Meeting a Maasai Warrior
Nairobi, Kenya's capital city, means "cold water" in the Maasai language. The Maasai are one of the most famous tribes in Kenya, and in Africa.
What is now a modernized city, used to be rural, Maasai territory.
The story of the Maasai is like that of other indigenous groups of people throughout the world. Their land was taken by force, their "primitive" way of life came under attack through religious conversion efforts and outlawing of native practices deemed uncivilized and, as a result, many live today in a state of poverty and neglect.
It’s a sad story really.
My heart breaks for them and for all who share it, which is partly the reason why it was such an honor to have had the opportunity to sit with a traditional Maasai elder, Partoip (pron. PAR-TWIP), at his compound in a Maasai village about two hours outside of Nairobi, which we stopped by on our way to Jared's home village in Kisii, to learn about the culture and pay our respects.
These are some reflections from that profound visit.
We (I was with Sonali, Eli, and Jared) met Partoip at a town centre about 15km from his compound.
At the time, we weren't aware of the distance between the two points and when Partoip invited us to his home, he said it was, "Just over there." Ha!
Luckily, Jared, a Kenyan, knew what that could by mean and insisted we take our car.
We found out we would have had to walk about 2 hours there and 2 hours back! Maasai are known for their Olympic levels of fitness and like the Aborigines in Australia, constantly roam on foot. A journey of such distance is like crossing the street to them!
We arrived at Partoip's compound, set in a roaming Kenyan plane where it's only you and the land. No electricity. No running water. No cars. Not many other people.
I was told the compound had been arranged in traditional fashion, with various family members occupying different homes. I was reminded how the Zulu in South Africa do something similar. You can see also, in the above photo, how the homes are made with mud and cow dung, with natural fencing of thorny branches.
Partoip invited us in to sit down and talk.
Learning about Maasai Culture
It was like being in a sweat lodge. There were no windows. It was pitch black (though our eyes adjusted after time), and it was hot, like the kind of heat I got to know in India.
There was something oddly comfortable about the discomfort though. I remember clearly stepping outside after the interview was done, feeling the fresh air on my sweaty skin, and noticed that my consciousness had altered in a subtle way, connecting me more deeply to the natural environment.
After establishing we had no commercial purpose for the visit, I proceeded to ask Partoip a series of questions about his way of life and traditions. My English was translated to Swahili, then from Swahili to the Maasai language and then back again.
One of the most fascinating stories he shared, was about the time he killed a lion with only his spear (which I'm holding in the below photo), which is a sacred, coming-of-age Maasai rite of passage that not everybody lives through. I you are successful, you become a Moran — a Maasai warrior — an elite member of the tribe and probably know no fear for the rest of your life.
This tradition was made illegal by the Kenyan government and is not practiced as it once was, which is good example of how the government has had a direct impact on the culture of the country's indigenous tribes.
I was curious though, how did Partoip overcome his fear of standing in front of one of the fiercest beasts, knowing that only one party would leave the encounter still breathing?
He said that when a Maasai goes into battle, they take a brew made from various plants and herbs that makes them intensely aggressive and fearless.
He told us about his knowledge of healing and how he can heal a variety of illnesses with a mixture of animal blood (cow, goat, etc.) and plants. Knowledge, he said, which is passed verbally in the tribe.
Sonali asked Partoip what the secret to his happiness was. I was taken back by the question because I didn't think it was a concept he would think about too much. Nevertheless, his answer was incredible.
He said that the sharing of resources within the tribe is what causes love and happiness amongst members. If one person needs something, such as water, a cow, etc. then somebody else will provide that. In effect, he was saying that interdependence creates happiness.
Partoip wrapped the exchange up by singing a traditional Maasai prayer for us, which we absorbed fully. Outside, we took photographs with his family, shared some laughter with his children, Jared negotiated the purchase of a Maasai hen, and we all made the long drive back to town through the plain with a sense of awe and gratitude for having experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity.