Becoming a Senior Elder (Part II)

Senior elder ceremony
Mbekure, along with all the other men becoming senior elders, took a turn jumping in the circle.

In Tanzania in general and especially in Alailelai, where daily life is spread out on foot across miles, every car ride counts. Forget seat belts, capacity limits or anything even close to personal space—every body that can fit is squeezed in, plus a few extras for good measure.

So it was that we made our bumpy way to the ceremony. Mbekure, driver and sole man in the car, was surrounded by women decked out in their best. Judy shared a seat in the middle, and Kim and I (Jaime) squished into benches alongside the back. Against us, on us and under us the women were laughing and chatting excitedly.

We didn’t all speak the same tongue—in fact most of the women knew only Maa, not even Swahili—but we understood what we were sharing together and the meaning of an exchanged smile. Arms braced on any available surface, they broke out into a call and response song along the way, as their jewelry clinked and chimed with the rough road.

senior elder ceremony
Women were a sea of white and blue in Alchaniomelock.

Having been washed the previous day in soap and water and left to dry in the sun, the women’s headpieces, collars, armbands and bracelets were blindingly bright. Almost all white accented with the occasional red or blue bead and silver dangles, the ceremonial wear looked splendid against their dark skin and colorful shukas.

Along with their husbands and brothers, the women of this age set were making their way high up above Alchaniomelock for the day’s events, which would transition them from junior to senior elders.

senior elder ceremony
Behind the cover of a draped tent, Maasai men prepared the meat.

When we filed out of the car at boma where traditional festivities were happening, we saw many of Alcheniomelock’s residents standing in groups, sitting against mud huts, leaning on staffs and lining up for rites of passage.

Throughout the day there was a lot of singing, chanting and dancing. Women and men were at times separated and at times moving together. It was amazing to be up close, as part of the men’s’ circle, watching them jump and out-jump each other as individuals or in groups of two or three. Everyone looked happy and seemed immersed in this tradition and the meaning it carries.

Senior Elder ceremony
“You are really Maasai now,” Somiani told Kim, after she used a large knife to slice off chunks of roasted goat and cow and ate a fair share. Somiani brought a leg for us to share in the afternoon.

We had guides throughout the day as well—several AMSO workers who weren’t moving up this year and spoke English explained various practices.

Young men—called Morani—for example, traditionally served as hunters and protectors of their villagers. Now that wild predators have dwindled or been relocated, their role has shifted but customs remain the same.

Their top shuka must be tied, rather than thrown over their shoulders as older men do, so that they are always ready for action, if necessary.

senior elder ceremony
The morani stomped and danced in a line, crossing paths with the men moving from junior to senior elder.

Staffs for these males, who go through circumcision together as well, are shorter for traditional fending off of dangerous animals. The morani have long, intricately braided and arranged hairdos and are a bit wild themselves. It was special to see them having their own jumping competitions up close and speak with them during such an interesting phase of life.

senior elder ceremony
Jumping with others or alone is a common practice during traditional Maasai ceremonies.

The older men, meanwhile, sat against enclosure fencing drinking a local beer made from honey, and watching the goings-on.

Golden evening sun filtered into the Land Rover through swirls of dry dust during the ride home. The women talked happily with each other, presumably about the days’ events, while we three outsiders sat in peaceful, sleepy quiet, gratefully replaying all we had been fortunate enough to observe.

In addition to his own immediate and extended family, homestead and animals, Mbekure and all the others who had become senior elders would now take on new responsibilities and garner more respect.

Senior elder ceremony
Maasai in every village throughout the Ngorongoro Conservation Area held their own ceremonies during the past year.

It was clear that these people of Alchaniomelock, old and young, staying home or living afar, would continue to hold on to their culture and pass it—along with the beautiful hills and valleys making up the physical landscape—to generations below. Fifteen years from now will see a repeat of this ceremony taking place, hopefully among less dire circumstances and to more widespread acceptance.

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