to school. After they have passed their secondary school exams, they are old enough choose their own husband and path in life and they can be reconciled with their families.
“I am not changing our culture,” Salaton told me. “I am stopping harmful practice. Many young girls are injured through FGM and some die when giving birth; and the babies die, too. Far better for young girls to get an education that lasts forever than to be married off in exchange for a few cows that could die in a year.”
Another project in the works is a conservation plot. Many trees have been cut down and burned to make charcoal, which is a cheap source of fuel. However, for the Maasai, many plants and trees have holy or medicinal purposes…not to mention that they hold moisture and keep the soil from eroding. Salaton has started a small plot with seedlings and Coila is their custodian. Although he cannot read or write and speaks only Maa, (and some Swahili) he is an expert at caring for the plants. We helped with the daily watering.
The next day, we packed for our walk. Thankfully, we had several strong warriors to carry all the tents, sleeping bags, cookware and food! It was hot and dry, but walking really gives you a great sense of the land and the surroundings. We encountered other Maasai walking to get water, or caring for herds of goats or cows. And we saw many small groups of mud houses…blending in with the land.
After about 6 hours of walking, Salaton declared that we had reached our campsite. We collapsed, exhausted, while our warriors pitched the tents, made the fire and prepared afternoon tea. (Seriously, we had tea and biscuits!) We saw evidence of elephant, warthog, lion and other animals and heard the sounds of the bush around us. It was a beautiful evening…and we even got some rain to cool things off later that night.
In the morning, we heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle…it was someone from the camp, with extra water for cooking and drinking. I have no idea how he found us! After breakfast, the warriors packed up and brought all the heavy equipment and supplies back to camp, while we walked on a bit further to a second camp, where we could have a proper shower and enjoy a night right on the plains. This is a newer camp that also includes a widow’s village, again with land given by Salaton. We had a delicious dinner and shared a bottle of wine, brought out by Hellen, an extraordinary woman with a hearty laugh who runs the camp, and also the school (which will be described in another post!) I loved this camp – my little mud house looked right out onto the plains. It was so peaceful and stunningly beautiful.
The next morning, I was picked up bright and early to drive into Masa Mara Game Reserve for my SAFARI!