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Research Highlight

Michèle Malejki, ILR BS '06

The Maasai Experience

International Experience Grant Project: Women's worker rights and workplace issues in Tanzania

Note: ILR senior Michèle Malejki was recently awarded an International Experience Grant by ILR International Programs to help support her internship in Africa. There she participated in a study comparing the rights of women workers and workplace issues in the global South with those in developed countries. Michèle spent Winter Session 2006 in Tanzania with the women of the Maasai tribe. This is Michèle's summary of her international experience.

\\Ives\international program\Photos & Images\Michelle Tanzania Pictures\michele-and-Maasai-kids1From the moment I set foot in Africa, I knew I would be in for the experience of a lifetime. I had just finished an 18-hour flight and an eight hour bus ride, and finally arrived at my destination: Arusha, Tanzania. Using the Swahili I managed to soak up in one of my courses at Cornell, I learned where to find the tribe that I would both be researching as well as volunteering for – the Maasai.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe occupying mainly Kenya and North Tanzania that have managed to maintain a basic, traditional lifestyle despite the waves of modernization taking place around them. They live in a "mboma" or a small, often one-room hut constructed of mbomashardened animal dung. The role of the males in this society is to bring the animals (particularly cattle) to suitable grazing areas. Recently, the men have been more restricted with allowing their cattle to graze over extensive pieces of land, as both urbanization as well as restrictions imposed by game reserves and national parks are increasing. The women, meanwhile, tend to take care of affairs at home as well as the children. Unlike many tribes, however, Maasai women have a strong influence in their community, and are often in charge of finding alternative ways to make a living than just selling produce or livestock – and this is where my experience comes in…

I was originally scheduled to meet with a locally established women's group and find a way for them to gain greater access to the market – that is, to find ways they could overcome current obstacles within their community, whether they be for gender-biases or other problems such as unreliable methods of transportation. Upon meeting with these women at the end of December, however, I learned that they were still waiting for the rainy season to begin. It was several months behind and their crops and their cattle were suffering terribly. The women had to walk miles just to get water, and the lack of grass anywhere was making it difficult for the animals they owned to have any food. This problem was further exacerbated in that the cows were so starved that they were unable to provide any milk to the families, and thus, malnutrition was an immediate threat. Conditions were so bad that I quickly saw what my new "mission" was to be – to volunteer not to help them find a greater market presence for their produce, but to create a new means of earning a living entirely.
Maasai WomenThe Maasai women are easily identifiable – they often have shaved heads, long, stretched earlobes, wear bright reds, blues and rich purple colors…and they have beautiful beaded jewelry. At that first meeting with the women’s group, after they had both sang a song to welcome me to their village as well as explain their precarious situation regarding the rainy season, I came up with the idea that maybe the women could not only try and make and sell their jewelry to tourists, but could also establish a logo that would allow their product to be more identifiable. Furthermore, if I could print out pamphlets in different languages (using my knowledge of English, Swahili, French, and German) explaining the jewelry and that the money is going to this wonderful women's group, people would possibly be even more inclined to make purchases and help the Maasai. The idea was announced and the women discussed it.

Two days later, the vote was in: Yes. The only concern they had was where they would find the time to make the jewelry. The Maasai women were experiencing extremely difficult times. Some days, they related how they would leave their homes the entire day to sell whatever produce they had, and then at night walk over five miles just to find water. They rarely slept. In hearing these stories, I fully realized how different my home was from theirs.

Maasai MarketplaceThe women began making the beads during the afternoons, often as they sat in the markets selling produce. Meanwhile, I had recruited two other volunteers from a local volunteering organization to help me in setting up a roadside stand. We worked for two entire weeks, sweating under the blazing African sun. Sometimes I wondered if I would collapse from the heat, but luckily, that never happened. Additionally, I began to write a brief biography about the women's group – how they formed the group themselves two years ago, originally were composed of just eight women, and how their main mission was to earn enough to support the entire community. At the time I was writing the pamphlet, there were over 48 women in the group.

I encountered many problems throughout this project. The most obvious was that often times, things which I considered to be "simple" took days just to complete. I had arrived with the idea that things would be running "On African Time", and that the culture was not as rushed as that of much of Maasai woman with glow stickthe United States', however, I did not realize that simply going to the market to buy beads to begin with would be an entire day's affair. In purchasing the materials for the women, I was often ushered from one stand to another, everyone trying to sell me something different – but never beads. And once I had finally managed to purchase the beads, it would take another two hours just to find a "dalla-dalla" – or minibus – that would drive me all the way from the town and back into the Maasai’s territory.

Sometimes it was very frustrating because I felt like I should be doing more, but there was just no way to speed things along. I was also sidetracked just from the sheer hospitality of the Tanzanian people – I often could not even walk down a path without a shopkeeper or child running outside to shake my hand and speak a few words with me. While this definitely helped my Swahili to advance nicely, as was my overall adaptation to the wonderful culture, I often felt that my adjustment to the African concept of time was not, for when I arrived back at my village, it was often be nightfall – and to add to the business of the days, at night I would teach English to the children of the village in a small, dusty, one-roomed hut. The saying "So much to do, so little time" definitely held true for me in Tanzania.

\\Ives\international program\Photos & Images\Michelle Tanzania Pictures\Maasai-and-cattle1During the last few days of my experience, I realized exactly how much we – the women, the other two volunteers, and myself – had accomplished. It was a great feeling. The women had made nearly enough jewelry to start furnishing the stand we were constructing. We had made enough bricks to make two entire walls for the stand, and the brochures were completed and ready to be distributed in English, French, German, and Swahili. In my final day in Tanzania, I was still trying to do so much. I had to find a way to contact the bus companies to see if there was any kind of arrangement that could be made to make their tour buses en route from Nairobi or Dar-es-Salaam to stop at the Maasai’s stand. I was trying to make sure the other volunteers (who remained there longer that I could) would keep up with the stand-building and even make a clearing so that the buses could park.

I also tried to gather all the information I could about the children in the community so that I could try and start a "Sponsor-A-Maasai" program, where people could donate money and send a child to school for an entire year (as there are school and uniform fees to attend classes in Tanzania).michlele and gladys While I still feel that I had so much more to accomplish, I am sure that this experience and the ability to have worked with this amazing women’s group will never leave me. I still communicate with the group's leader and try to lend advice regarding the project, and have since learned that the group has grown to over 60 women. I also know that I will continue to work on the Maasai Children project. And lastly, I know that after graduation, I will be flying back to Tanzania, as both the work as well as the friendships I have made, are by no means finished.

- Michèle Malejki, ILR BS '06

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