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Incident in a Maasai Village

On our last day of mountain biking in Tanzania I had an interesting incident in a small Maasai Village.

Throughout the twelve days of our trip we had passed many remote Maasai Villages.  Often the villagers had come out to see and greet us. In the remote areas the village is a collection of thatched huts, sometimes protected from the animals by a high brush fence. Obviously a brush fence would not deter a determined elephant, giraffe, Zebra, buffalo or wildebeest. Presumably the natural shyness of the wild animals plus the two layers of defence in the fence and their hut gives the Maasai a level of security.

We had never been into one of these small villages, and it is impolite to enter unless invited. Since this was our last day riding, I decided that today was my last opportunity to visit a village. After lunch we had stopped at the town of Mto wa Mbu (Mosquito Creek) to bargain for souvenirs. We had less than 10km to ride to where our bush camp was to be set-up. Most of the distance was on a well graded gravel road with little traffic and then the final couple of kilometres through the bush. We made our own pace along the road as either the leader or the support truck would be waiting to direct us where to head across the bush to the camp spot. I had stopped for a call of nature so I was riding on my own in about the middle of the group. At times in the distance I could see the rider in front or if I stopped to check the rider behind.

I came across a Maasai women sitting beside the road with a 5 litre plastic container. I presume that  she was waiting for a lift to go to get water. In most cases I had seen villagers collect water on their back, with a cart, bicycle or a donkey. Maybe she was waiting for a particular person or maybe she was waiting to be offered a lift. Directly behind her about 500 metres from the road was a small village. Because the village was lower than the road I could see that there were about ten huts partly surrounded by the high brush fence.

I dismounted from my bike and attempted to communicate that I wanted to go to the village and take photographs. She seemed to understand and I walked my bike with her to the village. She lead me inside the fence and straight to one of the better constructed huts and presented me to a man who it was indicated was the chief. I indicated that I wanted to take a photograph of the villagers and we started the normal price negotiations. Normally you can expect to settle on a price of 500 to 1000 Tanzanian shillings. ( This is one to two Australian Dollars). He initially was firm on 5000 shillings but when I prepared to leave we were able to settle on 2000 shillings. I was happy with this for one photo as it was a special photo in the village and this was my last opportunity.

I paid him the money and all the people in the village assembled outside one of the huts for the photo. The chief wanted the photo outside his hut, but the lighting was not good so I shifted the people to the front of another hut. After I had taken a group photo the chief insisted on a photo of just his family and then one with him and some other senior males. (So much for the fear of having your spirit lost in the camera). Then the chief wanted to take a photo with me in it. I was a bit reluctant. It was a brand new camera. It was difficult to communicate with him. Would he know what to do? This was the third last day of my trip and my last film. I wanted to make sure I had some shots left for the end of the bike tour and my trip to Nairobi.

However I handed him the camera and attempted to show him how to use it. He insisted that he knew and did seem to have the hang of it as he took one shot and then a second and a third. As you can see in the photo gallery they were good shots. Then he decided to take a portrait shot. Instead of just rotating the camera 90 degrees, he turned it to face him. Not only did I realise the mistake and call "hold it" because of the awkward way he was holding the camera. Some of the other people in the village also realised his mistake and started laughing and yelling at him. One of the men approached him to help him. Our proud chief would have none of this and in the process dropped the camera in the dirt. When I picked it up the lens shutter cover was jammed about 10% closed. I took a portrait shot which included the chief to see if the camera would still take a picture, and then I said no more to the chief who seemed keen to use up all my remaining film.

After waiting a few minutes for things to settle down I indicated that I needed to leave. At that point the chief raised the issue of money. I was not sure what he wanted. Did he want to be paid another 2000 shillings for each of the photos he took, did he want more money because the whole village was in my photograph or did he want to return money because the camera was damaged. I did not see any value in negotiating a return of money. A couple of thousand shillings would never cover any repairs if they were needed. If I accepted any money from him I would never understand the conditions under which it was offered. I knew that other bike group members had seen me wheel my bike down to the village, but I was there on my own and I did not want to get myself into any commitment with the villagers I did not understand. So I tried to communicate that it was all finished, that the camera was broken, I had no film and I needed to go.

I walked my bike towards the exit of the village, waving and smiling goodbye to the villagers as the chief and some of the men walked with me. About half way to the exit the chief offered a 1000 shilling note. I assume that he was offering half the money back because he damaged the camera. However maybe he was trying to cancel the deal, maybe he would expect to get the film. I indicated no, all finished, thankyou very much I want to go. At first the chief tried to block my path, but when I pushed on he grasped the rear wheel of the bike and soon we had a tug of war with me holding the front wheel of the bike and the men of the village pulling on the rear wheel. It was fairly clear that they were not trying to take the bike, just stop he from leaving. I considered accepting the money but remained concerned as to what that may commit me to. Maybe I would be expected to sit down and have food or drink with them. By now I was anxious to catch the rest of the group to get the track to the camp site.

After a few minutes of this half hearted tug of war which seemed like an eternity at the time, the women came over and convinced the men to let me go. I waved good bye and walked my bike as fast as possible back to the road and got going quickly. I am confident that they simply wanted to give me back some or all of the money, but it was very worrying at the time. When I got back to Australia after a really good clean the shutter cover was back to normal.

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Revised: April 01, 2006