Meeting the Maasai in Terrat, Tanzania

Over on Twitter, this week’s #Top4Theme was #Top4SmallTowns. One of my featured photos was taken in Terrat, Tanzania, where I spent just over two weeks in 2017. At the time, I was participating in a medical volunteer mission, working with a Canadian NGO and its African partners to provide primary healthcare to people in this remote part of northeastern Tanzania.

Terrat is a ward and village in the Simanjiro district, about 80 kilometres from the city of Arusha. It is home to approximately 14,000 inhabitants, including a population of Maasai who regularly gather in the village for its weekly market where animals, clothing, and homewares are sold.

The Maasai people are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern Tanzania as well as northern, central, and southern Kenya. The Maasai speak the Maa language, which is related to Dinka, Kalenjin, and Nuer of the Nilotic language family. They live a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, centred around their cattle which constitute their primary source of sustenance. Their society is largely patriarchal, whereby elder men decide upon most major matters for the Masaai group, and they have traditionally recognized polygamous unions.

The classic home of a Maasai household is known as a boma. This consists of several houses, usually rectangular or circular in shape, constructed of natural materials and then surrounded by a circular fence (an enkang). Livestock including cows, goats, and sheep are kept in an enclosure within the middle of the boma.

The traditional pastoral lifestyle of the Maasai has become increasingly difficult to maintain given influences from the modern world. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have in fact instituted several programs to encourage Maasai people to abandon their traditional lifestyles, but despite their gradual transition away from nomadic life into positions within government and commerce, many still retain their age-old customs upon return to their family homestead.