The Maasai are an ancient people with ancient traditions. I read an article in the New York Times travel section about the “Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp” and I decided to spend my October break doing something…well, a bit different!
I got into Nairobi on Friday evening and was taken to a small hotel near the airport. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and a fairly developed city, with a number of sky-scrapers, a bustling downtown and huge traffic jams. Tiampati, my Maasai driver, picked me up promptly at 9:00am for the 3 and a half hour drive to the camp, which is outside of Narok and just on the border of the Masa Mara game reserve. We stopped at a viewpoint along the way at the Great Rift Valley, which extends almost 10,000 kilometers from the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique.
There were many sight-seers at the rest stop…you could purchase crafts and souvenirs, tea or coffee and take pictures. Some locals saw their opportunity and approached anyone who looked like a tourist (ie: any white person) to try to sell their wares. One man kept appearing behind me and saying “Hakuna matata!” while pointing to the shop behind him. Another man was selling roast corn on a stick (a very common road-side snack) He would hold it up and shout “Yum yum! Yum yum!” and was very persistent, even following me as I got into the car. I politely declined, buying only a cup of tea.
We continued onward through the valley and past tiny towns and wide open spaces. Cows, goats and sheep were everywhere. Finally, we reached the town of Narok; a fairly large town by Kenyan standards and the main town for many Maasai. From here we turned onto a dirt road, which became incredibly bumpy and dusty…we were heading into the Mara. After about 45 minutes, we turned at a small sign that said “Maji Moto Maasai Camp” and the road became even narrower. Small groups of mud huts could be seen here and there and there were many flocks of goats and sheep, usually tended by a small boy. Finally we arrived at the camp and were greeted by a group of Maasai warriors. They sang and danced for me and I was given a shuka (traditional Maasai shawl)
The camp consisted of several buildings, all constructed in the traditional manner of mud, ashes, cow dung and timber. These had been “westernized” in that they had windows, stone floors and a door you could walk through (rather than crawl.) They were quite cool inside and very comfortable.
There was a wash-station and a toilet and outdoor shower, which was filled from the hot springs of Maji Moto (which means, literally, “Water Fire”) Everything was very clean and neat and it really felt like you belonged to the earth.
There were many plants and trees and animals around the camp and you could see the Loita Hills rising above you. All the food was cooked in the outdoor kitchen on a wood fire and was simple and delicious.
I walked down to the hot springs with Rose, one of the volunteers at the camp. There is a large windmill that pumps the water for two communal showers there (one for men, one for women.) The women come to fill their water barrels – huge plastic containers that they carry with a strap around the forehead back to their village (sometimes several miles away.) Some people have a donkey or two to carry more water. Clothes-washing is done here as well, and there is a watering hole for the animals a bit downstream where the water is cooler.
That night, the warriors demonstrated how they traditionally started a fire, using a stick and a piece of tinder. They twirled the stick in their hands, rubbing it against a flat piece of wood with the tinder underneath and their machete under that. When the tiny tinder was lit, they would carefully transfer it to a larger clump of dry cedar shavings and then gradually add wood until the fire was blazing.
That first night, I sat around the fire with four Maasai warriors. The stars came out one by one and the warriors sang traditional songs. Most of the songs were a kind of chanting call-and-response and most were about cattle and women.
In the Maasai traditional religion, their god Enkai stretched a long piece of bark from heaven and all the cattle were able to walk down to earth on it. Enkari gave all the cattle to the Maasai. A jealous god broke the bark and so young Maasai warriors often jump as high as they can to try to reach the cattle still up in heaven. Apparently, high jumpers also attract young women.
The next day, Salaton, the tribal chief who runs the camp and another warrior named Coila, took me on a hike up Loita Hill. On the way, the two warriors demonstrated spear-throwing. A Maasai warrior almost always carries a spear. The narrow end is for practice and the wide end for protection. After they had thrown their spears at a tree and missed several times in a row, Salaton turned to me and said gravely, “You are not safe!” He and Coila thought this was very funny.
Loita Hills once were part of a vast volcanic range and the rock formations are strange and beautiful.
There were many colorful trees and flowers…even in the hot, dry climate.
There are over 40 varieties of acacia tree…this one is called a “whistling acacia.” The hard, black bulb-like things on the tree are made by ants as a nest. When the ants leave the nest, they make holes in the surface. And then, when the wind blows, it whistles through the holes.
On the way back, we came across a young boy looking after the goats. In Maasai culture, when you meet a child, you touch their head and say “Supa.” This is a sign of respect. Most young children will come up to you and lower their head to be touched.
When we got back down to the camp, I was hot and tired…I looked up to where we had climbed and felt like I had touched the sky.
Next: Visiting the Widows Village, the Conservation Project, Warrior Training and a two-day trek across the Loita Plains.