Residing in the game parks near the African Great Lakes in northern Tanzania as well as the northern, central and southern parts of Kenya, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic indigenous ethnic group known for their traditional jumping dance, colorful garb, and distinctive customs.
While practises like drinking raw cattle blood might be quite far outside of the Western ‘norm’, German-born Stephanie Fuchs found their reverence for the animals they herd and hunt, as well as the savannahs they call home, so compelling that she has chosen to live the traditional Maasai life for the past 10 years.
Having followed Stephanie on Instagram for the last few years, I was curious to hear more about her journey. She kindly shared with us how she met her husband, what adjustments she had to face to adapt to the Maasai lifestyle, as well as her broader thoughts about the Maasai in relation to her passion for conservation.
Stephanie was born in a little village close to Frankfurt, where she lived with her mother. At the age of 19, she left Germany to travel. She visited Australia and then went to England and pursued a degree in biology and conservation with the aim to work in conservation and make a positive difference in the world.
After missing out on a job opportunity with a British NGO in Tanzania, Stephanie went ahead and signed herself up as a volunteer with the same organization. She first met her now husband, Sokoine, when she was with the research camp in Mafia Island, south of Zanzibar Island.
“He worked as a security guard at a diving centre and I remember thinking he was beautiful”.
At this point, Stephanie had already been living in Tanzania for a year and had learned Swahili—the native language of Tanzania. They got together two months after meeting and married a year later. To stay with Sokoine, Stephanie moved in with his extended family in their traditional Maasai home.
You must be wondering what every day life is like for the Maasai. I was too, and Stephanie was kind enough to share some details about her everyday routine.
“Before I became active on social media and before I had my son, I got bored easily. I was still stuck in a Western mindset, but now, there’s always something to do. It is a true privilege to be able to have the time to just sit and think—to reflect and ponder. The Maasai life is very slow”.
She wakes up at 7am and has chai for breakfast. She gets her son ready for school, tends to the goats, and lets them out of their enclosure. After lunch between 12 and 1pm, it’s down time—the women focus on bead work for the dreamcatchers, sewing, and fetching wood for cooking. Stephanie also uses this time to focus on her social media, so she’ll go exploring and take some photos.
Although she’s settled into life with her new family and tribe, Stephanie tells us that she’s still adjusting to the Maasai lifestyle. “I can now say that I am comfortable, which I wouldn’t have been able to say five years ago. It took me a long time”.
Despite being able to speak Swahili, Stephanie was still left out on many occasions because the Maasai speak their traditional tribal language, Maa. She also found the culture of husbands and wives not spending too much time together difficult. Sokoine’s brothers were always around, sometimes they would even sleep in the same space as Stephanie and Sokoine. And while she thought that having a child might change this, it had a completely different—and unexpected—effect.
“Having our son brought a wall between myself and Sokoine, but brought me closer to the women in his family, especially his mother. Spending a lot of time with my mother in law allowed me to learn the tribal language of Maa.”
Another adjustment was the physical environment. Stephanie fell ill numerous times. From sepsis in her leg to malaria and amoeba, it’s no wonder that one year Stephanie had simply had enough and wanted to go back to Germany. The adjustment was psychological, emotional, and physical.
In order for her body to adjust to the physical environment, some small changes had to be made. She needed access to clean drinking water because that’s what she was used to. Drinking from the same water sources as the Maasai would not do well in a body that has only been fed clean drinking water.
Now, the water tank that was installed is shared with the whole family and has positively impacted their health. She also had to have a gas stove installed. The Maasai cook with firewood, but this caused many lung issues for Stephanie due to the smokiness.
Sokoine was very accommodating with these small adjustments; he put her comfort above his culture. As long as Stephanie was not offending the culture in any way, these small changes could be made. It was more the high-value aspects of the culture that Stephanie had to adapt to.
“Having lived with them for 10 years, I can say that the Maasai are born conservationists. True conservationists are the indigenous people belonging to a land, not privileged white people who pursue a degree in conservation and biology tainted with a Western capitalist perspective.”
Similarly to the Australian Aboriginals and the native Americans in the US, Stephanie tells us about how the Maasai work to live in harmony with the nature surrounding them in a bid to preserve it. From having been born in and living with nature, they know how to take care of it. They have a connection with nature that much of the Western world does not.
“The issue with conservation is that it is run by people in the Western world who aren’t necessarily qualified to preserve the nature around us. Despite being educated in biology and conversation, it is the indigenous communities who live within nature that are more qualified than us in how to preserve nature.
“The WWF are driving out indigenous communities, often violently. Indigenous people are being driven out in Brazil for oil drilling to serve economic development that isn’t even developing us. The Maasai are being evicted from their land in Ngorongoro and the Serengeti for the safari culture and for the hunters.
“It all stems from white supremacy, the ideal that white people believe they have the right to make these decisions for other countries. In reality, the Maasai graze their cattle in the crater with the zebras and other wild animals, highlighting that humans and animals can coexist in harmony.”
Stephanie argues that conservation has an imperialistic nature that has stemmed from colonial times. While colonialism does not exist today, conservation is disguised to seem beneficial but instead inflict more damage to developing countries like Tanzania, further hindering their economic development.
Stephanie also shared some thoughts with us about meat eating within the Maasai culture as compared to Western culture.
“When you look at how meat is reared in the West, it makes sense to eat a plant-based diet. But in the way that Maasai live, having cattle is sustainable. Trees are not cut down for the cows; the cattle herders are preserving the land by herding cattle in woodland.
“The Maasai drink blood from cows for protein—this is in fact vegetarian because the animal is not being killed, you are just drawing the blood in the same way you would on a human who wants to donate blood.”
Many believe that the Maasai contribute to global warming because of the methane gas produced from their cattle and overgrazing. Stephanie argues that overgrazing occurs not because of the number of cattle in one place but because the cattle spend too much time in one area—mainly because they have nowhere else to go. There is less and less land available to the Maasai now, partly due to other tribal encroachments and also due to overpopulation.
Stephanie tells us that farmers who grow crops for vegan food are what destroys water sources and trees.
“The issue with being vegan in the Western world is that you can be vegan while still enjoying food the way meat eaters do because you can walk into a supermarket and buy vegan meat. And a lot of the time, the people who consume vegan meats won’t be concerned about where it is coming from and the potential damage it may also be having on the environment.”
From her experience living with the Maasai, Stephanie has a few observations about how the Maasai lifestyle can be preserved.
There is less land available to them, but their culture relies on land because they need cattle. They continue to have many children, which is unsustainable considering the lack of land available. Because of her education, Stephanie has the privilege to be aware of these things.
Traditionally, the Maasai don’t use birth control. In her efforts to help them preserve their culture in its most authentic form, she tries to explain to them what she knows about family planning whenever possible. Controlling their birth rates is a necessity if they want to carry on living the way they do. She also encourages her community to think about questions around how and where they will live many years from now, how they will sustain themselves, and how they will make an income.
Stephanie truly believes that we need to show more respect to our indigenous communities. They are our planet’s true protectors and we need to stand up for them when their rights are violated.
To learn more about conservation, read about Wildlife Conservation in Zimbabwe and Life changing Encounters with Wild Tigers in India.