Modern Warriors

A Night with the Maasai

'A zebra takes its stripes wherever it goes.'

Maasai proverb

During the day, Steven can tell the time by how the shade falls across the grass. But when night comes, he’s got another technique.

In the four hours we spend sitting by the campfire in a small village in Loita Hills, southern Kenya, three aeroplanes fly over, tearing through the quiet of the bush and the studded fabric of the Milky Way. They’re headed for Nairobi. Steven reels off the flight schedule: one at 8pm, then another at 10pm, followed by 12am, 3am and 5am – chimes in the turn of an aeronautical clock, a mechanical timepiece of skies. “Lots of tourists in Kenya,” he says thoughtfully. “Lots of tourists.”

Four Maasai warriors sit around the fire, armed with spears to protect us from any lions or hyenas lurking beyond the campsite. As 10pm roars over our heads, Steven adjusts his red shuka and drags his eyes back to Earth. “A visitor is very strange. He doesn’t even know which direction he has come from! Do you know which way is Australia?” I search the sky for the Southern Cross and sheepishly point behind us. Steven grins and guides my arm 100 degrees to the right. “Over there, southwest. That’s where the sun set this evening, remember?”

It’s okay, I tell myself, wallowing in my lack of phone reception and secretly pining for my old friend Google Maps. This guy walked to Tanzania the other week for a wedding.

Of Kenya’s 42 tribes, the Maasai are the most famous. You might have seen pictures of them in National Geographic calendars or coffee table books – tall, dark and crimson-clad, squinting into the sun or leaping high off the ground. While most of Kenya’s ethnic groups have taken up more modern lifestyles and moved towards the cities, the Maasai continue to maintain their traditional way of life – living off their cattle, migrating with the seasons and upholding time-old social structures and customs.

But in the 21st century, things are slowly changing.

Camp David

It’s Day Five of our Intrepid Kenya Wildlife Safari, and we’re on our way to the village at Loita Hills. Sealed highways give way to dirt roads. Here and there a flash of colour, a bright smile, appears out of the dust.

Tiny settlements spring up, ringed in by thorny Acacia fences known as kraals, designed to protect livestock from wild animals. Villagers meet in conference under scrubby trees; a group of kids rub their fingers together, appealing for sweets. In the distance, a lone warrior strikes out across the scrublands, his shuka whipping behind him like a superhero’s cape. We’re in Maasai country now.

Close to the campsite, we pull over for water. An old Maasai man – frosted beard, forest-green Puma baseball cap – walks slowly up the road. In one hand he’s carrying a rungu, or Maasai club; in the other the fresh leg of a goat, hoof still attached. In Swahili, he explains to our leader Florence that the goat was attacked by a hyena, and the owner, having tried to fight the scavenger off, is now in hospital. The man poses for photos and heads on his way.

Five minutes up the road we reach our camp. A Maasai gentleman who introduces himself as David throws up my tent in two minutes flat. I’ve never met a Maasai warrior before – or any kind of warrior – but this chatty, easy-going fellow isn’t quite what I’d had in mind. Proudly, he shows me his spear, and tells me he’s been guarding the campsite for 20 years. His younger brother Steven ambles over and shakes my hand. He’ll be our host for the next 15 hours or so.

Next door in the village, we’re welcomed into the house of Nooltetian, one of the chief’s three wives. In Maasai culture,it’s a woman’s job to build the house, or Inkajijik– using mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow urine – as well as cook, raise the kids and collect firewood and water. Men are tasked with guarding the village and herding livestock.

Inside the dwelling it’s smoky, warm and so dark we can barely see. The only source of light comes from the doorway and a small puncture in the wall; a single solar bulb – a gift from an international visitor – swings from the roof, although it no longer seems to work. “Don’t worry,” Steven encourages. “Your eyes will adjust”.

'A cow is as good as a man.'
-Maasai proverb

The Maasai believe that when the sky and land split, all cattle were entrusted to them by their god Ngai, gifted down a rope of woven fig vines to Earth.

Cattle are the heart of Maasai life – spiritually, culturally and economically. “If we need milk, we milk a cow,” says Steven. “If we need blood to drink, we tie the neck with a rope and shoot a special arrow. Then, we survive.”

The animals are currency, too, used to barter for grains, vegetables and other livestock. When a warrior takes a wife, he provides her family with a dowry of cows. A man’s wealth and worth is measured by the number of his cattle.

As we sit in the hushed dark of Nooltetian’s Inkajijk, something strikes me about Steven’s description of the floor plan. The ‘main’ room is not, in fact, the one housing the family’s beds, kitchen and living area, but the larger room next door, used to shelter cows. A calf mewls through the walls. Most Maasai, we learn, would rather live in a simple hut with 300 cattle than sell them all to buy a big house in the city.

Tin Roofs and Title Deeds

The Maasai have long been semi-nomadic pastoralists, following the rains each year in search of good grazing territory.

But with British settlement, and later the establishment of game reserves and national parks by the Kenyan government, they’ve been pushed further and further off their land.

While they enjoy special permission to graze their animals within conservation areas during certain times of the year, reduced access to water sources, good grass and mineral licks has led to declining livestock populations. Add a long, hard drought and the threat of global warming, and the Maasai are facing devastating challenges to their way of life. Steven shakes his head. “The drought of 2009 was so bad. I had 30 cows before, and I only had two cows after. Now I have eight.”

Some Maasai are starting to sell off their animals, purchasing title deeds and settling permanently in one place. Our tour leader Florence tells us she’ll often drop hitch-hiking Maasai into town to stock up on tools or plastic piping. Many times throughout the trip she points into the distance. “Notice all the new fences and tin roofs on the houses? They weren’t there the last time I was here.”

In one village, a huge satellite dish is perched on a thatched roof like a jaunty hat. Gazing out the window, Florence is quiet. She points out some tomato plants in a small garden. “Those are new, too. Their culture is really changing.”

The Maasai have never been farmers. Once you cultivate land it’s no longer useful for grazing, so some people see agriculture as an affront to nature and an insult to Ngai. Steven is more pragmatic. His community barters for vegetables once a week at the local market, but they don’t grow crops. “We tried,” he tells me, “but it’s hard because of elephants. They come in with their big legs and walk over everything – chew, chew, chew!” He laughs and impersonates an elephant wrecking ball, limbs flying everywhere. “Ah – you would have to stand and guard your carrots all day and all night!”

Boy Warriors
and Lessons in Physics

Moses is one of the most self-assured 16-year-olds I’ve ever met. He is also a young Maasai warrior, the chief’s first-born son, and, if he plays his cards right, the future leader of the village. But behind all that, he’s just a regular high school kid.

That evening, he patiently explains his schedule to us: during the semester, he boards at the public high school in town, and on the holidays, he returns to the village and goes bush for warrior training, sometimes for weeks at a time.

In Maasai culture, boys pass through a series of stages marked by ceremonial rituals as they grow into adulthood. Around puberty, they form an ‘age set’ – the group they’ll stay with as they learn to be warriors or morans; in their mid-teens, they’re circumcised. Fascinated, we probe Moses about his warrior training and what that involves. He shrugs. “Learning how to survive in the bush, how to use spears and arrows and clubs, how to deal with wild animals. And eating a lot of meat.” If the boys get hungry or tired, other Maasai communities will feed them and put them up.

By the time he’s 25, Moses tells us, he’ll be a senior warrior and can get married. But – his eyes light up – he also wants to go to college and train to be an aeronautical engineer, maybe even in another country. His brothers still run three kilometres to school every day, but his sister has been studying biochemistry for the past few years at university.

Florence tells us later that mainstream education is becoming more and more common in Maasai communities. “Doesn’t that expose young Maasai to more modern ways of life, especially if they have to board at school?” I ask. “Yes, of course,” she says.

“And how do people use the skills they learn at university in their traditional communities?” She explains that slowly, an increasing number of young Maasai are up-skilling and moving to the cities to find work. It creates a real problem for the older generations left behind. She pauses. “But still a lot go back.”

We ask Moses whether he’ll return to the village in Loita Hills to live as a warrior, then an elder. He looks at us like it’s a strange question. “Of course.” The rule of the culture is to always come back.

Shooting the Breeze

There are around 800,000 Maasai in Kenya, but like almost everyone on this planet, they’ve come from somewhere else.

Bundled around the campfire after dinner, Steven tells us the story of how his people came to East Africa, following the Great Rift Valley from Sudan until they settled in Kenya and Tanzania. For centuries, the Maasai have called the land between Lake Victoria and Mount Kilimanjaro home.

After taking us through the ancient cultural practices that survive to this day – age sets, gender roles, initiation rituals – Steven touches on a few things that have changed in his community due to pressure from the Kenyan government. Women are still married off at 16, for example, but are no longer circumcised. In the past when someone died, the Maasai would roll the body in cow hide, smear it in fat and leave it for the scavengers, but the government decreed it unhygienic and encouraged them to bury their dead instead. “Now,” Steven beams, “we are perfect.”

“What about tourism?” I ask him later, when smoke and heavy eyelids have sent most of our group to bed. “Do you think it’s changing your culture?” I think back to a group of Maasai women I’d met the week before, competitively hawking homogenous, machine-made jewellery to tourists on the side of the road. Steven looks a little taken-aback; perhaps it’s a strange question to ask someone so obviously keen to share their culture. “Not really. We love the culture, and we believe that nothing can erode it. Many tribes in Kenya have lost their culture, but not the Maasai.”

Steven was just a boy when Intrepid first came to Loita Hills and negotiated the lease of the campsite. But he remembers it well. “I was running to school and I saw my brother, now the chief, walking with some mzungus [white people]. He taught me how to talk with them.” Steve’s grown up with travellers coming in and out of the community his whole life. He says they’ve taught him about the world – about Australia, for example, about Melbourne. And about zoos.

“Zoos?” I ask? “Like, z-o-o?.”
“Yes, zoo. What is that?”
“It’s where we keep animals.”
“Ah, like a park,” he says.
I pause. “Kind of, except they’re in cages.”

Steven’s especially interested in Indigenous Australians. He leans forward; the flames flicker in his eyes.

“I’ve heard they keep their culture, no? And that they live on a big rock? Uluru?” I explain that they don’t live on top of Uluru, that it’s sacred. I try to recall the few Dreamtime stories I learnt in primary school, but they’re long gone.

“But the government looks after them, yes?” he persists. “The Aborigines?”
“Sometimes.” I pause again. “Not really.”

The conversation ebbs and flows around the campfire. We discuss this and that – life after death, the colour of God’s face (white, according to Steven), which animal we’d like to be rebirthed as. The beers we like. I give the warriors some Heinekens I’ve had cooling in the truck and they nestle them in the ashes of the fire. I smile; warm beer is the national way. For a moment, they’re not Maasai – they’re just Kenyan.

I stay until I can no longer keep my eyes open and have to retire to my tent. I fall asleep to the sounds of snapping fire and the gentle murmurs of our Maasai guardians.

Warriors in the 21st century

The next morning, the young men of the village – Moses included – perform the Adumu or ‘warrior jump’ – a ceremonial coming-of-age dance which shows off their strength and manhood. It’s also a way to get girls: the higher you jump, the more appealing you are to the ladies.

The warriors – clad in blood-red robes and cascades of silver coins –emit a guttural chant as they jump. They invite the men from our group to jump with them, and even a few women, but it’s harder than it looks.

I wonder how much of what we see is on for show for tourists. Practices once reserved for important cultural occasions – drinking beer, making ornate jewelry, doing the warrior jump – now take place every week, at least during the high season. But tourism has also become an extra source of income, a way for communities to buy vegetables, keep their cattle and send their kids to school, maybe even to university. And when you meet people like Steve and David and Moses, who seem genuinely happy to have you there and share their culture, it’s hard not to feel hopeful.

What does a Maasai warrior look like in the 21st century? He’s as loquacious and curious as Steven. He’s got big dreams and his whole life ahead of him, like Moses. Some warriors – Steve’s brother Anthony, for example – use Facebook (he still hasn’t accepted my friend request), while others like David – he shakes his head with a smile – never will.

No community or culture – even one as fiercely resilient as the Maasai – exists in a vacuum. Even in the middle of the African bush, the expanding, modernising world encroaches. People change and they resist change. Shukas, once dyed red with Maasai mint, are now made by machine, but a warrior will still walk for seven days to find a good one in Nairobi. Planes fly overhead, email addresses are exchanged with travellers from faraway lands, and light globes hang forgotten as eyes adjust in the dark.

The writer travelled on Intrepid's 8-day Kenya Wildlife Safari tour, beginning and ending in Nairobi. The tour includes 20 meals, accommodation, lots of activities and wildlife game drives, and the wisdom of an expert East African Leader. For more information, check out Intrepid Travel's small group adventures.