The Maasai tribe: shockingly different

A trip to the Masai Mara is not complete without a visit to a Masai village or manyatta. I’d been observing them from a distance for two days but I wanted to get even closer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Daniel (his English name given to him at school), a local young man working at the camp I was staying at met me in front after we’d come back from the game drive. We walked slowly towards the nearby village while making small talk. He was asking me where I was from and what I did and couldn’t care less about my answers, which were a world apart from his way of life.

After a while he stopped by a tree, picked up a couple of leaves, rubbed them between his fingers and handed them to me explaining this was natural sand paper. I rubbed it between my fingers and felt the roughness.

Then we stopped at a tall plant and Daniel plucked another couple of leaves, this time explaining that this was a natural cooler. The leaf was quite big and soft and felt so wonderfully cool on my forehead. ‘I bet it’s used for toilet paper as well’ I thought to myself just as Daniel was saying the exact same thing.

At some point his handsome brother joined us and the three of us continued towards the village. We made another stop at a small plant and Daniel picked up a few leaves, grinding them between his fingers while explaining that the natural reddish paint contained in them is used for the Maasai face paintings. That’s also when I got my face painted. I also got shown a silvery plant that was used as protection against mosquitos.

Natural goodness

Natural goodness

Do I look like a Maasai?

Do I look like a Maasai?

Daniel went on telling how all Maasai boys gets sent into the wild for 5 years at the age of 15 as an initiation into manhood. There they learn about plants and their medicinal qualities. ‘We don’t go to the doctors’ he said. Then he told me how he killed a lion nothing bit a spear.  He also told me that the Maasai were poliamorous and the men were allowed to have more than one wife. ‘The first wife is chosen by the family’ he explained. ‘The rest I can chose myself’ he added. ‘What if you don’t…like the wife your family chooses for you?’ I asked. I thought about saying ‘What if you don’t love her?’ but then checked myself and thought ‘Does the concept of love even exist here?’. Daniel explained that the first wife is chosen in such a way that he would love her. He used the word ‘love’, he had picked up on my thoughts. He also told me about the dowry every Maasai man had to pay for their bride since marriage was such a big deal among them. Normally he would have to give ten cows as dowry but he was exempt from it. ‘How come?’ I asked. ‘It’s because I killed a lion and I jump really high.’ he said proudly. I’d never met anyone who’d killed a lion before. I am not sure I knew how to process this. As a matter of fact I didn’t know how to process any of it and I spent my whole visit in a great state of discomfort and confusion. ‘So when are you getting married?’ I asked. ‘In August’ Daniel replied. ‘Is she from the village?’I went on. ‘Oh no, she is from another village, we are all brothers and sisters here, we don’t marry between ourselves’ Daniel explained.

Our next stop was just outside the gates of the village where a group of men was gathered by a leafy tree.

I was kindly welcomed in English by what seemed to be the eldest in the group. In smooth tones he explained a few things about the village, the people and the way the visit was going to go. He also made me aware of the entry fee of $30 (KES 2500) at which I protested with a big smile on my face. ‘Aaaa that’s too much’ I said. ‘Daniel here just took two people from the camp and they told me they’d paid $20 (roughly KES 1500)’ I continued. The chief’s expression changed but he proceeded politely. He told Daniel something in Maasai language and Daniel went away. To me he said ‘We are just going to check with the chief if he would let you in for less’. ‘How come you speak English?’ I asked while waiting for Daniel. ‘I learned it at school’ the chief responded. ‘And why aren’t your ears pierced?’ I continued. ‘Because I went to school and they don’t like it there’ he answered. ‘So does everyone go to school?’ I went on. ‘No, not everyone. The chief says who goes’ he said. ‘Is it just men who can go?’ I enquired. ‘No, it can be men and women.’ he said. ‘Oh good’ I said relieved. ‘There’s some sort of equality’ I thought. ‘What do you think of tourists? Do you like them?’ I dared ask. He smiled and said politely ‘We like them very much.’ What was I thinking? He wasn’t going to tell me the truth. Daniel came back after a few minutes, reported his findings and the older man said I could go in for KES 2000 ($25). While all of this was happening and judging by the man’s expression I thought that maybe the guy I’d spoken to had miscalculated the entry fee and the $30 was actually correct. In any case I wasn’t going to argue further.

The welcoming party

The welcoming party

 I walked through the village gates and looked around – to my left there was laundry scattered on the neatly stacked branches of the fence, to my right there were new houses being built, and in front of me was the animal rink surrounded by ten or so houses. I was taken to the new houses (built from cow dung and branches) first and told that they were built by the women. ‘By women?’ I thought. ‘They cook in less than basic conditions, they do laundry by hand in the river, they carry water from said river (which is not close at all) in the scorching heat, they look after the children AND they build houses?!’ my mind was racing. ‘The children look after the cattle’ I went on in my head. ‘So what do you do?!’ I protested silently. ‘Wow!’ is what I said out loud.

I then got shown to the middle of the rink where a bunch of tourists had gathered around a few Maasai who were starting a fire. They were half way through it when I got there, and the chief who was taking me around kindly repeated the whole thing just for me. It was surreal, they still start fire by twisting a wooden stick really fast when there are matches, and lighters.

How many Maasai it takes to light a fire?

How many Maasai it takes to light a fire?

A Maasai warrior would have had long, braided hair like that but this was just a wig. Show for the tourists?

A Maasai warrior would have had long, braided hair like that but this was just a wig. Show for the tourists?

And let there be fire!

And let there be fire!

I then got taken into one of the houses. It was pitch black. Immediately to my right was the baby-cow shed. They keep them there to protect them from being eaten. Then we walked into what serves as the kitchen and living area with the fire hearth in the middle. There was an equally dark and bare guest room to one side and two bedrooms to each side of the fire – one for the parents, and one for the children. They were no more than a couple of sq.m each, laid with elevated branches covered with a rough, card cow skin. After a few minutes my eyes had more or less got used to the darkness and I could see around. I got invited to sit on a little bench against the wall. There was a tiny window on one wall but it did very little in terms of letting light in. ‘Why isn’t the window bigger so it could let more light in?’ I asked. ‘Because of the cheetahs, if the window is bigger they can come in’ the young guy sitting on the bench next to me explained. I was looking around in disbelief. ‘They live like this?! This is horrible, I want out of here’ I thought to myself while they were politely inviting me to ask them questions and take as many photos as I want. ‘Take a photo of the house, you can use a flash’ they encouraged me. I smiled uncomfortably, painfully aware of the thoughts going through my mind. ‘Sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable taking photos of you, it doesn’t feel right’ I mumbled. ‘No, no it’s ok. You can take photos’ they smiled but it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. While we sat in the smoky darkness they told me about their diet. ‘We eat blood, meat, milk and maze.’ he told me. ‘You drink blood?’ I exclaimed in disbelief. ‘Yes, we mix it with milk. And we know how to bleed the cow so it doesn’t die’ he said calmly. ‘OK’ was all I could managed in my shock. ‘We don’t grow the maze, we get it from Tanzania. It takes us three days to walk there.’ he went me. ‘You walk there?’ I couldn’t believe it. He nodded.

I wanted to ask them so many questions to which I knew they were not going to give me an answer. I braved a ‘Do you watch TV?’. They said they did in a nearby village. ‘What do you think of the lifestyle you see on TV? Do you want to live like that?. ‘It is very different from ours’ was all he said. I couldn’t help but feel like a complete idiot. Who was I to think that the way I live is better than theirs?

The inside of a Maasai house

The inside of a Maasai house

As we were leaving the house there was a couple of kids sat just outside the door. The baby boy was so young he couldn’t even stand. He was sat in the dirt and his little face was covered in flies. There was a couple of women walking through a side gate and I could see the rest of the women and children gathered just outside the gate. I couldn’t tell what they were doing and I didn’t ask to see them. I’d already imposed on their privacy.

Next I was taken to the middle of the cattle rink and the men did the traditional jumping. All I could do is stand there, amazed. How do they jump that high? They also performed a dance and a song. I felt so uncomfortable while all of this was happening. Imagine someone performing just for you on their territory.

Getting ready to jump

On the way out I saw a woman sat in the shade with her back against a wall and also a couple of guys who were curious about my phone. I took a photographed them and I showed them the photo. They seemed pleased to see themselves on the screen. I said my thanks yous, took my goodbyes and Daniel took me to the main road where my driver picked me up for the drive back to Nairobi.

Old Maasai woman

Old Maasai woman

Photo curious Maasai

Photo curious Maasai

                                                                                        As I sat in the van I

Daniel, 24yo, getting married for the first time in August 2014 to a bride chosen for him, killed a lion

Daniel, 24yo, getting married for the first time in August 2014 to a bride chosen for him, killed a lion

A man we met on our way to the main road. He said Hello and smiled at me

A man we met on our way to the main road. He said Hello and smiled at me

wondered whether I should have visited the Maasai. The visit left me deep in thought. I couldn’t process anything I had seen and heard. I couldn’t understand how you could be speaking on a smart phone and drink blood for breakfast. There was no place in my Western brain where that information could be stored. I couldn’t compartmentalise it in any way. Nothing I could identify with or understand. It made me wonder what’s normal, what’s happiness, is there such thing as happiness at all, what’s better or civilised, what’s progress and development, did it matter, is their way of life real, is mine real?

I leave you with those same questions.

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