Maasai in Tanzania: Sharing Fears, Killing a Cobra

An Egyptian cobra pays an unexpected visit to a Maasai village and makes us realize that we share a fear of poisonous snakes — and that we’re all more alike than we first thought.

“There’s an Egyptian cobra in one of the huts.”

Masai Boy - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Masai boy – Lake Manyara, Tanzania

Maasai: From Iconic to Real

Every souvenir shop in northern Tanzania bursts with wood carvings and paintings of the Maasai, a pastoral tribe who’ve made this area their home. Cut faces, long bodies, colorful cloth attire, ears with giant ring holes, beads and long necks.

The Maasai aren’t just iconic, though. They’re human. A visit to one of their villages near Lake Manyara provided a human connection, a grounding in this reality.

Masai Man and Child - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Father and son.

Our Maasai village visit began as many tourist village visits often do – local people dressed in festive attire show off their traditional dance moves and songs. The women adorned in heavy necklaces of tiny beads dance and shout; the men perform an impressive jumping dance without ever letting their heels touch the ground.

Masai Woman in Traditional Jewelry - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Masai Woman in Traditional Jewelry – Lake Manyara, Tanzania

We’re encouraged to don the same attire. We make fools of ourselves as we try to imitate moves that are second nature to the Maasai, so foreign to us. Through the laughter and silliness of this routine, a personal connection is formed; we realize again that we are all human.

I wonder what they would think about our clubs and music. Some of the women point to my camera, indicating they want to see the photos I’ve just taken. We laugh as we go through the images of themselves, family, friends in the viewfinder; this is a universally loved activity.

Audrey Shares Photos with Masai Women - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Sharing the images in the view finder, everyone has fun.

After the show, one of the women takes me by the hand and leads me into her home. She’s almost giddy to show me her bedroom. It’s a sleeping nook, a semi-secluded area off to the side of the hut.

Our tour leader acts as interpreter. In this more intimate setting we ask questions about Maasai living arrangements and culture: relations between men and women, gender roles, coming of age rituals, beliefs, the role of cattle, food traditions, the chief of the village who lives on the hill — just about everything.

Masai Kids at the Door of Hut - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Masai Kids at the Door of Hut

We sit together in darkness. Our engagement feels more like a conversation and less like an anthropology study. This is good.

A Big Snake in A Small Hut

Just as we’re about to leave the village, we receive the news — there’s a huge snake in one of the huts at the village edge. Our driver spotted it and alerted the family. Now it’s time to figure out how to deal with it.

It’s an Egyptian cobra, highly poisonous. There are no medical facilities in the area, kids are everywhere. There is virtually no choice for the villagers but to kill it.

Minutes later, in an attempt to root out the snake inside, the men of the village begin tearing the house apart. The idea, aside from pissing off the snake, is to draw it out from the layered walls that form the hut’s shell.

Tearing Apart Masai Home - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Clearly, fear of poisonous snakes is universal.

Had it been left to the men, the house would have been demolished.

Fortunately for the woman whose home it was, the village women take over the hunt with firm practicality. They scold the men for their carelessness; they begin to go after the snake themselves. After all, it will be their responsibility to rebuild.

The cobra is coiled in anger inside. The men get involved again, poking sticks inside the hut. They dart in, they dart back out. As exciting as all this is, the men are clearly scared.

Finally, after 30 minutes and great drama, the snake is cut in half, beaten, dragged from the hut, and pounded some more.

Showing Off Egyptian Cobra - Masai Village, Tanzania
Success! The Egyptian Cobra is no longer a threat.

Vanquished or not, a snake in a Maasai hut is a bad omen. The family, we’re told, would sacrifice a goat later that day to protect the village and drive away any lingering evil spirits.

As we leave, we think ahead to our own sleeping arrangements and whether our tents are snake-proof. Maybe we should have a goat in tow, just in case.

Photos from Maasai Village and Mto wa Mbu Town near Lake Manyara, Tanzania

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you’d like to read the captions, you can view the Masai Village photo set.

 

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Disclosure: Our tour in Tanzania was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. G Adventures supports this Masai village through visits like this and helping to build a school. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ Tanzania Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. says

    @Fabio: Yes, we did ask if this (a snake in a home) was a common occurrence in the village. Fortunately for the Maasai of this village and snakes, this doesn’t happen very often.

    @Sofia: The Maasai village visit added an important human dimension to the safari portion of our Tanzania tour. And, our tents were great – solid zippers and no holes anywhere! So, no snake sightings during the rest of our safari.

  2. says

    I thought I had it bad here in Nicaragua with giant mother sized cockroaches. I will take those any day over giant poisonous snakes!

  3. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Nice picture of you, Audrey wearing Maasai jewellery. Perhaps Daniel should have done the same! :)

  4. says

    @Sutapa: The men got away with just having to jump to keep up with the Masai men – no costumes or jewelry for them. At least I made people laugh with how silly I looked :)

  5. says

    Im sure the woman was happy with the killing of the snake but to tear her hut apart surely pissed her off. I agree fear of snakes is just universal. Did they answer why the leader lives on the hill?

  6. says

    @Kirk: I was about to write in this piece that other things are universal…like men tearing apart stuff without thinking of consequences and women keeping a cool head to get the job done. But, thought that might ruffle a few feathers :)

    I don’t have an exact answer for why the leader lives on the hill, but I believe it has something to do with his position as protector of the village. Will let you know if I find out the exact reason though.

  7. Kristen says

    I spent a few months staying with Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya, and it’s so interesting how their culture is meeting globalization. Some changes are good, like education, women’s rights, and the ending of lion-killing traditions, but others will be tougher for people to deal with, like theft and corruption. I slept in one of those huts for a night: it was a bit nerve-racking, to say the least! I showed some of the village teenagers some videos of a concert in New York, and they loved it! I had to play it over and over again.

  8. says

    @Kristen: Thanks so much for sharing your experience staying with Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya. Although our visit to this village was short, our guide (half Maasai himself) talked about the challenges of the culture meeting globalization – like you said, there’s both good and bad.

    He also mentioned how land usage laws have also changed the nomadic lifestyle. Tanzania protects more and more areas for National Parks, so the Maasai have less land available to use for grazing and they have to walk longer and longer distances to find water. Some are trying to learn agriculture, but it’s not an easy transition.

    I can imagine that sleeping in one of those huts was rather nerve-racking — space was tight (by our standards) and I’d be anxious about critters around.

  9. Lucinda Fagan says

    Love this tale of visiting the Masai Village!!
    This is a dream of mine that I am hoping will come true later this year as we will be in Kenya around July.
    I am currently on an overland adventure with my boyfriend driving from London to Capetown (in Lebanon at the moment).
    We would love to visit and experience all the Masai have to offer just as you did.

    Did you guys use a tour company? Did you have a guide? We have already sorted out a visit to the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro Crater so this visit would be separate again.

    Any assistance/advice would be much appreciated.

    Thanks!
    Lucinda

  10. says

    @Lucinda: If you hadn’t already booked your Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater safaris, I would have highly recommended considering going with G Adventures. However, if you already have that portion of your trip booked, you might be able to do something a la carte by going to Mto wa Mbu. It’s a town near to Lake Manyara (which we also visited). From there, you might be able to arrange a local visit to a nearby Masai village (perhaps even the one above).

    I hope that helps. If you have more questions, just let us know. Safe and fun travels.

  11. Maeva says

    I have found this blog randomly and found it really interesting.
    I will go to Tanzania end of October and beginning of November. I would like to spend one night or two in a Masai Village. However, I do not want to go with the tour or as part of a safari. I was wondering if during your travels, you have met some cummunities that I could contact directly to organise a stay in their village please?
    (I have managed to do it in Kenya finding a person who has volunteered in a community and who gave me their email address – surprisingly they live in a very traditional way but still use internet when they go to a city – and I would love to do it again in Tanzania)
    Thank you!
    Maeva.

  12. says

    @Maeva: Thanks for stopping by our blog and commenting – glad you find it interesting! Our visit to the Maasai village was in coordination with our G Adventures tour. You might be able to contact G Adventures directly to see if they know whether you can contact this village. Another idea would be to contact the community based tourism program in Mto wa Mbu Town – they may have contacts in nearby Maasai villages: http://mtoculturalprogramme.tripod.com/

    Good luck and hope it works out!

  13. says

    We did a similar visit to a Masai village but in Masai Mara and I truly loved the activities we engaged in: spear throwing, throwing clubs, jumping with the morans and learning so much about their culture. Later that evening we slughtered a goat and had dinner with them…so much fun

  14. says

    @Alex: Glad you had a great time. My favorite part was watching how the community handled the cobra. No laughing matter, and it underscored that fear is human. A Masai village is certainly worth a respectful visit if you happen to be in the region of Tanzania or Kenya.

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