Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Visit to the Maasai in Kenya

In this photo: a jumping idiot and his Maasai friend.

Out into the bush.

This weekend I had the opportunity to get real down and dirty in the deep bush of Kenya.  I left work early on Friday and jumped a shuttle headed for Nairobi, Kenya, with the plan of jumping off halfway to the Kenyan capitol, at the Tanzania-Kenya border.  The shuttle left Arusha and quickly left civilization behind, driving through vast red-brown plains, rolling savannas, and dry scrubland. Visible out the window were large numbers of goats and cattle, tended by young Maasai with sticks.  Two hours after departing Arusha, my friend and I arrived at the Kenyan border.  After crossing, we wandered through a small border town called Namanga till we found my friend's Maasai friend.  In the past, my friend spent a couple of years with the Maasai, building pit latrines.  He worked long hours with the locals, laboring in the hot Kenya sun to build latrines that he jokingly admitted never get used, because according to the Maasai, "they smell like shit!" 

Smiling, my friend's Maasai friend approached us, welcoming us to Kenya.  Standing about 5 foot 5, he has skin black as pitch and decorative scars on his cheeks.  He wears the traditional shuka of the Maasai as well as a beaded, a braided headdress, and a long Maasai knife at his hip,hanging from a beaded belt. He has two wives, 8 kids, has killed a lion with nothing but his spear, and is a very respected member of his community.  He is Maasai to the core.  Forget 2011, he looked like he just walked out of 1811, right until the point he pulled out his cell phone, made a call, and walked us over to his Land Rover.  I am not completely sure of the details involved, but I know that he used to do business in Nairobi and somehow got connected with a Yoga troupe.  Over the years he became a yoga teacher, traveling around Kenya spreading yoga, even being flown out to a convention in Mexico once by the troupe.  As mentioned, he is very traditional, traveling to Mexico in full Maasai costume, only leaving his long knife and spear behind.  I would have given anything to see him go through airport security.  If I uploaded one video of that, I would become "YouTube famous," as my girlfriend likes to say.  Eventually, he purchased a motorcycle, and later traded for a 1960's land rover.  A fierce machine, built of solid steel, beaten and bruised by 50 years in the bush.  It can survive the harshest terrain imaginable, and can be fixed with nothing but a hammer, elbow grease, and copious amounts of swearing.  He is totally awesome and a nicer guy I haven't met.

We jumped into the bed of his vehicle and took off for his boma.  A boma is a collection of huts, encircled by a small hedge of acacia thorns and bushes for protection--security that one sorely needs in this land.  The Maasai do not regularly hunt animals, relying strictly upon their herds of cattle for milk, and their goats and sheep for meat.  Their entire lives revolve around their herds and usually only kill predators which threaten their stock, and thus, their livelihood.

Give a Maasai man a stick and he fears no beast.

Maasai public transport

We drove out of town into the bush on a rough dirt road.  Our Maasai friend learned to drive a couple of years ago in Nairobi and had honed his skills making runs for his community from the boma to the highway towns.  With no fear, he drove down the dusty road at speeds which would put a rally driver to shame.    When we left town there were only a few of us in the truck.  Over the course of the hour journey we picked up and dropped off a total of 11 people and a huge drum of gasoline meant for the construction of a bore-hole.  The Maasai have been increasingly abandoning the nomadic lifestyle and have started to dig deep wells for water.  It had not rained for 6 months while I was there, and there was a danger that the cattle would start dying.  Much longer and the Maasai would drive their cattle all the way to Nairobi for water, a five to seven day drive across open and dangerous territory.  Maasai make these drives whenever the drought gets real bad.  They can walk for a week without sleeping, always on the watch for predators and danger to their cattle.  The Maasai have a self-discipline that puts the rest of us to shame!  Risks don't always come in the form of hyenas and lions either, while I was among the Maasai, I saw a gorgeous Maasai bull struggling to walk back to the boma, literally on its last legs.  It had apparently lost a fight with an elephant and was in danger of dying, a huge blow to the community.

A female Ostrich spotted in the bush.

During the drive, we were surrounded on all sides by untouched land, and greeted by herds of gazelle, wild Ostrich, birds aplenty, and one fat cobra slithering across the road, dangerously close to a boma.  The sun was setting fast, and the stars were starting to appear over the savanna.

Home sweet home.

We arrived at the boma as the last light of day could be seen on the tip of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, right before black night settled over the land.  Nothing is as unsettling as night in the bush, when every bush and tree starts rustling, and dangerous animals stalk the night.  We pitched our tent right inside of the acacia wall, duly thankful for its protection.  Donning our headlamps, we walked over to the biggest dung hut in the boma to meet with the elders.  We were welcomed by a newly installed solar lamp inside the dung hut, a thankful addition that drove away the dark night, and made visiting with the Maasai elders easier.  We sat on hand-carved stools and were introduced to the male members of the boma who were very glad at our arrival.  

Celebrating with the elders, and our introduction to the dangers of the bush

Maasai traditionally stretch their earlobes.

For four days, the men had been brewing honey beer for our arrival, a sweet and delicious concoction consisting of water, honey, sugar, and yeast provided by the inside of a sausage-tree gourd.  It was delicious and merriment was truly had by all.  At one point, a woman came in and alerted us to a group of hungry Hyenas right outside the boma, attracted to the scent of goats, cattle.  Two of the men calmly put down their cups, wrapped their shukas around them, and walked out of the hut.  Along the way, they each grabbed a stick, and confidently strode out into the dark. These men were going into battle with sticks, not spears or knives, against a group of hungry, powerful Hyenas, able to crush bone into powder with nothing but their powerful jaws.

A Superb Starling one of the men caught with his bare hands.

I witnessed the confrontation from inside the safety of the fence.  Granted, I never once saw the beasts, only heard them, cackling and hooting in the darkness, moving from place to place. At one point they could not have been more than ten meters away, threatening death with every laugh, yet absolutely invisible in the darkness.  The men walked straight at the Hyenas, scattering them back and forth, and eventually driving them back into the bush.  The Hyenas retreated further and further away into the bush until they were far enough away that they no longer posed a danger to us or the animals.  The men calmly strode back into the hut and started drinking again as if nothing had happened.  Maasai men begin protecting their herds from predators when they are mere children.  If you came home short a sheep or a cow, you got a severe beating, discipline is learned at an early age, and driving off Hyenas and other predators soon becomes the most natural thing in the world.  Maasai walk across the land at night, protected by nothing but their long-knives, fearing no leopard or lion. I am honestly surprised that they can even walk, because they must have balls the size of elephants underneath their shukas.

Men slaughtering a goat for our dinner.

By the end of the night I was exhausted and I returned to my tent, immediately falling into a deep slumber, only to be rudely awoken at dawn by a herd of cattle and goats trudging past the tent in the morning.  Daytime had returned.

Getting caught with your pants down, and hunting the hunters

We welcomed the morning sun with cups of hot, steaming chai, made from fresh tea leaves and milk straight from the cow.  I would not be lying if I told you that it was the best tea I had ever had.  After breakfast, I bathed in the boma's wash hut, being careful to not touch the wall, the floor, or anything else.  By bathing, I mean splashing warm water onto your body, slightly ineffective cleaning, but very welcome, nonetheless.  After washing, it was time to take care of the more delicate matters of the human body.  There are no latrines or toilets out there, and the only way to relieve yourself is by popping a squat in the bush.  I can not explain how unnerving it is to leave the safety of the boma to go to the bathroom in the wilderness.  Nothing makes you more weary then squatting next to a pair hyena tracks, or trees where leopard are known to hide.  In the bush there is a real danger of truly being caught with your pants down.  Personally, I limited my bathroom excursions, preferring to suffer uncomfort in safety instead.

Hiking though the bush.

After the morning rituals were completed safely, we went on a hike across country with the men.  Carrying his spear, our guide led us across dry riverbeds, game paths, and through forest and shrub land.  The men pointed out gazelle tracks, monkey tracks, snake tracks, and at one point, the tracks of an Oryx and the tracks of the poachers hunting it.  The men followed the tracks for a bit to see which way they had headed.  Oryx are very rare in southern Kenya, and I can only hope that the poor animal escaped the hunters. Hunting in Kenya is illegal, and If the Maasai come across poachers, it wouldn't surprise me if they doled out some personal bush justice, via a spear in the belly (which the poachers would absolutely deserve).

Blood soup, blood meat, and bowls of blood

Goat meat basted and boiled in blood.  Quite delicious.
Throw the goat's internal organs in a pot, along with the feet, head, blood, and fat.  Let simmer for a couple of hours and then strain before serving.  Blood soup.

After the hike, we went back to the boma and began with the day's celebration.  It was my 26th birthday on Sunday, so my friend purchased a goat for me, a truly unique birthday gift.  We sat and drank beer while the Maasai skillfully killed and butchered the animal, eating the kidneys and other organs straight and steaming out of the body.

Meat.  It's what for dinner.

They carefully cut off and separated every part of the animal, wasting nothing.  They placed the good cuts of meat in a tree, upon a pile of freshly cut green branches, roasting the meat piece by piece over a tiny fire.  An elder skewered a rack of ribs on a small stick and slow roasted it for about an hour over the open flames and then presented it to me.  I gladly made sure to respectfully clean the bones with my teeth and knife till their was absolutely nothing left.  Meat is treasured out in the bush, especially during times of drought, and to leave any behind would be disrespectful.  The ribs were the beginning of a feast that lasted till nightfall, consisting of every part of the animal.  Bowls of soup made from the goat's blood, its feet, and internal organs, were passed around.  The blood soup was followed by meat boiled in blood, and then my favorite, a bloody goat's face.  I was given the honor of cutting up pieces of the face for myself and for the elders.  My friend aptly commented that nothing truly says friendship like sharing a nice goat's face by the fire. 

Scraping the hair off the face in preparation to eat the head.

Maasai chants, songs, and names (and one Maasai penis)

When all the goat was gone and the sun had set we went back into the boma for another night of visiting with the elders.  Sitting in the dung hut, we drank some more honey beer, which had further fermented since the day before and was now fiercely strong.  The men started to rhythmically chant and sing in Maasai.  The singing continued for an hour or so with people leaving the hut to relieve themselves.  One of the men must have decided that he didn't want to get up, because he whipped out his Maasai manhood and urinated right on the floor of the dung hut.   My friend told me that they perform a special circumcision practice, cutting only the top of the foreskin off, while leaving a patch on the bottom of the penis to hang out, which they jokingly call a sweeper.   The elders then gave me a Maasai name, "Meoli," meaning "a person which brings people together."  Apparently, they thought I was good at networking or something, I should probably include that in my resume in the future.  They proceeded to bless the name, having me respond periodically with something like a grunt, sounding something like, "woooeeeiii."  It was another fun night and I once again slept like a baby.  I must have eaten too much goat face the day before, however, because I woke up feeling ill.  With an uneasy stomach, I shared some soured milk with the men for breakfast, stored in a gourd and allowed to sour for four days.  Chunky and very sour, I was only able to put down a mouthful or two before I had to water the soil with my vomit.

This Maasai kid is cute enough to make you vomit too.

The children helped gather the wood for the food preparation.

Weapons of war

Before I left, I was able to purchase our guide's own spear, and a knife from one of the other men.  It was incredibly kind of them to be willing to part with their very own weapons and sell them to me.  I made sure to overpay them enough that they would be able to purchase new spears and knives from the master Maasai spear maker, nicer than the ones they sold to me.  Our friend sounded very excited to be able to buy a new spear, his own being weathered and old.  He told me that the reason the tip of my spear was slightly bent, was because this spear has the dubious distinction of having been used by him in a lion hunt.  Some Maasai still hunt lions to prove their bravery during their warrior years, with a group of young warriors sometimes tracking a lion for days before being able to antagonize it enough that it turns and charges them.  A warrior only has one chance to kill their lion, and many Maasai have been terribly mauled and killed during these hunts.  I guess it wouldn't be called an act of bravery if it was safe and easy! In his hunt, our friend successfully speared his lion through the head when it charged, bending the spear and killing the lion.  I am now the proud owner of a truly authentic Maasai weapon.  Although I don't condone the hunting of big cats, I deeply respect the bravery it takes to do so with nothing but a spear.  This weapon is definitely going on my wall.

A Maasai spear with a shuka draped over it.

Returning to the modern world

Around noon, we packed our stuff into the truck and drove back to the border, to begin our journey back to Tanzania and home.

Makeshift protection from the Kenyan sun.

When we arrived in Arusha I ordered a pizza, very thankful for food that was properly cooked and was not basted with some sort of blood. The Maasai food was delicious, but not what I am used to!

I was truly blessed to have been welcomed into the homes of the Maasai and experienced their way of life for a time.  It is hard existence, one which I truly would not want.  They have been living in the same way as far back as anyone can remember, fighting against the modern world with all their heart and soul, and proudly holding on to their traditions and heritage.   I traveled back in time and truly experienced a lifestyle contrary to anything I had ever seen before.  It was fun.

Asante sana.


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