Live like a Kenyan. Jump like a Masai.
“You stay in Kenya for 6 months? Then you are a Kenyan,” Peter*, our Masai host, says. He’s right. PULSE assignment is unique in many ways. One of them is the opportunity to explore cultural life in its full as a local. I thought, it’s an experience worth sharing.
It’s a Sunday morning, we are chatting leisurely with Peter after breakfast. With my colleague we are on a 2-day game drive trip to Maasai Mara. This is where we meet the two masai, Peter* and Anthony*, who are our hosts. During the day we drive hundreds of kilometers in search for wild animals, during evenings and mornings we explore the Masai culture, talking to our hosts.
Peter’s ears are pierced, one of the holes is so much smaller, I ask him why. He says he was hunting a buffalo and it attacked him, cut the ear, he lost blood there, could not enlarge it later on. In the past, he says, they used to go out there, every day you’d hear somebody killed a buffalo, an elephant, a lion maybe. But today they don’t go there any more.
How do you kill a lion, Peter, I am thinking, looking at his impressive masai outfit. He wears a traditional masai knife and a wooden club for protection. He probably needs that, the camping literally borders the wildlife national park, there is a fence and a river, which is a natural border. I suddenly remember that during the night I woke up to the sound of an animal crying. It was a baby wild beast, chased by a hyena, Peter says, they were very close, it ran away, and he waives at the hill opposite the camp; yesterday I took photos of giraffes crossing that hill… I shudder at the thought how close we are to wild life here. I sleep in a tent just a few meters away from the fence. But in the warmth of the daylight the place seems cosy and safe, and I relax again.
Masai people, Peter continues, have to fight with wild animals to protect what they have, but they are not allowed to do as before. Wild animals pass through the land all the time, everywhere masai move; Peter draws a map on the table with his finger, there are elephants, lions, they move close to the herd. It’s easy for a lion to kill sheep, even a cow, a cow is not as strong as the other animals in the wild. And one sheep is not enough for a lion, he’ll kill 5 or more… But when a lion kills a cow, they need to call the rangers first, only if they don’t drive the lion away, the masai are allowed to kill.
Anthony does not have pierced ears, because he was in school. If you go to school, you are not allowed to enlarge your ears; teachers say knowledge goes through the ears… Younger masai who go to school don’t enlarge their earholes. I think about the masai culture and how is changing, the ear holes just a small token of that. But how much it’s changing indeed? On Saturday evening Anthony takes us to a masai village to experience their culture. As we enter the village, I wonder to what extent tourism discourages the change. Here, like in many other places in Kenya, tourism is a major source of income, and the visit becomes a ritual. The son of the chief welcomes us in front of the village, he only lets us in after a formal briefing and greeting – feel welcome, feel at home.
The visit follows a strict order. A welcome dance, then the famous jumping! The higher you jump, the lower the price you pay for a wife.
We are invited to visit a house, it’s a dark place, no window, just a small hole through which the smoke goes out. Masai can have many wives, if they can afford it. Each wife builds her own house. The house we visit is the chief’s house (one of many, the chief has 5 wives). There’s 4 rooms inside, one for the parents, one for the kids, one for the guests and one for the animals.
It feels like whole masai economy lives and thrives around the herd they keep (and tourism). If you want to get married, you give 12 cows to the parents of the wife. Secondary education is expensive, you sell a cow in Nairobi to pay for it. There’s three cherished foods – cow milk, cow meat and cow blood, you mix blood with milk, and have it for breakfast, Peter says, as we don’t grow crops here, wild animals destroy everything, cow blood is a source of nutrition. It’s good for us, maybe not for you, he says, as a mzungu (white person) I have toast, eggs and beans for breakfast.
Lost in my thoughts I realize Peter is talking to me. Next time you come to Maasai Mara, we will give you a masai name, he says, masai tribe have their own names, he says, maybe you don’t go, you stay here and we give you that Masai name. Maybe I’ll not stay now, but I’ll return for that masai name and to meet my new friends again.
Ashe, Peter & Anthony, for the enriching experience! (Ashe is thank you in Masai)
*Names are changed for confidentiality.