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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Africa

The Zulu

Karyn Planett

Once Were Warriors

Zulu. The mere mention of this word conjures up a freeze of danger, a grip of terror, a worn-with-time photograph of muscled mighty warriors who could drop a man in his tracks with only his icy stare.

It begs the question, then, what makes Zulu such an attractive word for a whole host of things having little or nothing to do with its actual origins? Like “Zulu Time”, for example, which is the Department of the Navy’s designation for the precise time at the prime meridian. Or “Zulu Nation”, founded 40 years ago in the South Bronx, that subsequently became the birthplace of hip-hop. And what about that spiffy London restaurant named for the Zulu warrior king, “Shaka Zulu”?

So, for curiosity’s sake, let’s examine the origin of this exotic name… Zulu.


Originally, these people arrived in this part of the world as members of the centuries-long Bantu migration beginning in Sub-Equatorial Africa approximately 1000 BC. The Bantu were primarily farmers and herders. The populations they encountered during their inexorable move south were, on the other hand, hunter-gatherers and those tribes were pushed ahead of the migration ultimately into isolated areas considered unsuited for farming and grazing. Today, their descendants are the Pygmy and San people in places like Northern Namibia.

The Zulu clan eventually settled a small area in South Africa at the close of the 18th century. Their chief had a liaison with the daughter of a neighboring chief, and from that union came Shaka Zulu who was to become chief and one of the most feared warriors among the many tribes in South Africa.


Rejected as a bastard child, Shaka was predisposed toward aggressive behavior sharpened by a ruthless streak. He trained as a warrior in his mother’s clan and became adept at close combat, a rarity at that time. When his father died in 1816, Shaka became king of the Zulu clan, which had grown to 1500 people. His ascension was aided significantly by the death in combat of his half-brother.

The clan’s usual relationship with neighboring groups had amounted to skirmishes brought on by stealing each other’s livestock. These conflicts resulted mostly in taunting and spear hurling and rarely resulted in fatalities. But within ten years, Shaka had built a force of fifty thousand warriors by defeating, then incorporating smaller clans into his powerbase. He also developed the shorter assegai stabbing spear as well as a military formation called the “bull horn” that’s designed to surround then annihilate opponents. At its peak, Shaka’s Zulu tribe controlled most of the eastern coast of South Africa and his Zulu people had developed the warrior mindset that defines them to this day.

Shaka’s brutality led to his eventual demise at the hands of his other half-brothers in 1828. His prophetic dying words predicted white colonialists would eventually defeat the Zulu nation.

Blood River

And so it came to pass.

The Zulu’s first significant defeat came at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. The tribe had been harassing Dutch settlers, called Voortrekkers, for many years. These people had already been driven north from the Cape Colony by the British, into Zulu territory. After a particularly brutal series of raids that resulted in several small communities being overwhelmed and wiped out by Zulu armies, a group of Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius made a stand against 10,000 to 15,000 Zulu attackers at the Ncome River. Three thousand Zulu were killed. Only three Dutchmen were wounded. The Ncome River ran red and was then given the tragic name Blood River.

Anglo-Zulu War

By 1879, the Zulu Kingdom was being challenged by the expansion of the British presence in South Africa. Spurred on by the discovery of diamonds and other precious resources, the British were anxious to bring the tribes of South Africa under some degree of control. Identifying the Zulu as the most vexing opponent, the British sent a demand to the Zulu king that they knew he could not accept.

This rejection provided the pretext for war, so the British invaded with an inadequate force and were soundly defeated in the Battle of Isandlwana. Soon after, a smaller Zulu force attacked the British garrison at Rorke’s Drift but were driven off with heavy casualties. That battle is depicted in the 1964 film Zulu starring a handsome young Michael Caine.

The British retreated, reinforced their army, and reinvaded six months later. This time, the Zulu could not repel the attack and their independence was lost forever.


The Zulu Empire was divided into 13 smaller kingdoms each with its own king. Competition between kings kept the Zulu at each other’s throats for the next several decades. During apartheid the “KwaZulu” homeland was created as one of the Bantustans, created in the name of “consolidation. As a result all members of the Zulu tribe lost their South African citizenship. In 1994, KwaZulu was combined with the province of Natal and is known today as KwaZulu-Natal.

For the record, the Zulu tribe is still today the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Most of them live in what’s called the KwaZulu-Natal province, where Durban is located. They remain a people proud of their ancestry, their heritage, their history and will puff up when telling the Zulu tale.

Walvis Bay, Namibia

Karyn Planett

The _____est Place On Earth

Welcome to the second least densely populated sovereign nation on earth — 2.1 million people dribbled into 318,696 square miles. Mongolia has 2.7 million people in 603,909 square miles. You do the math (OK, OK … it’s 5.03 per square mile versus 6.6 per square mile). Which means you’d better get along with your Namibian neighbors if you want to have any friends.

The Oldest Desert On Earth

The rugged shoreline of Namibia’s Atlantic Coast is bordered by a long swath of blowing dunes that covers an immense portion of this country’s land. The Namib (meaning “place of no people”) Desert measures 800 miles in length, 60 miles in width, and runs the entire span of the country from Namibia’s northern frontier to her southern border with the Republic of South Africa.

This place of no people is, however, home to a curious collection of animals, insects, and birds that adapted to this harsh environment and actually survives despite the sometimes-brutal conditions.            With rainfall so infrequent and unpredictable, those living in the Namib Desert have learned to rely on the life-giving fog that spreads inland from the Atlantic every three days thanks to the cool waters of the Benguela Current that washes past Namibia.

The Thirstiest Creatures On Earth

An odd assortment of desert reptiles actually drinks the moisture they collect from their bodies. Others, such as the fat and furry golden mole, have a whitish coat that acts as a sun reflector; therefore little of the harsh heat is absorbed into his tiny body. Also strange is the darkling beetle, which resembles something we know as a stinkbug. This fellow routinely sticks his head in the sand and his bottom toward the sky. While in this unfortunate and unflattering position, the morning fog collects on his shiny black wing covers. Gravity then forces this dew to trickle downward, right into his thirsty little mouth. Clever little guy, this beetle. And the spotted brown male sandgrouse may be the cleverest of them all. He (or she as the case may be) soaks up fresh water in his unique belly feathers. Once these feathers are saturated, our soggy friend can fly up to 60 miles to his nest where the baby sandgrouse drink from his dripping feathers. To his offspring, he is rather like a flying water bottle.

The Driest City On Earth?

There are a few who might claim this one. Suffice to say Walvis Bay averages less than 10mm of rainfall per year. Some years it gets no rainfall at all. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Landscaping your yard can be a challenge. But all of this accounts for Walvis Bay’s proximity to the highest sand dunes in the world. Dune 7 (they number them here) is a favorite tourist destination and the area is home to the extreme sport of sandboarding. If you’re considering it, contemplate a thirty mile an hour fall onto a giant emery board.

Walvis Bay is the first deepwater harbor for vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way to Europe, and the only one for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. As the most desirable stretch of the southwest African coast, it had a political history and chronology somewhat different from the rest of Namibia.

In the late 19th century, the UK annexed the area around Walvis Bay and combined it with the Cape Colony in South Africa in order to head off German interest in the region. The Germans got control of it for a while anyway during World War I, but it was retaken by South African forces before the end of the war. South Africa was given administrative control of all Southwest Africa after the war until 1990 when Southwest Africa became Namibia, that is except for Walvis Bay which wasn’t transferred to Namibia until 1994.

Humans weren’t the only ones who found Walvis Bay to be a handy comfort station while traversing the Southern African coastline. Just offshore is Bird Island, a man-made guano collector first built in 1930 by a German businessman who was inspired by a pile of rocks that had become a popular breeding ground for sea birds. The original platform has been expanded from 16 square meters to 17,000 square meters and yields 650 tons of guano annually.

Nearby Swakopmund is a German-built town and “port” sited to counter the British base at Walvis Bay. The town houses a museum, an aquarium, and from there you can access close by dunes and several types of high-adventure activities along the beaches.

Takoradi, Ghana

Karyn Planett

One Half of Ghana’s Twin Cities

The other half is called Sekondi and together form Ghana’s fourth largest city, Sekondi-Takoradi. The official alliance came in 1946. Sekondi, the older twin, thrived due to a railroad built in 1903 that tied it to the interior where timber harvesting and mining flourished. Truth be told, probably few of us have actually visited Ghana before. Just know there’s a lot of history to review to understand why we’re here. So, quicker than we can say, ”Find some shade” we’ll get started.

In The Beginning

Man has lived within Ghana’s borders, now defined by Togo, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and the Gulf of Guinea, since 4,000 B.C., give or take a few pages on the calendar. Bands of people made their way here, arriving from the east and the north. Over time, powerful kings expanded their base down the banks of the Volta River to where it flows into the Gulf of Guinea, amassing wealth from the gold they discovered. In the 1500s, the Ashanti people solidified their stronghold, seized control over lucrative trade, and built the notable city Kumasi. Europeans took notice while sailing the African coastline on their voyages of discovery. Among them, Portuguese sailors followed by vessels flying the flags of Britain, France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. They all left their mark by erecting powerful forts before sailing away with gold, even slaves … terrified, torn from their families, fates unknown but feared. Their tragic stories are written in Ghana’s history books with that sad chapter ending in the 19th century.

Conflicts continued between the British and the Ashanti with the British consolidating their power over the Gold Coast, as it was known, after an important 1874 battle in Kumasi. Within a quarter century, the Gold Coast was a British crown colony. During WWII, British forces flew from Takoradi bound for Egypt and the Atlantic assisting convoys and searching for submarines.

Independence Comes to Ghana

The date, March 1957. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain its independence. The former political activist Kwame Nkrumah became the country’s first president. Despite many challenges, he focused on the future by spearheading projects like the Akosombo Dam. Nkrumah was stripped of his power during a 1966 coup. Difficult times prevailed with political instability looming. Ultimately, things stabilized to the point that Ghana was recognized as realizing the biggest economic growth rate in the 1980s. And, while Ghana still enjoys a solid economic base, compared to many African nations, her people struggle with sub-standard conditions and challenges, even for basic needs. For the record, today President John Evans Atta Mills leads this constitutional democracy and its nearly 25 million people whose 2010 GDP per capita was $1,600. All this, mind you, with 100 ethnic groups each speaking its unique tongue though English is the official language.

Ghana’s economic base is built on oil with significant reserves found in the Gulf of Guinea’s Jubilee Field in 2007. Hence, the term “Oil City” is bandied about when referring to this area. Many believe Ghana will become West Africa’s third largest oil producer.

Agriculture also plays a role, employing around 50% of the work force … in cocoa (Ghana is one of the world’s largest exporters), lumber, gold mining, even fishing. Takoradi Harbor, built in 1928, was the country’s first deep-sea port. 

Lake Volta, a body of water covering nearly half Ghana’s total landmass, was formed by the Akosombo Dam that was commissioned in 1966. In addition to generating electricity for much of the nation, the lake also serves as a viable transportation route where roads fall short. It also gives farmers reliable irrigation where once there was none. Fishing is simply an added bonus.

What To Do With Your Day

Beaching, eco-tourism, historical insight, none of the above? The latter seems unfair for there is much to see. The first, beachies, could be quite a challenge considering Busua is 30 kilometers west of Takoradi with modest accommodations, so maybe save beaching for another day.  But, consider this factoid – Takoradi is touted as the largest city closest to the Equator AND the Prime Meridian. Screams sunscreen even if you don’t go to the beach.

Eco-tourism? Ahah!  You’ve got Kakum National Forest, a rainforest with a canopy walkway 100 feet above ground. More modest sites include the Twin Cities Wetlands area, considered a welcomed respite in town, with its collection of birds. The Mona monkeys hang out at, you guessed it, Monkey Hill. And the Fijai Green Bank is home to silk cotton trees, important to this area.

History your cup of tea? A must is European Town where the Brits and Dutch settled. Here, you’ll find the Old Railway Station, Fort Orange (1670), the High Court and the Light House. Consider, also, a look at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Cathedral, from the early 20th century. Or, Elmina Castle, Portuguese from 1482, it’s here the slave dungeons are found. Cape Coast Castle is a must. Built in 1652 by the Swedes, it served as West Africa’s largest slave-trading center.

Back home, you’ll hear more about Ghana on the evening news with its oil revenues creating a place in the African history books. Then you can say, “I was there!”. And, so you are.

South African Tribes

Karyn Planett

Living in a Changing World

As the tribal people of South Africa greet the dawn of the new millennium, they witness a great and powerful change swirling all around them. Their leaders are guiding them toward a promising future, having closed the door to their dark past. And as these native people of South Africa meet the challenge of being full partners in their nation’s march forward, they are also encouraged to kindle the spirit of their forefathers. They are asked to always remember and gently nurture their tribal heritage for their leaders know that once this art and song, culture and identity are lost, they are lost forever.

Who Are The Zulu?

“Zulu.” The word alone evokes a sense of power. And, for many early settlers in the South African frontier, this power was so real that the mere whisper of the word “Zulu” sent shivers down these pioneers’ muscled spines.

The Zulu are a black South African people whose tribal homeland is Zululand. Their early history is open to speculation, for little was written about them prior to the early 1800s when white settlers first recorded their actions. When the first Europeans (Portuguese sailors in need of provisions) encountered these black natives of South Africa, the seamen described them as inhabiting productive lands and being organized into highly functional chiefdoms. Several of these sizable chiefdoms were actually a collection of smaller ones assembled into a larger coalition. A handful of these coalitions emerged as the most powerful, and often wielded their authority with a very heavy hand.

A barbarous Zulu chief named Shaka is acknowledged as the Zulu ruler who successfully created one massive tribal nation from a collection of many rival tribes. He annihilated enemy rulers, stole their livestock, and absorbed their people into his tribe. Feared far and wide, Shaka’s giant Zulu Empire grew to encompass most of Natal. He even successfully defeated several British forces before they subdued him in 1879.

Shaka’s notorious wrath scattered other tribal leaders and their fearful followers across the dry plains of South Africa. Among those who fled was Mzilikazi, a general who once served under Shaka.

The Ndebele Tribe

In 1823, Mzilikazi escaped from Shaka’s grasp and journeyed to the Transvaal region with a number of strong warriors. Together, they established their own power base in the Transvaal, the Ndebele* Empire, and survived there for some time. They were then driven north by the Zulu and by the Boers (also known as Afrikaners).

The Ndebele were later crushed by the British, following an 1896 uprising, and were forced to put down their weapons. They then literally turned their swords into plowshares and became farmers and herdsmen. Over time, many of these vanquished Ndebele people ended up in Zimbabwe, beyond the banks of the Limpopo River.

This, then, is a very brief history of two important South African tribes that were ultimately conquered, scattered, then assimilated into a white man’s world. Sadly, along the way, they lost much of their heritage. However, through their songs and stories, art and body adornment, remnants of their culture have survived. And survive they must.

Geometrics and Beadwork

Margaret Courtney-Clarke, in her book Ndebele, The Art of an African Tribe, wrote “The art of Africa is known as a casualty of colonial exploitation, surviving principally in the museums of other continents, never seen by the people who created it. What reappears among African artists today is regarded as a renaissance of a destroyed tradition.”

Efforts are underway by well-meaning people to keep alive South Africa’s tribal art, if only in a revived form. Many Ndebele women today still decorate the exterior plaster walls of their mud homes with typically intricate murals, as did the women before them. These paintings capture not only their impressions of their daily life, but also ancestral geometric designs that are remarkably similar to some Navajo weavings that are familiar to many of us.

These same women also adorn their bodies with huge beaded collars and armbands crafted from straw; copper neck, leg, and armbands; and beaded wedding aprons. Their shaved heads are topped with long beaded straps called milingakobe, which translates to mean “long tears.” Colorful, beaded gala blankets are also draped ceremoniously over their shoulders.

The Zulu women cap their heads with traditional flaring red wigs. Their necks are embellished with multiple strands of large, brightly-colored beads. And, unlike the Masai of Kenya, their ears are not usually pierced or adorned.

Traditions, such as wet-clay murals and beaded garments, are customs that are passed from African mothers to their daughters and represent important stages and events experienced by the families. And these customs will survive only if the daughters remain in the villages. Since many now take jobs in the city following their schooling, they are unable to actively take part in these cultural activities. In addition, they are often eager to eschew their tribal ways and take on the trappings of the modern world. Nevertheless, with great encouragement from South Africa’s teachers and tribal leaders, hopefully these ancient customs and ancestral art forms will live on for the enjoyment of the generations that follow.

Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Karyn Planett

Five hundred miles due east of Cape Town, perched on the shores of Algoa Bay where it’s washed by the tepid Indian Ocean, is a city locals call “PE” … short for Port Elizabeth.  It’s one of the spots along South Africa’s Garden Route with a long history and even longer sandy beaches.  Many of the country’s vacationers spend their holidays in tidy bungalows along Humewood Beach, a beach of such renown it’s earned the coveted designation of Blue Flag status.  And, occasionally, the flags do go flying for PE is also referred to as the “windy city.”  That’s perfect for sailors, kiteboarders, and surfers who consider this the center of the universe, as far as their sport is concerned.  So, too, the game fishermen, shark divers, and wreck divers who ply these bountiful seas.

So, hang onto your hat and savor all Port Elizabeth has to offer.

What’s Behind The Name?

A gentleman named Rufane Donkin was governor little more than 100 years ago and honored his wife Elizabeth by naming the city after her, the city he founded.  The Governor and the city’s namesake would be quite proud today for PE is eco-friendly, boasts a number of graceful buildings, offers a vibrant cultural scene, and is home to a host of tempting eateries.  There’s even something called the Donkin Reserve with miles of trails and a pair of distinctive structures – a lighthouse and a pyramid.  

Market Square, surrounded by many handsome historic structures, is a good starting point for a walk-about.  City Hall, dating back to 1862, is identified by its unique clock tower.  A tragic fire in 1977 caused substantial damage to the building but a major restoration program has returned it to its former glory.  Nearby is something called the Diaz Cross, dedicated to the first European who came ashore in Algoa Bay in 1488.  Bartholomew Diaz was that Dutch explore who was sailing east on a voyage of discovery.  He came ashore at an area known as Kwaaihoek.

Another discoverer given a nod here by town fathers is Prester John, a Portuguese explorer who also called in the area while sailing past.  Dating back to 1903 is the Queen Victoria statue.  Further downhill, quite near the access point to the waterfront, is the Campanile with its impressive carillon of 23 bells.  Built in 1923 to commemorate the first British settlers who set up camp here in 1820, the bell tower stands 171 feet high. 

St. George’s Cricket Ground is the scene of some hotly contested matches, lawn bowling, Prince Alfred’s Guard Memorial, and the 1882 Victorian Pearson Conservatory.  So, too, the Horse Memorial dedicated to the thousands of horses and mules that suffered or perished in battle during the Anglo-Boer War, 1899 to 1902.  Here, a soldier is depicted kneeling before his horse, pail in hand, giving his trusty mount a welcomed drink of cold water.  Fort Frederick, the powerful stone structure built in 1799 to defend the mouth of the Baakens River, is a reminder of the city’s turbulent past.  It’s named for Frederick, the Duke of York.

And for museum buffs, there’s the former King George VI Art Gallery, now known as the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, where one could while away the afternoon taking in its displays of Oriental miniatures and fine examples of British art. 

Beyond The Beach

Africa is nothing if not for the game parks where mighty elephants follow ancient trails and lions wait out the midday heat under a shady shade tree.  Addo Elephant National Park is just 50 miles from PE and dedicated to the preservation of the Cape buffalo and the Eastern Cape elephant.  Found in the Sunday’s River Valley, the park dates back to 1931 when efforts were put into place to rescue the elephant population that had dwindled to a mere handful.  Today, it’s home to some 450 Addo elephants that are identified by their reddish color and small stature compared to other species of African elephants.  With luck, they’ll be on parade today.  And, though the Park is home to all Africa’s “Big Five”, the Cape buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino, sightings of all these members of Mother Nature’s elite are rare.  

This is not the case with the specimen on view at Bayworld’s Oceanarium.  Though schedules change and should be verified before setting out, it’s possible to see dolphin and seal presentations, even sea horses, eels and ragged tooth sharks.

If time permits, sample a bit of the sea’s tasty bounty – fresh oysters, crayfish, prawns, mussels, or calamari.  A fine South African wine might do nicely, as well.  Enjoy! 

Maputo, Mozambique

Karyn Planett

“South Africans and Southern Rhodesians troop to Mozambique on holiday. ‘Of course, it wouldn’t seem much to you,’ they often said, ‘but for us it seems marvelously continental.’ They used the word ‘continental’ in just the same way as the English do, meaning Latin, warm, spicy, relaxed and erotic. Laurenco Marques is the only town I have been to in Africa that really seems like Europe.”

           Richard West, The White Tribes of Africa, 1965.

Well, how could the former Laurenco Marques, now Maputo, not have the veneer, the soul, the facade of Europe coursing through its veins? It was, after all, the Portuguese who planted their flag here while Vasco da Gama sailed past in 1498. His country colonized the region with an eye toward the promise of gold. It remained a slave-trading center until the mid-1800s. For the record, the name Laurenco Marques was given at its founding in the late 18th Century for a Portuguese trader who was believed to be the first European to explore this area in 1544.

Today’s population reflects the indigenous peoples who called this nation home long before the Europeans. They represent 99% of the population and hail from 16 major ethnic groups among them the Makua, Makonde, Sena, Chowke, Manyika and Shangaan. In fact, the name Maputo is said to reflect the importance of a fiery tribal leader named Maputa who once ruled over this area. The Bantu and Portuguese cultures form an alliance that dominates the spirit of the country with a taste of Arab, Chinese and East Indian, as well. You’ll hear a cacophony of their dialects especially in the marketplaces, however Portuguese is the official language. Their faiths include Animism, Roman Catholic and Muslim.

Maputo serves as the nation’s capital, standing with its face toward the Indian Ocean. As Mozambique’s only natural harbor, measuring 20 by 50 miles, it was the logical terminus for rail shipments coming from and going to the interior bringing commodities like sisal, copra, hardwood, coal, cotton and sugar. The rail traffic that began in 1895 between the gold fields, Pretoria, and Maputo caused the city’s population to swell. Prior to the railway, this treacherous journey was made by oxcart.

A Darker Day Loomed

The people of Mozambique became locked in a nasty war with Portuguese colonial forces finally culminating in the nation’s independence in 1975. The Portuguese pulled out in massive numbers triggering a brain drain that turned the nation upside down. A Marxist faction, Frelimo, took the reins of power challenged by a South African-backed guerilla movement, Renamo. The resulting civil war and a disastrous famine were responsible for the deaths of close to one million people. A statue of Frelimo’s founder, Eduardo Mondlane, stands in a street bearing his name. His remains, along with Machel and other national heroes, are respectfully enshrined in the Praca dos Herois. The adjacent mural depicts the nation’s centuries-long struggles.

With their infrastructure in turmoil, the nation languished. Today, however, is a new day with tourism on the rise, agriculture making a comeback, and manufacturing of everything from shoes to furniture providing much-needed jobs.

Here’s a bit of history trivia. Sir Winston Churchill fled to Laurenco Marques following his capture by the Boer forces while serving as a British journalist covering the Boer War. He took refuge in Maputo’s British High Commission.

Boulevards and Bougainvillea

Despite the tragic human tale this nation has endured, the city of Maputo was spared damage throughout both the colonial and civil wars as all parties respected it as neutral ground. Some architectural gems have survived to remind everyone of earlier times. Determined efforts are in place to restore Maputo to this former splendor. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Polana Hotel. Once the playground for society swells and dedicated wanna-be’s, today it features fine harbor views, a tea garden, and a flourish of days gone by. The architect was Sir Herbert Baker, the same South African who designed Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel. It was Frenchman Gustav Eiffel (of “Tower” fame) who designed the Central Railway Station on Praca dos Travalhadores, a site worthy of a detour.

Maputo is laid out in a grid pattern with broad boulevards, mature leafy trees including jacarandas, and some groomed parks. An important landmark is Fort of Nossa Senhora da Conceiao (Our Lady Of Conception). So, too, the Praca de Independencia, the city’s centerpiece. This square is bordered by the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the French-Mozambican Cultural Center, and a statue of Samora Machel, the nation’s first president. Nearby are the Botanical Gardens, the Jardim Tunduru. Though small, they still offer a retreat from the midday sun. Fortaleza, the former Portuguese fort, houses the remains of a Gaza ruler whose attempts to defeat the Portuguese failed.

Helping The Economy

Mozambique’s people continue to struggle. A souvenir or two of your visit will help them on their path to economic recovery. Consider traditional wax print and woven fabrics, woodcarvings and Batik cloth. Enjoy homegrown cashews and pressed sugarcane juice while you wander and celebrate your visit to the African outpost of Maputo.

Madagascar's Menagerie

Karyn Planett

The Wild and The Wooly

They creep, they crawl, they slime and slither. Screech and shriek, whine and whimper. Slide and glide, skip and flip. Madagascar is a wildlife lover’s paradise rich with a cast of furry characters worthy of a Hollywood film.

Well, in some ways, Madagascar was already the animals’ paradise. They live in a world somewhat untouched by the forces beyond their island borders. Madagascar’s isolation from the outside world has allowed Mother Nature to script a drama like nowhere else on earth. By the way, Madagascar is approximately the same size as Texas. And specialists speculate that there could be in excess of 200,000 animal species in Madagascar today. Of those little buggers, approximately eight out of ten live nowhere else on the planet, except in zoos.

If that isn’t a staggering-enough fact, just know that scientists believe the dinosaur fossils found here date back 230 million years and are, they claim, the very oldest that have been discovered. Another Madagascar wildlife shocker is that the “world’s largest flightless bird”, a whopper known as the elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus), stood nearly twice as tall as a grown man. It died out not so very long ago, in scientific terms, and their old eggs are occasionally still found in the country’s southern regions.

The Star Of The Show

Front and center, hands down, the Madagascar lemur is the star of the show. And, why not? It’s got an adorable face and Keane-size eyes, giving it a perpetually surprised “Holy Cow!” kind of look. Plus a really long ringed tail and a nature that allows it to be domesticated to varying degrees. Before man arrived to show everyone who was king of the jungle, giant lemurs the size of gorillas also roamed here. Man, however, managed to wipe them out within a short period of time along with a whole host of other species. Today, smarter minds prevail, prompted not only by a greater understanding of the ecosystems and wildlife preservation but also by the financial windfall of eco-tourism.

So, here are a few interesting facts about lemurs. These primates, well many of them anyway, live in small family groups with the females at the top of the pecking order. This is inconsistent with other primate groups but perhaps “glass ceiling” isn’t part of their lexicon. As well, many have pronounced noses increasing an acute sense of smell that they use for a whole host of reasons.

Of the approximately 100 species of lemurs living in Madagascar, some measure so small they could nap in your espresso cup. They’re called the Madam Berthe mouse lemurs. The largest non-extinct version, the Indri, can weigh up to 15 pounds. His local name, “babakoto”, means “little father.” The Indri’s powerful legs allow them to leap tall trees with a single bound plus he sings like a whale. The sifaka is the one you’ve seen on TV literally dancing across the sand in little sideways skips. Other curious behaviors include that of the ring-tailed lemur who is a sun-lover. He sits bolt upright, legs akimbo, hands of his skinny knees looking much like a yoga student holding his “sunworship” pose. Then you’ve got your wooly lemurs, your fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, grey gentle lemurs, bamboo lemurs, brown lemurs, ruffled lemurs, weasel lemurs, mongoose lemurs, dwarf lemurs and some little hairballs known as aye-ayes. They’re the ones with the bright orange eyes.

Mother Nature Didn’t Stop There

Undaunted by the task at hand, MN also went about creating curious-looking baobab trees, even bats and birds in a rainbow of colors. Then there are the reptiles and frogs, and that’s a strange-looking lot it must be said. Chameleons are those high-viz colored lizards that zap some hapless insect with their lightening-fast tongues. Depending on the chameleon’s size, and not counting his tail, some of these lizards have tongues up to twice their body length … the better to snag their prey with. Plus, their intended main course never stands a chance because they probably thought their predator was a twig or leaf or something else because they are camouflaged to the nines. By the way, Madagascar’s Brookesia Peyriersia, a weensy wee “pygmy” chameleon, is among the world’s smallest reptiles. It can actually sit comfortably on the tip of your finger.

Then you’ve got your uroplatus, the leaf-tailed geckos that look just like … leaves, hence the name. They’re really hard to spot, even for the experts who actually know where to search. And Madagascar is home to a whole host of frogs of every shape, size, and color.

Well, there are so many more bizarre little creatures that lurk in the deep dark of Madagascar’s wilds. Thankfully, the world’s eco-leaders have shined their conservation spotlight on this bio-heaven and have worked magic raising awareness, raising funds, and creating protected habitats for this parade of the animal kingdom’s most unique members.

Luanda, Angola

Karyn Planett

Now There’s a Surprise

Admit it.  The last time you thought about Angola, you were wondering what possible interest Cuba had in their civil war.  Some may still be wondering.  But somehow, since those days of the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002), Luanda has become the world’s most expensive city!  How did THAT happen?


Portugal played only a peripheral role but since they were the first European colonizers, let’s start there.  “Colonizers” is even a bit of an overstatement as the first Portuguese to arrive in the 1500s were content to establish a few coastal outposts used to transit slaves to their vastly more important colonies in Brazil.  These unlucky souls were rounded up in the interior by cooperating African tribes, then traded to the Portuguese on the coast in exchange for western manufactured goods.  Brazilian independence in 1822 abolished slavery in 1836 and ended the slave trade from Angola.

The Portuguese didn’t venture into the interior significantly until the late 1800s in search of other resources to replace the slave trade.  Portuguese companies led the development of peanut and palm oil, timber, ivory, cotton, and eventually diamonds, minerals and petroleum for export.  As the various tribal groups in Angola became more aware of the wealth being plundered from under their feet, a number of competing armed political groups began agitating for inclusion.  Portugal’s superior military and technological prowess kept these groups at bay for about a century, but in 1974, a sudden change in Portugal’s government took everyone by surprise.

Independence And Civil War

The Carnation Revolution began as a military coup to overthrow            the authoritarian dictatorship known as Estado Novo that had ruled Portugal since the 1930s.  The coup was led by the young officers of the Portuguese military who had been fighting the country’s unpopular colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe, and East Timor.  The coup found surprising popular support and the result was a democratic government that immediately withdrew Portuguese armed forces from all their colonies.

This brought a swift end to the Angolan War of Independence that had raged since 1961, but left the three major nationalist movements unprepared to govern.  Their attempts to form a coalition inevitably broke into an armed struggle for control of the new country, which wore on with few breaks until 2002.  The conflict, coming in the midst of the Cold War, eventually drew all the world’s superpowers into what would have appeared to be a less than global conflict.


Though the competing belligerents had united in their desire to end colonial occupation, their politics were mutually exclusive.  One billed itself as “Marxist-Leninist”, the other “anti-communist”.  As such, the Angolan Civil War was seen as another skirmish on the global battlefield of the Cold War.  The United States and Russian, via surrogates such as Zaire and South Africa, became deeply involved in the outcome while maintaining “plausible deniability” by operating more or less covertly.

Cuba’s involvement was originally believed to be as a stand-in for Russia.  In later years, however, it was revealed that Che Guevara had visited the leader of the Marxist-Leninist faction as early as 1963, and Cuban forces in Algiers trained some of his guerilla fighters.

Fidel Castro considered it his responsibility as an “internationalist” to help out like-minded leaders in other parts of the world even though intervention in Angola held no strategic interest for Cuba.  In fact, Castro became a long-distance military commander, monitoring battlefield events and controlling the movements of his forces from Havana.  Cuba’s presence in the fight ultimately proved decisive and Angola today is ruled by a decidedly socialist government.

The World’s Most Expensive City

One of the unfortunate outcomes of the protracted civil war was the physical destruction of the country.  When the war ended in 2002, there was virtually no infrastructure left undamaged.  But Angola is a country with many valuable resources and the revenue from oil and diamonds has afforded an aggressive rebuilding process.  The upper town, cidade alta, features glittery new high rises, government buildings and shopping centers.  Upscale housing and western amenities, however, are still in short supply and brutally expensive, resulting in the sky-high expat cost of living that has earned the city it’s “most expensive” designation.

Many of the historic buildings and areas have been and are being restored.  Among them San Miguel Fort, the church of Dos Remedios, and Palacio de Ferro (built by Gustave Eiffel of tower fame).  The Palacio has a past shrouded in mystery as no record of it exists.  The consensus seems to be that it was built in France for shipment to Madagascar but the ship was intercepted by pirates and set adrift.  Rulers of the Portuguese colony then claimed the ship and its contents and reassembled the building in Luanda.

To their credit, the current government is not trying to hide the capital’s past and have established the National Museum of Slavery which, in a stroke of irony, sits on property formerly owned by one of the colony’s biggest slave traders, Alvaro de Carvalho Matoso. 

Finally, a daytime stroll on the promenade along Marginal Bay will offer time to reflect on the turbulent past thrust upon this city, this country, and much of West Africa.

Lome, Togo

Karyn Planett

Long and Lean

A mere sliver of land stretching from the Gulf of Benin 370 miles inland and only 60 miles wide at the most, Togo is a long arm of opportunity thrust into Africa’s interior.  And, as such, it has served as a conduit for a flood of exotic “goods” for the outside world, even slaves. 

You’re here.  Now hear that story … and more.  Then take to heart Graham Greene’s comments from his 1936 piece Journey without Maps.  “It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland.”  

Agree or disagree.  Nonetheless, today you’ve chosen West Africa in preference to Switzerland with the most conscious of minds.  And, why not?  This corner of the world is off the beaten tourist path, brimming with history, and something all travelers should see. Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin rim this country of 6.7 million people.  Their story follows

A Lesson in History First

The early history relating to this area highlights alliances with several empires, among them the Akan-Ashanti and the Benin.  Over time, numerous tribal groups migrated into the region choosing to settle along the relatively cool shores of the Gulf of Guinea rather than in the steamier interior. 

These tribes included the Ewé (pronounced Ev’-he, meaning “lake”) who probably came from the Niger River Valley, and the Guin and Mina who migrated here from the west. 

During the 1500s, the brutal slave trade became a lucrative way of life for many of these people, especially those from the Mina tribe.  It was they who developed powerful pacts with slave traders from Europe who were involved in shipping human cargo to Brazil.  When some of these slaves earned their freedom, they returned to this area and became slavers themselves.  Agbodrafo is the former center for the slave trade.  There is an opportunity to visit slave dungeons to experience this chapter personally. 

A Dark Door Closes, A New One Opens

Thankfully, the inhumane practice of slave trading came to a halt in the mid-1800s.  Northern trading partners in Europe became more interested in crops such as coffee and cotton, cacao and coconut oil.  (Today, phosphates are the largest industry and export.) The French and the British vied for control of the area though it was the Germans who convinced King Mlapa of Togoville to give Germany control over Togoland. 

The local people, known as Togolese, resented Germany’s intrusion into their lives.  They courted the British during the First World War and, along with the French, forced Germany’s surrender.  Historians note that this victory is recognized as the Allies’ first in this war. 

Following the war, France and Britain shared this tiny nation, which was divided into two segments.  The divided Togolese were never too happy with this arrangement and sought to resolve it after World War II.  In 1960, French Togoland gained its independence.  Three years later, Togo suffered from the results of a military coup – Africa’s first.  Others, as you know, followed across this continent. 

A man named Eyadéma emerged as Togo’s leader on April 16, 1967 when he was elected president.  He has remained in power for more than three decades.  In fact, in 1998, President General Gnassingbe Eyadéma was once again re-elected to a new five-year term.  President Faure Gnassingbe, who is Eyadema’s son, has served as Togo’s president since 2005.  He was educated in Paris and the US.    

Togo Is So Different From Switzerland

Lomé is at sea level not high in the Alps.  Its air is heavy with humidity and tropical heat.  People move about at an easy pace, having adapted to their climate long ago.  Having said that, you should do the same as you explore this city, the nation’s capital and home to approximately 20% of the country’s population.  Note that Lome actually drapes across the border with neighboring Ghana. 

The National Museum offers a rich but modest look at the Togolese people and their lifestyle.  Be sure to look for the “thunder stones” and cowrie shells that once were a form of legal currency.  Examples of traditional jewelry, dolls, musical instruments, weapons and pottery are on view.  (A more contemporary scene plays out in Independence Square, built to honor Togo’s break from French rule in 1960.)  But stones and shells won’t get you too far at the Grand Marché or the Marché de Féticheurs where locals go to buy their favorite foods and fetishes.  At the first market locals offer fabric for sale, sold by the pagne (a measurement of approximately six feet).  Both markets are often crowded and not for those who aren’t a bit adventurous.  If you do go to the latter, keep an eye out for fertility staffs and grisgris charms, which locals drape around their necks to ward off evil spirits.  The village of Glidji is the spiritual center of the Guen people.

And remember, the best thing to prevent wilting from the midday heat is a chilled soft drink on the veranda of one of the city’s hotels.  Though modest on an international scale, the hotels are adequate and the staff eager to serve.  While there, you might formulate your thoughts comparing and contrasting this type of an adventure with a trip to the Alps.  Both yield great rewards.  Each is worthy of a traveler’s inspection.  It’s a topic to ponder.

African Prose

Karyn Planett

The Letters of the Land

From the crusted riverbeds and the vast savannalands, to the darkened jungles and the moist highlands, the essence of Africa has been captured on the pages of many fine writers. By a flickering candlelight, the night sounds all around them, these early adventurers scratched their impressions in leather-bound journals while they rested, weary from the day’s heat. You see, Africa has long been an inspiration to all who witnessed its theater. Collectively, the works of these inspired writers could fill the smoking room of Nairobi’s celebrated Muthaiga Club.

Why not retrieve a dusty book from one of your library’s top shelves, get comfortable, then drift off into the drama that is Africa.

Isak Dineson

Who among us does not remember that terribly romantic scene from the film “Out Of Africa” when Robert Redford waltzed in the drawing room with Meryl Streep to the gentle strains of a hand-cranked Victrola? His character, Denys Finch-Hatton, was about to again take leave of his lover Baroness Karen Blixen who, in real life, wrote under the pen name of Isak Dineson. Finch-Hatton was truly a Kenyan bush pilot who died in a fiery plane crash. The Baroness was actually the Dane who authored this tender tale.

Karen Blixen had come to Kenya to live on a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Nairobi. She grew to love those around her and fought against all odds to see that the plantation survived. But survive, it did not. And Blixen returned to Denmark to live out her life until her death in 1962. Her 1937 account of these years in Africa, “Out Of Africa,” is one of the most impassioned narratives of that era. So too is her work “Letters from Africa.”

Beryl Markham

At the tender age of four, Beryl journeyed from England to East Africa with her adventurous father who was bent on staking his claim for the future. Growing up on a coffee plantation proved a glorious adventure for Beryl as she ran naked with the children of the Masai and the Kikuyu workers, learning their languages and customs.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Ms. Markham became a horse trainer and a jockey. Next, she took to the skies as a bush pilot like her friend, Denys Finch-Hatton. With lofty thermals under her wings, the hot wind blowing into the open Avro Avian cockpit, Markham hopped from one rattly airstrip to another, carrying mail and medicine, hunters and heads of state. All the while, images burned their way into her memory, later to reappear on the pages of her autobiography “West With The Night” and in “The Splendid Outcast.”

Of Markham’s book, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together. But (she) can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”

Beryl Markham became the first person to single-handedly pilot a plane across the Atlantic from east to west, where she miraculously crash-landed onto the soft soil of Nova Scotia 21-and-a-half hours after take-off. The year was 1936. Thankfully, she had previously declined her friend Finch-Hatton’s invitation to join him on his fatal flight to Voi, a Kenyan game preserve.

And Speaking of Hemingway

This man’s man loved Africa and all its adventures. He wrote of this passion in his popular short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” where he vividly describes ‘the hunt’, and in his 1935 work “Green Hills Of Africa.”

Other labors of love by known and lesser-known authors include Ellspeth Huxley’s respected “The Flame Trees of Thika”, an account of her childhood on a Kenyan farm at the turn of the century. Popular, too, is “The Kenya Pioneers” by Errol Trzebinski, which details early settler life here. John Hylan Heminway’s book “The Imminent Rains” records the sagas of many of Africa’s last pioneers.

Peter Matthiessen has written about Africa for decades. Two of his most impressive literary accomplishments include his 1972 work, “The Tree Where Man Was Born” and “African Silences”, which he wrote not long ago. The latter chronicles the vanishing worlds of Africa, and those that are replacing them.

So, while you (or I) may never enjoy the pleasure of waltzing with Robert Redford as oil lamps cast shadows across the breezy room, you can curl up with a great book and slip into the creative minds of many talented authors. Through their gifted eyes you can view Africa as they once did.

São Tome and Principe

Karyn Planett

Where Bonbons Begin, More Or Less

“Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”--Forrest Gump’s Mama. 

And you never know how far you’ll travel to discover the story of chocolate because you’ve come a long, long way here to the country of São Tome and Principe.  Look on any map.  It’s not exactly easy to find.  And, Bom Bom Island’s even harder!

Did You Find It?

First, we need clarity.  The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is just that.  This country features two major islands (São Tome and Principe, ahem) found 87 miles apart plus a few other rock outcroppings.  It’s the second smallest nation in Africa and home to 170,000 people, only 7,000 of whom live on Principe.  Principe itself is only 19 miles by 4 miles.  And, Bom Bom Island Resort is an even weensier little islet connected to Principe’s mainland by a wooden walkway.  For further clarification Bom Bom Island Resort, where you’re going, can be found at one degree thirty-seven minutes north latitude and seven degrees twenty-seven minutes east longitude.  First, find the equator.  Then track these coordinates.  Eh, voilà.  Yes, that’s the one 80 miles out into the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Gabon.  (Rest assured your Captain knows where it is.)

Bom Bom Island measures less than one kilometer in diameter.  As a single island in the small nation of São Tome and Príncipe, it takes almost more time to say the name of the country than to walk around this entire island. 

But, you’re here.  And you have three choices of what to do with your day.  Discover its important Portuguese history, learn about the cocoa trade, or do absolutely nothing in the shade of a breezy island palm.

Portugal Takes An Interest

Portuguese navigators first called in neighboring São Tome (St. Thomas Island) in approximately 1470.  About this time, their sailors were cruising up and down the West African shores searching for suitable trading posts to help them expand their empire.  Pedro Escobar and Joao de Santarem are credited with the discovery of the islands.  Early contact with local tribal chiefs involved the exchange of ivory and gold. 

Within 20 years the Portuguese had constructed an impressive fort in nearby Ghana, which they factored into their scheme for developing lucrative trade routes between Europe, Africa, and the Far East.  For the record, this trade never quite panned out exactly as they had planned.

The earliest successful settlement on Principe was in 1500, though conditions were far from idyllic.  In fact, not everyone settled here voluntarily including Portuguese Jews.  Two thousand Jewish children from 2-10 years old were sent to these islands in 1496 by Portugal’s King Manuel.  Their families had been driven from Spain when they refused to convert to Catholicism three years earlier.  They also refused to pay taxes levied on them to finance the colony.  Only 600 children survived the first year.

Slaving flourished, as did sugar cane cultivation because the volcanic soil was perfect for this crop.  The entire process, however, was really labor intensive hence the need to import slaves from the mainland.  The two islands together were at one time the most productive cane exporters in Africa.  But sugarcane production dwindled over time.

Thankfully the climate here was ideal for growing other crops such as coffee, copra, and cacao beans.  In fact, São Tome was referred to as the “Chocolate Island” at one time.  In 1908, São Tome was recognized as the largest producer of cacao in the world.  Even today, cacao represents 95% of the islands’ exports.

The islands also served as a trans-shipment point for slaves being sent to the New World.  Slaving was officially abolished in 1876 but abuses continued.  Portuguese coffee plantations, known as rocas were the scenes of virtual slavery long after the official practice had ended.

Independence came to all islanders when they formally severed relations with Portugal July 12th, 1975.

Who Doesn’t Like Chocolate?

The cacao plant produces a purplish cacao bean that is essential for cocoa and chocolate production and, therefore, essential for our survival and happiness, as well. 

Mother Nature has thankfully blessed these islands with enough rainfall to nurture these plants.  In fact, the average annual rainfall is close to 100 inches while nearly 400 inches of rain have fallen in one year in certain areas. 

A mature cacao pod holds 50 or more seeds and can weigh several pounds.  They were traditionally harvested daily then dried by spreading them about in the relentless African sun.  These beans were then bagged and shipped off to Europe where master chefs added their magic to sate the Europeans’ insatiable desire for bon bons, bickies and beautiful gateaux au chocolat. 

Meanwhile, Under A Palm Tree

Well, all this is simply too much to ponder, really.  Why not just pause to reflect upon the journey you’ve taken?  Perhaps mail postcards to friends back home, challenging them to find today’s island get-away in their leather-bound atlases.  Or, spend the afternoon lost in the writings of Alda de Espirito Santo.  She is remembered for her poetry as well as for serving as the first female President of the National Assembly of São Tome and Principe. 

The Namib Desert

Karyn Planett

Dunes and Buggies, Birds and Plants

The rugged shoreline of Namibia’s Atlantic Coast is bordered by a long swath of blowing dunes that covers an immense portion of this country’s land.  The Namib (meaning “place of no people”) Desert measures 800 miles in length, 60 miles in width, and runs the entire span of the country from Namibia’s northern frontier to her southern border with the Republic of South Africa.

Who Survives in this Desert Land?

Well, a curious collection of animals, insects, birds and hearty people has adapted to this harsh environment and actually survives despite the sometimes-brutal conditions.  As the terrain consists of not only miles of parched sand dunes but gravel plains as well, all living things welcome whatever moisture they can get.  Remember that no African country south of the Sahara Desert receives less rainfall than Namibia.

With rainfall so infrequent and unpredictable, those living in the Namib Desert have learned to rely on the life-giving humidity that shrouds their landscape.  Approximately every three days or so, a moisture-rich fog spreads inland from the Atlantic and drapes a mantle of dew across the dunes.  Scientists explain that this fog is linked to the cool waters of the Benguela Current that washes past Namibia.  This fog literally becomes the lifeblood of the Namib inhabitants. 

An odd assortment of desert reptiles actually drinks the moisture they collect from their bodies.  Others, such as the fat and furry golden mole, have a whitish coat that acts as a sun reflector, therefore little of the harsh heat is absorbed into his tiny body. And the spotted brown male sandgrouse may be the cleverest of them all.  He (or she as the case may be) soaks up fresh water in his unique belly feathers.  Once these feathers are saturated, our soggy friend can fly up to 60 miles to his nest where the baby sandgrouse drink from his dripping feathers.  To his offspring, he is rather like a flying water bottle.

Plants Adapt Too

There is a plant called the Welwitschia mirabilis, which is quite an oddity (not to mention a mouthful).  Discovered by the Austrian Fredrich Welwitsch—hence the name--this amazing plant can thrive in Namibia’s hostile environment for as long as two thousand years.  It survives by capturing moisture not through a long stem searching for water below ground but with a huge taproot that rises above the desert’s surface.

Their Greatest Threat

Fragile natural environments are often disturbed by man and by the sometimes-irreversible impact of “progress.”  The fact that Namibia has a population of fewer than one-and-one-half million people living in an area comparable to twice the size of California provides some hope for the protection of this unique habitat.  The Namibian government has set aside large tracts of land as nature preserves where such species as the Hartmann’s mountain zebra and the desert black rhino are protected.  

Then there’s the darkling beetle.  All this matters not one whit to this little fellow who greets another dawn with his head stuck firmly in the sand.  While in this unfortunate and unflattering position, the morning fog collects on his shiny black wing covers.  Gravity then forces this dew to trickle downward, right into his thirsty little mouth.  He knows not of the political winds that blow around his small dune in the Namib Desert.

Maasai Warriors

Karyn Planett

The Towers of Power

On the distant plain, rippled by the relentless equatorial heat, a tall figure stands alone.

Draped in an earthen-red shuka, his long and lean body appears to be carved from pure muscle.  His textbook anatomy, finely honed to defend his cattle from predators and his family from all evil, announces his life as a warrior.  He is a Maasai, someone his god Ngai has entrusted to protect the earth and all his beloved cattle.  And despite or perhaps because of the encroachment of a “civilized” world, this mighty Maasai stands a silent vigil.  Only he can protect his tribe’s rich culture and magnificent customs from a fast changing world.

Who Are These Maasai?

The legend taught by Maasai parents in their native language Ol-Maa to the next generation says they are a tribal people who migrated from the North for, in that land, feed was scarce and rivers often dry.  As their god’s chosen defenders of cattle, the Maasai fled with their herds to the South in search of greener pastureland.

Scientists concur with the legend and identify the Maasai as a Nilo-Hamitic people with typically tall body types and handsome facial features.  Anthropologists believe their migration to this region happened around the 16th Century.  Once the warriors reached the fertile plains between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria, they stopped their wandering.  This area, to the Maasai, was considered to be close to their god Ngai for they viewed the snowcapped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro to be the home of the gods.

Twenty distinct groups of Maasai live scattered over an 80,000-square-kilometer area of Kenya and Tanzania, and count a total population of approximately 125,000.

Cattle and Kraals

Maasai live a communal life in protected compounds known as kraals.  As man is unfortunately on the African wildlife food chain, this compound must serve as a safe haven during the long and frightening nights.  Mud and dung huts are assembled in a rather large circle that is then enclosed with a perimeter of sharp thorn bushes.  The cattle and the Maasai enjoy the safety of this kraal when its only gate is tightly closed at nightfall.

Women tend to the compound and the children, who are a source of great joy for the Maasai.  Men spend their days caring for the cattle herds, flocks of sheep, and rangy goats.  No cultivation of the earth is permitted for the Maasai believe the earth is sacred and no man should be so bold as to scar the earth.

The Maasai feed entirely off their cattle… its blood (osage), milk (kule), and meat (inkiri).  Cattle signify great wealth and are coveted for their prized horns, which can reach several feet across.

Becoming A Warrior

At approximately 14 years of age, a young Maasai boy takes part in an ancient ritual initiating him into manhood.  Having reached the status of “Junior Warrior”, he then may proudly call himself a Moran.  He joins other Moran in a separate living compound known as a Manyatta.  While here, he and the others prepare for a life as “Senior Warriors” when they may own cattle and take a wife.  Today, “Junior Warriors” are no longer required to demonstrate their courage by killing a lion armed with only their bare hands, an empere spear, and the elogo shield that has been painted with images of the warrior’s past brave deeds.

The Moran also practice their extraordinary dancing skills where they chant and leap to great heights while standing stick strait arms at their sides.

Beads and Body Decoration

Maasai men are adorned head to toe with ochre-and-sheep-fat body paint.  When preparing for battle, their paint patterns are menacing and threatening.  During times of peace, the designs are intended to attract a potential mate.  The women, in turn, lavishly drape themselves in beaded necklaces, headgear, brass armbands, and bracelets.  This jewelry is even more dramatic because the women’s heads are shaved while the men grow their hair long then braid their locks in a beautiful pattern.  Weighted earrings elongate everyone’s earlobes and the women’s shoulders are draped in red, the Maasai’s favorite color.

Today, as civilization marches on to the beat of the Internet, the Maasai must decide whether to adapt and how.  Though they now are well educated, many often return to their tribes after their schooling to continue this legacy granted them by their god Ngai.  The Maasai believe that they alone have been entrusted to protect the earth and the life-giving cattle grazing upon it and take this task serious.  Yet with each passing day their task grows more and more daunting.