Monday, 8 December 2014

No room for luxury in the Maasai Mara

The Maasai lifestyle is very colourful. Both men and women adorn themselves with various ornaments. Bottom, inside Meikuaya’s hut in the Maasai Mara.

A baby lies on the ground, with flies hovering over his face. Just next to her is her grandmother split between preparing an evening meal and milking the cow. As she does all this, her attention is taken by entrance of strangers.
A group of Maasai youth welcome us with a dance and songs in which the ladies clap as the men rhythmically tap their feet and take turns at jumping high up in a unique show of fitness and pride.
Almost everyone in the homestead has abandoned whatever they were doing to find out the cause for celebration. Many join in the clapping, making an impression on us that the Masai are a welcoming people.

Expectant hostess
With a wide smile, granny hurries through the milking, carries her metallic can of milk into the hut and returns with a collection of jewellery- earrings, bracelets, rings and necklaces, all traditionally woven. Already, a group of other women are also making their way to where we are standing, near the entrance area, with goods to sell.
Mama, like I hear the younger folks referring to the old lady, would like to make some shillings or dollars off the visiting group. As she prepares to leave, her daughter, and mother of the baby returns, carrying firewood. They speak for a minute and granny leaves, walking towards us, with her hands reaching out with her merchandise.
Happy Mama is one of the residents in the Maasai camp that we visit. Notable about her, as she approaches, are the uniquely big holes in her ears on which hang multi-coloured earrings. Her head is well shaven. Her feet seem comfortable in sandals crafted from car tyres.

Inside the Maasai Homestead
From the outside, Happy Mama’s manyatta looks small, but a family of four fits in, somehow. Her home is part of many huts or manyattas, about 20 of them, that constitute the homestead.
These are lined on all sides, uniting around a quadrangle. In it are cattle which, as I learn from our host Ann Kanini, Kenya Tourism Board’s (KTB) publicist, are an important possession among the Maasai for it is part of the sources of wealth and thus power, and one of the requirements in settling dowry.
There is an effort to keep the general compound clean though cows litter the place with their dung and flies fly off the dung and onto babies’ faces.
Minutes before we make our way into the homestead I have to part with $10 (Shs2,500) for taking photos of cattle being grazed by a youth, David Meikuaya. He tells me that this is a tourist attraction too, and as we break ice, he asks for a token.
There is plenty of open grassland where Meikuaya grazes his family’s cattle, alongside fellow youth. This is just outside their communal homes. The homes are in an enclosure, locally known as Enkang. It is made of fastened thorny sticks. There are various entry points to the community that is made up of many grass-thatched huts, numbering about 20.
When he is done leading the cattle into their kraal, he invites me into his hut, which is small but with so much packed inside. To enter, we have to bend. The hut is dark and cool with two small rooms, one a master bedroom and another for the children, then the common area which is slightly more than a metre wide.
The master bedroom also doubles as a store where cutlery, utensils and goats share space with the main occupants. In a corner is firewood. There is only space for the bed left. There are no luxuries here. The bed is made of wood and looks so uncomfortable that anyone used to cushioned beddings, will find this utter torture.
Then instead of blankets, Meikuaya and his family cover themselves with goat or cow hides. Just above the bed is a small window, which is a few inches wide and long.
From the window, you can see much of the goings-on in the compound; men and women in the evening of their years seated on wooden stools watching the youth put their energy to use through dance or chasing cattle into their kraals.

Doing brisk business
From his house, Meikuaya leads me to the homestead market, which is as busy as a bee hive. Maasai business ladies and gents engage tourists, enticing them to buy their produce, ornaments and other merchandise.
The younger girls who do business with their mothers or elder sisters seek advice in Maa, one of the official languages, before they can sell.
What is unique about the Maasai women is that they pierce their ears to accommodate a lot more than just simple, small earrings. They can carry bigger decorative ornaments because the ear holes are bigger, which is part of their unique physical features.
Experience the Masai adventures
Visitors come and go but the Maasai remain those warriors who have been rated as so fierce that they would fight with lions the way butchers do with goats, cows at slaughter time.
Only for them, it is a fight to win love. It is one of the ways a man can prove to the clan that he can take care of his bride-to-be.
Your visit to the Maasai Mara is a page less if you have not interacted intimately with the traditional community.
One good adventure is having dinner in the middle of the Mara reserve where you get to enjoy the sunset in a beautiful display of orange with a shade of yellow and mystic blue, over the horizon.
We tried that too, by the bonfire, to keep our bodies warm as the chefs prepared tables to warm our stomachs with some sumptuous coastal, local or continental treats.
In a pleasant twist, one of the chefs, John Maina, was a good host and cared to go the extra mile to make a Ugandan dish for us, of mugoyo- a mixture of sweet potatoes and beans.
And as we dug in, and sipped on wine and other frothy stuff, we almost forgot that we were in the middle of the jungle. The Maasai had a surprise that would bring us back to reality.
One of them kept telling us a story as we enjoyed the night in the jungle, by the fireplace and when all our attention was captured, out of the bushes came a noisy group of Maasai who threw us into a panic because we were caught off-guard.
A prank had been pulled on us. We realised this as the chefs and waiters laughed themselves silly as they saw us scampering for life. What followed the short-lived ‘moment of shock’, was some entertainment, with Maasai warriors, dressed in shuka, dancing and singing for us.
The ‘shock game’ is their playful way of breaking ice with guests at dinner time. Their dance around the bonfire provides a good Nikon moment, which captures how the Maasai people have preserved their culture, making them unique, stylish, and a cultural attraction that continues to mesmerise many.

Find your way to the Maasai Mara

If your schedule will not allow you to visit the community then wait on at your hotel. There are some entertaining troupes that come visiting to give you a piece of what Maasailand is made of.
Evenings at the Sarova Mara Game Lodge, where we spent a night thanks to KTB, come alive with African rhythms, lullabies and songs as performed by the Maasai. This earns them some money not just at the Sarova Lodges but also at other facilities where different groups perform.
During your tour of the Mara, ask your guide to include a visit to the Maasai’s communities so that you get to interact with them and get a sense of their lifestyle and the aspects of life that they hold dear.
The Maasai have discovered the beauty of documenting their artistry and cultural customs. They have an association that has written out these norms, online ( you will want to learn about their way of life and some cherished customs, such as Enkipaata (senior boy ceremony), Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage), Eunoto (warrior-shaving ceremony), among others.

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