I’m thankful for electricity, indoor plumbing and a smoke-free home

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on all we’re thankful for — plentiful, nourishing food, good friends, family and — for some — football. This year I’m looking at the holiday from a slightly different perspective and will add some items to my grateful list: a furnace, shoes, pillow-top mattress, windows and indoor plumbing.

These are first-world luxuries that are so commonplace, we rarely give them a thought. But after visiting a Masai village in Tanzania I believe they make a huge difference to everyday comfort. For me, anyway.

Masai kids strike a pose.

Ololosokwan is a village in the Serengeti, a 30-minute drive on a dirt road from andBeyond Klein’s Camp, the luxury safari lodge where we were staying. Tourists can pay $50 per jeep to tour through the village and learn a bit more about life in one of Africa’s best-known tribes.

The traditional Masai diet of meat, milk and cow’s blood has now expanded to include greens.

Before visiting the village I had preconceived ideas about the Masai from images I’d seen in documentaries and on one of last year’s episodes of The Amazing Race. The men wear bright red blankets draped over their shoulders and spend their days herding cattle and goats, and keeping the livestock safe from threats such as lions thanks to a sharp spear. Not so long ago they ate a diet of meat, milk and cow’s blood, but have now added vegetables such as cabbage for extra nutrients. With the exception of tourists who visit and bring money, and the western clothes trickling in, life as they know it isn’t much different from 100 years ago.

Red patterned blankets are a Masai style staple.

It’s one thing to see the Masai on TV, but quite another view to visit a village in person. The Masai live in huts made of mud and cow dung. The huts are heated by a fire that doubles as a cooking area. On either side of the small kitchen is a cramped sleeping area — one for the mother and girl children, another for the father and boys. The ceilings are low to trap heat and there aren’t any windows or ventilation of any kind that I could see. It was all I could do to squint through the heavy smoke in the dim light to take in the spare surroundings: dirt floor, no electricity, no plumbing, no furniture beyond a couple of squat wooden benches. The smoke was really the limiting factor, I felt — it burned my eyes in a way that made the Grizzly House in Banff seem airy and refreshing.

Smiling through the smoke.

I’ve stayed overnight with a hill tribe in northern Thailand, slept at modest guest houses run by Nepalese families in the Himalayas, and I had just spent seven nights in a tent while climbing Kilimanjaro. But this home felt primitive beyond compare. I’m sheepish to admit I had a “Holy crap I can’t believe people live like this!” moment, immediately followed by a “How long do we have to stay in here asking questions? I think I’m going blind from the smoke,” thought. I pitied my poor, safari-spoiled western self in the village surroundings, but not the villagers themselves — they were way too well-adjusted and cheerful. Children walked barefoot through mud and cow dung to greet us with smiles. Men and women proudly showed off the livestock. And of course they were keen to sell us some beautiful beaded bracelets or bowls.

The beaded bowls were sold at a significant mark-up, but at least the money went directly to the village.

For them, life is life. They have food, shelter and family. I’m the one who had a hard time reconciling their privations with the comparatively opulent safari lodge we returned to after our visit, where a candlelight dinner of lamb curry, carmelized beets and mixed vegetables awaited, followed by a Pimm’s Cup nightcap in the lodge bar. It was a little Bizarro-World.

Still, I’m hugging my kids a little harder this Thanksgiving. I’m thankful they have a varied diet, shoes and flush toilets, and especially that I don’t have to share a twin mattress on the floor with them.

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