Tanzania Part VI – Peponi Beach

maasai village-5

Driving from Serengeti to Karatu, we had to pass through the Ngorongoro conservation area again, and paid US$ 160 for the privilege. You don’t go into the park itself, see no wild animals, only drive along its boundaries, a massive rip-off.

Friday 28 August till Friday 11 September

We finally decided to stop at a touristy Maasai village (we’ve promised the children that we will), you know even before entering that it will be yet another rip-off, but we wanted to do it as part of their home-schooling experience as well seeing first-hand how people less privileged and more specifically, the Maasai, lived.

In the end it wasn’t too bad, we had a small glimpse into what the real Maasai life outside of tourist areas might be like. The Maasai people are clinging desperately to their way of life and still live mostly like they did a hundred and more years ago. To make ends meet, many Maasai warriors now work as security guards all over Kenya and Tanzania. The lodge owners tell us it is mostly for show as it is a “done thing”, everyone has a Maasai security guard or three. Where we stayed in Nairobi, they had three Samburu guards, related to the Maasai, but more war-like. Here they had them for good reason, the lodge had more than one armed robbery in the past which ceased once the Samburu men were employed.


The Maasai are a Nilotic group. They inhabit the African Great Lakes region (in Kenya and Tanzania). Nilotes speak Nilo-Saharan language, and came to Southeast Africa by way of South Sudan. Most Nilotes in the area, including the Maasai, the Samburu and the Kalenjin, are pastoralists, and are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. As with the Bantu, the Maasai and other Nilotes in Eastern Africa have adopted many customs and practices from the neighboring Cushitic groups, including the age set system of social organization, circumcision, and vocabulary terms.

Origin, migration and assimilation

According to their own oral history, the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century. Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements in the region were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai, while other, mainly southern Cushitic groups, were assimilated into Maasai society. The resulting mixture of Nilotic and Cushitic populations also produced the Kalenjin and Samburu.


Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behavior. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out-of-court process is also practiced called ‘amitu’, ‘to make peace’, or ‘arop’, which involves a substantial apology.

The Maasai are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry.

A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 months ilapaitin. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. A corpse rejected by scavengers is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs, since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle, which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.

All of the Maasai’s needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk and on occasion, drink the blood. Bulls, oxen and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. [Though] the Maasai’s entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle… more recently, with their cattle dwindling, the Maasai have grown dependent on food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves).

– Wikipedia

We crept into one of the mud huts which were very dark with only one small window to let the smoke out – they light fires inside the house for heat and cooking. The floors were made with cow dung and unlike other traditional houses that we’ve seen in Central and Eastern Africa the roofs were not made of grass, but the hut formed one continuous mud unit. The walls are completely covered in soot, one had to wonder what their lungs look like. The beds were rock hard cow hide on top of grass.

The Maasai are traditionally polygynous; this is thought to be a long-standing and practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. Polyandry is also practiced. A woman marries not just her husband, but the entire age group. Men are expected to give up their bed to a visiting age-mate guest. The woman decides strictly on her own if she will join the visiting male. Any child which may result is the husband’s child and his descendant in the patrilineal order of Maasai society. “Kitala”, a kind of divorce or refuge, is possible in the house of a wife’s father, usually for gross mistreatment of the wife. Repayment of the bride price, custody of children, etcetera, are mutually agreed upon.

We’d rather not guess what kind of nocturnal affairs went on on the bed we were sitting on…

Once we finished the village and school tour (where the children were reciting the alphabet and numbers to us; we were convinced that’s all they know, to impress tourists for more donations), we were taken to the large kraal which were not used for cattle this time of the day, but for selling jewellery and other trinkets. I am not unsympathetic to the cause of the children, my heart bled for them. Their parents chose a life of poverty while they owned scores of cattle worth a lot of money, they can afford better (real!) schooling and healthcare (the little ones walk around with a lot of flies on their faces, sitting on unwiped snot), not to mention clothing. I do not begrudge them their choice to stick to their culture, but I don’t think it should be at the cost of their children who will probably one day have to fit into society they are not prepared for and try to make a living. Unfortunately, things change. Sophia and Gustav were really freaked out by all the flies climbing into the children’s noses and mouths.

We usually try to directly help some of the people we come across, either by buying something from them or employing someone to do laundry or dishes, so yet again we spent too much money on curios, buying straight from the artists. At least we know we’ve been duped! I wanted one of the sticks the men always use, to herd cattle or to walk with. There were loads, custom-made for the tourism market, but I wanted a real one. So I asked our guide whether I could buy his from him. You should have seen his face, he thought I was crazy, but we could convince him in the end that I really wanted a used one. The same went for Hugo and the dagger he wanted – we bought one that one of the warriors was wearing on his belt!

In Karatu we stayed at the Kudu Lodge, they have a beautiful place with a good camping site and hot showers that felt, in Gustav’s words, like standing under a strong, big, warm waterfall. After five days without ever feeling clean, it was bliss. The rest of their accommodation looked decent as well and the restaurant served food that hit the spot just right.

Moshi was the next stop on our way to the coast and Zanzibar. Here we stayed at the Honeybadger Lodge. They didn’t have their camping site any more so we stayed in the huge family room. With that came a very welcome swimming pool and good food, we stayed here for two days. Gustav and Sophia made friends with the owners’ children, who were on school break. Very early on our first morning here, the children came knocking and all four disappeared. We found them later in the owners’ house, having a great time.

Then, the coast, finally! We decided on Peponi Beach as recommended by Uwe Schmidt. The campsites were beautiful, under big trees, with decent enough ablutions. A pool and restaurant made for a place we forgot to leave. Sophia had their fish and chips at every meal and Gustav their cheese burger.

Our original plan was to stay a few days and then move closer to Dar-es-Salaam. We were going to leave the car and trailer at one of the places we were recommended and spend a few days on Zanzibar. But Carys, the lodge manager and owner’s daughter, informed us that they could organize a transfer to the island and we may leave our things with them, without charge. Deal!

While at Peponi, we went on a snorkelling trip on a wooden dhow with homemade sails. We snorkelled at two sites but the visibility wasn’t very good. Gustav snorkelled with us for a while but Sophia wasn’t very keen. We had lunch on Sand Island, which is only accessible during low tide. Here Sophia picked up loads of beautiful seashells, both she and Gustav said that Sand Island was one of their favourite places.

The seabed is very flat and shallow in Northern Tanzania, it made for a low tide that was very far back from the land. The boat could only go so far, so in the morning before leaving on our snorkelling trip, we had to walk more than 500 metres to the boat and coming back was the same.

After a few days of doing not much, we set off for Zanzibar on 5 September, my dad’s birthday. Carys told us the previous day that we will leave at six in the morning and that she will make sure we have a packed meal and water, the trip with the slow boat (slow boat because: money!) should take about 4 hours to cover the 50 kilometres.

And then things started to go wrong. We were ready and waiting on the beach for the boat, no sign of it. After about 20 minutes, a Peponi employee approached us, she told us the taxi has been waiting since 5 o’clock! Which we knew nothing about. And then when I asked her about our food, she knew nothing about it. Carys had a few too many unexpected guests the previous night and partied with them until the music finally stopped at 3 o’clock. On request of another guest camping next to us, desperate for his sleep.

As Hugo packed water for us (I love my husband!) and we could rough up a few (frozen) bread-rolls, we set off for the taxi. Which looked like it came out of a few wars, inside and outside. And to top it off, it wouldn’t start. The driver got another man to give us a push for a running start, no luck. Pushed it back (because for some reason he decided you could only start going forward, maybe the taxi didn’t have a reverse gear) to where we started, tried again. Nothing. Repeat. Another man turned up, they repeated the exercise, still no joy. At this stage Gustav was very worried and Sophia very scared, she just wanted to get out. Hugo suggested that we all get out and help with the exercise. It took another few tries before the taxi finally started and we could leave for the harbour. An hour’s drive away! Why didn’t anyone tell us about any of this? We spoke to several people about the trip over our first few days here, Carys included, and this was all a surprise. I do have to say though that this was the only problems we encountered during our stay here and Carys phoned later that day to apologise profusely.

We had another two surprises we weren’t informed about, we had to pay the taxi driver for the trip – it took an hour! – and once we got on the boat the skipper told us we had to pick up more guests along the way. In the end the 4 hour trip took almost six hours. Going at 10 km/h. Sitting on the hardest benches ever invented by mankind. Torture.

Then, close to Zanzibar (finally!), I realised by checking our bearing on our GPS that we are NOT heading for our hotel. After discussion with the other passengers and the skipper, he acknowledged that they were to be dropped off first. As they joined us only two hours into the trip, I politely asked whether we could go to our hotel first, the skipper said no, but the other people graciously said they wouldn’t mind. So I insisted to go to our hotel first, which they grudgingly did.

After many hick-ups, we finally made it to Zanzibar!

To be continued… (my editor said my blogs are too long … 😉 )

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