AN INTERVIEW WITH INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER MARIO SCHMITT.
Additional input by Elisabeth Stratton
Hi Mario. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your photography?
I am a freelance photographer from Germany with a focus primarily on portrait and documentary work. I love travelling the world and immersing myself into different cultures. I want to see how other people live and I am eager to tell their stories with my pictures. You can see a short film about me and my work here.
How did you come to choose to visit the Maasai tribe and how long did you stay with them?
I have been to Kenya several times before, participating and documenting anti-poaching patrols with rangers in Tsavo. During those visits, I made some good friends in Nairobi. One of them is Deepak Sankreacha, who asked me if I would be interested in living with Maasai. Deepak has two Maasai friends, Reuben and his brother Daniel, and they invited us to their small village near Mount Suswa. I just stayed a few days, but my friend Elizabeth who was travelling with me through Kenya at that time, went back and stayed with the Maasai for a couple of weeks.
© Mario Schmitt
Did you arrive with a particular theme or focus in mind?
Not really. It was a spontaneous decision. We actually wanted to go to Turkana County in Northern Kenya, which is close to South Sudan, but it was too dangerous at that time. Hence Deepak came up with this visit as a backup plan. Wherever I travel, I try to stay among locals. I am not that kind of guy who checks in at a hotel and relaxes at the pool. I am looking for adventure. This being said, the opportunity to stay with Maasai was exciting and exactly what I wanted to experience while being in Kenya.
Where there any other outsiders or where you alone?
My friends Elizabeth Stratton and Deepak accompanied me to the village.
Staying in the village, what were your first impressions?
My first impressions were the kids, who went totally crazy as we arrived. They jumped around us, overjoyed by our presence. It was super hot and we were in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t see any source of water and I asked myself how people manage to live here. Not to mention all the wild animals that were walking around.
© Mario Schmitt
It just takes a while to acclimatise when you are coming from Germany and when you are used to modern standards. But I tend to settle in quite quickly.
The day before our arrival, Donald Trump got elected. After the welcome ceremony, the first question from the Maasai was: “what are you thinking about Donald Trump?” I didn’t expect this question ☺ But you know, nowadays everybody has cell phones. Doesn’t matter if you go into the Amazon jungle or if you are in the bushes of Kenya. Actually, everywhere in Kenya I had 4G coverage on my mobile. Whereas in Germany there are many areas where I don’t even have 3G. There are times when my Maasai friends are trying to call me on Facebook messenger and I’m unable to answer because my connection in Germany isn’t good enough – can you believe this?!
Do you generally take time to settle in or are you shooting from the first moment?
This depends from case to case. If possible, then I shoot from the first moment. But I would make sure it is permitted to take photos at all. Especially when I am entering someone’s sphere of privacy. At other times, when I feel that it would be inappropriate, I leave my camera in my bag and first build up trust and confidence with the other person. Especially when I am on a certain mission. There are indigenous tribes and groups where you first have to hand off some presents and talk to clan chief and kindly ask for permission to take some photos. But the Maasai were totally cool with that.
© Mario Schmitt
How did the villagers react to your presence and were they enthusiastic about being filmed or photographed?
They knew we would come, so everyone was cool with our presence and cameras. The kids were super curious, of course. I even gave them one of my cameras so they could also take photos. We had a lot of fun.
So what does a day in Maasai village look like?
(answered by Elizabeth) Each morning I’d wake up just before sunrise, while the starry night sky was slowly fading into the light of dawn. As the sun came up over the mountains, the sound of cowbells start ringing as Grandma Mary comes to open the gate for the cows, sheep and goats to begin their grazing for the day. Mothers would stoke their fires, bringing water to a boil for morning tea, or porridge if the family could afford it.
If the parents could not afford school, the girls stayed home to help their mothers with chores, and the boys would take their family’s livestock for their daily trek searching for water and green pastures. A Maasai woman’s work NEVER ends. Her days are filled with chores – going to the forest to chop and collect firewood, walking long distances to collect water, washing her children’s and husband’s clothes, cooking, washing dishes, more cooking, and more washing. Each chore takes a minimum of two hours, as there is no machinery in Maasailand and everything is done by hand, foot and fire. Sometimes the women would hike the outer crater of Mount Suswa with their donkeys to go to town a couple of hours away to buy essentials like rice, ugali, flour, potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, kale and cabbage. The family I lived with was very poor and could not afford to buy treats like meat and fruit. Every time I brought home dates or mangoes from the market, the kids would jump up and down and dance endlessly out of pure joy and delight.
After a day of chores like washing and collecting water, the kids and I would usually climb the inner crater of Mount Suswa to go to the forest around 4 pm for firewood. What a sight, all these children carrying machetes almost as big as them! They’d chop a piece of wood and throw it in my direction, yelling “shika!” which means “hold it!” in Swahili. It was actually very rare to hear Swahili being spoken in Maasailand, as many Maasai cannot speak Kenya’s national language. We’d make lots of small piles and after an hour or so, we’d retrace our steps to collect all the wood and make huge bundles to carry on our backs back down to the homestead as the sun was setting. Sometimes we’d stay in the forest a little too long, and we’d find ourselves carrying our firewood back home as fast as we could as the hyenas had already started howling into the night. Sometimes, we’d have only the stars to guide our way home. This would absolutely scare some people, but a Maasai child’s sense of direction is so keen – their awareness and intuition completely interwoven with the land they’ve grown up on – that I never felt a tinge of doubt that we would arrive home soon, safe and sound. Once we arrived home, mama would start the fire for making dinner. Me and papa and sometimes the kids would prepare the vegetables for dinner – chopping carrots, tomatoes, onions and cabbage or kale to eat with ugali (maize meal). Preparing dinner was about a 2 hour process, so once we finally ate, then it was time for a shower and bed. To shower, we’d boil some water and put it in an old vegetable oil container. We’d pour some of the boiled water into a basin with room temperature water and use a small bucket to pour the water over our bodies. Once our body was soaked, we’d lather with soap, then pour the remaining water over ourselves to rinse the soap off. We’d use about 5 liters of water with every shower, as opposed to a western shower which uses about 65- 130 liters, depending on the length of the shower. Following our showers, we’d jump into bed completely exhausted and fall asleep to the sound of the dogs chasing away hyenas who came to the village every night searching for food.
© Mario Schmitt
What was the food like?
(answered by Elizabeth) The food is extremely simple. Most of the time, we ate ugali (maize meal) with vegetables like cabbage or kale. Sometimes, when the women were up for cooking chapati, we’d eat chapati with cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes rice, potatoes and carrots. We never used any spices when cooking, only salt. But with everything being cooked over a fire, the food was always very flavourful and delicious! Things like fruit, meat and porridge were big treats. The family only killed a goat to eat when tourists would come to climb the mountain. They told me about how they used to mix fresh cow’s or goat’s milk with blood and let it ferment for a few days in a calabash (a bottle gourd) before drinking. I’m not exactly sure why they stopped this, but they always had a huge smile on their face when talking about this traditional drink and said it was “so sweet”.
© Mario Schmitt
What does a Maasai warrior look like in the 21st century?
(answered by Elizabeth) This is a very difficult question to answer, as some aspects of life in Maasailand are rapidly changing along with the rest of the world. Though their day to day life hasn’t changed much, their clothing style and of course, their mindsets and desires, are shifting. With the introduction of school in the last few decades, children have opted for western clothing rather than traditional Maasai clothing. It’s somewhat rare to see someone under 30 years old wearing traditional Maasai lessos, belts, jewelry and headdresses, unless they’ve never been to school. But the traditions of the Maasai are inherently a part of them, as if they’re coded and written into their DNA. Maasai men are incredibly fierce, and Maasai women are the strongest women I’ve ever known. Clothing has little to do with the actual rites of passage and ceremonies that create a Maasai “warrior”. In my opinion, the women embody the characteristics of a “warrior” far more than the men, as they are the pillars of their community who are often silenced and get little credit for everything they do to take care of their families and communities. For the men, becoming a “warrior” means being circumcised in front of their village, and if they cry or even flinch during this brutal process, they are ousted from the community and bring shame to their families. It’s an outdated, patriarchal system that breeds men who are expected to be tough and on guard 100% of their lives, and this is actually quite detrimental to their families and communities in ways that cannot be explained in one simple paragraph.
What would you say was the most surprising thing about the Maasai?
(answered by Elizabeth) The fact that they still circumcise their girls at age 9. A lot of aspects of Maasai life are very dreamy. When you enter their world, you feel as if you’ve been transported to another time. So much of their lifestyle hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. And this is a very beautiful thing. But sometimes reality smacks you in the face, and you eventually learn there is always a dark side to “culture” and “tradition”.
(answered by Mario) A “funny” note from my side. One night we were sitting in the Inkajijik (Maasai word for a house) drinking tea and talking about religions. I told them I was born and raised as a Christian, but once I was an adult I became a Buddhist. Then the Maasai who were all Christians tried to convince me to become a Christian again. They couldn’t understand and almost got mad at me because I didn’t want to be a Christian again. This was hilarious!
© Mario Schmitt
The Maasai are widely known for clinging to their traditional way of life, they live surrounded by wildlife in houses made of mud and cow dung, their livelihoods still depend largely on raising cattle. What influences of the modern world have you noticed during your stay?
(answered by Elizabeth) A lot of the men have cell phones and a few have even transitioned to smart phones. Some of them use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. A few men have motorbikes, making them a lot more mobile (And somewhat lazy! It’s normal for a Maasai man to walk over 20 kilometers in a day). A few of the men have started businesses bringing tourists to Mount Suswa for a day for trekking and a night of sleeping in a mud hut for “the Maasai experience.” Regardless of this, not much has changed in terms of modern influence.
Did they ask you a lot about your way of life?
(answered by Elizabeth) No. They have a lot of fantasies about life in America, but most of them were based on false information or from seeing music videos that portray unrealistic pictures of life in the western world. Of course, they think we are all rich, but once I explained how credit and debt work, and that most western lifestyles are wrapped up in credit and debt, they realized they have a lot more to be grateful for than they previously thought. Because even though their money is tied up in land and livestock so cash is not flowing freely, and their homes are built for free with materials from their land, they don’t have any debt and actually have something to call their own. Land and livestock is much more valuable than a home or car bought on credit
What were the hardest aspects of being there?
(answered by Elizabeth) As a woman living in a patriarchal community who doesn’t treat their women as equals, there were inevitably a few instances where I felt I had to speak up for the women and girls who were being silenced. And sometimes, things got very intense. But that is a long story for another day.
Other than that, privacy! If I remember correctly, the Maasai don’t have the word “privacy” in their language. It simply doesn’t exist there. I never, EVER got even 5 minutes to myself. In America, we grow up with the ability to close and lock our doors whenever we wanted, but this is not so in Maasailand! I’m also very much an introvert who needs alone time to recharge, so between this and my cultural programming from home, sometimes not having any alone time would push me over the edge emotionally. But I was always able to ground myself and come back to just how grateful I was to be living with such a generous and loving family who treated me like their own and took great care of me when I was so far away from home.
© Mario Schmitt
What was the most memorable moment?
(answered by Elizabeth) One of the most memorable moments was pulling up to the Sempui’s homestead for the very first time after the bumpiest hour long motorbike ride of my life. The kids all ran towards us, and they looked just as mesmerized by us as we were of them. Taking in the scenery – mud huts surrounded by mountains and tons of animals – it truly felt like we had time traveled to life 500 years ago. I can’t explain the feeling that washed over me, it was completely surreal and otherworldly.
There are truly too many memorable moments to name. Every moment spent with the kids was pure bliss – we had SO much fun, playing, laughing, dancing and singing alllll day long. Life in Maasailand is hard work, but the kids play even harder and we were never not smiling. They were my light, and their purity and laughter is what always kept me going from day to day.
(answered by Mario) I remember when we walked up that mountain, standing on a cliff which was a few hundred meters high and looking down at Maasailand, listening to elephants trumpeting… being aware of that moment… that was wild and insane. I loved it. Another day we went to a huge cave where a leopard lived. That was also crazy. I also had the chance to visit the Maasai Olympics that were accidentally happening. Seeing those warriors singing and jumping was also an unforgettable moment. There where so many great moments.
© Mario Schmitt
Artistically, What did you hope to capture with your images?
(answered by Mario) I mainly wanted to document real Maasai life, but my time was very limited. Once I was there, I also took some portraits of course, but this is subsidiary to my work. I am generally interested in capturing real moments and emotions that tell stories by themselves and I hope I could convey some vibes we had during our stay with this story.
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