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Camp Nyota 2018 and The Maasai

On the first day of Camp Nyota, our awareness is high. We want to learn everything we can about the Maasai people in Tanzania from our local Field Director, Vivian with Amani Afrika. We’re in the small village of Lemugur outside of Arusha where the school for the camp is located.

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The Day Camp

Ninety kids are waiting patiently in a classroom that might accommodate thirty students in the US. The wooden desks where they sit three to a bench were donated by Amani Afrika, a tour operator and all-around service provider for the area. Temba and Vivian, owners of Amani Afrika, deliver clean water to the school in their company’s water truck and coordinate special projects like this free day camp Dave and I sponsored in September 2018.

At the moment we step into the classroom, we’re greeted by ninety young voices saying in unison “Good Morning, Madam.” I intend to greet them with the few Swahili words I’ve practiced for the past thirty minutes. I say, “Habari.  Caribu Camp Nyota” which means “Good Morning. Welcome to Camp Star.”.

I’m met with blank stares.

Nembris, one of the camp counselors and the person assigned as my translator, steps in to help. She says the greeting I botched up with a slightly different accent plus adds the question “How are you?” It works this time. The kids respond with, “We are fine Madam. And, how are you?”

Camp has officially started!

1. Camp Pic.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_21b3

After introducing our camp counselors, we have each child stand up and say their name. Of course, they are shy. From past camps, we know this shyness will wear off by the third day or sooner. This is a warm-up exercise to get the kids adjusted to speaking up when called upon. After meeting each child, Vivian, Nembris, and Dave pass out name tags while Levina and I pass out t-shirts. As usual, we have some kids who were registered that dropout and other kids who weren’t registered that drop-in. First days require some adjusting to accommodate several last-minute changes.

To be candid, when Vivian said the camp needed to accommodate ninety children with only five camp counselors, it was a bigger challenge than we originally planned. The best age range for the day camp we’ve run six times in three other countries is nine to eleven. Class 3 in this school of 600 spans this ideal range (many students drop and restart school hence the age span in one grade). And, Class 3 has ninety students. Not wanting to leave any child in Class 3 out, we agreed to sponsor all ninety when our typical number is thirty. We also offered to sponsor a hot lunch for all 600 children of the school each day during camp. The hot lunch program increased attendance remarkably.

Much to our surprise, this camp with two to three times more students than we had in Ghana, Mexico, or Belize was completely manageable. We attribute the better-than-expected result to three things: 1) the kids understood the privilege – Amani Arika did great prep work, 2) when needed, Teacher – whose name I can’t pronounce but always referred to her as “Teacher” which she seemed to like – kept things in order without the use of force, and 3) we’ve added several new camp activities to help deflect excess energy (thanks to Autumn for her additions to the camp in Belize using recorded music and ball passing games).

Picture of “Teacher” for whom I have the utmost appreciation.

10. teacher

While the kids had fun making animal masks, pinatas, beaded bracelets, and drawings, we learned a few Maasai songs. One is about making corn porridge, Mama Jamila (third song in the video). With each verse, they add another body part to help stir the favored side dish until the entire body is recruited “mwili wote”. Many of the kids haven’t been to the main road let alone interacted with outsiders. They got excited when we sang Mama Jamila along with them jumping until we stopped from exhaustion. 

Amani Afrika supported the camp with members of their staff (see the camp counselor picture at end of the video). 

On the last day of camp, the kids performed a recital demonstrating the dances they learned, their new camp songs in English, Spanish and Swahili, and their artwork. We invited their families and the rest of the school to watch the show and stay for the lunch we provided with the help of these most excellent cooks:

8. cooks
18. recital
19. lunch

The group presented us with the biggest thank you card stamped with each child’s handprint. I don’t know when they found time to make it – I thought I had kept them busy dancing! 💃

18a. thank you

Asanta Sana means “thank you very much” in Swahili. It is us who should be thanking Lemugur Village and Amani Afrika for a wonderful week and unforgettable experience. See you in 2020!!

Notes on the Maasai

When we moved outside for our morning circle on the first day of camp, five male youths stood at the perimeter of the school ground observing the activities from which they must temporarily abstain. Like dark shadows from another world, the boys wear black for several months while they are kept from participating in most daily activities. As part of the Maasai tradition, the boys have recently been circumcised and must keep their distance. I’m not sure why.


Later that day, a herd of cattle is being driven through the village on their way between grazing lands. The Maasai are known for livestock (cattle, goats, etc.) which sometimes puts them at odds with the wildlife that preys upon their inventory.


In Kenya, we visited a Maasai home and were greeted by children who greeted us by bending their head down so we can touch the top of it. We also learned a few things about how their compound is organized. First Wife is in the house on the left as you enter the circle of buildings. In the compound we visited, the husband was still living with his mom. Mother had the most prestigious house position in this case. Second Wife is in the house on the right. Third Wife lives in the house to the right of Second Wife, etc. Animals have their pens inside the fenced circle too. The Maasai women cook on an open fire inside their clay shelters. They don’t use much room to sleep. On a bed with a thin pad that I would have to sleep diagonally across, five Maasai sleep side-by-side every night. Our guide who seems quite comfortable with westerners, says he sleeps that way when he is home with his one wife and two kids.

I’m captivated by the magnificent beadwork of the Maasai women. I brought back necklaces and key chains plus ordered coasters and a centerpiece that is due to arrive this month (shipped DHL). If you’re interested in purchasing some modern designs, I can recommend this website. They sell one-of-a-kind handmade coasters, key rings, necklaces, bracelets, placemats, centerpieces – you name it. Over 450 Maasai woman work for the organization giving them a solid income from beading and beekeeping. Their delicious honey is served in the local safari camps. Props to the Maa Trust for supporting the betterment of the Maasai women (previously only the men benefited from the conservancy and tourist trade).

Our guide explained that historically, the favorite wife’s children were allowed to leave school early and work the farm while the not favorite wife’s children were sent to school. Years’ of this practice produced an unintended result. Not favorite wife’s children got higher paying jobs due to their education.

Another outcome of modernization in Kenya is that the practice of polygamy has started to lose its attraction (at least with the Maasai guides we encountered) for the practical reason that more wives cost more money. In Tanzania, the Maasai still saw a financial value in polygamy. More wives mean more work gets done by the women. I learned enough about the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania to realize it could take a lifetime to understand their rituals and cultural practices. I still have so many questions unanswered, and perhaps unknowable.

The Maasai family we visited sang for us outside their home near the Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya.

Wrapping up a Loose End

This next story is not directly related to the Maasai but I promised to share it at the end this blog from a couple months ago. It’s time to wrap up the Africa trip.

So, here’s that story as I know it…

Of the thousands of languages spoken across Africa, we’ve seen one common communication in four African countries and are told it is practiced across many. It’s hand signaling between drivers to warn about police in the area.

To start the conversation, Driver One flashes his lights to the oncoming car, we’ll call Driver Two. This alerts Driver Two that she’s being asked the question, “Are there any cops from where you just came?”. Driver Two either takes her index finger in the shape of a number one and presses it downwards like she’s making a point in court which means slow the heck down, cops are ahead. Or, Driver Two holds her fist down and opens then closes it several times like doing a stretch which means, keep coming, Hakuna Matata “no worries “ (I added that last bit for effect).

Turns out, when it comes to matters of evading the police, every African driver is a brother.

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