Written by: Sal Roux
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 landing strip. A Maasai 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 Maasai 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.
We were invited to have tea with the Maasai. Tea is a misnomer. We wound up on the escarpment which sweeps along the southern aspect of the mighty Masai Mara forming a natural boundary for this world renown wildlife reserve; home to staggeringly large herds of buffalo, pride of lions 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 the 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.
We were greeted by the eldest member of this tribe and a youngster, who spoke some English. They were robed in traditional shukas 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 another 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 and 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 Maasai manage to move around their homes without concussing themselves. The bed was a wooden structure with cross bars of intingos 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 of the village, surrounded by all the huts was a thorn barricade, the ground flattened by countless hooves. “The Maasai 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 Maasai 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 Maasai 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 Maasai 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. “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.
Before we could accept we were called back to where the vehicle was parked outside the village. We were late for our visit to the school. They were all assembled waiting for us, and regretfully we would have to leave. We bade our farewells with hugs but without any refreshment or blood letting.
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.