Off the well-beaten road in Southern Kenya, in a place that would be impossible to find without a knowledgeable driver, resides the Masai tribe. Of the 42 tribes found in Kenya, the Masai are one of the few to live according to their traditional culture, meaning that they have not adopted a modern way of life. The Masai wear their tribal dress, which is similar to what most of us Americans would see in a documentary about African culture. In a way, they compare to the Amish, they are set aside from the modern society, living life in their own way. The Masai hold a beautiful territory; it has rolling plains and is surrounded by mountains. It is also home to some of the most gorgeous, and dangerous, animals in the world, such as the lion and the elephant. The people live in houses constructed of a wood frame, filled with cow manure and they live off the meat, milk, and blood from their cattle. As perplexing as this was for a very sheltered American, what I found most interesting, and most disturbing, about the Masai culture was the role of women in their society and the view of women as property.
The role of the women in the Masai culture was what I anticipated. Women bore many children, raised them, and did the necessary household duties, such as cooking and cleaning. I believe these to be as a hard a task as the men’s task of tending the herd because I do not know how a house made of cow poop could ever be clean! In addition, it was so dark in the home, I’m not sure how the women could see what they were cooking. The Masai women hold a very traditional role in a patriarchal society, and this was what I anticipated when I visited the Masai village, however I was not prepared for Masai’s view of women.
Coming to Africa, I knew that in traditional tribes women are not always viewed as equal to men, however, I struggled with the Masai people’s view of women as a commodity. As an independent woman raised in the United States society, I do not agree with polygamy, but it’s not shocking. What I found shocking about the Masai’s polygamy was that a man’s wealth was measured by the number of wives and cattle he had. The tour guide told me that the more wives a man of the village had, the higher status he would have in that village. The chief of the village that we visited had 10 wives! Obviously, he was a wealthy man because each wife cost him 10 cows.
When a man was eligible for a wife and wanted one, each woman has a bride price of 10 cows. As a woman, I found this insulting. Dowries do not bother me, but knowing that women have an established purchase price like a bar of soap at Wal-Mart is very upsetting. I realized then that women in the Masai culture are an object, or a piece of property that can owned and traded. Only biological qualities are considered in the price. A woman’s bride price does not increase if she is smart, a good cook, kind, or even for the shallowest reason of her being pretty. Nothing increases the value of a woman, and nothing can make her stand out among her peers. Accepting that, to the people I was visiting, my qualities, and the things that I worked hard for weren’t important, and what made me valuable were the biological qualities that I had been born with, was difficult.
Although it could be the topic to a paper by itself, I think that it is important to mention that the Masai people practice female circumcision. Knowing about the issue is something entirely different from visiting a culture and realizing that what I had heard about on the news, read in articles, and felt so strongly opposed to, was in front of my eyes (not literally) and this was disturbing. I wanted to ask the women many questions, but that was not possible. I wondered how the women felt about this rite of passage, which by the rest of the world’s standards, illustrates an inequality between men and women. I say this at the risk of sounded like an snobby, white American, but I feel that female circumcision is a brutal practice that should not be allowed because the procedure causes women pain and can leave them with many medical complications afterwards, and does not offer any medical benefit. In my opinion, it increases the barrier between the sexes in a society because the practice is often used to reduce women’s promiscuity and make them “clean” in the eyes of society. I, however, was not raised in a culture where this practice is normal, accepted, and required and I wonder how those who were feel about the practice. I left the Masai village with more questions than answers about female circumcision. While a delicate and controversial issue, I felt that it was necessary to mention this very relevant tradition in the Masai culture, which provides a great deal of insight into the role, expectations, and view of women in their society.
Visiting the Masai village was an incredible experience that I am so glad I had. It shocked me, used all my senses (they said that you could not smell the cow poop in the houses, but they were just accustom to the smell), made me angry, and made me aware and grateful. I was angry because my Masai sisters are viewed as property, and not equal to men, which is distressing to me. I knew before that women are viewed differently in other societies, but I had only read or heard about those places, I had never been to a place that practiced female circumcision, or truly viewed women as property. Visiting this village made the struggle for women’s equality around the world real to me. Women in other cultures do not have the same rights as I do, and they are not always viewed as equal to men. I am truly grateful to live in a society where I am valued for reasons other than my ability to bear children. I can pursue a career and my worth is not defined in monetary amounts. I realize how fortunate I am to live as an American woman, and I hope that my aspiration to help women in other cultures gain equality will also be realized and helpful.