Africa's Lost Tribe, Part I
They're among Africa's most celebrated, fabled, romanticized tribes, a tall, slim, dark-skinned, proud, and, by all accounts, handsome people who make up a mere 2% of the Kenyan population. Despite relatively scant numbers, the Maasai inhabit the popular imagination as a near-mythical race. Having stirred a cult-like curiosity from European adventurers who first met them in the 19th century, they still stoke the flames of untold love affairs with the African wilderness with which they are so intimately associated. Many Maasai -- those who have embraced some of the most romantic theories created around their origins -- will tell you that they are directly descended from one of Israel's biblical lost tribes. Another theory pegs them as the offspring of a band of Roman infantrymen who drifted south from Sudan while defending the southern borders of the empire. There's no getting away from the close resemblance Maasai warriors bear to some images of ancient Roman soldiers -- a brightly colored shawl, or shuka, wrapped over a red tunic bearing, and always with a dagger at their hip. Add to this that classic image of Maasai men loping through the wilderness, unshackled by material possessions, save perhaps their beloved cattle, and you have a definite case for a people whose eternal wandering conjures a lost tribe fantasy.
In reality, though, today's Maasai increasingly find themselves under pressure to conform to the strictures of contemporary development. Kenya recognizes around 50 tribes, but because of their traditional relationship with the land -- one that includes nonownership and semi-nomadic pastoralism -- the Maasai are struggling to stand their ground and sustain their cultural identity.
For many, the truly humbling reward of visiting the Mara is encountering morans (warriors) striding across the plains, young boys herding goats, or elders grouped under a tree discussing matters of the day. Today most of your encounters with the Maasai, however, will be in the context of their new role as game lodge guides and animal trackers, playing cultural hosts and ambassadors, or performing their traditional dances and haunting songs to the applause and camera-clicking of enthralled tourists. In modern Kenya, the Maasai are especially visible in the immediate vicinity of the Masai Mara -- part of a greater region known as Maasailand, which was essentially a portion of colonial-era East Africa that nobody wanted. Colonial history effectively compelled them to be here, and the ongoing struggle for land still threatens their survival.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Maasai were the dominant tribe in Kenya, but their role changed significantly with the arrival of European weapons, technology, and colonizers. Until the British settlers arrived, fierce Maasai tribes occupied Kenya's most fertile lands. At the height of their power in the mid-19th century, their lands stretched as far as the fertile Laikipia Plateau and Central Highlands. Rinderpest, an infectious virus-borne febrile disease, apparently accompanied the white settlers (who else?) and decimated the Maasai cattle herds that have always been an essential part of their diet and way of life. Famine followed the rinderpest outbreak, as did another colonial disease -- smallpox.
As in much of Africa, Maasai society began its slow absorption of foreign concepts (such as landownership) when the Europeans began to redistribute the best land among themselves. Despite initial attempts to fight back against the new rulers, a disease-weakened Maasai fell victim to some tricky political maneuvering. They tried to preserve their territory, but their spears were no match for British troops armed with guns, and their lawyers never had a fair chance in British courtrooms. In 1911, a small group of Maasai gave up their lands to British settlers, perhaps ignorant of the consequences of the settlement treaty. The Maasai lost about two-thirds of their land, and by 1913 the British government had relocated most of them to southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Their own pastoral lands were turned over to foreign farmers, some of whose descendants still maintain large ranches there. But farther south, on lands the colonizers did not want (except to use for colonial-era hunting), the Maasai were forced to eek out a devalued existence. In Kenya, the creation of wildlife preserves on some of this land has meant that a handful of Maasai, those who have become suit-wearing politicians and modern businessmen, have grown fat, flying high on the backs of their no-less-impoverished kinsmen. Theirs is very much the story of post-colonial Africa, with most ordinary Maasai finding themselves in bitter competition with the wildlife and tourists for scarce resources. It's been an ongoing struggle since the game reserve was established in the early 1960s, and much communal pastoral land was suddenly off-limits and pressure for grazing intensified.
Nowadays, as the cash economy impacts increasingly on their lives, visitors will witness the influence of the West throughout the greater Mara region -- tin-roof homes, concrete schools and clinics surrounded by fences, garishly signposted shops, and "hotels" (bars) where Maasai elders drink themselves in and out of despair. Instinctively, most visitors are quick to judge the brutalizing impact these "modern" edifices have on the landscape. The obvious reaction to the ugly architecture and unchecked development is outrage. It's a common Western response to blame these people for desecrating the unspoiled landscape. There's no denying that, as the Maasai construct their equivalent of villages and towns -- however ramshackle and simple they are -- they are steadily ruining the environment that sustains the local tourist industry and serves as the economic lifeblood of the region. Some argue that it's only fair that these people be allowed to develop alongside the rest of Kenya, but it's difficult not to feel personally affronted by the mushrooming of unsightly, ill-fitting structures -- particularly when seeing the situation through the eyes of the developed world. Outsiders are quick to react to tribal Africans attempting to shift with the times, struggling to make ends meet in a dispensation that shrugs off a culture it overtly perceives to be primitive. More worrying, perhaps, is that some Maasai have turned to self-exploitation as a means of subsidizing their meager resources. While many Maasai are putting their skills as wilderness experts to good use as guides, others devote themselves to inauthentic faux-village experiences where the sole aim of the exercise seems to be taking money off unsuspecting (and quickly frustrated) tourists.
But don't be guilty of making your mind up too quickly -- throughout the Mara, you'll find hard-thinking Maasai ready to share their personal thoughts on the matter; speak to them while they're still around.
The language of the Maasai, Maa, is a Nilotic language that can be written using the Latin alphabet; q and z don't feature. However, while you may quickly discover a fondness for the lilting, sing-song flow of a Maa conversation -- there's a discernible rhythm in the backward and forward exchange of statement and response that will remind you a bit of an orthodox sung prayer -- you've got practically zero chance of ever joining in. With an unprecedented number of r's rolling off the tongue, and no recognizable pauses to indicate phrases, clauses, or sentence breaks, learning to speak Maa if you weren't brought up with it is devilishly difficult. However, don't let that stop you from impressing your hosts and guides with a few easy-to-remember one-word basics: Sopa means "Hello"; Sopa, olleng? is "How are you?"; and one you'll be using frequently is Ashé, meaning "Thank you." Be warned, though, that an extremely important feature of Maa is the use of tone (or pitch), which is used to alter the meaning of individual words -- get the stress on one syllable wrong, and you could be barking up the wrong tree. The sad fact, however, is that tribal languages such as Maa inevitably have a limited lifespan. In a country with dozens of different tribes, each with a different language or dialect, only English and Swahili are taught at schools. Coupled with the swift embrace of modernity and the pressure on all children to be state educated, the chance of long-term survival for these highly individual languages is slim.
Cattle -- hump-backed zebu, originally bred in India -- are highly revered by the Maasai and are believed to have been granted to them by their god, Engai. Maasai believe Engai created them, bestowed upon them all the cattle in the world, and only later made other human beings. It's a convenient excuse for traditional cattle-rustling, which has always been one of the Maasai warriors' favorite activities -- not to mention a good reason for a little tribal warfare. So blasé are the Maasai about their relationship with their cattle that they call neighboring tribes of farmers and hunter-gatherers Ndorobo, a derogatory term meaning Poor Folk. Maasai measure wealth by the quantity of cattle that you own, so people without cows are considered poor -- you might hear it said that their cattle are like a bank deposit kept in perpetuity, while goats (which the Maasai also own) are like a moveable ATM, easily exchanged for quick cash. Interestingly, just as you'd probably consider it rude if someone asked you how much you earn, it's considered impolite to ask a Maasai man how many cows he owns. Cattle are also the primary nutritional source, providing milk, blood, and, in certain circumstances, meat and hides. Cows are not commonly slaughtered, but are kept instead for important ceremonies; for protein, the Maasai traditionally drink cow blood as part of the diet, especially when milk is scarce (and it's sometimes mixed with milk, too). Blood is usually tapped from a vein in the living animal's neck using a tiny puncture wound that is then sealed with cow dung so it can heal, and the animal can be tapped again in the future. And just when you thought you'd heard every imaginable mad cow story, one Maasai elder told me that he was once asked to produce photographs of all his cows as part of his application for an American tourist visa.
Africa's Lost Tribe, Part II
Perceptions about the Maasai abound in the Western imagination, possibly because, as a people, they fit so readily into the role of the exoticized other. Dark, mysterious, eccentrically costumed, and defiantly adhering to strange customs and primitive superstitions, they're a people who legitimize foreign interpretations of who and what Africans are. Regarding the Maasai as "noble savages" has long been the outsiders' approach to a people who for so long clung to ancient ways even in the face of rapidly encroaching modernity. Hemingway accorded the Maasai a kind of "ignorant" dignity, referring to them in his Green Hills of Africa as "the tallest, best-built, handsomest people I had ever seen and the first truly light-hearted people I had seen in Africa" -- despite his overt bigotry toward native Africans, he was undeniably awed by the people of Maasailand. Another Western observer, the Danish author Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), positively fell over herself in praise of the Maasai in her famous novel, Out of Africa. "A Maasai warrior is a fine sight," she wrote. "Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; daring and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much a part of their being as are a stag's antlers." Yes, outsiders are quick to idealize and romanticize.
Their physicality aside, it's difficult to pinpoint the source of their attraction. Perhaps it's their elegant simplicity -- as pastoralists, they have traditionally wanted for little and have measured wealth in terms of their cattle and children. There's always been a certain grace with which the Maasai tread upon the earth -- their semi-nomadic lifestyle has meant that they frown upon agriculture, and by eschewing individual land ownership, they have tended toward a zero-impact lifestyle, leaving little trace of their presence when they relocated their semi-permanent enkang (a corral of dung and clay huts) to new grounds. Until recently, Maasai did not have villages with permanent buildings, but would periodically abandon their enkang and construct a new, equally biodegradable one with better water and grazing. These days, the nomadic life is increasingly substituted with tin-roof houses and small villages centered on schools, clinics, and shops.
Modernity has brought attempts to impose external law and order on this tenacious, clannish, traditionally war-mongering tribe. When they first arrived in Kenya, it was their ferocity and skill in battle that marked them out as a superior race -- not only thwarting their enemies, but rustling cattle with remarkable skill, establishing their reputation as a people not to be trifled with. But contemporary legislation has banned the warring, illegalized cattle theft and, as far as possible, tried to prevent customary social practices. Until quite recently, part of the ritual by which a Maasai boy would achieve warrior (moran) status was to single-handedly kill a lion with his spear -- it was as essential as circumcision. But the Kenyan government has put an end to that, not to mention making warriorhood illegal. Already the classic moran is under threat; these days they're often "warriors" in name and appearance only, posing for photographs and dressing the part to satisfy expectations at safari lodges.
Maasai males are rigidly classed by age into categories defining them as boys, warriors, or elders, and they must pass through various intricate rituals in order to move up through the ranks. Despite the horror imagined by outsiders at the thought of the male circumcision ceremony -- during which the boys are forbidden from showing one jot of pain, lest they be labeled cowards and their family disgraced -- it's rite of passage that many young boys eagerly anticipate, so keen are they to enjoy the rewards and status that go with becoming a moran. Later, when their warriorhood expires, they will undergo another ceremony as they become elders, during which their mothers will shave off their long locks of hair -- ironically, it is during this ritual stripping of one kind of privileged lifestyle (warriors are the pride and joy of the community and, by many accounts, carry on like playboys) that makes many men break down in tears.
Experts claim that the system of age grades that is at the core of Maasai culture won't endure. Many traditional practices will disappear long before this century is up, they say. To outsiders, of course, some of these practices are intrinsically barbaric. Many are quick to squirm when they learn of the Maasai practice of leaving the dead (and the very old) to be devoured by hyenas rather than buried. And the discourse around female circumcision (derided by Westerners as "female genital mutilation") remains one of Africa's biggest human rights battles. Maasai girls are summarily forced to endure this painful, anesthetic-free procedure -- before being married off to a much older man, usually while they themselves have barely hit puberty. Some would argue that these women (who are responsible for most of the work, including the building of homes), never attain any rights whatsoever, and there's a deep sense of patriarchal dominance in a polygamous society where the men are virtually always the ones seen enjoying life -- notably in the company of other men. In fact, one of the Maasai's more pusillanimous superstitions is that it's bad luck for women to witness men eating meat. Yet when it comes to pregnant women, even one of the strongest Maasai taboos -- a ban on eating wild animal flesh -- may be broken in order to ensure that mother and child are adequately nourished.
The Maasai have slowly adapted some of their ways to meet the challenges of a life increasingly regulated by a central government that is overtly dismissive of tribal ways and eager to modernize, even at the expense of cultural identity. Nevertheless, they remain fiercely bound by their traditions -- as one Maasai elder who has toured the U.S. and been to the U.K. told me of his experiences there: "At least now I know why they come here . . . they have lost their culture." This from one of the most gentle, civil, and honorable men I've ever known -- yet James, who is never without his red tunic, tartan-design shuka, and short dagger, wears a wristwatch, dotes upon his mobile phone, and consults his notebook computer virtually every night. It remains to be seen how much of his culture will be left by the time his children are old enough to appreciate the significance of their unique heritage.