Kenya Travel

Kenyan Dreaming: Magic of the Maasai

A word of warning: this entry is graphic and touches on some not-so-pleasant topics that were discussed about Maasai life and traditions.

Animal count: still 38
Goat
Dog

Cow

There was only one thing left to do in the Mara, and that was to visit a local Maasai village. We walked up to Richard’s Village, which sits just behind the lodge where we stayed. It was another wonderful experience, although fortunately not as heart-wrenching as the Samburu village that we visited.

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The Maasai are considered to be one of the wealthier tribes in Kenya. Their land is greener, they have two wide rivers flowing through it, and thanks to years of cattle-wrangling from Tanzania, they have many head of cattle and other livestock. The people were healthier and plumper, and I saw my first chubby Kenyan babies there.

They are also more sedentary than the Samburu people and their village set up is quite differently, however they still have the circular boundary with different gates to represent different families and a central animal pen for containing the cattle at night.

The eldest child is the lucky one who receives an education, while the younger ones are decorated with elaborate piercings and made “beautiful” to compensate for their lack of schooling. Young Maasai men are circumcised when they turn fifteen, also like the Samburu male youths. We were shown the type of stone that they use to perform the procedure as well – it is shiny, black, glass-like and it gets fashioned into a very sharp tip. I can’t imagine how hideously painful a procedure it must be. I’m not sure if the Samburu men do this, but Maasai drink the blood of cattle after the circumcision as it is considered good for the immune system and to help give them energy to aid the body’s recover after a trauma or injury. No judgement, but really? Cow blood? Apparently elders drink cow blood to cure hangovers as well… personally, I’d prefer a Berocca or vegemite toast loaded with Vitamin B.

While there are certainly similarities, there are some key differences between the Samburu and Maasai tribes. The first point is that the Maasai take multiple wives. Our village guide, Richard, is himself on the hunt for Wife Number 3. He told me that Wife Number 1 is arranged, Wife Number 2 is selected by Wife Number 1, and then from Number 3 onwards the man gets to choose. The only requirement is you must save up fifteen cows, then you qualify for a wife. In times past, they used to have to kill a lion to prove they were a warrior worthy of having a wife, but now lion-killing is illegal, so they settle for cattle. It’s like buying a house on a Monopoly game board. Another fifteen cows, another wife. Not sure that you can then convert your four wives to a hotel like you can in Monopoly though… Each wife has her own house, and must keep a separate room for when the husband comes for a sleepover. He moves from wife to wife each night… must be exhausting…

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Our guide, Richard.

Maasai houses are quite different to Samburu ones as well. The ones I saw are made from mud, grass and cow dung. They are larger, much cleaner and less cluttered than in Samburu. This is possibly because only one wife and her children live in each hut. A new wife enters the village, a new house is built. The house that I went into had mattresses and hard, mud-packed floors. They have no windows, with only a handful of small 10cm-wide holes dotted along the walls for ventilation. The front room houses goats and other small livestock. These particular houses had wooden doors with padlocks on them though, again confirming the sense of permanency within the village.

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I heard some horrific stories regarding other cultural traditions which have only been officially phased out in the last few years. I have since read that some of these rituals still occur and some Maasai have been arrested for continuing to practice them, however I wonder if they have truly been eradicated. According to our village guide, female circumcision was performed as recently as 2005, with girls as young as ten being subjected to the ritual to make them “good wives”. Literature indicates that unlike male circumcision, it was not a practice that all Maasai (and indeed Kenyans) agreed with, however it was a custom nonetheless and therefore it continued until very recently.

I was also told about another ritual that ceased about 1998. They used to take the elderly and the infirm outside of the village walls and leave them in the plains for the lions and hyenas to come and eat. They would go back two days later to make sure the job was done, and if not, they would sacrifice a small animal so that the scent of blood would draw the predators to the victim. I cannot fathom that kind of thing happening, but again, it is a tradition of the Maasai and it is not up to me to judge. I just thank God that I was born where I was, when I was and have been afforded the lifestyle and comforts that I have. However, I am extremely appreciative for the insight I was able to gain from speaking with villages and witnessing their lifestyle first-hand. You cannot imagine what it is like until you can see it, smell it and hear it all for yourself.

I had some absolute highlights on my visit to Richard’s Village. Our group was welcomed into the village by the women who sang and danced for us. We then had a short question-and-answer session while they asked us questions about ourselves, such as where we were from, if we were married, if we had children etc. The four divorcees in our group had difficulty explaining that they no longer had husbands or wives but did infact have children. I got a big round of applause for having a husband and two children, but the biggest claps and cheers were reserved for a single female in our group with no husband and no children. I think the women were thinking “she is the smartest one here!” It was priceless.

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We were also greeted traditionally by a few children – Maasai have their own language as well as their own customs, and instead of saying “hello” or the Swahili equivalent “jambo” and waving at them, a Maasai child bows their head to you as greeting. You then extend your hand and touch their head gently and say “Sopa” – Maasai for hello. A beautiful way to be greeted.

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Just as in Josphat’s Village in Samburu, the children of the Maasai left a very deep and resonating mark on me. That night I was going through my photos from the visit somehow one particular young girl appeared in almost all of them. She was so striking – perhaps I radiated towards her. I don’t know her age or her name, which is a shame. We were so rushed at the end as we were leaving the Mara that afternoon, but I did manage to steal five special minutes with her and her younger brother, blowing bubbles and skipping with a rope. I hope and pray that she has a good future ahead of her and is one of the lucky ones receiving an education so that there are possibilities for her beyond village life.

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Am I wrong to wish these things? I tried my absolute hardest not to judge – to accept their living conditions, their lifestyle, their traditions, their poverty. I know it is not for me to waltz in there, throw money at them and hope that their lives becomes more like mine. I know that is not how it is, or how it can be. Mostly they appear happy and accepting of their lives, and can that be said for all of us living in our comfortable homes, driving cars, playing on our smart phones and stressing over first-world problems, such as why won’t my blog upload on a dodgy Kenyan wireless internet connection?

There are tangible, positive things that we can do to give these children the best chance at life in the context they live in, and I believe that awareness and appreciation is the first step in that. You could sponsor a child, donate to Unicef, organise care packs of pens, books and paper for the schools, or even do what the owner of the company who I was blessed to travel to Kenya with is doing – buying a minivan for the village to transport the children from home to their local school 5km away. Currently the only way they can get there is on foot – there is zero transport – so having a vehicle will hopefully remove one more roadblock for these children in getting to school. I don’t have the answers – any maybe it’s not up to me to come up with one – but at least by visiting a local village on your trip to Kenya you are helping the people to generate an income and in turn you, the visitor, can gain an insight into a life other than what we know. Maybe I can teach my kids to be little more appreciative of what we have in our lives? You never know…

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Selling their wares

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