City Masai

The first Karimu volunteers to visit Dareda Kati, in 2008, were ready to stay in tents or mud huts. They were ready to cook for themselves, if necessary. If this wasn’t quite Magellan, sailing west into the Pacific without any knowledge of the distance separating South America from the Spice Islands, their leap of faith still astonishes me.

Marianne and I had not discouraged the volunteers from expecting camp conditions, since we anticipated them ourselves. But, given the space that Africa occupies in the American popular imagination, they cannot have pictured the relatively tame camp conditions of the United States. They must have expected plagues of wild beasts, insects, and microorganisms. They went with us, anyway.

Nothing could have been more welcome after our endless journey—ten hours from San Francisco to London, a twelve-hour layover in Heathrow, eight hours from London to Nairobi, three hours in the airport there, one more hour in the air from Nairobi to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport, and then five or six hours over potholed dirt roads to the village—than the lodging that awaited us. We found a cluster of small, one-story brick buildings with concrete floors, and with mosquito nets dangling above the beds. Locals would cook for us and feed us three times a day in the dining hall.

This was not luxury: a generator supplied three hours of electricity per day, and we couldn’t rely on hot water for the showers. Even so, compared to what we had expected, the Integrated Agricultural Training Center was the Ritz.

Marianne and I never saw the Center during our short time in Dareda Kati in 2007. We had no idea it was there, even though walking to it from Ufani Primary School, which had broken our hearts and which the Karimu volunteers would renovate, took only a few minutes. The Lutheran Diocese of Arusha, a big city close to Kilimanjaro International Airport, had built the Center more than a decade before. For several years, the Lutherans had hired agricultural experts to teach modern farming methods to the locals, but that was coming to an end. Now, with its other sources of revenue drying up, the Center was grateful for our business.

The Lutherans’ active role in furthering agricultural progress in Dareda Kati and its neighbor villages, a hundred miles from the nearest large city, is representative of something that has happened all over Tanzania since it gained independence in 1961. An ambitious but poorly funded central government has depended on the churches to fill the gaps in its development plans.

Nothing like the separation between church and state is feasible in a place where the state desperately needs help from the churches in overcoming old tribal practices, especially those that involve magic. The churches are more likely to call these practices “pagan,” while the state calls them “backward.” However, both church and state see them as standing in the way of modernization, or maendeleo in Swahili.

The state values participation by the churches in the campaign to modernize. The churches offer an immediate substitute for the old spiritual life that they hope to eradicate. In contrast, the state’s promises of a richer material life wear thin.

Trying to account for these failures, many representatives of the state lean less toward self-criticism than toward criticism of Tanzania’s citizens. In her book, The Iraqw of Tanzania: Negotiating Rural Development, the anthropologist Katherine Snyder records how the District Commissioner of Mbulu, twenty-five miles from Dareda Kati, explained the country’s poverty to locals in 2002:

“One reason is that too many people wake up every day and go to the kilabu [beer hall] instead of working in the fields.”

Marianne and I have heard dignitaries make similar claims during their speeches to the villagers at the annual ceremonies that mark the departure of Karimu volunteers from Dareda Kati. Yet people who spend their days not working, but drinking, seem unlikely to attend festivities to honor projects that mainly benefit schools. The village leaders in charge of the ceremonies serve no alcohol. They serve food only to selected villagers.

The Lutherans built the Integrated Agricultural Training Center in order to teach villagers how to work more effectively in the fields. Justine Sokoitan was working at the Center when we first used its accommodations, in 2008, and he became manager the following year. He received his promotion during our last few minutes in Dareda Kati in 2009. As we loaded our belongings into the four-by-fours that would take us into safari country, officials from the Diocese arrived and promptly fired both the manager and the assistant manager.

They had been pocketing the funds which a German nonprofit organization intended as support of the Center. I never saw either man interact with the villagers. They were educated and well-dressed, like the dignitaries who hector the villagers at our ceremonies.

As a Lutheran and a “city Masai,” Justine is a symbol of the intersection between Tanzania’s old ways and its modern aspirations. Justine is a full-blooded Masai, but “city Masai” is applied to many people who may or may not belong to East Africa’s most famous tribe. Wrapping oneself in a red or purple Masai robe, anywhere that one may encounter wazungu, or white people, can bring a reward.

Tanzanians know that the wazungu covet photographs of the Masai and that they’re often willing to pay for them. They joke about the faux-Masai who poses, collects his fee, and then pulls a cellphone out of his robe to crow to a friend about his windfall, or who spends the money on fuel for his motorbike. Used in this way, “city Masai” expresses a triple scorn: of the wazungu who are fooled, of the Tanzanian frauds, and of the Masai themselves, many of whom own cellphones, or even motorbikes, while they claim to defend their old way of life.

Whatever should be said about the gullible wazungu and the Tanzanians who take them to the cleaners, it’s not clear that the Masai deserve the mockery. As much as every other group of people, the Masai possess both the right and the capacity to adapt any practice or object that they come across for their own purposes, if they think it will make their lives better. They have no obligation to remain forever the same, dooming themselves to extinction so that curators of exotic museum shows can glibly apply the principles of taxonomy for paying customers.

It’s less interesting to point out that some aspects of Masai life have changed than to ask which of the changes they wanted, and which have been forced upon them. “Traditional” peoples all over the planet come under pressure from governments, or from groups confident that their governments support them, wherever they occupy valued land.

In the case of the Masai, the erosion of their rights to land had held more or less steady for decades, beginning under British colonial rule. But the pace accelerated in 1992. That year the government of President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, whose party has remained in power, accused the Masai of establishing illegal settlements and demanded their removal. A consequence of Mwinyi’s decision to liberalize his country’s stagnant, socialist economy was the grant of a hunting concession on Masai land to the Otterlo Business Corporation, owned by United Arab Emirates royalty.

In 2013, the Karimu volunteers would receive a visit by two Masai men and their wives ( They were sufficiently modern, in the Tanzanian sense, for one of the women, Paulina, to have covered her dress with crucifixes, announcing the Christianity they all shared. They carried cellphones. Yet all of them, including Paulina, were also sufficiently “traditional” to wear the old Masai clothing and to sing one song for us in neither English nor Swahili, but in the Masai language. The song, it was explained to us, lamented the year-by-year loss of land on which to graze their cattle.

Even though many Tanzanians speak contemptuously of city Masai, Justine calls himself one without shame. To him, being a city Masai simply means having Masai blood, but no longer observing the old Masai ways. He wears blue jeans and T-shirts. As a Lutheran, he has one wife. They have a daughter and a son, both teenagers, who also wear Western clothes.

Justine and his wife have invested high hopes and no little amount of money in their children’s modern education. Therefore, the daughter, a fine student, is a source of pride, while the son, an indifferent student at best, makes them worry.

I can’t name Justine’s wife, whom I have never met. She looks after their household and children in Arusha, and Justine visits for a few days each month.

This toll on Justine’s family life, paid willingly in order to buy things that he and his wife could not otherwise afford, like private education for their daughter and son, benefits the Karimu volunteers. They love Justine for his cheerful efficiency. He keeps the generator in good enough repair to churn out three hours of electricity each day. He makes sure the bedsheets are changed periodically and that the mosquito nets covering the beds are patched. He makes sure the dining hall serves plenty of food and he supplies toilet paper.

To the volunteers that Marianne and I take to the Center, Justine rarely betrays his anxiety about its future. The sacking of his predecessor as manager meant the end of its seminars for local farmers. The German nonprofit that had supported the training sessions apparently held the Diocese responsible for poor oversight, so changing the Center’s management did not convince the Germans to stay.

Justine worries that the Center’s paltry revenues, which depend almost wholly on the Karimu volunteers’ twelve days there per year, will force its closure. He has turned repeatedly to Marianne and me for help. Can we find a donor to pick up where the Germans left off? Our debt to Justine makes it necessary to try.

But my conversations with upper-level Diocesan officials always hit a wall. It’s a little mysterious, and I wonder if I poisoned the well the first time I talked to an official by admitting that the idea to find a donor was Justine’s.

A middle-class Lutheran who lives in the district capital of Babati has told me that “Justine is nothing but a clerk. The Diocese will never listen to something that comes from him.”

That was after I had already phoned the Diocese.

Justine reads and writes. He has an aging pickup truck that he drives often to the outdoor markets in Babati and occasionally to Arusha, to see his family. He can make simple computer repairs. These things would seem to place him farther along the path of progressive maendeleo or modernization than the subsistence farmers whom I have seen politicians lecture. Maybe these things should confer some social status. Yet the contempt of the middle-class Lutheran, who has been known to rub shoulders with politicians, speaks for itself.

During most Karimu trips, we see Justine twice in his red Masai robe. The first time will be on a quiet Sunday morning, when he walks partway to the Catholic church with many of the volunteers. Dareda Kati’s Catholic church dwarfs the Lutheran church, and the music of its hundreds of worshipers is more beautiful and passionate than the music of the Lutheran church. Out of loyalty to Justine, though, a minority of volunteers will peel off with him to attend the Lutheran service.

We also see Justine in his Masai robe in the dining hall on our last night in the village. Then he performs the Masai courtship dance, often with his Lutheran pastor, another full-blooded Masai. This competitive ritual, which equates jumping prowess with suitability for marriage, accentuates Justine’s status as a city Masai.

The sharp vertical lines of the Masai warrior, which favor leaping to great heights, are drawn by miles of walking every day so that cattle can eat, across terrain where a human being will find almost nothing to eat. Justine is strongly built, but his lines are neither sharp nor vertical. In the mock courtship competitions of 2011 and 2012, Justine was no match for a strikingly vertical volunteer named Londale, who had played college basketball.

Justine accepted defeat with good humor, since he already had a wife. Although she lived far away, he could drive his pickup to visit her. He could stop to eat his fill in a café along the way, without worrying that he might need to kill an attacking lion. He is proud to be Masai and happy to be a city Masai.


About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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