Quick Shot: Puma

Warthogs were not terribly high on my list of 'must see' animals in while in Tanzania, but I was surprised to find them far cuter and more interesting than expected. Their skin is actually covered in a thick and bristle fur and they have some funny behaviors - for instance, when they run in a group, they always stick their tails straight up in the air. This reminded me a bit of remote control antennas - the tip of the tail was sometimes all you could see. The warthog was also surprisingly brave - we saw a warthog take on a cheetah when it was irritated that the cheetah was walking through his territory. And when rummaging in the ground, the warthog often gets down on his knees to get that big face closer to the dirt.

Here's two shots of the warthogs - one is a momma with her babies and the second is a warthog on his knees.

Ngorongoro Sunrise

Good morning! Sunrise in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania was extremely photographic as the sun peeked through the dense cloud cover that settled overnight. To get this photograph, I stitched eight individual images together into a single mosaic. Shot on the Nikon D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens.

The Secret Life of the Maasai Tribes

** Warning: Controversial and possibly upsetting content ***

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then I shouldn’t need any words to describe the Maasai people seen in these photographs; however, I feel compelled to add to the story - the story the photographs don’t tell about the Maasai. It’s the dark side of the Maasai - the part they don’t show the tourists.

The Maasai are one of the biggest tribes in Tanzania and Kenya and span large areas of the countryside. Traditionally nomadic, they are cow herders and believe all cattle were given to the Maasai by God. Maasai don’t farm crops, their lifestyle involves herding goats and cattle. Before seeing it for myself, I assumed the Maasai were similar to the Amish of the United States; a small group living traditional lifestyle. The reality is that over 1.5 million Maasai people are spread over thousands of miles - that’s more people then there are living in San Diego! Not a small community!

Their society is entirely male dominated; a man has many wives and is allowed to marry as many women as he has cattle. In other words, wives are a sign of wealth. Equally, children are considered a sign of wealth and Maasai men strive to have as many cattle, wives and children as possible. 

Women have essentially no rights in Maasai culture; they are rarely educated and very few Maasai women speak Swahili - they only know their tribal language. Likewise, very few can read or write. Although the Tanzanian government has a legal marriage age of 18 years, Maasai women are regularly married well before then, often shortly after going through puberty. Their marriages are arranged by the parents in exchange for a dowry. Maasai men will invite other like-aged males into their homes, meaning sometimes their wives are asked to share the bed with another man. Reports from health organizations suggest almost 90% of Maasai women are subject to female genital mutilation (the removal of female external genitals in order to ‘prepare them for marriage’). Despite being outlawed by the government, Maasai girls are held down as a tribal elder uses a razor blade to remove portions of the female genitalia - often causing lifelong pain and suffering. Even men are subjected to some cruel treatment; boys are circumcised around the age of thirteen as part of a warrior tradition and it’s highly shameful to make any sound of pain during the process, which is done without anesthetic. 

The Maasai village we visited was run by a man who proudly had eight wives. Each wife and the children had by her live in one of the huts constructed from cow dung. The hut also holds some of the livestock at night; sleeping in such small quarters with restricted air flow and along animals means tuberculosis is a common killer of Maasai children. In fact, the infant mortality rate is so high that children aren’t even acknowledged in a Maasai village until they have achieved “three moons” of age. The Maasai reject modern medicine and most modern technologies. Lacking an education, most Maasai women do not understand to protect themselves against diseases like HIV/AIDS.

In all fairness, I need to acknowledge that there are two groups of Maasai - the modern and traditional. The modern Maasai blend into society; it is the traditional Maasai living in the bush that I’m referring to here.

While much of the Maasai lifestyle is troubling to westerners, there are some aspects that are rather fascinating. For instance, a common meal is to fill a gourd with goat milk, animal blood, and a millet of sorts to form a sludge drink rich in protein. No thanks! Their footwear of choice? Old car tires cut into thin strips as they last much longer than normal shoes- Maasai walk a LOT! Finally, Maasai attend a weekly market where they can trade goods and purchase other produce.

Amongst tourists, the Maasai villages have become a popular place to visit and see the nomadic lifestyle these people still enjoy. The Maasai have learned to exploit the tourists’ curiosity and now sell various knick-knacks to the visitors under the guise that it ‘raises money for the women.’ This is almost certainly a lie; Maasai women aren’t allowed to own property and certainly would not be allowed to keep American cash! Their entrepreneurship has led Maasai to stand by the side of the road, waving at safari jeeps driving past, hoping for a cash hand out. This caused me great personal conflict - in a society where poverty is so common, you feel obligated to help, but at the same time, I am then knowingly giving money to men who oppress the rights of women. 

The Maasai were fascinating subjects to photograph and observe, but my conscious could not allow me to be a neutral observer of the Maasai. I feel obligated for you, the viewer of these images, to really understand the Maasai culture and lifestyle. Aid groups have historically had very limited success in offering education and options to the women, although some men are starting to become educated and leave the traditional Maasai way of life. I cannot begin to fully capture the Maasai in this post, so I encourage you to take a moment to educate yourself about these tribes and their traditions - below are a few links to get you started.

Day 3: Lake Manyara National Park

I am finding it increasingly difficult to come up with the words to describe the incredible wildlife and landscape in Tanzania. Our adventure today took us to Manyra National Park, which is located squarely in the heart of Maasai territory. The Maasai is one of the oldest and bigger tribes in this region; historically cattle farmers, they live a very primitive lifestyle in mud huts that dot the remote countryside. 

Manyra park borders a lake that is an alkaline lake full of millions of flamingos, but the park itself contains several mini ecosystems. With Ben once again at the helm, we set off in search of elephants, giraffe, monkey, and (fingers crossed) big cats. Ben told us that we’d have to be extremely lucky to see any cats in this park, it used to be more common but the cats have learned to avoid the areas visited by the 4x4’s and stick to remote areas. We started a running joke with Ben that, despite his warnings that this wasn’t a place to regularly see the big cats, we were still going to find a “leopard in a tree.” After a day and a half, the joke had evolved to finding all sorts of animals in trees: leopards, lions, and elephants! Every time we said it, Ben would chuckle and shake his head, no doubt thinking “those crazy people.”

You can imagine our excitement when a German tourist in another jeep mentioned “there is a lion in a tree just down the road, next to the wooden bridge.” Ben hit the accelerator and moments later we found the tree in question. Indeed, there was a large lioness relaxing in the upper branches in retreat of the hot sun. While we’d found our lion in a tree, this lion wasn’t exactly feeling social and only gave a view of her butt as she napped, occasionally shifting a paw to maintain her balance. As an aside, I was surprised by her choice of limbs for napping - she didn’t exactly go for big strong branches and I can’t imagine it was a terribly comfortable nap. 

I am sure Ben was relieved to finally produce a cat in a tree, hoping that would quell his guests and their jokes, but we immediately began joking that we now wanted elephants and leopards in trees. (Note: elephants don’t climb trees, but since Ben had delivered a sighting that was fairly rare, we figured we’d ask for the moon and see what we got!)

As we continued down the path, Ben would stop and chat with other guides in Swahili about their sightings: “did you see any elephants? any lions?” Ben reported back to us that the other safari groups were coming back empty handed, but this didn’t deter Ben. He’s one of the best drivers in Tanzania and if anyone was going to find the impossible, it was him. Onward we went!

Less than an hour later, we passed some very fresh elephant dung and urine; when urine is still present you know the elephants MUST be nearby. Despite our eagle eyes, we couldn't find any elephants, and pressed forward, disappointed that we may have missed a sighting by mere minutes. The end of this road was an open plain that eventually stretched to the edge of the lake. As we emerged onto the plain, Ben yelled out “Lion!”

Sure enough, in the middle of the plain was a single lioness walking towards the only bush that occupied this otherwise barren grassland. I only got a few quick snaps before she disappeared into the bush and sat down. After spending a minute looking around at the other animals, Ben drove the 4x4 over to the bush, putting us just feet away from the lion as she rested in the shade. 

Wow! These are big cats and very impressive to see in their natural environment - no cages or scheduled feedings. I don’t think she was as impressed with the humans as she’d occasionally lift one side of her lip to show us a long tooth. She was a truly magnificent animal and I cannot wait to see more in the Serengeti. 

We felt incredibly lucky - TWO lions! Ben commented that this is very rare to see here, so we felt very good about our timing, although still bummed the elephants evaded us. Unfortunately, the park was closing soon, so we had to start the drive back to the main gate without our elephant sighting. About fifteen minutes into the drive, Ben spotted an elephant leg as it moved across the road and into the bush. We drove to that area and could hear the sounds of a bunch of large animals and saw trees shaking. Ben stopped the engine and we sat there in silence listening to the bushes and trees around us shaking from a herd of elephants. Moments later the first elephant emerged from the bush and ambled toward us, getting within inches of the truck before ducking back into the overgrowth. Another group of elephants emerged, this time with a baby. The adult elephants surrounded the baby to protect it, but I still managed a few shots. Ben was starting to get nervous - the park was closing soon and we still had a long way to drive, but the elephants we were previously struggling to identify were now not in the mood to yield from the roadway. Even as we inched closer in the truck, the elephants were not interested in moving and we had no choice but to sit and watch this group of 10 or so elephants (bummer!). Almost as quickly as we found them, they disappeared when an older elephant was spooked by a nearby sound. Ben wasted no time and we tore onward to the main gate.

At this point, it seemed every time we wished to see an animal in a tree, that animal would appear for us, albeit not always in a tree! Once again we joked that all we needed now was a leopard in a tree. Almost as if it was on command, we passed another safari truck that was watching a leopard moving in the bushes. Unfortunately he was moving very quickly so we only got a minute to watch him before he disappeared from view.

On the whole, we had an extremely lucky day in a park that is more commonly known for the bird life. We are hoping our luck didn’t run out too quickly as our next safari stop is the Serengeti! The moral of this story is that we need to keep asking to see animals in trees!

Day 1: Tanzanian Coffee and Villages

Wow! Today was an incredible cultural experience and there is almost no way for me to do it justice via words, but I’ll try! Our day started with a pickup by our driver and guide, Max, who took us up to see a coffee plantation and tour some of the villages that dot theslopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The drive up the mountain was incredibly bumpy and I was certainly appreciative of the 4x4 safari vehicle. We passed some very small villages of local Tanzanians in the middle of their daily business, including gentlemen carrying the head of a freshly killed cow, kids going to school, and women gathering grasses to feed their cows. 

At the top of the mountain we parked and started a walk to one of the local waterfalls. The hike took us passed even more huts and small family dwellings where we had a chance to really experience the life of a local. Words cannot begin to describe how different this was from everything I’m accustomed to seeing in the western world, which made it incredibly powerful. For instance, most of the houses had limited electricity and flushing toilets were regional and shared by multiple people outside the house. I saw one radio (that was probably from the 1970s) and no televisions. Access to the internet and cellular networks is extremely limited. Most of the women didn’t have shoes and it was obvious that much of the wardrobe originated as a donation from a western country. For instance, we saw t-shirts from a Halloween party in Chicago and a lacrosse high school team and I’m 100% certain they were charitable donations that eventually found their way across the oceans.

While the waterfall we saw was spectacular and very pretty, the cultural immersion was far more powerful to experience. We had fantastic guides who were happy to talk to us about their lives. Here’s a sample of “fun facts” we picked up during the day:

  • A family here can have upwards of 20 children, although most will have more like 7 kids. Men who have many cattle are allowed to marry multiple wives.
  • A well-to-do family here will make 2 million Tanzanian Shillings a year. That equates to about $1,000 USD. Many families here live on less than $1USD per day.
  • While schooling in Tanzania is free, parents need to pay for books and uniforms, which can cost $50/year per kid. The economics mean many kids won’t get an education; a family living on $1 a day can’t exactly afford the fringe costs of education.
  • A favorite drink is a beer made from dried millet and sweet banana. We got to taste some and while the beer wasn’t exactly my favorite, they had a banana wine that I found more appealing.
  • The coffee farms here are hardly what we’d call a farm in the United States; it was a cluster of a handful of bushes and coffee beans were sold to a larger coffee company that distributes it worldwide. For the family we saw, this season yielded approximately 150kg of coffee, which is their only source of income for the year.
  • Many families will keep their cattle inside their house and have the house serve as the cage. This is so they can collect the dung for fertilization.
  • In Moshi, women sell a variety of things from shoes to pants. To advertise their sales, they will carry one of the items on their head - so we saw some women carrying a single shoe on their head. Apparently size isn’t an issue here either, you buy shoes because you like them, not because they fit.
  • Election season is approaching in Tanzania and we passed a pickup truck blaring some music and slogans. We asked and apparently the truck was driving around to remind residents to register to vote.
  • Coffee is a big cash crop here, but corn provides the major food source for locals.

After the hike, we visited the coffee farm of one of the local residents. Farm is a very generous term because it is not the sort of farm we are accustomed to seeing in the west. The farm consisted of a dozen small bushes that they pick the coffee bean from. Once the beans are picked, they use a hand mill to remove the bean from the outer shell and then wash the beans. Any beans that float are bad and have been affected by one of the parasites, while sinking beans are good. After they soak for a few days, they are set out to dry. Finally, they are roasted over an open fire for 15 minutes and then crushed (by hand) into coffee grounds. Watching the process as they made us a cup of coffee gave me a new appreciation for this drink and you can’t help but think that instant coffee makes these people furious!

Having a day completely immersed in the lifestyle of the local villagers who live around Mt. Kilimanjaro was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had traveling. Even my travels through the Middle East have been relatively “normal,” but seeing people who may not live to be older than 50 and who live on so little was truly eye opening. I almost felt guilty using a camera that cost three times their annual income to photograph them! Yet despite their situation, they never sounded sorry for themselves. Seeing people who have such a different view of the world and their lives is an experience that will stay with me for an eternity. 

Unfortunately the wifi at our current hotel is very slow, so I can only share a fraction of the photos I took of the adventure, so I’m sharing these to wet the appetite and more will follow when internet improves.

The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle. 

A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle.