As we drove out of the Masai Mara, we contemplated the incredible piece of nature we had just seen. We also wondered how things could possibly get any better than what we had just witnessed - it was truly incredible!
I briefly mentioned the Masai People in the last entry, but I thought I might add a little more here. The Masai occupy an area in western Kenya and Tanzania that parallels the land occupied by many of the East African animals. For thousands of years, these people have followed and lived off of the great migrations of zebra, wildebeest, and countless other animals in the area. Today, there is certainly a lot of tourist influence, and many are trinket vendors as you would expect in any touristed area, but the Masai have also managed to keep enough distance between themselves and the western world, realizing that their culture would be at risk if they go too far.
Many still live in communal family structures whereby one man will have several wives. The number of wives a man is able to attract depends on the volume of his livestock. More cows and goats means more money means more women basically. Each wife must construct her own house, and is responsible for the running of that house and the raising of her children. Accordingly, a husband might have 7 or 8 different houses; each built by a different wife. Young boys are in charge of shepherding the herds. Young girls are in charge of fetching water and wood for fire. The wives run the household. The fathers essentially "run the business" making sure the whole affair is sustainable. It's an interesting structure, and seems to operate smoothly and you can see how the structure grew out of necessity for survival, particularly around food and water.
Traditional dress is the norm, and the children in the villages love to interact with tourists. They were some of the friendliest kids we'd met on the entire trip, and not so interested in begging for money from you. It was much more about curiosity of what we were - how we looked - and why we behaved the way we did. That was a bit refreshing. And for the time being, some of these villages have avoided some of the major health problems that exist in the more mainstream parts of Africa, namely the aids epidemic that is swallowing the continent. While aids is not so common in these tighter family structures, over 75% of the people in some parts of Africa are infected. Isn't that just incredible? I had read in a book that an 18 year old male in Botswana has more than an 80% chance of developing an aids related illness before he turns 30.
The population structure in general is now more hour glass shaped (lots of kids, and lots of old folks, few middle aged people) rather than a pyramid (Lots of kids at the bottom, a few old folks at the top) because many people in their prime are dying from the disease, leaving behind orphans everywhere. There are many religious volunteers attempting to fund and construct orphanages all over the place. It's so sad. Education (or the lack of it) seems to be a big part of the problem - that and misinformation. Everywhere we went, we kept hearing the story that if you slept with a virgin, you would be cured of aids. The ironic implications of that cultural belief are shocking. It seems hopeless.
But there are efforts. Billboards everywhere attempt to communicate the realities of the disease. Schools are now teaching about it. But the cultural beliefs are also strong, and it is slow going. Of course, many of the western drugs available to help with the disease are either unavailable or financially out of reach for these people as a result of drug company issues. Sad and ridiculous. Like I was saying, Africa is chaos in so many ways.
I used to have these debates with my brother Owen about how Africa could be dealt with by the western world. Or maybe if we could just funnel the money from a few of the world's largest corporations into solving the problems here, we would get a long way. You do see folks like Bill Gates and Bono from U2 trying to promote these kinds of things. That and debt relief would go along way to having a large impact. We need to actually help build their economies so they can eventually help themselves - not simply rape them of their natural resources and be done with it. But it is so difficult to watch. When I see these small teams (sometimes just a husband and wife) trying to single handily raise money and build an orphanage I think to myself, "What a waste of time and effort - it will have so little real impact". Some of them even take the more selfish route thinking about how "rewarding" the work and experience is. And sure, you can make the argument that saving one life is worth the effort. That's true, but if we go around saving one life at a time, the mathematics will say that we will do it forever - and therein lies the big issue. Somewhere, we have to be more pragmatic about it. For big problems - we need big solutions - and that means big money in this case. Problems are deep though - and the level of corruption is so high that money just does not get to its intended target if it were not for these mom and pop operations on the ground. That's why a huge, comprehensive, multi-national, multi-corporation effort will be needed if Africa is ever to change. And how long can one world exist while another dies - it is after all a closed system, and the cancer will eventually spread if is not treated.
Those are the political comments for the day.... I should probably learn to keep these episodes to a minimum - this is a travel show after all, and I need to remember that the readers might not be all that interested in what gets sucked out of the back of my brain from time to time. Sorry about that folks ;)
Anyway, the Masai do seem to provide a sense of hope in and amongst all of this, and they maintain a sense of pride about them. It is said that the Masai fear only the elephants and the buffalo and nothing else.