HANGING WITH THE MAASAI
“We will visit the places of the past”, Ole Tai Kai said. Ole had teeth the way Arnold Schwarzenegger had muscles. When he smiled, regiments of incisors hit the open air like troops coming out of the trenches. Gleaming now in the firelight, the teeth gave his pronouncement a Delphic quality. “When we were warriors, we roamed these hills”, he said. “We became men there.”
I was setting off on a trek in the Loita Hills in Kenya with a group of Maasai elders. For the men, it had the air of a pilgrimage.
“Just remember”, the Treasurer said. “We must be back for the wedding.” A guarded fellow with a taste for snuff and women, the Treasurer had acquired a crucial role in village finances because it was felt that a man who could keep five wives would have little difficulty balancing the books.
In the morning we started, following a rising path through the trees. Between the aisles of grey trunks there was a cathedral stillness. Streams of light slanted down from high leafy windows. We walked in single file, speaking in hushed voices.
At the top of the hill, we emerged in a clearing where lions napped in the afternoons, and elephant droppings littered the grass like old hay bales. A hyena was laughing on the ridge above us. One of the Maasai pointed out a trail of leopard’s tracks fading into green shadows. A colobus monkey, with a walnut face and a glamorous coat, swayed down through the trees to watch us. We passed beneath his withering gaze, whispering like school boys.
Ole Tai Kai led the way, followed closely by the laibon, a master of traditional medicine and a middle-man for the spirit world. Behind came an elderly gentleman notable for having killed six lions. The Treasurer brought up the rear. All were attired in loin cloths, red Maasai blankets, strings of beads and silver anklets. Sadly the bowler hat, once de rigeur among the best families, is now as rare in Maasailand as it is in London.
In the life of a Maasai man, there are two important stages: a warrior and an elder. Circumcision, usually performed on adolescent boys, marks their graduation towards the life as a warrior. It is a period when they live largely apart from the rest of the tribe, roaming the countryside in search of adventure and girls. In the old days they conducted cattle raids on neighbouring tribes, and tested their courage by killing a lion. Marriage marks the end of this glamorous life, some time in their mid-20s, when men settle down to responsibilities.
As young warriors, my companions had trekked through the remotest parts of these hills. Our landmarks were the stories with which they had embroidered their youth. Here was where they had killed a lion; this was the place where they had found a dying elephant; this waterfall was where they met their sweethearts; and in this glade they had held an olpul, a ceremonial feast of roast meat and warm cow’s blood.
In the evening we camped above a stream and dined on beef stew. Afterwards, the elders sat round the fire cleaning their teeth with sticks, and reminiscing about their days as warriors. Ole Tai Kai was worried about the moral laxity of today’s warriors. “The days of cattle raids and lion kills are over”, he said mournfully. His teeth were doing all the talking. “Warriors now have to obey the government laws. It is not healthy. They spend all their time with girls when they should be bashing the Kikuyu.”
Three days later we were back in the village in time for the wedding festivities. The men had turned out in their best blankets, while the womenfolk wore magnificent collars of beadwork. Everyone had shaved their heads and been over-enthusiastic with the red ochre.
At midday the bride arrived from her village. She was dressed in soft animal skins and adorned with several kilos of jewellery. The best man carried her tiny cardboard suitcase.
Whatever she thought about her marriage, tradition dictated that she should adopt the air of a tragedian for her arrival at her in-laws village. She proceeded now with heavy steps, her head bowed, the picture of misery. But reality probably lent her performance a great deal of truth. Her marriage was arranged. The groom, a funereal fellow in his mid-forties, bore a striking resemblance to Herman Munster. She was his fifth wife.
As the bride approached, the women of her new village marched down the hill to have a look. Not for them cooing platitudes about the marvellous animal hide frock. The accepted method of greeting a new Maasai bride is the kind of thing that fractious in-laws elsewhere can only dream about. They threw dung at her. They jeered her, taunting her with ribald insults. It was an orgy of abuse. The idea is that if she suffers these ignominies with good grace and dignity, she must be all right.
When the bride was safely installed in mother-in-law’s house, the reception got underway. The Womenfolk gossiped about their lovers while the men got going on the honey beer. A feast was prepared and served in a thicket: grilled meat washed down with warm cow’s blood.
The highlight of the reception was the arrival of the latest generation of warriors. It was a typically theatrical entrance. There was a stir in the village, women began to ululate, and we looked up to see a long file of splendid fellows coming across the plain, silhouetted with their spears against a wide sky. Their hair was elaborately oiled and braided, their limbs smeared with ochre paste, and their ears and necks adorned with beadwork. They wore short red togas and carried bunches of leleshwa leaves, nature’s deodorant, under their armpits.
When they reached the kraal at the centre of the village, the warriors assembled in a circle, and began to sing and dance. The songs had a strong breathy beat, something between grunting and panting, over which the melodies soared. As the dance progressed, warriors came into the centre of the circle to perform the famous adumu, or jumping dance which involved leaping straight up into the air. The best dancers seemed to hover for a moment at the height of the jump, as if suspended there by invisible ropes. Gangs of young girls surrounded these heart-throbs, as excited as pubescent fans at a boy band concert. Like pop stars, warriors are relieved of the bother of chasing women because women chase them.
After a couple of hours of flirtatious dancing, the warriors departed, followed by a trail of groupies. The elders watched them go wistfully. They envied them, this life unburdened by wives and responsibilities.
The groom wore a particularly hand-dog expression. Life as an elder had brought him no end of financial worries. His new bride had not been cheap: she had cost one heifer, one bullock, one ram, one ewe, two blankets and five kilos of honey. Unable to stump up in advance, the groom had his new wife on credit, and he was worried about the payments. The village gossip was that he had not paid for his fourth wife yet.
He and his best man stood apart from the crowds. “Those were the best years of a man’s life”, he said to me, gazing at the warriors – now distance figures loping along horizons of grass. “And once they are gone, there is no way to have them back.”
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.