Notes from meetings with the Maasi

During an afternoon siesta in my tent in The Mara, I hear the cluck and warble of two little Maasi herdboys at play. Their cattle are grazing on the opposite side of the River Talek, tales swishing against the low vegetation. I know the two boys are sitting in a little grove opposite my tent. I can feel them observing me as I step outside. As they emerge from their hiding place, they cup their hands together and whistle a bird’s call to catch my eye, and wave – big, open-handed children’s waves –then follow the herd back into the scrub.

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I sit down to breakfast of coffee, fresh pineapple and hot pancakes. All the while, a Maasi guard in full regalia stands behind me, employed solely to chase away vervet monkeys, which eye my pineapple with avarice.

The Maasi wears two thin red and white printed cloths called kangas, one tied around his shoulders, the other around his waist. Beaded bracelets are tied above his knees, his ears are pierced with a large hole maybe two inches long. Strings of necklaces are tied around his upper body and black rubber sandals – formerly car tyres – are on his feet. At his waist hangs a sheathed knife and he carries a long, straight stick which he shakes vigorously at the monkeys when they come too close.

Before you jump on me with accusations of cultural imperialism, many young Maasi guys are employed at the lodges as security guards and runners – it’s good employment for those with little education, especially during times of drought when their cattle herds are in decline, and they are as curious about us foreigners as we are about them.

Eventually the monkeys know they will not win against the hawk-eyed man behind me, and slink off to squabble, fight and flea each other in a nearby sprawling sycamore fig. This is the daily work of a Masai Mara monkey and man.
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Moses is a young Maasi and like most of his tribe, which are said to number around 900,000 on both sides of the Tanzanian-Kenyan border – is most comfortable in traditional dress.

He lives in a village 1½ hours’ walk from my lodge. When he was eight or 10, he can’t remember which, the outer ridge of his ears were sliced, but left intact on his head. They were then twisted around the remainder of the ear so that his ears are woven into two complex knots on the side of his head.

“Did it hurt?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you cry?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Really! Yeah!”

I never thought I'd hear a man of the warrior Maasi tribes, who lions are said to fear, admit he cried.

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