Will a lion take the straggler?
by Dr Suzy Kruhse-Mountburton
Will a lion take the straggler? That is the question which is running around in my head while I scramble to keep up with the Maasai warriors (2 men graduated now to elders in their forties) whose lives have been spent here in Empaash, just north of the Tanzanian border in the Loita Hills of Kenya. Members of the Ilpurko clan, those famous from being able to fortell the future, I hope they wont predict I will be taken by a lion.
Fighting my way through the bushes, I can see why everyone, even the women, keeps their head shaved and wrap in a kekoi, that special tightly woven red or purple blanket. It is so as not to get your hair or clothes caught in the acacia thorn bushes, but also so you can be spotted easily on some distant hill side while braving the cold winds and blistering sunshine.
We arrived in the valley just after sunset, me sandwiched between two Maasai on the back of a motorbike, reggae blaring, and our luggage and groceries stacked around. People emerge from the darkness and we are swamped in a crowd reeking of mutton fat, goats, smokey fires and dust. Each kid bowing a head for the mbunga, a blessing from the newly arrived elders, while the adults extend a tentative hand and their milk white smiles glow in the dark.
The Maasai, always cheerful, gentle and kind. They spend their lives minding the sheep and goats or wandering with their cows. Yet the men are feared as warriors for their use of spears and bow and arrows, the clubs and swords they carry on their waist bands and their willingness to confront leapords and lions. Theirs is a cattle and wife raiding culture and many clans and subclans of this tall and proud people vie for pastures. The Ilpurko, the largest clan, slaughtered their way to the top until the British arrived with their laws and religion to put a stop to that.
Each man sleeps in a tiny, ?lonely hut?, beside the Emuattata, the sheep and goat enclosures (made of tangled living branches and thorn bushes) waiting for the alarm given by the dogs that a jackal or hyena is passing. When I need to pee in the middle of the night Simon takes the torch and scouts for the eyes of animals before I go to squat.
The creation myth tells of a deep valley near the Rift, and how the Maasai simply emerged with their cattle to spread out over the land. Yet today, these are the poorest and most disenfranchised people, the best of their pasture taken by others. Even Nairobi, a Massai word meaning cold water place, is no longer theirs and the British completed the theft by forcing the illegitimate treaties of 1904 and 1911 on the leader of a people who, in no way, could not be considered to belong to a soverign state. (If I have the time I might still stir them to take legal steps to claim compensation in the world court on that one.)
I sleep in a Maasai house with Little Mama, the twenty two year old second or little wife of Simon's wives. It is a low structure with a slightly doomed roof of woven branches, waterproofed with dung. Built by Nelapo and her mother before her wedding it is made of bush timber and matted branches, daubed over with mud and cow manure. Six inch holes have been poked in two sides to let out the smoke and to provide shards of light in this dark interior. Part kitchen, part stable for goats and with 2 sleeping spaces either side of the fire. (Simon's first wife is Noonkipa Nkuya, a woman close to his own age who has 4 kids to him and lives in a house nearby. The tradition here is that a man takes little wives as help mates to the now mature couple and to provide more children for the man. Contrary to popular belief, age mates, or men circumsized at the same time, do not share wives, and men do not sleep with women who have babies to take care of, and that is why they need women of varying ages. Simon is also responsible for the care of his widowed mother and for her little co-wife a woman of around 28 years old now, she must have been around 22 when her 86 year old husband died.)
Nalepo sleeps on one side with her 2 little ones, a three year old and a six month old, and I share the other with Simoney, her 6 year old sister, (chosen by the family to help her big sister take care of kids and goats instead of being sent to school). Simoney, like other Maasai kids is respectful, hardworking, dutiful, can sing and dance amazingly, and provides indispensable obedient labour, spending hours lugging the baby and crooning lullabies. In short, the kids here are little adults in the making and proud to be so.
Simon Oli Nkuya made the supreme effort, (along with his father in law, the chief and Chairman of the school) to bring formal education to the kids of these distant valleys and the school is named for his family. I attend a P and C meeting and the women sit in rows in the sun while the men lie in the shade, some sleeping wrapped in the kikoi while their wives debate with the staff and the chief on issues of increasing wages and who will provide money to put up a water tank so the kids don?t have to waste time lugging water.
Two hundred kids attend school, 134 boys and 66 girls with only 7 boys left at grade seven (A clear reflection of the division of labour and the expectations of women, although in the younger age groups numbers of boys and girls are close to equal). Kids walk about 10 km each day through the bush past gizelles, baboons and possibly lepords to study maths, science, social studies, Kiswali and English. But also to partake of the simple meal of beans and rice with smattering of meat and vegies, provided by the government to drought prone and isolated area.
But food here is not in short supply, and Simon slaughters a sheep in the orpejet (the place to slaughter and cook meet) to welcome me, the first Mazongo or white person ever to venture into the valley. The meat will last 4 days and is carefully divided according to enkeleshe the age old design. Emurt or the neck for the visitor, the right side legs and ribs to the owner, while the left side is shared. Girls get the back bone and boys the front, while the elders are served the ironkena or cooked liver. The spare bits of fat are fried up for the kids to munch on, and the trimmings are cooked and then mixed with the blood.
We drink smokey, fermented milk which has been stored in a huge goard decorated with leather and sea shells from down on the coast. The interior carefully washed and sterilized with the burning branch of a special bush which is poked up inside.
Simon is loosing weight and I am worried about him. Like most people here he suffers periodic bouts of malaria and I had to buy him a dose of medicine in Narok, the nearest big township, and he seems to be on the mend. But before I go back to Nairobi to find out about how he might put up a web site and print brochures for the Cultural Tourism he hopes to establish, (with my ambivalent help since he has no idea of the possible social impact or the trouble of running a business), right here in the valley, he promised to take omotori, a special soup of boiled goat bones spiced with oltimigoni and okkokola, special herbs from the bush, to built up his strength.