A taste of the Maasai culture in Rwanda

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Two young Maasai men who live in Kigali. Steven Muvunyi.

It’s easy to spot them; they stick out like a ‘sore thumb’ because of their extraordinary garments made in multi-coloured African designs and accessories in tow. The body piercings and stretched earlobes leave many people fascinated.

The Maasai, a tribe of people living in isolated areas in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, despite being ‘exposed’ to the ‘outer’ world, still hold on to their beliefs and are yet to be influenced by external customs.

Their rich culture is intact and their lifestyle, unique. From dress to food, language to shelter, everything is exceptional and they continue with their age-old customs.

1485641169Maasai-vending-on-the-street-in-Kigali-(Izuba-Rirashe)
Maasai vending on the street in Kigali. Net photo.

Their distinctive dress code makes them easily noticeable. Their conduct shows that they are far from swapping their tradition with foreign trends and influential lifestyles mostly from the west.

They feed mostly on maziwa and nyama, or, milk and meat. The Maasai living in Kigali say that this diet is a must have, although financial constraints sometimes hold them back.

In addition to their own language, Maa, the Maasai have adopted other languages such as Kiswahili and English.

Despite their intact culture, some Maasai have left the huts and cattle in remote rural areas to go to school, engage in politics, music, sports and, business.

Previously, the Maasai wore wraps made from calf hides and sheep skin, but around the 60’s, they switched to cotton and sandals made from tire strips or plastic.

Livestock is no longer their only source of income. The Maasai have now adopted the commercial spirit and do business that includes selling livestock products.

Currently, they also sell cell phones and charcoal, among others. Some Maasai now do business in their own countries or go beyond borders to other countries, including Rwanda, where they sell leather items such as sandals and belts. 

Previously in Kigali, they were seen vending these items to people on the street.

1485641304Meshack-Saipi-in-his-shop-in-Nyabugogo-(Steven-Muvunyi)
Meshack Saipi in his shop in Nyabugogo. Steven Muvunyi.

However, aware of the government’s ban of street hawking, they have installed their businesses in legal markets.

Meshack Saipi, is one of the six Maasai men who joined hands and opened a shop that sells leather products in a market constructed for former hawkers in Nyabugogo. Together with his colleagues, Saipi lives in Muhima, a neighbourhood in Kigali.

Mr. Saipi, a father of two, says business is going well, despite communication being the downside. Seated on a mat on the floor in his shop, cool and easy-going, Saipi is as friendly as his friends. As I entered his shop, Saipi warmly welcomed me as a customer before I introduced myself as a journalist.

When I asked him questions, the free-spoken man had nothing to conceal. It’s no surprise that Saipi, who has been living in Rwanda for two years now, is decently familiar with Kinyarwanda, something that allows him to communicate with customers.

However, he is not fluent enough, and we have to use Kiswahili, albeit mine is pitiable.

He explains that they booked a room to do business in order to abide by the government’s rules.

“We heard that the government had banned street vending and so, we decided to rent this space to respect the government’s orders,” Saipi says.

Saipi talks about the reason Maasai sell leather products only.

“We have our own factories in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that make these products. We want this business to be known in all countries. Sometimes people fail to purchase because the prices are high, paying rent is not easy but gradually, we will succeed,” he says.

He admits that they need to change some age-old habits to adapt to the modern world.

“That’s why we are doing business. We now want to diversify; we are doing business while others are looking after cows,” he says.

The Maasai are proud of their culture, one they are firmly attached to.

“Just because we don’t replicate others doesn’t make us odd. We inherited this from our ancestors and we can’t betray their ways because they were and are still good,” Muria Zakayo, another Maasai living in Kigali says. 

“Our tradition forbids us to get married to foreigners or people from other tribes. Here in Rwanda, we have friends that we live with, people we get acquainted to, but, we can never get married to them.

“It’s our culture and we won’t change. In dressing for instance, I can wear normal outfits and nobody will know me. But I must make a difference for everyone to recognise me and say ‘This is a Maasai’. 

Rwandans say Maasai are friendly people, although some are doubtful of their practices.

A woman who does business with Maasai in Nyabugogo describes them as peaceful and safe albeit some are suspicious of them.

“They mind their own business and leave others alone. However, some people remain suspicious towards them because of their customs,” siad the lady.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw