by James Dorsey
A Maasai education
Travel does not always begin with the boarding of an airplane, but rather at the moment one opens the mind to new possibilities, and that is why I was quite surprised when the gentleman I had engaged in dinner conversation at a party in Los Angeles told me he was an elder of the Maasai nation.
Moses was in America to study theology at a local seminary, a contradiction for the traditional Maasai who shun western style education in favor of an animist life in the bush. When finished, he would be only the sixth Maasai known to receive a PHD. He now shuttles back and forth between America and Africa where he has used his education to create a foundation that drills water wells and builds schools in the Kenyan bush.
After a year of invitations, my wife and I found ourselves on a hot, dusty Africa savannah and the culture shock was complete when I saw Moses, normally clad in blue jeans and a blazer, walking towards me in his brilliant red shuka, (Maasai robe) with a long spear. The only familiar connection was his brilliant smile as I saw my old friend for the first time in his natural state, as a man of power and respect within his own element.
We spent that first afternoon walking through his valley while Moses spun tales of life in the bush, growing up with wild animals for companions and not hearing a mechanical sound until he was almost ten years old. Suddenly he stopped short and motioned towards a tree where a young leopard sat eyeing us, and at that point, Africa became a very serious place.
The Maasai have a connection to the earth that is beyond the comprehension of those of us who dwell in cities; It is their home and mother. For them there is no afterlife; you simply return to the earth. There is no past or future, only the now, and they live accordingly as stewards of the earth.
He told us how to track an animal, how to read its scat, and know its sex by the depth of its print in the dirt. He showed us how to follow a trail by the bend of a leaf, and I realized that while in Africa, he occupied a separate reality than I did, and marveled at how he transitioned from one to the other with ease
He spoke of how as traditional nomads, he was never sure where his family would be when he returned to Africa, and would wander the valley till he found them. We walked for hours and I asked him how the Maasai navigate in the bush. Did they use the sun or stars? Did they memorize geographical landmarks? Moses just smiled and said, a Maasai may not always know where he is, but he is never lost. By the end of the day I felt like a sponge soaked with knowledge.
When we returned to the village he invited us inside his hut and became very serious, asking if we wanted to know about hunting lions.
lion hunting has long been central to Maasai culture. In the old days, before a Maasai boy could be considered a man, he had to participate in a lion hunt using only a spear and animal hide shield. The first lion hunt was the paramount point in the life of a Maasai youth, and nothing he did for the rest of his life would equal its importance.
Even though this practice was outlawed by the Kenyan government long ago, the Maasai still practice it covertly, and Moses was being unusually candid by his willingness to share such intimate information.
He stared into the fire for a long time before speaking, and I knew this would be a rare gift, and an insight only revealed to a friend. The word friend has special meaning to the Maasai, much more than in western society. To them it is more like being a brother one would die for, and when Moses applied it to me, it touched my soul.
Moses was 13 when he was picked for his first lion hunt, determined to prove himself and gain great face, but admitted to being so scared that he could not sleep for several nights before the hunt.
On the actual morning, while his face was being painted as a warrior for the first time, he felt everyone could hear his heart pounding, and he was sure all would notice the spear shaking in his hand. And as the warriors gathered in the morning mist, his knees almost buckled.
The Maasai hunt a lion by forming a circle around it and then slowly walk forward, tightening the circle as they go. Eventually the lion will feel cornered and spring at one man who is supposed to drop to the ground, cover himself with his shield, and hope his fellow warriors kill the lion before it kills him.
With a grand gesture Moses reached down and pulled up the end of his shuka, revealing a long jagged scar running for several inches along his lower leg. He stared at the scar for several seconds before saying in a very soft voice “I got this on that first lion hunt!”
Amazed he had survived such an attack I blurted out, “The lion did that to you?”
Moses looked me square in the eye and said, “No, I was so scared I speared myself in the leg, and the lion got away!” and with that he threw his head back and laughed.
The Maasai have a wonderful sense of humor! To this day, Moses has never killed a lion.
As rare guests we dined on goat that evening while a chorus of cicadas announced the coming of the African night, and I pondered how my western girth would fit inside one of their tiny huts whose sleeping compartments resemble those of a working man’s hotel in Tokyo, much like sliding into a bee hive.
When I expressed this concern to Moses he pointed just outside the thorn bush wall that surrounds the village where two of his nephews were wrestling with a nylon tent. He was way ahead of me.
Grateful as I was for this comfort, I expressed concern to Moses about sleeping outside the thorn wall with the image of a leopard still fresh in my mind.
The Maasai fear leopards more than lions because a lion will make a kill and eat it while a leopard will kill everything in sight before it settles down to eat. Moses told us if the leopard should come, we need only yell and a dozen warriors would come running with spears, then he put his hand on my shoulder and said not to worry as the leopard would not like our smell, and with that he walked off, secure in his pronouncement.
No sooner were Irene and I inside the tent than most of the village had surrounded us, pulling the zipper up and down while running their hands over the strange new sensation of nylon. Most of them had never seen a tent before, and called it an “instant hut.”
A full moon was rising over the tree line, and it turned the silhouettes of our curious visitors into an ongoing puppet show crawling over our tent walls as they continued to play with the zipper and occasionally thrust an ebony head inside to giggle at us strange creatures.
Surreal patterns glided over the tent wall as tiny fingers and old hands ran up and down. We were as much an oddity as a circus act and at first we stayed inside hoping to minimize our impact, but this only fed the peoples curiosity as more and more poked their heads inside for a brief glimpse of us.
This went on until I stepped outside to see just how many people there were who had yet to pay us a visit.
To my surprise a line of people snaked through the forest and down into the valley where word had spread about these visitors and their instant hut, and now the entire valley was migrating towards our tent. As far as I could see, Maasai were coming from all around to see us.
Irene stepped outside to greet our visitors. Most shook our hands while others simply wanted to touch us. For some, we would be the only white people they would ever know. No one spoke and there was no need for words. In that magical evening we were all simply people, coming together to meet each other for the first and only time, frozen by a human touch that instantly passed into memory.
I stepped back inside the tent, laying next to Irene and watched this never ending procession of shadows through the night. There would be no sleep and we did not care. No festival, ceremony, or dance could have been more entertaining or enlightening to us. The Maasai are story tellers, and in Africa, especially among tribes with no written language, stories quickly become both history and legend. Stories tend to grow with each telling and take on the flavor of the narrator. I know that evening we became a story to be told around their campfires for generations to come.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries. His journeys are usually far off the beaten path to record the cultures of indigenous peoples, particularly in Africa and Asia.
His first book was entitled “Tears, Fear and Adventure”. He is a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times. He is a regular contributor as both writer and photographer to WEND, Sea Kayaker, Ocean, WorldAndI, and Wavelength magazines. His articles and photos have appeared in Natural History, BBC Wildlife, California Wild, Northwest, and the Travelers’ Tales book series, plus Wild Moments, The Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, and L.A. Weekly newspapers. He is a 2008 and 2010 Solas category award winner for Best Travel Writing.
His was a principal photographer for England’s Seventh Wave magazine, and his work has been used by the National Wildlife Federation, Ocean Conservancy, International Cetacean Society, California Gray Whale Coalition, and the International Whaling Commission. His work has twice been chosen as Kodak Internationals Photo of the Day. He has appeared on National Public Radio’s “Weekend America” program and is a Fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. WEBSITE: www.jamesdorsey.com