Likely, you were first introduced to them in your father's National Geographic and you never forgot. In fact, had the illustrious magazine required the service of a mascot to gimmick the longing for adventure in the anthropologist in all of us, who else would define the exotica of tribal life to suburbanites as well as they, with their fire-engine red cloaks, their stony-point spears, their beaded jewelry and elongated ears, their propensity to leap in the air.... In spite of massive industrialization entering the developing world, thousands of tribes continue to practice rural, animistic, shamanic customs. Yet, among these multitudes, it the Maasai of southwestern Kenya who continue to define the pastoral image of the ultimate Luddite.
Much of the technological progress that has characterized the past century has not made it to Africa. There are many reasons for this, primarily the corruption of dozens of governments on the continent, embezzling state revenues, aid packages, and IMF loans. What that means is that a number of rural areas are without drinking water, education, arable land, and adequate health care. Most of these people desire to acquire the benefits of technology and science. What makes the Masaai unique then is that, collectively, they are committed to a culture that is hundreds, if not thousands of years in practice and does not seek to be absorbed into a greater economy. The Kenyan government, however, in need of dollars, euros, pounds, and yen have done what they could to advertise the Masaai as any entrepreneurial city slicker might. And the Masaai lands being enclosed within the Masai Mara park, one of the richest and most famous wildlife reserves in Africa, are already inundated with tourists and their silver. Thus the inevitability of something you saw in National Geographic can be shrink-wrapped, packaged, and presented with a little red ribbon.
My own introduction to the customs of the Masaai was through a handsome, young man named Tendy. I'd met him at a campfire, where he and four others performed a series of dances on several traditional narrative themes: the story of a "lion's glorious assassination," an exposition on circumcision, and a wedding dance. The dances-- requiring a bit of agility-- involved much leaping and some low, muffled grunting punctuated by buzzing screeching.
Following the show, Tendy explained the meaning of the dances. When a boy of the tribe reaches a pivotal adolescent year (around 16, when we in the USA are enjoying the initiation of a driver's license), he must venture into the wild and slay a lion. Once this not-so-simple task has been achieved, the kill's mane must be brought back to the village as proof of the deed (where it is eventually tailored into a hat piece for one of the chief's sons). I suppose when you are born and raised in a valley where the nocturnal roar of lions is a way of life, their existence is not something to be feared so much as venerated.
A few days afterwards, Tendy took me to visit his village, where I was introduced to George, one of the Chief's sons. The village-- a collection of mud huts and thatched roofs, thorny fences built from acacia branches and no electricity-- was noticeably absent of men. As it turned out there was an important convention of elders and the younger men were preoccupied with grazing their cattle. George, one of ten siblings of various maternal lines, explained that nomadism being a traditional way of life, the Masaai had grudgingly accepted some modern practices, notably agriculture and the harvesting of maize, but otherwise continue to profess a lifestyle unique to much of the world.
For being a remote people who have balked at entering a world of Internet and antibiotics, George's English is surprisingly good. I pepper him with questions regarding Masaai social custom and personal enquiries. Turns out George is a true blue Christian. Ancestral spirits have got nothing on Jesus, who "died for my sins." I figured being a warrior he would at least be interested in Old Testament battles and intrigues but George did not seem to be aware of the stories outside Christianity's defining raison d'etre. It seemed between George's adeptness at English and one-size-fits-all spiritual convictions, some had come before me, selective about what and how to modernize the Masaai.
However, George would fit in better with old-fashioned Brigham Young Mormons than modern day Southern Baptists, since of his key ambitions in life were not chiefdom, but multiple spouses. A Masaai can have four wives, which would of course indicate a made man. I asked him if jealousy among the wives would be a running problem. He explained that disruptive element is taken care of when the village shamans perform clitoridectomies. Paraphrasing George, removing the clitoris removes the hotheaded lusts that are the cause of so many headaches. I didn't know how to explain to George how wonderful the clitoris was in the act of passion without transgressing the delicate line on cultural values. George, a bachelor still, told me about his girlfriend. She's from another village and they rendezvous in the tall elephant grass when they want to get acquainted (where he might have to kill a lion I suppose if one showed up uninvited). The safer option is a neutral pub where they can drink indigenous beer, conspiring over their glasses I suppose, the delightful maneuvers of forbidden romance.
In general, it seems the Masaai men have it good since not only do they benefit from the obvious advantages of polygamy, they are also exempt from the more mundane village tasks. The women carry fresh water from the river and wash the laundry. They also build the huts, crudely put together with thick clay mud, cow dung, and thatched straw (simple dwellings befitting a nomadic people occupied with moving). Inside it’s cool and dark, simple. If a man has four wives he hangs his spear over the hut where he is interested in his supper and where he shall lay his head in rest.
I wanted to know from George what it was like to kill a lion. He never has since young men don't have to perform this initiation rite anymore. Strict national park regulations have made lions a protected species. For now, a group of young warriors must defeat the common and not very intelligent buffalo, who if separated from his herd, is not so dire an opponent (and perhaps whose horns don't translate into as glamorous headgear as the lion's). The young men, like those in suburbia who read stories of ballplayers and pirates, have their share of myths, lore and what it used to be like in the good, old days.
In spite of their aversion to alien technology and the fact the Masaai continue to live without telephones, electricity, television, running water, and sundry conveniences, they are aware of machines that when pointed at them, record frozen life-like images of real moments. Recognizing the value wealthy tourists put on the act of phototaking, the Masaai have instituted a price. In the village you can shoot as you like but there's a fifteen-dollar fee. But buyer, beware, because should you shoot young, smug men unsolicited, they are liable to wave an elephant jawbone in a threatening manner.
Of course, I tried to take as many photos as I could without getting bludgeoned. George toured me through the village, where there was dancing, singing, and a bit of jumping. Many children, most of them naked, ran circles around me, laughing hysterically when they fell flat on their bellies from exhaustion. I tried begging off when George insisted I don his lion hair. This sort of hat doesn't look so noble or glorious on white guys. He escorted me through the market where I was urged to shop for homemade beads, carved jewelry, wooden knickknacks, fabrics bursting with color and a blacksmith's greatest hits of weapons you could not successfully move through customs. Mostly though it was women shouting at me "Buy! Buy!" as I sauntered past feeling very put upon. Something is not right, I thought. Something has been lost. Was it the Nikons, the Rolexes, the Armani sunglasses of wealthy visitors revealing glimpses of a coveted world that might be better than the one you were born into? I thought of a German tourist showing a group of Masaai kids the skyline of NYC on his digital video recorder. With enough exposure to sounds and lights shows, to Ipods and laptops, perhaps the vivid landscape that was home would no longer be enough to satisfy curiosities corrupted by fancy toys. You can remove the clitoris to take away a woman's passion but excising the envy and greed caused by brief encounters with the outside world would not be so simple.
Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005