Kenya! The Masai Mara where seasons are slotted around the “short rains” and “long rains” and “the migration.” We gazed down at a raft of hippo as the Cessna banked across the Mara River and an elephant herd moved out of the forest as we levelled off for the Kichwa Tembo landing strip and our visit to andBeyond’s Bateleur Camp. A Masaai guard of honour, in full warrior regalia, lined up as a reception committee, spears raised and red shukas in stark contrast to the endless green. The engine cut and the Masaai stomped their feet and their voices rose into the cloudless blue sky and a journey of fifteen giraffe watched this all beneath ridiculously long eyelashes. How fitting that the Masaai should meet us in the middle of no-where in the Mara.
One day we were invited to have tea with the Masaai. (When referring to the people the spelling is double a.) Tea is a misnomer. We wound up the escarpment which sweeps along the southern aspect of the mighty Masai Mara forming a natural boundary for this world renown wildlife preserve, home to staggeringly large herds of buffalo, pride of lion that number in excess of twenty and hyena clans that top the hundred. During the great migration this Kenyan landscape is eclipsed by wildebeest in their thousands as they move across from the Serengeti, following the sweet green grass in a primal spectacle that attracts thousands of tourists annually
Our guide, Joseph Ole (son of) Kima, aka Kima named so as not to confuse him with any of the other 40 or so Josephs who work at that extraordinary lodge, was taking us to meet both his mother-in-law, who spoke only Maa, and his eldest daughter, who was attending the nearby school. A progressive step indeed as most villagers prized caring for cattle far above education.
We were greeted by the eldest member of this tribe and a youngster, who spoke some English. They were robed in traditional shukas wrapped around their lean frames, and carried walking sticks and peace sticks, which look like short beaded knobkerries, and smell strongly of wood fire. We were ushered into the village through a very low opening in the thorn barrier (leleshua) which enclosed the semi-permanent settlement or enkang.
“You have to bend ” the young man said with no trace of amusement as my husband almost crawled through the low opening, “to show respect to the elders. Everyone who enters has to.”
The old man moved away and proceeded to make fire using a stick and another piece of wood on the ground. Before I could comment on this expertise we were shepherded into a nearby hut. The door was even lower and we exchanged glances as we crouched into pitch darkness.
“Our home. You are in the first room, where we bring the baby goats at night. Otherwise the leopards eat them.There is a sitting room”. He pointed to another equally small space but led us through a doorway to our left. This was the bedroom, illuminated only by a tiny open window space, and the roof so low that I forever wonder how those tall Masaai manage to move around their homes without concussing themselves. The bed was a wooden structure with cross bars of ntingos over which a cowhide was thrown.
“Please sit.” we perched on the bed, there was nowhere else. “We all sleep in here, the children and wife on one side, the husband on the other. This is also the kitchen.” Indeed there was space to make a fire at the end of the bed but the room was tiny.
Finally we emerged back into bright sunshine and were shown around the entire compound.
In the middle, surrounded by all the huts was a thorn barricade, the ground flattened by countless hooves. “The Masai bank” the young man smiled for the first time as we exchanged blank looks. “Our cattle sleep here. They are our wealth. God originally gave the Masaai all the eland in the world. Then one day the eland went out and were not looked after properly by the herd boys. They went missing and for days the two mothers of the herd boys blamed each other. It was your son’s turn to care of the eland! No, it was yours! And on and on the fighting went. So God took the eland away from the Masaai but because they originally belonged to us we can still hunt them and eat their meat. That is the only wild animal we may kill for food.”
“Then God gave us all the cows in the world.” he nodded earnestly and frowned, “Do you have cows in South Africa?”
“Yes, we do,” we answered.
His eyes positively lit up. “Then I must tell our elders, they shall come and collect them from you. They do not belong to you. They are all ours.” He was absolutely serious.
I kept a straight face as I visualised a tribe of Masaai warriors sweeping across the borders and demanding herds of Nguni cattle from the Zulus.
“The ladies wish to spend some time with you. This is a special day. ” He pointed to me and I was taken across to the edge of the village where the women, led by Kima’s mother-in-law, shyly came to meet me, their children peering wide-eyed from behind their knees.
Beyond their smiles of greeting I saw what was possibly the finest view of the Mara imaginable. This village had the most unbelievable location.
I was endowed with gifts, necklaces and bowls and treasures that were lovingly and beautifully made and then the ladies surrounded me and started singing and dancing, tentatively reaching out to touch me, encouraging me to join in the dance.
“You are very welcome here. Kima speaks highly of you.” Kima’s mother -in-law said in Maa after the celebration was over. and I was led back to where my husband was waiting “Would you join us in something to drink?” the young man translated.
I recall Kima saying a great delicacy was milk enriched with the freshly drawn blood of a cow. There was an art in that too, spearing the animal in the jugular, removing just a small amount of blood, sealing the wound with dung and then allowing the cow to continue it’s daily pursuit of food without ill effect. I wondered how we could decline witho0ut offending but before I could say anything Kima joined us and with apologies announced that we were late for our visit to the school. Apparently all the children were all assembled and waiting for us, so regretfully we would have to leave. We bade our farewells with hugs but without any refreshment or blood letting.
That evening during sundowners on the escarpment, overlooking the endless spotted plains, and Mara means spotted, a dozen Masaai warriors burst out of the darkness, scaring half the guests witless with their warrior headdresses, heavily adorned faces and strident voices rising in unison, drowning out the distant roar of the lion. We watched stunned as they performed their acrobatic leaps, soaring into the sky, silhouetted by the crackling fire. It was not a dance so much as a contest, each young warrior in earnest competition with his peers, for traditionally the one who jumps the highest will win the girl! These warriors are now forbidden by law to prove their bravery to the elders by hunting and killing a lion using only their skill, spear or knife, but their traditions are still strongly entrenched and the cross over to modern society, schooling and western ways is slow in coming.
On our final morning as we drifted over the Mara in a hot air balloon I reflected there would be much I would remember of this special place not least of all the Masaai with their fierce belief that all cows belong to them. I shall be sure to warn my Zulu friends that their cows are in imminent danger of being claimed.