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Among The Wives of A Maasai Chief

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Spending time with the wives of a Maasai chief helped me correct a single-sided perception

A Maasai woman holding a baby in a cloth in front of her body
Age doesn’t stop Maasai women looking after infants (own image)

We’ve all seen images of the Maasai, one of East Africa’s most distinct tribes. Of the tall, leaping warriors dressed in regal red robes who seem to touch the skies. Or of the Maasai women, tender and earnest, adorned with the most striking neck and ear ornaments. Images like these have shaped my idea of the Maasai for a long time. But during a recent visit to a traditional Maasai village in Tanzania, I gained a more profound understanding, particularly of the Maasai women, which challenged this one-dimensional perception.

When men are away, the chief’s wives take control

As we rode up on our motorcycles, a few Maasai men resting under a tree outside the village rose to greet us. After a brief chat, my request to talk to the tribe’s women was granted. The Maasai men stayed back while the eldest women— the chief’s wives, as it turned out a little later—rushed to welcome us. With great curiosity. Two of them took me by the hand and proudly escorted me through their scanty little village. A few dozen simple rectangular huts, chicken stables, and a large grail for the tribe’s cattle herds. The latter is sacred territory solely reserved for men and cattle.

a few straw huts surrounded by a thorny Fenne
There are still many traditional Maasai villages in Tanzania (own image)

A knee-high fence of thorny bushes retains the village to protect residents and livestock from wild animals at night.

There was no shade besides a few spindly trees and spots under overhanging roofs. The landscape was barren, the ground rocky. Not suitable for agriculture but for the Maasais’ taste buds. Because they are big meat eaters.

Polygamy is a status symbol

One of the older women invited me into her house. The fifth in the hierarchy of the chief’s five wives and the most vocal. It was pitch dark inside the windowless plain shack. We sat down on a bench that served as a bed — the only furniture I could make out in the dim light.

And while the Maasai lady kept holding my hand, we shared bits and pieces of our different worlds.

A Western women surrounded by Maasai women and children
Three of the clan chief’s wives were happy to show us the village (own image)

Polygamy is a matter of prestige among the Maasai, I learned. Because man’s wealth and position are not only determined by the number of cattle but also by the number of wives. As a rule of thumb, the more, the better.

The wives guard their privacy by living separately.

The women giggled when I told them that men are only allowed one wife in our culture.“Only one? How is that possible?” asked a younger woman leaning in the doorless opening.

A good question I struggled to answer.

Children are an integral part of a woman’s wealth

A crowd of anxious children surrounded us, cautiously touching my hands and pointing at my light-colored hair in disbelief. Like cattle and wives, the number of offspring says much about a woman’s wealth. In this community, boys typically assist with herding animals from an early age while girls run household chores inside the village and at home. Currently, this tribe counts around 120 heads and is still growing. I gazed beyond the village in search of a school. Somewhere there at the horizon, maybe an hour’s hike away, wife no three told me. Looking at the hordes of school-age children in the village, I wondered how many actually attend. But maybe, that day was a public holiday.

Women control some of the most essential needs

House construction is a women’s affair. Not without pride, wife number three directed me to the unfinished structure a while later that would soon be her new home. A simple framework made of branches and twigs, the gaps between them plastered with fresh cow dung.

Her new dwelling consists of a single room which she will have to herself and, of course, will serve as a meeting place for her husband whenever he comes by.

Two donkeys tied up in front of a straw hut
Donkeys are very useful for women while running some of the most laborous chores (own image)

I spotted a couple of little donkeys tied up across the yard. I was thrilled to learn that the women take charge of these stubborn little creatures. A tremendous relief because they use them to haul heavy loads, mainly water—a daily chore to a distant waterhole. Unthinkable in our convenience-trimmed world, where everything is always instantly available.

Sometimes, a faded T-shirt is all there is

To my surprise, none of the chief’s wives wore glamorous attire. Instead, they wore raggedy T-shirts over several layers of skirts. There was also no sign of their unusual jewelry, as I remembered from the stunning images.

Here and now, these women looked like women whose day-to-day life is calloused by hard work in a harsh environment.

A life that can be dismantled and erected elsewhere in no time if need be. A strictly patriarchally regulated existence in which women continue to play a subordinate role. Where thorny fences and ancient traditions mark their boundaries.

Underneath the simplicity lies the gem

But beyond all of this, I discovered something more. A group of older women who liked to laugh, hug, and share a moment. Who acknowledged our differences and were OK with it. Who reached out their hands and welcomed us like friends. Who offered us a roof over our heads for when we return.

 A man with Dreadlocks holding the hands with a Maasai woman
The hospitality extended by the Maasai chief’s wives was heart-warming (image by author)

Before we left, wife no five handed me a shimmering blue necklace with tiny metal coins— one Maasai wear on special occasions. “Come back soon with more sisters from your world,” she said while squeezing my hand for the last time.

Being among the wives of a Maasai chief offered only a tiny yet very authentic glimpse into a culture I know so little about. But it was a soul-warming, unrehearsed moment we all cherished. Because we used a common language, the language of our hearts.


Thank you for joining me on this special occasion and for your precious time. Much love from Tanzania —Kerstin Grab your free reader with motorcycling tips for Tanzania:

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