Friday, 30 September 2011

One week with the Maasai

Entering the mud hut, I stooped past the open fire and towards my corner. I removed my shuka Maasai blankets, and then loosed my belt and sword, dropping them to the floor.

“Stop!” hissed Shapash, my Maasai companion, “Don’t ever do that!”
Reaching to the floor, he took up the blade and fit it into a small slot in the wall.
“Never put your sword on the floor if all the cattle have returned safe,” he explained. “You put your sword down only if some of the herd have been lost that day.”

The Maasai, one of the many tribes of East Africa, have taken pride of place in capturing the beauty of Kenya’s pre-colonial past. They are a nomadic people, looking after sheep, goats and cows across the savannahs of Kenya and Tanzania. Their houses are temporary one-room structures built from dried cow dung, and their staple diet is the blood and milk from their herds. Large areas of Maasai land now form the world-famous national parks, such as the Serengeti and the Mara. The Maasai have been allowed to continue living in these parks but they do so at their own risk, for this is where some of the world’s deadliest predators roam free.

Armed with a spare change of clothes, some water and two packets of biscuits, I entered the Mara. I had the phone number of the chief of the village and was to call him when I reached the end of the bus route, five kilometres walk from his village. I was to live with the Maasai for a week, in obedience to what readers of this blog voted on. All has been in aid of the building of the Nyakahoja Secondary School for girls, which is now due to open in January.

Relaxing with vijana, the youth

I was met first of all by the chief. A tall and thin man of 76 years old, he still walks miles and miles through the wilderness to attend meetings with elders of other Maasai villages. We spoke in Swahili and his voice was slow and smooth.

“You will stay with Shapash. Do everything that he does. You will be called Ole Manyatta [one from the village].”

Stewarding a village of no more than 100 people, the chief was more a father-figure than a ruler. He would enter numerous houses each day to take tea and listen to people’s news, giving advice when needed. In his youth he had slain a lion in fulfilment for candidacy to marriage. Nowadays killing dangerous predators is illegal but still done by the Maasai (very rarely), in response to cattle or herders being attacked.

My new home was a tiny mud hut inhabited by a family of three. Together with my guide I slept in one corner, next to the young calves (but separated by a dung wall). In the centre of the house was the fire; the lack of any windows larger than the size of a fist meant the dwelling was filled with smoke every evening.

The mornings were always quiet and pleasant. Women left as the sun rose to milk cattle and lead them together in herds to pasture. Some of the children would walk to a school built nearby by a Danish philanthropist, and others would lead out the sheep. I fell under the category of unmarried male youth, which comprised of about 10 of us. In ages past we would be the warrior class, spending our time training and building up our strength, patrolling the forests, hunting and fighting wild animals or warriors of other villages. The lifestyle of the Maasai is accompanied by a library of dangers, and to the set can be added the competition between communities for wives because of the practice of polygamy.

Smoothing down a cow horn as a present
to my younger brother Eamonn
Breakfast usually consists of tea only but on my first day the chief allowed us to eat meat the whole day. This happens only twice a month and is a special occasion. The eating of meat is reserved for the male youth who are deemed most in need of building up their bodies. Walking through the herd of sheep, we decided upon a fat and old one, grabbed it from behind and then took it to the forest to slit its throat. After the blood was collected in a bucket, the sheep was skinned and then gutted. The cooking was done by the youth themselves in the forest alongside the chopping and gutting. They eat everything, from head to toe. It was among the tastiest meat I have ever had and I was relieved to hear that not even all of the Maasai youth drink fresh blood, so there was no obligation to have a go. For dessert there was some herbal medicine (fresh twigs split and then boiled in water).

Located next to the national park boundary (which has no fence), the village was often visited by tourists on safari. The interaction between tourist and Maasai is one of the most surreal gifts offered to us by the era of globalisation. My group of young males would be in charge of welcoming visitors and would often spend hours keeping an eye out in case a jeep stops by the village. I never joined them for their welcoming but they told me how it consisted of singing and dancing, some explaination of the village and Maasai tribe, and then a visit to the gift shop nearby, where one could buy Maasai jewellery and sculptures.

What surprised me was just how much money was involved. Compared to the costs of the items, the selling prices would sometimes be 20 or 30 times more. Visitors are often happy not to bargain too much because of the obvious poverty of the Maasai village, but appearances can be deceiving. The simplicity of the village is a way of life that will not be changed overnight by money. The influx of cash has led to some school attendance, a more balanced diet and the heavy use of mobile phones. Much of the income, however, has merely driven up the prices of the few luxury items available in the nearby town of Talek.

Walking through the plains of the Mara, one thing that set off my curiosity is the way children approach and bow their heads. They will wait until you place your palm over them and bless. In the evening, they will crowd around a visitor and, if the visitor is from the West, spend the time they wait for their meal stroking your arms and head to feel the hairs, as if you are a new and peculiar animal. The contemporary era has thrown the Maasai at a ferocious speed into the deep end of inter-cultural interaction. How the tribe will emerge from this is a question as open as the savannah.

Shepherd boys

The author would like to thank all those who donated towards the Nyakahoja Secondary School and so forced him to join the Maasai for a week.