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Life as the Masai know it

Our van was ferrying us along the Earth’s equatorial waistline, in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve. In order to get better pictures of the spectacular migration of the wildebeest and zebras across the Rift Valley, I wanted to get off the van. I was stopped. “Sir, once inside the park, it is dangerous and against the law to get off your vehicle,” said our driver-guide Nassir.

“But,” I protested, “ I just saw a red-robed tall Masai tribal on foot, under those acacia trees, walking along with his dog.”

Nassir explained: “Our semi-nomadic, tall and handsome Masai people roam freely on foot in this lion country. They have been here for centuries. Kenya and northern Tanzania are their lands.”

Masai is an ethnic group with distinct traditions and customs. They speak the Maa language and also Swahili, the official language of Kenya. At one time, the Masai territory covered most of the Great Rift Valley. They raided cattle, and used shields and orinka (spears) with which they could take on a lion one-on-one. They could throw their orinkas up to 100 metres and nail the target. A smallpox epidemic had decimated their numbers and rinderpest reduced their cattle to 10%.

Life as the Masai know it

“Could we meet some of these people?” I asked. “Yes,” said Nassir, “there is a Masai village near Mount Kilimanjaro, the ice-capped extinct volcano. It is the earth’s highest free standing mountain, and we will view it while visiting the Masai people.”

He told us more. The Masai have become tourist savvy and expect to be paid a fee. Our van moved towards the village as we clicked away at elephants, lions, cheetahs, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, giraffes and birds.

Nassir told us a few Masai lore. These nomadic tribals had resisted slavery. The womenfolk build their houses using locally available material, mostly mud. The dwellings are impermanent, meant for people on the move. They have lived alongside most wild animals and have an aversion to eating birds and game. The measure of a Masai man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A man having plenty of one and none of the other is considered poor. Fifty cattle is respectable.

With the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, the Masai village came into view. The whole area was carpeted with lava rocks. Some tall, elegant Masai ladies with their pierced and stretched earlobes, walked barefoot on those jagged rocks that had just torn my shoes. The village periphery had an enkang (fence) built by the men to protect their cattle at night from wild animals.

There was a time when the only way a Masai boy could achieve warrior status was to kill a lion with his spear. No man could marry either unless he killed a lion with his orinka. That practice has stopped. Lions are a disappearing species — their numbers fell from 1,00,000 a decade ago to 14,000 today.

We marvelled at the round and loaf-shaped mud dwellings that the women had made, and watched the Masai dance as an olaranyani (song leader) sang the melody in a call and response pattern. It was a dance of courtship between the men and the women.

There was more dancing as we witnessed an adumu or aigus — a competitive jumping dance by the warriors. The tall Masai jumped up and down, never letting his heels touch the ground while members of his team raised the pitch of their singing as he leapt higher and higher.

There was a demonstration of making fire by rubbing sticks . It took a while to get started. Then, one of the young warriors suddenly spoke in fluent English: “This way to make fire is much faster,” he chuckled and whipped out a lighter from the folds of his colourful robe. His companions who had laboured to make fire with the sticks burst out laughing.


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