Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Masai melodrama

If you randomly stopped 10 people on the street and asked them to describe "native Africans," you would probably hear something about spears, brightly-colored robes, people who can jump high into the air, and cattle-herders. All of these are characteristics of the Masai, who, whether we know it are not, probably form the mental image that a majority of us conjure up when we think of African tribespeople:

(Two Masai warriors on a rocky outlook. One neat thing about the Masai is that almost all of them still wear their traditional robes/blankets--not to put on a show for the tourists, but just because that's what they prefer. If you are standing on a promontory, you can easily spot them miles in the distance because the reds and oranges of the blankets are so much brighter than anything else in the scenery.)

The Masai are known for being fierce warriors, using their ubiquitous spears to attack rival tribes and wild animals alike; in the past, each young warrior was expected to kill a lion in order to prove his manliness and worth (current lion population numbers now make this nearly impossible, though apparently some of the less conservation-minded individuals still attempt the feat).

From the moment we had arrived at our Masai-run campground the night before, we were being watched over by locals, albeit often at a distance. This was partly due to the fact that they wanted to keep us safe from wild animal attacks in the middle of the night, since that wouldn't be very good for repeat business. Likewise, it was possible that we posed a threat to the wildlife from whom they made their money. However, it is also true that neighboring Masai tribes do still fight with each other, and on the off chance that any violence might erupt during our visit, they wanted to stay close to us.

Although that sounds unnerving, I never once felt threatened or frightened, and the Masai were nothing but gracious and friendly throughout our entire visit. However, our more experienced and knowledgeable drivers were definitely edgier during our stay on Masai land; having lived in Kenya their entire lives and visited Masai areas previously, they were more aware of the possibilities than the rest of us were. Most of our visit was organized and led by one Masai in particular, named Niksun (pronounced "Nixon"). When around us, he was particularly un-threatening, with an almost permanent smile on his face and a propensity to break into song and dance at any moment. Niksun was one of the biggest hams I have ever met. He was often accompanied by his half brother, whose name sounded like "Cindy," though I'm sure it was spelled differently (his full name was actually "Cindy-song"). The two of them shared the same mother but different fathers, due to a custom among the Masai whereby men in the same age class are allowed to share each other's wives; when one warrior wants to visit another's spouse, he simply puts his spear outside the door of the woman in question so that her husband will know not to enter and interrupt any private activities. Masai families, as a consequence, are full of half-siblings that are recognized as such without any stigma. This sounds rather remarkably liberal until you think about it from the perspective of the wives, who have absolutely no say in the matter; Masai women are treated notoriously poorly, despite the fact that it is their handiwork (on jewelry and fabrics) that brings in a good portion of all income made from tourists.

On our 11th day in Kenya, we rose early so that Niksun and his brother could take us on a walking tour of Masai land. We had to drive about 45 minutes to get to our destination, which was part of an area occupied by Niksun's tribe. On the way, we had a remarkable view of the sunrise, which was probably the most spectacular one I have ever seen. You could actually watch the sun inching up above the horizon bit by bit. I wanted to grab my camera to take a video of the whole process, but I just couldn't tear my eyes away until it was over, after the sun had suddenly burst away from the horizon in a little explosion of light:

(A Kenyan sunrise. My husband later informed me that Africa is infamous for its spectacular solar activity. I can see why.)

The Masai, like most agrarian and herding people, had been up for quite a while before sunrise, and by the time we arrived many of them had gathered at the creek and nearby hot spring in order to do laundry and take a bath. Niksun was excited to take us down to the water's edge so that we could feel how hot the springs were; as we rounded the corner we ran into a mostly-naked Masai herder rushing back into his undies. Obviously word hadn't gotten around to everyone that there would be visitors on this morning.

The remainder of the walk took us across fairly open land, which is why we had arisen so early--there was no shade to be found under the open, sunny skies, and we wanted to be done with the walk before it got too miserably hot. We were supposed to separate into two groups: One that would take a "short" walk and one that would take a "long" walk, though neither of those distances was precisely defined. It turned out that both walks were fairly lengthy, since our Masai guides stopped every few steps in order to do some sort of demonstration or another. Sometimes it was singing, other times dancing, at one point there was a bow and arrow shooting contest, and later in the morning they arranged a traditional "warrior training" exercise for the males to perform while the females looked on and, presumably, swooned in admiration.

As you can probably discern from my tone, I was not loving the guided tour. I think it is admirable for a people to find a way to earn money from tourists in order to help preserve their otherwise traditional way of life, but I do not think it is necessary to completely sell out. Niksun and his brother were going a little overboard in their performance, and I thought that it seemed pretty fake. Since I am not that familiar with the "real" Masai culture, I couldn't make a full comparison between what we were seeing and what was more traditional. What I could do was imagine how I would feel if I went to a reservation in the US and saw similar behavior from Native Americans--another group renowned for being fierce, stern, and proud. Say what you will about Native American casinos, at least the people owning and operating them still have some dignity, which was definitely lacking from our Masai guides. It is also possible to learn something about Native American culture by, say, visiting a powwow. Even Jamie Oliver--as big an outsider as you can imagine--was able to learn about traditional Navajo ways when he visited tribal elders during his food tour of the US. During our visit with the Masai, on the other hand, we saw much but learned very little; our guides were extremely good at being evasive and providing answers that didn't really answer anything at all. It was, in many ways, disappointing.

On the up side, I spent much of the walk talking to Enoch, one of the two Kenyan biologists who accompanied us during our travels. Though not Masai himself, Enoch had grown up in a village not far from Masai land. In the past, he had worked extensively with the Masai in order to find out more about the ins and outs of their culture in an effort to develop practical conservation and management plans that allowed them to preserve their traditions while also facilitating conservation in Masai areas. Enoch was incredibly knowledgeable about the Masai and about the complexities they face in daily life--as cattle herders no longer able to drive their herds along old routes to historic grazing areas, as warriors and lion-hunters asked to be peaceful and preserve the same species that are attacking their cows and, occasionally, their tribespeople. I learned far more from Enoch than I was able to glean from either of our guides.

(The students watching a performance by Niksun and his brother.)

Of course, any walk in Kenya inevitably involves some good birds, and we did add a few species to the trip list. The best avian encounter occurred when I was standing up on a ridge with only two other people, the rest of the group having wandered off with the guides. A black-chested snake-eagle crested the ridge above us and glided down over where we were standing and then on into the valley below. For a good 30 seconds, it was practically at our eye level; we could not only see its plumage but also get an idea of its sleek, deadly power. One amazing thing about Kenya, from a birder's perspective, is the steady supply of large, dramatic birds of prey; it was possible to have an encounter like this nearly every day. Towards the end of the walk, we circled around a small pool of water near the hot spring. Not only were there herons at the water's edge, but also five hammerkops:

(Unfortunately, this awesome picture of a hammerkop is not mine. Thanks to http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/ruwiki/250030 for the image.)

I had only ever seen these birds before in a zoo, so I'd not even realized that they were wading birds at all. It was great to see them in the wild, and learn a little of their life history to boot.

We arrived back at the camp in time for lunch, which was absolutely awesome. Someone had gotten a bag of enormous (= melon-sized) avocados, so the chefs had made a huge bowl of what was, essentially, guacamole (that most traditional of African dishes). This accompanied crunchy fried potatoes (kind of like French fries made from whole new potatoes) and a tropical salad. It was some of the best food we'd had in a while, and we all gorged ourselves until we felt ill. Unfortunately, I soon realized that my upset stomach was not as a result of too much food, but my endless mysterious illness, which was rearing its ugly head again. I was so nauseous that I ended up skipping the second planned activity of the day, a visit to a Masai village to find out the more domestic details of the locals' way of life. Many of the instructors were dreading this particular outing, since the ones during previous years had not always gone well--they were an extension of the cheesy tour we'd had that morning, with the addition of salespeople ferociously hawking Masai products.

Thus, some of the others regarded me with jealousy as I retreated to the Simba to rest up for a while. I awoke from my nap after a couple of hours and relocated to my porch, from which I could watch woodpeckers and barbets hunting for insects in the grass. I also encountered a small lizard of some sort who obviously was living under my porch. One of the other instructors who had also stayed behind came to join me, and we sat and chatted until the students came back. According to their descriptions, the visit to the village had gone quite well; they'd been greeted with some traditional dancing and other ceremonial displays, and most of them had the face paint to prove it. One of the girls had bought an entire Masai ensemble so that she could wear it to a fancy dress party after her return to the UK; another had permanently swapped scarves with one of the Masai warriors, which was jokingly (?) referred to as an informal marriage (there was an awful lot of talk about marriages during this period of our trip, and I could never quite tell where "joke" merged into "reality"). I was glad to hear that the visit had gone so well, but I was also happy to have sat it out--I was really starting to feel drained by all the stomach problems.

In fact, even though I'd had quite a long nap in the middle of the day, I had a pretty early night again. First, I chatted with the other instructors for a while in the bar, where we watched the students dancing with the Masai guides to hip-hop music; it would be difficult to think of a more incongruous image than that clash (or lack thereof) of very different cultures. Before heading to bed, I took a brief stroll around the campsite to look for bush babies, which many of the students had spotted the night before:
(A bush baby in a rare daytime sighting. Thanks to http://www.treknature.com/gallery/Africa/Botswana/photo26082.htm for the photo.)

These little nocturnal tree-loving mammals can be spotted by their eye-shine; even from 100 m away I could see their glowing orange embers up in the canopy. The two I found were sitting in the branches happily munching away at leaves. One of the other instructors later spotted them in the midst of relocating to another tree; apparently they hopped along the ground like little kangaroos. Just another of the weird and wonderful things to be found all over Kenya.

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