The East African Savanna overloads the senses. I expected vast landscapes, wildlife diversity, and exotic cultures. In the Serengeti, the savanna is so vast that I saw the earth round. Migrating wildebeest stretched from one horizon to the other. Bird density and variety inspired ornithological pursuits. Accentuating the sight, sounds, and smell, the primal feelings stirred by the cycle of life and death were as nerve-racking as they were inspiring. And if I had not met a Massai family just outside of Arusha, I might have left East Africa believing them just like the wandering tribesman portrayed by nature shows.
After 800 kilometers of abusive dirt roads through Kenya and Tanzania, our truck’s front axel joint gave out. Most in our safari group were grateful for the respite from the dust and bouncing. It provided an ideal time to catch up in our journals and relax. We were quite a distance from the nearest city center, so Timba told us to unload the trucks and pitch our tents. He needed at least on day to repair the damage. Further, he warned against wandering too far. Although not in a game park, there were other dangers in the bush. He did not need to tell us twice.
Timba and the driver elevated the truck and removed the entire front axel assembly. With an engineer’s precision and attention to detail they carefully laid each cog, bolt, and bar in order on the soil nearby. They took time and weighed each step of their progress like a surgeons during an important operation. Timba, aside from his extensive knowledge of East African wildlife and geography, doubled as a mechanic. Around the fire pits at night he filled the conversation with stories of breaking down in remote areas for days and jury rigging engine components with wood and other makeshift components. We were confident in his abilities.
At dinner, the driver announced a surprise. He knew a local Masaii tribe, and if we paid some pounds, we could visit the tribe. I felt conflicted. There is something inherently demeaning about observing another culture from a tour irrespective of best efforts to respect cultures and social mores. Look, look over there at the natives, aren’t they quaint. Our visit seemed like the worst type of tourism, a one-way visit where I was to take experience and examine the exotic in passing while returning no substantial enrichment. Despite these feelings I desperately wanted to learn first hand about a culture so foreign to me.
The next morning, we met Alfred, our Massaii guide. Both the Timba and the driver needed to work on the truck and Alfred spoke English well enough for group to understand. Alfred was not what I expected. Far from the colorfully wrapped, spear wielding, Massai herding livestock along the dirt roadways, he wore blue pressed pants, with a plain yellow collared shirt.
“Good Morning, my name is Alfred and yes I am Massai.”
Our small group followed Alfred to the Massai village. It was not far, and with fresh memories of Lion and Leopard kills, we stayed close. As we moved around a small hillside, the village took form. Four round huts became visible. On one side, thorny acacia branches interwoven with pink bougainvillea and gold and purple lantana created cheerful contrast to the brown dirt surrounding the village. On the other side, a corral made of branches and deadwood enclosed several goats and a cow. A wave of children flowed forth shouting “Jambo”. Instead of asking for candy, pens, or money as had been the case during earlier Massaii encounters, they stepped up to us and stood close talking amongst themselves. The smallest children stepped near, slowly and in a barely perceptible manner, held our hands and arms.
By western standards these children were poor. Most were shoeless, hardly clothed, and lived in huts built from dung, mud, and grass. They were unbothered by the flies crawling on their faces and lips. Yet, their smooth dark complexions and deep brown eyes revealed the same sense of joy and healthy curiosity possessed by children the world around. Excitedly, they led us to different areas of their village showing off their goats and play areas. They did not verbally communicate with us. Knowing we did not speak Swahili, they did not speak loudly or more slowly to us in their native tongue. Instead, they led us by hand, pointed, and stayed closed as if to assure us all was well and they understood that we did not. The older children stayed distant at first, but soon approached. Softly, they touched our garments and skin, and spoke to each other.
Alfred motioned us into the main hut. The children held our hands until we entered, at which time they let go and waited outside. Once inside Alfred introduced us the patriarch’s number one wife. He explained that the Massai measure wealth in terms of heard sizes, then in the number of wives. Massai bartered cattle and goats for wives. With eight wives and this tribal leader was considered wealthy.
The inside of the hut offered a welcome dark and a cool relief from the searing equatorial sun. It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust, as the only illumination came from the door and small hole in the center of the roof. The smell of dung almost overwhelmed me. The walls were devoid of decoration and the floor swept clean. Tidy and free from clutter, their home was a reminder of how much I could do without in my own life. The number one wife gave a grand tour. To right of the door, she showed us the kitchen – a small shelf with several wooden bowls. Further to the right and opposite the entrance she showed off the master bedroom suite. Wooden slats, elevated off the earth by rocks, made a humble and functional bed. A small bow and spear hung near the bed. Just past this was a small area enclosed with vertical sticks bound together with twine. Alfred explained at night goats often stayed in this area. Being indoors contributed to warmth and provided additional security from nighttime predators. Just beyond this were another two beds. Hanging on the center post was a large hollowed gourd. Alfred explained this was used to keep their milk cool. A large open area in the middle centered around the all-purpose fire pit.
I sat on a wood stool as Alfred spoke of Massai culture. In British accent, he educated us on social and political aspects of Massai life. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania allow Massaii roam back and forth across boarder without any documentation requirements. Aside from valuing their culture, Massaii do not make money or contribute to the economy. They exist at subsistence level. What could the government tax? With large influxes of tourists and development in the last fifty years, the Massai started to learn the value of money. Many beg, and several are leaving the tribes and gaining a western style education. As they move from subsistence survivors to wage earners, they return back to the tribes inspiring more to leave. As more do this, their special relationship with the governments of Kenya and Tanzania are bound to change. The governments discourage some Massaii traditions such as lion killing and ritual circumcisions done with stones and bone instruments; however there are not punishments for Massai who carry out these rites of passage.
He shared his own boyhood story of lion hunting. When old enough to wield a spear he and his older friends sought to kill a lion to mark the transition into manhood. The strategy was simple. Track a lion, prod and provoke it into lunging at him. During the lunge, thrust a spear into its chest. However, the lion acted unexpectedly and the plan fell apart when the lion wounded Alfred’s friend. Pinning his friend to the ground, and lording over him, the hunt changed into a rescue mission. Fortunately for Alfred’s friend Lions usually do not like human flesh and avoid eating it. Soon the lion lost interest and left. The hunting party carried the injured youth back to the village for treatment. Alfred did not try again to hunt lions.
We peppered Alfred with questions about Massaii coexistence with the animals of the plains. He explained Hippos, when on land, will charge and run at you. Wait to the last moment and jump to the side they will run by you. Unable to change directions quickly, they will not be able to turn fast enough. With the extra moments find a tree to take refuge. If a lion is near, a special bird calls. Take a large rock and rub it all over. Roll the rock down a hill or ravine. The lion will become confused and not know which scent to follow. Cape Buffalo will not step on the unknown. Lay absolutely still and flat on the ground. When it approaches to sniff and lick to determine what you are, take your knife and cut its tongue. It will go wild with the taste of its own blood and run off. Rhinoceroses, unlike the popular myth, are afraid of fire, just like elephants.
The morning gave way to afternoon and it was time leave. We thanked Alfred and the first wife. When leaving the huts, the children grasped our hands and arms again. We took some photos and started our journey back to the truck. Gradually the children let go and returned to their village.
Not too far from the huts a small boy saw Sharleen and I interacting with some other children. He ran ahead of his small heard, leaving it unattended. He spoke quickly to the other boys and girls around us. He missed the earlier excitement and energetically waved and touched our hands and arms:
“Timeko” we replied. He giggled at the sounds we made.
He pantomimed frantically, telling us the beleaguered beasts of burden walking slowly by us were his, or at least his responsibility. He brandished a switch and swung with bravado and threatened the cows from afar. He wore pride and determination on his face. Despite bearing the weight of village’s trust, he also radiated curiosity and joy. And as quickly as he ran up to us, he turned and ran off.
With thin sandals worn through in parts, he sprinted away chasing his small heard. His tiny feet created small puffs of dust as they pounded the dry earth. A single piece of purple cloth loosely covered his torso and midsection. The colorful fabric against his skin contrasted sharply against the beige and tan grasses and earth. His small backside was completely exposed as the thin cloth fluttered in the wind as he ran. He yelped sharp commands and shook his stick. The cows, aloof and weary, plodded along paid no attention to the yelping switch waving boy.
They were as interested in me, as I was in them. Their welcoming and gracious nature inspired and evoked shame. Would I open my own home so completely to curious strangers? Would I unquestioningly embrace a newcomer? I walked slowly back to our truck and eventually back to the civilization from which I came. In my civilization clutter and conveniences complicate existence, rites of passage revolve around binge drinking, and responsibility for children is washing dishes and taking out garbage. People shut and lock themselves away from their closest neighbors and turn their attention inward towards their computers. Other electronic devices keep us separated and distant preventing us from interacting at the most basic level – human touch and face to face interaction. Being more than I expected, Africa reminded me of those values which make us most human – those values that the complexities of modern society leech away. Putting aside our surrounding natural and electronic jungle, at our core, we did not differ much at all. We were both explorers as I explored their culture and way of life, they explored mine.