Lee Frankel-Goldwater
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Walking With the Masai of Kenya

September 24, 2010 @ 12:30 AM | Permalink


The tale of my week with the Masai, quite the BBQ, and a vision of Africa I shall never forget... 

The safari with my family ended well and as it turned out my momentum was destined to increase dramatically.  We had a long day of travel with a bush plane flight from the Serengeti in the wee hours and a long bumpy bus ride from Arusha to Nairobi.  The day began at 5am and we got to the hotel and to our rooms at about 5:30pm, traveling the whole time and on our butts for most of it.  The high class tour we were on was nice, but the sitting all day on game drives and destination hops is not my style, and a change of pace, exposure, and style was not only called for but well in store...

It turned out our main safari guide had a contact that led treks in Kenya and fortunately he was in Nairobi that day.  I ended up meeting the fellow named Chris only an hour after we got in, barely having time to sip a tea before heading down to the lobby.  I found his trek options to be less than interesting, but when he offered to arrange a village stay for me with his family, deep in tribal lands, I could not refuse.  Chris is Masai, a tribal group of pastoralists that are among the most culturally intact groups in Africa.  Although these peoples are not the most populous of groups in the region, their images have become the mascot of traditional life in Kenya and I was keen to see how they were living.  While my family was headed back to the US for the standard week of rest needed after a vacation, I was back on the backpacker trail!

A deal was struck and I headed off with him the next morning to southern Kenya just outside the Masai Mara National Reserve where his village is.  The journey was standard African, with flat tires, bumpy roads, and crowded public transport but overall rather pleasant given the circumstances.  Along the way we picked up his lovely family of twin, elementary aged boys, a year old daughter, and lovely wife.  Along the way to the village the sweeping change in life between my experience in relative luxury on the safari and even the impoverished Nairobi became quite apparent.  The Masai people for the most part live in the traditional mud and dung huts of their ancestors, use indoor, campfire style cooking, and keep animals (and unfortunately their daily products) in and near the homes.  They wear traditional clothes, which is nothing but a red, cloth wrapping, and carry small clubs and walking sticks used mainly for shepherding animals.  While in one sense picturesque and regal, the Masai embody the essence of contrast: with the majesty of African savanna blended with the poverty of its inhabitants.

Chris's home was a testament to the challenges these people now face, for it was the only home for miles built of a rough, concrete colored brick.  While well lit by sun through the windows and at night from a gas lamp, the construction likens to that of a prison, with walls of one thick cement layer, rectangular doorways, and floors not unlike typical sidewalk pavement.  The feel of the place however was of home, graced with little to no decoration and simple furniture, the love and smells of tea in the walls gave it a more than comfortable atmosphere.  It was the mansion of the region, small though it was with two simple bedrooms, a small main room and bare kitchen without even a table for cutting and no cooking surfaces save a propane burner.  The only reason Chris could afford even this level of comfort for his family was the good job he had as a tour guide.

I was afforded the privacy of one of the bedrooms.  Chris would be away, his wife and kids would share the other room and Rosebella the caregiver for the children would be on the couch in the living room.  The inequity of this arrangement did not pass me unnoticed but pitching a tent with the wild animals nearby was not an option and sleeping on the floor with my sleeping bag and mat was not an option for them; hospitality is a hallmark of the culture. 

As I was to learn, the Masai are a people full of contrasts.  They have veins of extreme generosity and openness, yet a surprising degree of xenophobia, a desire to challenge themselves, yet in the face of rampant health challenges incomprehensibly lackadaisical attitude.  My exposure to this began by meeting my main village contact, Chris's clan brother Josphet.  Chris needed to go lead a tour and as I was told during the initial arrangements I was to be under this fellow's care.  Over tea the contrast between the two became clear, Chris had the comfortable air of a good friend that you've known for years... Josphet on the other hand while equally jovial, set me on edge for some reason, an instinct that served me well over the week.  

You see, I came to this village to test myself.  I brought little food, planning to eat what the people ate and no expectation of luxury treatment or amenities.  I wanted to dive into the culture and feel in my heart and stomach the challenges they face.  How better to learn compassion for others' suffering than by embracing it in my own bones?  That's what I set out to do, and to varying degrees, that's what I got. 

There is a careful balance in figuring out how to jump right in to an experience, daring all waters on one hand and to look out for oneself in 'familiar' ways on the other.  By that I mean attempting to follow ones typical routines of daily life or completely changing with the circumstances and adapting to use only what is offered.  I washed with a basin, ate at times with my hands that had been in the bush all day, never winced at what was offered to me, and kept a smile on my face at the sight of naked children covered in flies running about in the dirt... that one was the hardest of all.

The next day, I woke up early to the glories of the savanna, resplendent with sloping hills touched by a wash of sunlight.  After some practices and had a tea breakfast.  The Masai typically only have a cup of tea for the morning meal which is %50 boiled milk from that morning's milking, %50 water, a pinch of tea leaves, and what tastes like another %50 sugar.  Shortly after, I met with Josphat to purchase a sheep for one of the Masai's primary cultural practices... a slaughter and roast in the bush with the young warriors of the region. 

These red painted 13-18 year olds roam the land between villages, throwing clubs, rocks at birds, practicing spear throwing and eating meat given to them by the villages (and the rare tourist visitor of which I was the second in the villages recent history).  They don't go to school during this time and can, as I learned later, be a bit of a nuisance to the area... but, really, these teens were very nice and appreciative of the sheep I'd bought for their pleasure.  

The animal was carried to a covered area under an acacia tree, held down, and had it's throat unceremonially cut with several slices of a sharp blade.  The blood was captured in a bowl and as the animal was in its last throws this bowl of hot blood was passed around for sipping.  When the steaming pot was passed to me I went for it.  Besides the curiosity it was important to me to show the Masai that I was accepting of and willing to participate in their culture.  Honestly, besides texture due to thickening from air exposure it tasted the same as when you stick a cut finger to your mouth after a mishap in the kitchen.

The sheep, a nice sized black male was expertly dismembered on the bed of branches and leaves set below it.  The skin was skillfully removed with long, honed knives, the warriors licking gobs of fat from the shafts along the way.  Various parts were then expertly removed and set to cook over the fire that was built just beside the whole operation.  Watching this process was akin to the fetal pig dissections that I took part in during biology class when in high school.  There were raw parts offered up for munching, but those I politely declined.  My first taste was a bit of roasted kidney, followed by the prize of the animal - the liver, the most tender meat from this bush strong animal.  It was indeed nice and I enjoyed almost every bite.  I suppose fresh roast liver is rather different from the ground stuff mixed with onions typical of the Jewish, Ashkanazi tradition that I'm familiar with and cannot stand the taste of.

Various parts were also thrown into a soup pot to boil and while others were set to roast on stakes over the flames.  The whole time I was rather beside myself which afforded me excellent practice of the smile and nod variety; my inner being was both screaming and reveling at the absurdity of my fortune - I was in the African bush with Masai warriors eating sheep from a stick!

After much meat eating, mostly on the part of the warriors and the 10 odd other men that magically arrived to make quite the party, it was time to talk a bit.  There were only men present because of the tradition that if women merely see the meat, I was told by my guide, the men won't eat it.  I proceeded to answer questions about America through Josphat's translation.  The main inquiries of that day, not the last by far of the public, cultural exchange sessions I happily engaged in that week, were aimed at abortion, polygamy, and homosexuality; of which the Masai's opinions are strikingly akin to those of the Mormons.  I asked a few questions myself and then went off with the warriors to throw things.

Clubs and spears are fun to throw (I am at heart a boy afterall) and the Masai are very, very good at it.  My attempts were to the amusement of the warriors but I did well given my lack of experience and all was in fun.  Back at the fire it was time for soup.  This soup you see, is medicinal.  It's made from the bark of the Acacia Narotica tree and after being boiled with various animal parts is supposed to aid the digestion of the meat.  I genuinely did not eat much save for a good bit of liver as my meat tooth is not very keen, being principally a vegetarian, which the Masai smile at given their preferred, when possible, purely carnivorous diet.  By about 4pm it was time to let the Masai have their fun.  Josphet took me to his home where his wife prepared for me a lovely portion of rice and beans of which I ate heartily.

That was just one day.

As the week progressed it became clear that I was not just the tourist but was actually the main tourist attraction.  Visiting nearby villages I would quickly be surrounded by onlookers.  It was likely that I was the first solo, white skinned person seen up close by many of these people.  Other "Mazoongoo" are usually only seen in tourist vans passing by the area.  I was pleased to answer many questions, kept a big grin on my face at the heart-wrenching poverty so as not to offend and drank as much tea as I was given, which was of course copious amounts.

Yet, here lies the beauty of travel: contrast.  Contrast is what makes something stand out in a painting and the same goes for life.  When nearly every element of the way you're accustomed to living and behaving is turned on its head all the little things stand out, things like the way people stand, eating and sleeping habits, weather, culture, attitudes toward the young, old, women, and leaders, and let's not forget the roaming sheep and hoards of flies everywhere.

By the end I had slept in a mud hut one night in a remote village so as not to be eaten by lions from my tent, got the runs once, walked a lot, saw part of a traditional circumcision ceremony, a real rarity for outsiders, and met some lovely people while getting an exposure to a very unique culture.

The best part of the whole journey though, and the crown jewel of experiencing contrasts that week was a visit to the local wildlife conservationist and his family.  The hike to the camp was long and challenging with the fleet feet of the Masai and the heat but every step was worth it.  

Nick who is the local game warden for the Kenya Wildlife Service grew up in Kenya and now lives there with his his keen wife, 20 year old Crocodile Dun Dee son, and daughter who speeks fluent Masai lived in a tented camp out in the bush.  As a family, they're leading field work to protect the wildlife in the region through community partnerships and their organization Predator Aware.  Their day consists of animal surveying, poacher hunting, and working with the locals to build a land use plan that gets money into the hands of the Masai (as opposed to corrupt officials) and getting the Masai jobs in the growing tourism in their region.  Yes, tourism is a double edged sword, but done correctly it can protect more than it harms.

We talked for hours over a lovely and expertly prepared (and sanitized) salad lunch, which was quite a treat from what I'd been having.  Their work is amazing and having helped to pass a new local constitution with the people (different from the national one that just passed) it seems that really wonderful steps are being taken to protect wildlife and, unbelievably, to get the locals involved.  This is quite a feat given that many locals are keen on killing the animals.  Now, due to the financial value of tourism they are geared up to support full scale conservation measures instead. 

This family lives their lives in devotion to conservation and community empowerment.  The greatest lesson I learned from the encounter was when I asked Nick what he had to say to me, an aspiring field conservationist.  He said, with a furrow of the brow and a pensive look in his eye: "Commitment.  Ask yourself, are you really willing to invest the time and energy it takes to get the task done no matter what or how long it takes?"  That touched me.  While the point may seem obvious, to be reminded so intensely of such a basic truth in such an interesting situation is not only valuable, but in this fickle world sometimes quite necessary.

While ultimately Kenya is not the place I ever intend to call home, my experiences with the people and wildlife will remain an important part of who I am and will ultimately become.

My recommendation, go take a look for yourself...

Read more at: Adventures of a Wanderlust Yogi


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