The sands of time and the Watatoga boogie

24 September 2012 | 8:52 - By Karen Ashford

A glittering black crescent of sand shines starkly against the golden grasses of the Serengeti plains.

We've made a short detour en route to visiting the region's traditional tribespeople to witness a strange natural phenomenon that Tanzania hopes will become more of a tourist attraction.

The so-called shifting sands are two isolated dunes that migrate with the wind;  giant fortune cookies of magnetised volcanic sands that originated from the distant Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, or "Mountain of God" as it is known to the Masai (Maasai).

The magnetism prevents the sand grains dispelling to the four winds and maintains the mysterious 100 metre long arc that creeps across the plain some 10 to 20 metres a year, depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Its rippled, wind cut ridge is occasionally wreathed in a flurry of dark grains as the dunes make their incessant journey. It was mesmerising, inexorable and very difficult to film! I was horrified that the wind, and visitors, had brought some unwelcome additions - bits of litter, plastic packaging crisped by the sun and lolly wrappers festooned the windward side of the dune. I spent a few minutes collecting it up before filming, unable to bear the desecration of something so astonishing. I learned that authorities are trying to discourage tourists from tramping up the dunes and breaking their surface structure. Such thoughtlessness is depressing.

As I conducted an interview on cultural tourism with the director of the Oldupai Gorge Museum, curiosity drew a cluster of Masai women from the nearby hills. Most of the Masai we'd seen to this point had been men, usually herding their stock. Just as we'd seen the young boys at Oldupai Gorge in their post-initiation paint, a similar practice was underway for the girls.

The Tanzanian Tourism Goodwill Ambassador to Australia, Dr Casta Tungaraza also heads an African Women's Council and is working in Australia on womanhood programs for African girls. She launched into a discussion about coming of age ceremonies, what girls are taught, and when. Her aim is to develop culturally appropriate education programs in Perth that will help prevent African girls being vulnerable to early pregnancy or drawn into prostitution.

The Masai women said it's uncommon for their girls to complete the transition to womanhood and begin child bearing until they're in their twenties.  However it turns out that a girl in this group was an exception. She told Dr Tungaraza that aged barely 14 she was the mother of a 6 month old baby. Dr Tungaraza thought the girl had misheard her as she looked impossibly young to be a mother, whereupon the child exposed a rounded breast and squeezed out some milk. The elder women of the tribe went on to explain that they had decided to take over the mothering of the baby, as the girl was too young for the responsibility and needed to be able to have her own childhood. It was a poignant but pragmatic conversation about an issue that all too often gets swept under the carpet.

Masai women
(Masai women with Dr Casta Tungaraza at the shifting sands. The young girl, second from right, is a new mum.)

From the Masai women we made our way to the Watatoga people. The Masai refer to the Watatoga as Mang'ati or "respected enemy", revealing something of the past fierce warfare that occurred over land and stock; a rivalry that continues to simmer between the tribes today. Women descended from the rear of a green land rover and adjusted their adornments - long beaded fringes were worked into untanned leather dresses that retained the original animal oils, neck rings glinted in the sun, beaten tin bells were tied below their knees and intricate headdresses highlighted their high cheekbones.

The men had ropes and more ropes of beads around their necks, some wearing what looked for all the world like Bonds singlets, others bare chested. The ensemble arranged itself to dance, a whistle and harmonicas recent modern additions to a time worn tradition. And what a dance it was. As the group swayed and jumped a change came over them. Clapping picked up pace and strength, chanting intensified, the girls moved oblivious to all around them, eyes closed, almost enraptured. Describing it brings tears to my eyes again. It was a profound privilege to witness.

Watatoga women
(Watatoga women dressing for the performance. Adornments are diverse - from traditional beads and seeds, to house keys and zippered pouches as seen here. One woman had a tea strainer necklace, and afro combs are popular pendants too.)

Watatoga men
(Watatoga men counting the beat.)

Watatoga girl
(Possibly my favourite photo of the trip so far - a Watatoga girl in the throes of the dance.)

I sought out the senior women to especially thank them, kneeling down in front of them with my hands folded over my chest and head bowed to show them my gratitude and appreciation. Then they requested that I join them dancing. Ohhh boy.  One of the younger girls took my hand and showed me where to stand, and moments later I was jumping on the spot. I broke into a sweat and wondered how on earth they could maintain their dancing for so long.

It was then I took a took a closer look at their technique - the trick is to minimise the knee bend and bounce on the balls of your feet, channelling the energy through the flex of your ankles. I adjusted accordingly and found it a much more efficient process, despite being encumbered by shoes. Right, now to try the head thrust. Imagine an emu bobbing its head forward when it walks, well that's kinda like what I was attempting while jumping up and down on the spot. It required quite a degree of skilled coordination, and although my rendering of it was less than perfect, it surely couldn't have been more ridiculous than Gangnam, okay?

Dancers group shot
(Your intrepid correspondent with the dancers - shortly after I too was bouncing … )

Karen Ashford does the Watatoga boogie:

 By this time we'd drawn a posse of Masai herders, keen to see what was going on. They hung back during the dancing, but afterwards when I was conducting an interview they came in to show us their three-part spears and polished clubs. I had almost completed the interview when there was the muffled trill of a phone, and from under his voluminous robes a Masai pulled out his mobile and began to chatter. Our next stop was a traditional Masai boma or village, where its chief, Francis, told me of the challenges in preserving traditions while embracing modernity. He's keen for his Masai to be well educated, but to maintain the social and cultural discipline of his people - a tricky balance. He's particularly perturbed that for all the Masai's fame and tourism pulling power, very few benefits from tourism flow to his community. His is a genuine village, not open to tourist visitors per se, but he's well aware that it's because tribes like his have remained true to tradition that cultural tourism is at all possible - and as a result he thinks his people deserve greater financial return. He's keen to know more about indigenous cultural tourism in Australia and whether any of its principles can be applied here. 


Our 10 minute interview stretched to 20, weaving from English to Swahili and back again as we discussed everything from the social impact of colonisation through to economic empowerment, native title and self determination. Land is a significant issue for the Masai, as over time they've been shifted and shunted by other interests, reducing their available grazing areas and squeezing their viability. Cattle are the mainstay of the Masai economy, and without the land to run them it's hard to see how the culture can survive. The tricky balance just keeps getting trickier - but just a few kilometres away an example of cooperative compromise has emerged.

Masai elder
(Masai elder Francis Ole Siapa [centre red check] to his left is one of his sons, to his right are wives and children)

Our next stop was a Masai cultural village. Unlike the traditional village we'd just visited, this boma had been established with the express purpose of showing tourists the Masai lifestyle. What made it so innovative is the people who inhabit it. Those Masai who are in dire poverty, who've lost their cattle, and a struggling to get by, are given a fresh start here. They are given cow-dung clad huts within a fortress-like stick fence that is the hallmark of the Masai boma.

For a fee tourists are able to spend time with the families and see their lifestyle at close quarters, from food preparation over small coal fires, to hide lined sleeping quarters with adjoining pens for goats and chickens. Outside is a central circular fence displaying Masai jewellery, artefacts and robes for sale. They're developing camp grounds, and hiring out donkeys to tourists doing walking safaris. It's hoped this initiative can help these Masai find their financial feet, enabling them to eventually rebuild their cattle herds and resume their productive role in the main tribe. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority's tourism officer Peter Mukutian says there are eight such cultural bomas in this area, each with around 70 poor people from nearby villages who stay in them for a year on average. He says the scheme seems to be working, and could even prove a role model for economically challenged indigenous peoples elsewhere, including Australia.
Resident with his child
(A resident of the cultural boma with his child. The narrow doorway to his dung plastered boma saw a regular stream of goats, indicating he's starting to make good.) 

By this time the gloaming is upon us and it's time to head back to Ngorongoro lodge. The roads here close at dusk and no-one can get in or out of the crater after 6pm as protection for people (against lions another predators) wildlife (against poachers) and landscapes (against illegal loggers). We are running late, but Peter's authority sees us clear of the last of the gates, waved through by two uniformed guards sporting large calibre rifles.

Protecting this place is a serious business indeed. Barely a kilometre down the road our driver grinds to a halt and says "simba". To our left on the grassy verge about 10 metres from our car is a small pride of lions. The fading light made photos difficult, but it was awesome nonetheless. It doesn't seem to matter how many lions one sees, they remain remarkable. Nevertheless I do know that I would not be comfortable on duty at a boom gate in the dark with simba on the prowl. Ahead tonight is a three hour drive to Arusha, ahead of tomorrow's adventure - visiting a tanzanite mine.

lions at gate
(The lions at the gate…. almost. Our guide says the guards and the lions are quite accustomed to each others' presence and here are never attacks.)

(Karen Ashford travelled to Tanzania at the invitation of the Tanzanian government)

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About this Blog

On assignment with SBS multimedia correspondent Karen Ashford.

Karen Ashford Adelaide-based SBS multimedia correspondent Karen Ashford files for Radio, TV and Online.