The Maasai are the most traditional tribe in East Africa. Like the Hopi in the American Southwest, and the Huichols in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the fabric of their customs and traditions has not been torn apart by the prizes and temptations offered by Western acculturation. The Maasai are still: nomadic, polygamous, practicing circumcision for men and women, a fierce warrior caste who kill lions with spears, and are led by powerful shamans (laibon) with the power of divination and prophecy.
But “the times they are changin’.” The Kenyan government has made education mandatory, at least through the third grade. In response to growing pressure and the AIDS epidemic, the government is advocating against female circumcision. Evangelical’s of every denomination are heavily deployed there, and the newly educated young Maasai are struggling to bridge both worlds.
My wife Elaine and I met two young Maasai warriors working as naturalists. They demonstrated and taught local customs, flora and fauna. David, the son of Sempeta, is 23 years old and the most fluent English speaker in his village. He went beyond the compulsory third-grade taught in his village and, with his father’s permission, was sponsored to attend a missionary school. With his initiation as a full Maasai warrior at age 17, his father told him he needed to stay home. David was happy to support his family and village. He would be getting married within a month to a girl his father chose and for whom he paid a dowry of 10 cows. David will see his bride for the first time at the wedding and will have as many wives as he can afford.
His village at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro is a walled compound of perhaps 15 extended families. We are greeted outside the compound (kraal) by 50 Maasai men and women in full regalia, who start singing and dancing as we approach. David tells us it’s a prayer to bless us on our journey and to welcome us (the Maasai have learned to welcome visitors). Blessed and welcomed, we enter the stick-walled kraal; its perimeter is lined with perhaps 30 huts. These huts are made of cow dung, straw, ashes, and water, about 6 ft. high and circular, with a spiral entryway so low and narrow, I barely wiggle through. The entry leads into a tiny central sitting area with a small fireplace. The only windows are three narrow slits for ventilation. On either side of the fireplace are two round rooms, each completely filled with a stretched cowhide as a mattress, Mothers and babies sleeping in one, the older children in the other. Adolescents and singles live with each other. I felt uncomfortably claustrophobic.
David took us to sit in the shade of the only tree in the village. Knowing I’m a doctor, he introduces us to the herbalist who shows us how to grind medicinal herbs; one is a root that works like Viagra, the other an anti-inflammatory for fevers. They show me how their doctors boil up the roots with water to make the medicinal tea. With a hand-drill, I kneel with them to make a fire using dried elephant dung.
This turns out to be a long visit — we learn to dance, get invited to the school, we exchange lots of goods. When we depart this glorious afternoon, in the shadows of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, David bestows this farewell blessing, “May you grow old like Maasai, surrounded by family.” I can’t imagine a better ethic to live by.
Later in the Masai Mara, we met Joseph, the son of Koyie, 24 years old. Elaine made a strong connection with him and they spoke for several hours sharing beliefs and feelings. Joseph wanted to choose his own wife and told his father he wasn’t going to marry the girl who was chosen for him. He wanted to build his own house that wouldn’t wash away in the rainy season, and not one his wife would traditionally build. He would not circumcise his daughters and increasingly, disagreed with his father. His suffering and conflict were palpable and Elaine told him that I was a doctor who had worked with American Indians and had some experience in this area; perhaps he’d like to talk to me.
The following day was New Year’s Eve and after dinner Joseph and I had an extraordinary, deep and soulful conversation about how people survive the struggle of rapid personal and cultural change. We talked about what happens to the first people, those “bridge people” who are the first to cross over and look at the other side. We shared our stories, pain, and insights until the midnight hour approached. Before joining the party, he asked me for my prediction of his future, and in summary said, “I think it’s possible to be a good Maasai and also enjoy a hot shower.” I gave him my official USA Olympic team beret as we danced in the New Year.
In the morning, just before we left, Joseph came to our tent. I had to look at him twice, because I didn’t recognize him in short hair; he’d cut his hair to begin the New Year. He wanted to give us something and took out his hand from behind his back. In his fist he held a Maasai war club, which he had carved. Joseph handed it to me and said, “Something to remember a real Maasai.”