There are 52 tribes in Kenya. But beyond doubt, the best known are the Masai people. They have been the most photographed and it helps, perhaps that the best known wildlife plains are named Masai Mara. Whilst, their typical red garb and the starkness of it against the barren backdrops is enough to hold your interest, the Masai people and their culture get more intriguing as you get closer to them.
They are usually willing and open to welcoming you to their small villages and homes. Not the most hygienic of places to visit but if you are in the discovery mode, you will jump at the chance. I was lucky to experience this visit to a Masai Village just outside the Mara borders.
The Masai always have been cattle-rearing nomadic people. Their one and only God – Engai – asked them to look after his cattle on earth. Their social standing and importance depends on how much cattle – mainly goats and cows- they own.
A Masai Village is made up of very small houses each for one mother ( a visiting father) and her children. These houses are constructed by the women themselves and are extremely small by our standards. I would put the size at about 2 or 3 metres by 3-4 meters. I could barely stand straight and that was the height of all the huts. Within this was the kitchen, a large slab for the couple to sleep in and some space for the children. Made of mud, cow dung, tree branches, straw they seemed impermanent in nature. One thing that stood out for me was the extreme lack of sunlight – there was only a small window at the top of the hut which couldn’t have measured more than 1 foot X 1 foot. My own deduction has been that this was due to the fear of wild animals.
The huts stand close to each other and a collection of 8-10 such huts constitute a village. The whole village is surrounded by a fence which is made of the acacia thorn shrubs. There are 1-2 gates in the fence which are open during the day. At night, all the cattle is rounded up and brought inside and the fence is dutifully ‘closed’ by the menfolk of the village. The entire central clearing therefore was full of cattle dung and this attracted a lot of flies, mosquitoes and such like. I did wonder why they wouldn’t want to clear this out but I am sure there must be some Masai understanding about this.
Most of the men are engaged in cattle rearing and that’s what they do all day. That involves a lot of standing and walking and they always have a sturdy stick with them. This stick is meant to provide recourse for atleast one leg when they are very tired. Apart from the time period that immediately follows the ceremony of compulsory circumcision when they must wear black, the Masai are very fond of the colour red. They usually wear one large shawl called the Shuka draped around them. You can also buy yourself a lovely Shuka if you wish at any of the touristy souvenir shops. They often wear cow-hide sandals which have lately been modified and have soles made of tyre-strips.
The Masai people are given to dancing and singing a lot. They do this when they are celebrating occasions like the “coming of age’ ceremonies for boys. Raw Blood is mixed with raw milk and drunk towards good health and happiness. They don’t have to kill the cattle for it, usually a jugular vein is punctured neatly and the blood is drawn out. The most popular of dances amongst the Masai men is the Adumu or the jumping dance. The men stand in a semi-circle and there is usually a group chant which is followed by rhythmic grunts. Then one by one, they step. Watch Video.
It is a humbling experience to learn to be happy with meagre needs and the smiles of the Masai teaches you just that.
Also read : The Art of Making Fire – by the Masaai