I remember the first time that I saw him, out on the grassland, standing on an ant-hill all alone, gazing into the horizon. His lean, nearly 7’ tall frame, dwarfed by the mighty Mt. Kenya – a strikingly lonely, yet powerful figure on this vast plain, like a tragic-hero, defiant and at odds with his gods and destiny. They called him William.
Our Kikuyu safari-driver drove up to him and spoke to him in Swahili. William kept nodding and then pointed at an acacia tree to the west. As we drove off with a wave and an asante (thank you), our driver said, “He Maasai! Maasai say, lion near tree. Lion attack his herd this morning, but he chase it away.” Incredulous, a fellow traveller asked, “Chased the lion away? Isn’t he afraid of lions?” “He Maasai!” our driver replied. “Lion afraid of him!” There was a mystifying mix of reverence and condescension in his tone. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group and dominated public life, while the Maasai where perhaps little more than a curiosity in present day Kenya, which explained the condescension. But what of the reverence. That evening, I saw William at the safari camp with about 20 of his tribesmen. They looked formidable and proud as they circled around a fire and performed a traditional war dance. Though hired by the camp manager to entertain guests, there was none of the servitude that one has come to expect from such performers in our part of the world.
The next day, after breakfast, my wife was alternately taking pictures of her husband polishing off an avocado and an Olive Baboon that had wandered into camp, undoubtedly trying to make up her mind about which of the two was more photogenic, when I saw William walk into camp. Feeling a bit like Naomi Watts in King Kong, I walked up to him and asked him if I could take his picture. William looked down from stratosphere and smiled an awkward quarter smile and nodded. I took the camera from my wife, while her aunt stood next to him, when I took a few shots. The results on the screen suggested that it might be quite a challenge to try and fit an average sized ‘Mashi’ with an average sized Maasai in the same frame, but even before we could ask him for a an encore, William, with his long, loping gait, had drifted out of ear shot. Later, I asked two Kikuyu trackers about big William, who told me that William is a moran - a warrior. His tribe owned great herds of cattle and when he was in his teens, like other Maasais of his age, he had to kill a lion with just a spear, as a rite of passage. William had killed four (not because he wanted to), for the Maasai respect all animals and have a unique bond with nature, but because they had attacked his cows and family. At present, the government has banned lion hunts, but amongst Maasais, William is a hero. His village is just a few miles south and he used to walk into camp, while still a young boy. He was a good tracker, so the camp owners hired him to track wildlife. But William is not just an employee. He has his own herd and his village, like other Maasai villages, attracts tourists and their dollars as much as the wildlife of the Mara. Above all, William and his kind were a mascot for Kenya and ‘wild nature’.
Life on the Mara had come to a standstill that evening, as I went through my yoga routine, while the zebras and ostriches choked on my performance. As I tumbled out of an awkward headstand, I realised that my relieved audience and I weren’t alone. William had been watching for a while and he seemed impressed. He pointed at my arm and smiled. “Drink blood!”, he said, and flexed his mighty biceps. I maintained that I was strong enough and since boys would be boys, we repaired to the reception desk for an old fashioned arm-wrestling match. There, as the gigantic ‘blood-thirsty’ Maasai squared up against yours truly worried, Mr. William proved his point, while taking care not to damage my arm as much as my ego. Then he shared a Maasai secret. “My friend, We drink cow blood. It make you big and strong!”. I learnt later that the blood they drank was drawn fresh by pricking a live cow’s vein and the wound closed right after, the animal feeling no worse than you or I might after donating a bit of blood. Though great trackers, the Maasai have never been farmers and only hunted notorious cattle-lifting lions. Like other tribes around the world, the Maasai had come under pressure from the government to leave their traditional way of life and enter the mainstream, but the Maasai have kept their old ways alive, even as they make the most of the tourism industry. There is a lesson in it for other ‘backward’ cultures and governments (like India and the US) that pretend to patronize them, that ‘reservations’ of one sort or the other do nothing more than ruin the pride and dignity of a race.
On our last day at camp, William walked up to me and handed me a hand carved wooden club called a runku. “You can kill a lion with it!” he said. I asked him if he’d actually killed any. William removed his robe from his broad shoulders and turned around to reveal long and deep scars that ran down the length of his muscled back and said “it’s not the wives you know (he had three)!” We smiled, and I handed him the bandana I was wearing and he took it with a little bow, and then an Indian and a Maasai shook hands in the same Great Rift Valley that had given birth to both of us, many million years ago, and parted ways again.
The Maasai Method
The Maasai are a proud race who chose to evolve at their own pace, with their pride and principles intact. Unlike the tribes of the Americas, the Maoris of New Zealand, or the Aboriginals of Australia, the Maasai have persevered their pastoral way of life, in the face of pressures from colonial powers that took away most of their land rights and from the governments that replaced them. This steadfast commitment to their traditional values has been instrumental in ensuring the survival of the identity of the Maasai tribe.
Most other traditional cultures are dying out. Most Indian tribes for instance, are either struggling to shed their tribal identity, even as they suffer the indignity of a caste-based reservation, or hold firm to a primitive way of life that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and extermination. The quest for an equal opportunity society should have begun with at best reservations for those who are economically disadvantaged, instead of proffering it on the basis of castes, but then that would not have accounted for easy vote bracketing. Another form of reservations are killing off the great American Indians, who too have lost their identity and are living their lives on the fringes, on reservation grounds, which have effectively snatched away their last vestige of dignity and pride.
The Maasai approach of evolving at their chosen pace, i.e. maintaining a balance between the benefits of globalization, while holding on to one’s tradition is exemplary. No wonder Richard Branson is a proud honorary Maasai.