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How to spot a Masai

January 16, 2010

La Chica is learning how to identify a Masai.  The first sign is easy – the colourful cotton clothes worn by the men and women distinguish them easily from other Tanzanians.  The beaded jewellery, that La Chica admires so much, is also another sign, as are the tinkling sounds from the metal discs attached to the jewellery.  Holes cut out of ear lobes, which are often stretched so far by heavy earrings that occasionally the men will loop their ear lobes back onto the tops of their ears for safekeeping, are another attribute of being a Masai, although the younger generations are less likely to have this done.  Round burn marks on their cheeks indicate that they are Masai.  These burn marks are made with wire bent into a circle, heated up in a fire, and placed on the cheeks of the very young Masai.  The idea is that the many flies which hang around the bomas and often cause eye problems in the young children will be attracted to the burn wounds on the cheeks, instead of to the eyes, and by the time the burns have healed (leaving the round scars) the flies would have forgotten how to return to the child’s eyes.  Another clear sign is the removal of the two centre teeth on the bottom jaw.  This is done (with a knife) so that if a Masai falls ill they will still be able to be orally fed medicine.  Other less obvious signs include round markings on the shoulders and upper arms, made with a sharp stick, and round burn marks on the thighs, made with a round tube through suction of hot coals one end until the burning feeling becomes unbearable, at which point the flesh is seared and will permanently scar.  Of course, another way is the language.  La Chica has a gradually growing vocabulary of Masai words – the most recent addition is the handy ‘maiyelo’ which means ‘I don’t know’!

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