Tanzania: Dressing Up the Masai

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For centuries, the nomadic Masai tribesmen have loped like lions across their vast grazing plains near Mount Kilimanjaro, wearing nothing much more confining than a breechcloth of calico. Even in recent years, the Masai have continued to carry spears, smear their bodies with a red ocher pigment, hang weighty baubles in their pendulous ear lobes and quaff their favorite brew of clotted steer's blood, curdled milk and cow urine. Now Tanzanian President Ju lius Nyerere has decided that it is time for the Masai to pick up some civilized habits. In a policy designed to stamp out "ancient, unhealthy customs," he has ordered the 100,000 Masai to put on some clothes, abandon their tribal rituals and start doing their share toward reaching the goals he holds for Tanzania.

"Noble Savage." Nyerere has turned over the job of Westernizing the Masai to Aaron Weston Mkwang'ata, the commissioner of the territory in which most of them live. Mkwang'ata has instructed tribesmen to throw away their animal skins and skimpy loincloths and "dress in something better than a dirty sheet or a meager yard of cloth that exhibits your buttocks," has also warned them against allowing tourists to "take your naked pictures." He has backed up his crusade with penalties. In the past few weeks, about 250 Masai caught disobeying the new regulations have been locked up briefly in cells in the regional center, Arusha. Hundreds of young Masai have been drafted into a kind of national construction corps in which they must wear olive green fatigues, floppy jungle hats and heavy boots. If necessary, says Mkwang'ata, police are prepared to herd the Masai into mass baths, burn their ceremonial garb in public and shave off their ochered hair.

With Western clothes on, the Masai may lose their lucrative business of posing for camera-carrying tourists for a 1-shilling (14¢) fee; they adopt a menacing pose for 2 shillings. Nyerere, who himself usually wears a Chinese-style boiler suit, does not seem to care about the tourist revenues that he may lose. His policy reflects not only the prudish nationalism of his socialist state but a black backlash against foreigners who, Mkwang'ata claims, romanticize the Masai as "walking, talking specimens of the noble savage." However, as an English-language newspaper, the Tanzania Standard, points out, Nyerere's policy ignores one fact: "To dress lightly makes sense in the heat of the tropics."

Enlarged Wardrobes. Luckily for Nyerere, the government has an ally in the Masai chief, Edward Mbarnoti, who moves among the tribes' picture-postcard elders dressed in pants, white shirt and knitted pullover. Named "Great Speaker of the Masai" in 1959, Mbarnoti, who is in his 40s, has since urged his nomadic people to settle down and learn modern ways. The Masai seem resigned to ultimately becoming more Westernized. What will hurt them far more than having to enlarge their wardrobes is the government campaign to suppress their lion hunts and other deep cultural traditions. Last week the 50,000 Masai in neighboring Kenya—still photogenic in their loincloths—whooped it up in their gala ewunoto initiation rite for new tribal elders. Though it is the most important of the Masai ceremonies, their brothers in Tanzania are unlikely to celebrate it ever again.