August 4: One feature of our annual stay in Tanzania is a visit to the arid, hardscrabble land of the Barabaig. They are a people who lack the conspicuous glamor—the crimson robes and bold jewelry, the white face paint that announces a newly circumcised male—of the far more celebrated Masai. Nevertheless, their polygamous, pastoral lives resemble those of the Masai, whom the Barabaig have often fought for access to the best grazing areas.
In 2007, several months before Marianne and I had formed Karimu (www.karimufoundation.org), the two of us spent a night with the Barabaig and listened to one of their complaints about modern Tanzania: the national parks, magnets for the nation’s profuse wildlife, had robbed them of the chance to see elephants. Naively, we asked whether they missed the elephants’ grave beauty. No, they had hunted the great beasts with poisoned spears so that they could harvest the ivory and hides.
They asked questions to which we gave thoughtful answers that must have been hard for them to make sense of: at your home, what animals do you hunt and what crops do you grow? Why have you brought only one of your wives with you?
We offered squares from a bar of dark chocolate, but its bittersweet taste did not agree with them. They made faces and spat the chocolate onto the ground. Trying to be helpful, we explained that a husband who had quarreled with his wife might attempt to make peace by giving her chocolate or flowers. Here, they said, when a husband and wife have a dispute, the man will instruct her to cook some maize. Then they sit down together to eat and things are made right between them.
Today, our volunteers’ visit to the Barabaig went badly: they were preparing for a solemn religious ceremony, to which outsiders were not welcome. As a presumptively primitive people, the Barabaig are not fully credited with the ability to speak for themselves. The exclusion from their rituals has therefore produced a vacuum of knowledge, instantly filled by rumors. One of these has it that the ceremony involves putting a curse on education and praying for its disappearance from Tanzania, since the possibility of an easier life to which education points continues to alienate many of the Barabaig young from the traditional practices of their elders.
In fairness to the Barabaig, it should be noted that their government’s drive for modernization has often treated them harshly. Until pretty recently, they and their cattle occupied the fertile plains at the foot of Mt. Hanang, a drive of an hour or so from the village where Karimu does its work. The rival Masai have traditionally believed that all the cattle in the world were by rights their own. The Masai were more numerous and they prevailed in most of their battles against the Barabaig. But Tanzania is a big country. Beneath Mt. Hanang, the Barabaig had discovered a place far enough away from the Masai so that the latter could permit their ownership of the Barabaig cattle to remain theoretical.
Unfortunately, twenty or thirty years ago the government forced the Barabaig off their land with the aim of growing wheat where the cattle had sought pasture. They live now on hilly, rocky terrain that seems good for little more than testing their capacity for survival. This week—if the rumor is true—the Barabaig are praying for an impossible reversal of their county’s history.