Thursday, 6 September 2012

Meeting the Maasai

A night in a motel of questionable clientele, led Manu and I to meet our first Masai. He introduced us to the lion-slaying ways of his ancestors and gave us an unforgettable insight into the life of this iconic tribe.

After a day of being baked by sun and drenched by rain, Manu and I rolled wearily into Kajiado, a small and unremarkable town south of Nairobi. There we met a young Maasai watchman, William, who guarded the 'Snowball Motel'. From the name alone you may be able to gleam an insight into the quality of this establishment, the type which you normally avoid unless practising the oldest profession. Luckily a clean bed and a locking door was all we desired.

Motel of Questionable Clientèle

William Mumeita

William Mumeita

The owner took pity on us and directed William to take us to the only restaurant in town for dinner. We invited him to join us we and exchanged questions and stories about our lives, while picking the bones of some very paltry poultry. It was the first time he'd met a 'mzungu' and our first meeting a genuine Maasai, and it seemed as fascinating to him as it was to us. Often he'd chuckle in disbelief at the most mundane revelation about our lives. We were more interested in his tales of hunting lions.

Apparently lions are hunted only at special times of year, and with great respect for this noble adversary. William had never killed a lion but had been present with the hunting group, sometimes as large as thirty men armed will tall spears and short clubs. He'd also witnessed men being killed, shredded from a single blow. From the look of sincerity and alarm in his eyes, I didn't doubt him.

Our conversation ebbed and flowed, it wasn't always easy to understand one another, but for someone who'd only ever been to a rural primary school his English was mighty impressive.

William lived well outside the town, even this small rural Kenyan truck-stop was too modern for his taste. He preferred the traditional Maasai life, so every day he walked the 30km, five hour round trip to his work. He wanted to show us his home so the next day we arranged to meet him 10km down the road.

The Commute

15km down the road the next morning we hadn't found him. Yet by good fortune when we asked a group of local Maasai women beside the road about the Mumeita family, we met his mother instead. With initial surprise then delight she led us to their home.

We wheeled our bikes along dusty paths, through streams, over hills, cattle paddocks and into ever deepening mud. It was only 5km, but it was a detour we'll never forget. Pushing a bike weighing 50kgs through thick clogging mud, in the heat of the midday sun, as your feet slip from beneath you is hard work. Luckily William found us otherwise we would have struggled to move; our wheels had jammed fast and we had to carry the bikes. Metre by metre we ground our way forward. It was an ordeal but we were rewarded.

Muddy Path

Into the black

Entering the Mumeita family home was like taking a trip back to prehistory. The house was no taller than 5ft/1.5m, rudimentally constructed from mud and sticks. Eight people lived there, seven children had been conceived there yet it was small enough that it would probably fit inside your living room. The most striking thing however was not the size, it was the darkness. As we were ushered in, crouching hands on our knees it was pitch black. I literally couldn't see a hand in front of my face as we waddled through the tiny entrance way.

Inside the Mumeita Maasai Home

As we were manhandled into our seating positions our eyes slowly adjusted to the light that passed through three tennis ball sized windows. In the middle of the room charcoals glowed red, shedding light just enough to see a small puppy stretched out warming its belly beside them on the floor. It is conceivable that design and method of construction of this house had been unchanged for millennia.

Masai Chai

We sipped very sugary tea and had our first lesson in Kimaasai, the Maasai language. Soon we were exchanging English and Portuguese too. As William counted in Portuguese for the first time his brothers and sisters burst out laughing thinking he sounded like the recent troops of Chinese road builders.

Pausing for thought

I tried to take a few photos to capture the moment but it was too dark. By the time the camera had taken in enough light we'd all moved but it did allow us to see the inside of the room for the first time, and as it turned out it was the same for the family too. They'd never seen the inside of their own home.

Pinhole Window

We never discovered why the windows were so small, perhaps simply because that it is the way they have always been.

Maasai Family Mumeita

The family were very charming and wanted us to stay longer. It was considered a good omen that we visited them, one that others would also be most jealous of.

Wondering away

As we made our way back to the road, thankfully via less demanding route, I wondered how long they would continue this way of life. The kids wore mostly modern clothes; one young teenage son only wanted to be photographed with his shades on.

Even with their remote mostly self-sufficient existence the way the world had changed meant they still needed money. What they have to trade is given so little value that William and his father must walk to town and work as watchmen for which they are paid pennies.

Children of the Maasai

One older brother has left and now works in Nairobi. For this family and other I had to wonder how long until all the children leave? One generation, maybe two. They want their all their children to get a better education but for what end? To return to tend the cattle?

The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have already instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle. Before too long it seems likely that efforts will be made to preserve the agricultural Maasai culture in a heritage area.

Or else perhaps, as is the currently the case across the continent, the Maasai will be obliged to sell their land to the tide of hedge fund investment in African land [BBC - Hedge funds 'grabbing land' in Africa], as has recently been the case in Ethiopia [Guardian - Ethiopia Centre of Global Farmland Rush]. (Update: there is currently a petition to stop the Tanzanian government selling off Serengeti - sign the petition on Avaaz) This is development, it is not right or wrong, it simply is.

Cultures change, adapting to the environment, merging with others, eventually becoming indistinguishable and effectively extinct. It seems depressing but it the same cycle of cultural death and rebirth that brought our ancestors unwittingly to us. Would you choose any different?

Maasai Earrings & Jewellery

The Maasai have a better chance than most tribes, with their international recognition and strong sense of identity, characterised by their traditional cloths and jewellery.

Whichever way it is to be, it was a privilege to be invited to see this side of Maasai life.