Tea with the Maasai

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Topi look out for danger on top of a mound.

Kichwa Tembo, Kenya - After visiting &Beyond’s Bateleur Camp in November during the “short rains” we just had to return again last month – before the “long rains”.

As the Cessna banked across the Mara River and levelled off for the Kichwa Tembo runway, our grandchildren excitedly pointed out rafts of hippo huddled in the water and elephant moving out of the forest.

But it was the delighted shriek from the woman behind us that made us all smile. As the plane bounced down she spotted a Maasai guard of honour in full warrior regalia, lined up as a reception committee, spears raised and red shukas in stark contrast to the endless green. And behind them a table groaning under welcoming drinks and snacks and sparkling wine chilling in a cooler.

“Oh my God! How absolutely fabulous!” she exclaimed

When the engine cut, the Maasai stomped their feet while their voices rose into the cloudless blue sky, It all sent shivers straight down my spine.

How fitting that the Maasai should meet us in the middle of no-where in the Mara.

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Pile of leather luggage at Bateleur Camp.

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Fifteen giraffe bent their heads and watched us disembark and through the grass a couple of buffalo dagga boys stared impassionately. But those strange antelope, the Topis, were the most amusing, holding their high ground, claiming ownership of all the raised mounds across the Mara.

Kichwa Tembo nestles in a pristine forest which is filled with chattering Blue and Copper Tailed monkeys, the latter distinctive by their white, heart-shaped noses. Bateleur Camp is tented in true Out of Africa style, reminding visitors of pith helmets, shooting sticks, leather luggage, roaring boma fires and plenty of G&Ts to ward of those mozzies.

Even the askaris who escorted us to our tents come nightfall carried bows and arrows and sticks to ward off prowling leopard.

But there is every creature comfort in the tents, downy soft beds, hot showers, deep leather armchairs and, in deference to this century, a cellphone charger.

Stunning candlelit dinners, bush breakfast, picnic lunches and decadent teas with efficient smiling butlers to address your every need made for a most civilised experience.

But the real impact on your soul has to be the eternal drifting views, the endless landscape dotted with an ever changing kaleidoscope of wild animals, and the Maasai.

One day we went to have tea with the Maasai. Tea is a misnomer. We wound our way up the escarpment, which sweeps along the southern aspect of the mighty Masai Mara forming a natural boundary for this world-renowned wildlife preserve, home to staggeringly large herds of buffalo, prides of lions and hyena clans that top the hundred.

Of course, during the great migration this Kenyan landscape is eclipsed by wildebeest in their thousands as they move across from the Serengeti, following the sweet green grass in a primal spectacle that attracts thousands of tourists annually. But from the “short” to the “long rains” the reserve takes on a quieter feel, without hundreds of tourist vehicles lining up for sightings.

Our guide, Joseph Ole (son of) Kima, aka Kima, named so as not to confuse him with any of the other 40 or so Josephs who work at the lodge, was taking us to meet his mother-in-law, who spoke only Maa, and his eldest daughter who was attending the nearby school. A progressive step indeed as most villagers prized caring for cattle far above education.

We were greeted by the eldest member of the tribe and a youngster, both robed in traditional shukas, wrapped elegantly around their lean frames, and both carrying walking sticks and peace sticks. We were asked to enter the village through a very low opening in the thorn barrier (leleshua) which enclosed the semi-permanent settlement or enkang.

“You have to bend,” the young man said with no trace of amusement as my husband almost crawled through the low opening, “to show respect to the elders. Everyone who enters has to.”

The old man nodded his agreement and proceeded to make fire using a stick and another piece of wood on the ground. Before I could comment on this expertise we were shepherded into a nearby hut. The door was even lower and we exchanged glances as we crouched into pitch darkness.

“Our home. You are in the first room, where we bring the baby goats at night. Otherwise the leopards eat them. There is a sitting room”. Joseph Ole pointed to another equally small space, but ushering us through a doorway to our left. This was the bedroom, illuminated only by a tiny open window space, and the roof so low that I forever wonder how those tall Maasai manage to move around their homes without concussing themselves.

“Please sit.” we were ushered on to the bed. “We all sleep in here, the children and wife on one side, the husband on the other. This is also the kitchen.”

Indeed there was space to make a fire at the end of the bed, but in terms of size the place was minute.

Finally, we emerged back into bright sunshine and had a look around the entire compound.

In the middle, surrounded by all the huts, was a thorn barricade, the ground flattened by countless hooves. “The Maasai bank,” Joseph Ole beamed as we exchanged blank looks. “Our cattle sleep here. They are our wealth.

“According to Maasai legend, God originally gave the Masaai all the eland in the world. Then one day the eland went roaming and were not looked after properly by the herd boys. They went missing and for days the two mothers of the herd boys blamed each other. ‘It was your son’s turn to care for the eland!’ ‘No, it was yours!’ And so on. Finally God took the eland away from the Maasai, but because they originally belonged to them they can still hunt them and eat their meat. That is the only wild animal Maasai may kill for food.”

We wandered past children running barefoot to a lawn, where, under the supervision of Kima’s mother-in-law, the women had assembled a collection of their beautiful beaded work.

“Then God gave us all the cows in the world.” the young tribesman said earnestly before asking, “Do you have cows in South Africa?”

“Yes, we do,” we answered.

His eyes positively lit up. “Then I must tell our elders, they shall come and collect them from you.

“They do not belong to you. They are all ours.” He was absolutely serious.

I kept a straight face as I visualised a tribe of Maasai warriors sweeping across the borders and demanding herds of Nguni cattle from the Zulus.

We were endowed with gifts, necklaces and bowls and treasures that were lovingly made and then the ladies surrounded us dancing and singing.

The Kima’s mother-in-law then spoke: “You are both very welcome here. Before Ole Kima takes you to the school would you join us in something to drink?” the young man translated.

I recall Kima saying a great delicacy was milk enriched with the freshly drawn blood of a cow. There was an art in that too, spearing the animal in the jugular, removing just a small amount of blood, sealing the wound with dung and then allowing the cow to continue it’s daily pursuit of food without ill effect. Fortunately, we were expected at the school and bade our farewells without any refreshment or blood letting.

That evening we were enjoying drinks when a dozen Maasai warriors burst out of the darkness, scaring half the guests witless with their warrior headdresses, heavily adorned faces and strident voices rising in unison, drowning out the distant roar of the lion.

We watched stunned as they performed their acrobatic leaps, soaring into the sky, silhouetted by the crackling fire. It was not a dance so much as a contest, each young warrior in earnest competition with his peers, for traditionally the one who jumps the highest wins the girl! These warriors are now forbidden by law to prove their bravery to the elders by hunting and killing a lion using only their skill, spear or knife, but their traditions are still strongly entrenched and the crossover to modern society, schooling and western ways are slow in coming.

On our final morning as we drifted over the Mara in a hot air balloon I knew there would be much I would miss about this part of the word, its beauty, amazing wildlife, endless landscape… and our interaction with the Maasai with their fierce belief that all cows belong to them. - Sunday Tribune

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