The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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